Finally we have come to part 3 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. If you missed out on the earlier installments, be sure to read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here and Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression.
Previously we discussed the different ways in which you can compress elements in your story to make it denser and more efficient. Now we are going to discuss the three main categories of compression and how each applies to storytelling.
Compression falls into three basic categories: (1) Structure (2) Character, and (3) Text, with Structure being the most basic of the three and Text the most involved. Within each category are five points, or ways, in which to utilize compression in that category. Before we get into the bread and butter of the discussions, here is a short sweet summary of the 15 points we will address in this article:
STRUCTURE: Events, plot points, story development.
- Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
- Aim high, go far.
- Get in late, get out early.
- Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
- Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.
CHARACTER: Cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions.
- Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
- Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
- Imply or illustrate characterization.
- Imply depth and history in relationships.
- Use meaningful character names.
TEXT: The action of the story, including descriptions and visuals.
- Remove redundant beats and information.
- Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
- Make one element serve more than one purpose.
- Don’t say it, illustrate it.
- Cut extraneous details.
Involves events, plot points, and story development. The shorter the piece the more compressed it needs to be.
How do you compress structure?
1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
This creates structural compression by giving you the most amount of time to develop the story instead of having the audience wait around for something to happen. The more aggressive your plotting, the more compressed your structure will be and will help you with points 2-5 (below). Inexperience storytellers often take too long to get to the plot rolling or take too long to reach the point of the story.
2. Aim high, go far.
Use an aggressive structure to develop your plot as far as possible during the course of your story, going from point A to point B with minimal chaff between the two. This allows you to get the most out of your plot by granting you the time to explore your theme and its related subthemes and variations to the fullest extent.
3. Get in late, get out early.
Enter the plot as late as possible with as much exposition and introductory story taking place “off screen” before the first actual moment of your story. Doing this creates greater subtext and grabs the audience’s attention right away instead of boring them with a mountain of setups and exposition. “Get in late, get out early” not only applies to your overall plot but your scenes as well.
4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
Take one event and give it multiple uses. Although one of the most basic methods of compression, young storytellers usually fail to do this. Film is a good place to observe this point in practice. For example: Johnny finds the gun under his wife’s pillow, which tells him she is hiding something from him (the gun at the very least), but also provides Johnny with a murder or self defense weapon in the future, but additionally sets up the situation to make him look like he is his wife’s murderer when he actually had nothing to do with it. Instead of giving each of these developments their own separate events with dedicated “screen time” for each, we can simply combine (compress) them into one single event with multiple uses.
5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.
No matter how cool or interesting a scene may be, if it does not reveal character (preferably someone in the main cast) or advance the plot then it has no place in your story. Ideally, each element will do both, although this is not always possible.
Involves cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions. Prose requires the least character compression while film and the stage demand the most.
How do you compress character(s)?
1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
This is accomplished by moving important action and dialogue from minor characters to major ones, or by combining several characters into one or, more often than not, both (the first leading to the second). Unlike long form storytelling, in short form you do not have the time or space to handle a large cast of characters, although you do have more leeway in prose than in film or poetry. In its adaptation from book to film, The Fellowship of the Ring compresses dozens of minor characters into the main cast, making them fuller and more active in the story. Broadway Musicals are especially adept at this type of character compression, as can be seen when comparing Wicked to its original book form and Spamalot to the film on which it is based.
2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
A completely uncompressed character would have everything about him/her explained right away with nothing held back. Not only is this dull but it is also an exposition-heavy block to dump on an audience at the beginning. Instead, hold back information about the character for as long as possible without depriving the audience of plot necessities. This will keep the audience interested and increase their emotional investment and the impact of revelations when they are finally made.
3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
Essentially, “show, don’t tell” (in and of itself a natural form of compression). Instead of saying Character A is an alcoholic, show him drinking. Instead of having another character comment on how much the protagonist cares for others, illustrate what the protagonist does that is caring to others. Don’t tell us the character is good at something, show us through his actions and decisions.
4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
Developing as much about a relationship as possible without having to overtly express it on the page or screen influences how your characters interact with each other. Such implications add both depth and implied history to your characters, making them seem more relatable and whole to the audience. If you haven’t made a habit out of writing character bios, now might be a good time to start because this is where they will come in handy.
5. Use meaningful character names.
Throwaway names add nothing to your story, but names which enhance the meaning of the character’s personality, background, and/or role in the story are worth more than any number of words of imagery. A name can convey a large amount of information about a character without ever having to spell it out. For example, if you were creating a mystery story, which name would convey the most information: (a) Bob Jones (b) Billy the Kid, or (c) Professor Pathfinder?
Involves the action of the story, including descriptions and visuals. Text compression squashes description, action, and visuals into a smaller space by using more efficient text than the original—e.g., less is more. This is where we get to the real meat and bones of compression.
How do you compress text?
1. Remove redundant beats and information.
Compacting information into efficient beads of story is the most basic form of compression. A beat is a subunit of a scene which represents the playing out of a single tactic by the character driving the scene. It can also be seen as a small interplay between characters about a single thing. By reducing beats that are repetitive or repeat information unnecessarily you can make your story leaner and stronger by making less say more. Master this point of compression and your story will improve tenfold.
2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
Compressing text increases its density while also creating subtext. This becomes really obvious when you compare the text density of short fiction to that of a novel. Certain forms (such as poetry and film) require higher levels of text density than others (novel, tv series, etc.). Text that is compressed into subtext will make the audience read between the lines more often, giving them more to do mentally and thereby creating greater engagement. Give them too little and you are insulting their intelligence. Assume the audience is equally as intelligent as you and you will be surprised at how much they understand.
3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
Although scenes are technically elements, this point refers specifically to elements on a smaller, more specific scale than scenes. Essentially, an element is any construct that artificially influences the story, such as events and plot points (as mentioned previously), characterizations, decisions, a chance encounter with a small character, an object or prop, something from the protagonist’s background, or even relationships (although not limited to this list by any means).
4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
Show, don’t tell. This cannot be said enough. There is a time and a place for summary (or a montage) but for the most part don’t just tell your audience about the world of your story and its inhabitants, show them by example. Unfortunately, this issue plagues the storytelling world of professionals and amateur alike, but it is especially important for newer storytellers to learn how to show—not tell—their story.
5. Cut extraneous details.
Whereas the first point of text compression involved cutting redundant information, this point deals with cutting information that is not pertinent to the story. It may be interesting that the character writes greeting cards for a living but unless it plays into the story somehow that is required for the telling of the story then it only gets in the way and dilutes the plot and/or theme. The shorter the work the more vigilant you have to be in keeping those superfluous details out of your story.