It takes a lot of work to make things simple
Been watching this animated show, BoJack Horseman, on Netflix lately. It’s pretty decent. It’s about a former TV star who’s also a horse (in this world, animals can walk and talk) who is generally depressed and kind of a terrible person. And each season revolves around him trying to be better and then failing. What I find masterful, though, is that at the last moment, Bojack always pulls upwards out of his spiral and managed to reach some sort of homeostasis again. I feel like that’s the show’s main narrative innovation. Just when you think things are as terrible as they can possible be, they’ll get a little bit better. The show does this over and over, in episode after episode, and it never fails to affect me.
Everything in the show is very simple. I admire that. An episode begins with some hijinks. BoJack will try to help someone or try to make someone like him. It will go wrong. But it’ll be funny. Then, in the last three minutes, it’ll cease to be funny, and will become terribly serious. And then the episode will just end. Frequently with no real plot resolution. Many hanging threads. But the character arc always seem satisfying. There’s movement. You’ve got up episodes and down episodes. Episodes where he feels redeemed and episodes where he feels damned.
BoJack’s progression over the course of a season is simple, and almost invisible, since it’s hidden under so many sitcom gags, but it’s very real, and leaves you with a sense, at the end of the season, that something has happened.
I admire this. It takes a lot of work to make thing simple. I don’t know why that is. I often look at the books I love and think, “Oh my god, this book is so simple” and then I look at my own books and think, “Why is this such a mess?”
Lately I’ve been working on revising my novel-for-adults. It’s very slow going. I wonder if I’m going to completely manage it. This book is not simple. It has too many plots and too many character motivations, which gives the protagonist something of a fragmentary feel. I’ve been feeling really depressed about it over the last few days, but just today I had a realization about the book that crystallized a lot of things for me. I’d been trying to figure out who the antagonist of the book is. In the middle of the book, it’s clear. The antagonist is her daughter, since her daughter hates her. But at the beginning and the end, it’s less clear. So I was searching around for some antagonist, some way to make things work. Complicating this is that the protagonist is very stupid, so she’s not capable of intricate plots. She doesn’t have many resources, other than pure willpower, so most antagonists would be able to defeat her with relative ease, probably.
Then I realized something. The antagonist is….her daughter.
Obviously. There was a reason why I chose her daughter in the first place–it’s because her daughter is the one person who she could maybe defeat. And what I need to do is to go back and rewrite the beginning so her daughter is more clearly set up as the antagonist.
But then I thought, wait…why didn’t this occur to me before? It’s so simple?
And I’m still not sure. I think it’s because I’d envisioned the main conflict in the book as being something different: I thought it was the individual versus society–and having the daughter as the antagonist clearly doesn’t work for that. But then I realized it was about belief in yourself. The daughter represents the forces of inertia and conventional opinion–she doesn’t believe in her mother’s dreams…she just wants to do ordinary tween girl stuff. And in overcoming her daughter’s opposition, the mother is fighting against all the forces that tell her that she can never be who she wants.
But, of course, this is is a conflict that’s not particularly clear in the current draft, so now I need to go through the whole thing and revise it with this conflict in mind. And probably that will create a whole bunch of other weak places in the structure of the book, and each time I encounter one, my temptation will be to erect some more scaffolding in order to get us through the book. And you do have to do that sometimes. All books are messy, and sometimes you just need a subplot or a weird setting element in order to bridge things. But it’s also a temptation that should generally be avoided. Except that avoiding it often means going back and doing more thinking. And in order to correct the weak place, you need to then change everything else in the book in order to bring everything into line. It’s exhausting. And it’s a bit thankless, too, since even when you’re done, it’s completely possible that the end result won’t be any good.