Short Form Storytelling, Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression

storysci.com screenshot image of screenplay about storytelling compression in part 2 of 3-article series

Welcome to Part 2 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. You can read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here.

Just because we saved the subject of compression for last does not mean it is less important than the points discussed in Part 1. As a matter of fact, it is so important in short form storytelling that we dedicated several articles to it, because compression is vital to understanding short form.

Compression.

It’s a mysterious word packed full of meaning. So what is it?

Many writers don’t know what “compression” means in terms of storytelling. Does this make them bad storytellers? No more than not knowing how many color rods are in the human eye will make someone a terrible interior designer. But knowing about compression and how to use it will make you a better storyteller.

Compression makes your story denser by compacting more information into less space. Whereas cutting material out altogether may achieve a similar purpose, by compressing you are not only trimming fat to make your story more lean and efficient but making it denser as well. Compression creates text density through subtext by implying information that is not otherwise made explicit. The audience must read between the lines to determine what is being meant by that which is not said. Therefore:

  • Text density is essentially how much information is packed into a segment of text or screen time.
  • Low density text conveys only what is written with little need for deeper thought or examination of subtext: “He moved the chair away from the table.” Genre fiction novels (mystery, western, romance, etc.) tend to have moderate to low text density.
  • High text density implies a lot of information without having to say much at all and may be used to demonstrate deeper, unspoken subtext: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” (attributed to Hemingway). Literary fiction probes the human condition through moderate to high text density.
  • Short form is most effective when using moderate to high text density.

To see exactly how compression works, let’s use it in reverse on the six word short story quoted above (the one attributed to Hemingway) to decompress the dense subtext packed into that one tragic sentence. Imagine that sentence as a 10-page short story with moderate compression. Now as a 200+ page novel with low compression. Over the course of story we may get a brisk summary of their wedding day, honeymoon, emotional ups and downs of pregnancy, etc., while spending the last half of the story tracking their emotional desolation over having lost a child.

Now let’s compare:

Compression: (Ultra)
High
Moderate Low
Word
Count:
6 4,000-5,000 75,000-100,000+
Pages: <1 10 200+
Minutes
(film):
3 10 120

After all of that, which version would you say was the most effective? The six-word form uses the least text but packs more emotional impact than a single sentence in any of the other forms. That is the power of compression. Saying more with less makes the audience actively fill in the blank, creating greater audience involvement, more emotional investment and thus a more powerful impact.

So now that we’ve talked about compression, let’s list the five most common ways in which you can use it to tighten your story (in order of importance):

  • Combine several elements with a single use into a single element with multiple uses (this is the very essence of compression).
  • Remove redundant beats and information.
  • When writing scenes: start the scene as late into the action as possible, end the scene as soon as possible.
  • Reduce your cast of characters to only those who advance the story or reveal character, preferably both.
  • Imply deeper characterizations and relationships through illustration, such as using meaningful names and places.

(A more in-depth examination of these points will follow in our next article: Part 3: The Three Types of Compression.)

Three things you should know about compression:

  • Younger storytellers tend to use less compression than mature storytellers.
  • Many writers (especially young ones) dive into writing short form without understanding how it differs from long form, resulting in a bloated short story with low compression like a novel. This approach can work but it seldom results in a piece that is as effective as one with higher compression.

COMPRESSION PRACTICE

It’s easy to put information onto the page or the screen, but it’s another thing entirely to compact that information into less space and have it say twice as much (or more). An excellent way to learn compression is by studying the discipline of screenwriting, where compression reigns supreme. And of course there are also writing exercises, such as the one below, designed to help you flex your compression skills.

  1. Write a one paragraph short story, description or character bio.
  2. Now write a new version of it but condensed down to a single sentence. Try to preserve as much information from the original as possible, implicit or explicit.
  3. And finally, the hard part: Condense your sentence down to seven words or less, preserving as much information as possible from the previous two versions, most of which will now be implied through subtext rather than explicitly stated through text.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our article series on short form storytelling where we will be examining the different methods of implementing compression in much greater detail.

 

Need help with compression? Storysci is here! Contact us to put your creative work back onto the road to success.

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