Occam’s Razor or Why Quantity Does Not Equal Depth

Tweet of the Day: Writing Excuses 6.29: Character Foils


Occam’s razor, also known as Ockham’s razor, and sometimes expressed in Latin as lex parsimoniae (the law of parsimony, economy or succinctness), is a principle that generally recommends from among competing hypotheses selecting the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.


More is not always Better,

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

We (as writers) strive for depth, that is, the layering of multiple meanings, actions and characters in a narrative to give it a frothy richness that will set it apart from the rest. Or weave multiple sub plots into the main plot. Or assign complex motivations to the characters actions. A case of the more water you have, the deeper the ocean. Instead it turns into a shallow creek that spills its banks and sweeps everything before it, leaving nothing but muddy (or muddled) desolation behind.

The worst case scenarios come in building your plot with all these elements thrown in. You want twists, surprises, shocking moments and the like. But if the underlining plot is not a straight forward one it either gets lost in the shuffle or the reader rejects it out of frustration. Also happens in world building, specially with magical systems/technology. Like the overly complex plans that Bond villains came up with to kill him. Trap door into a huge shark filled underground pool? Might work. But how about the guns your mooks are holding? A squeeze of the trigger and your problems are over.

Shooting Bond is an example of using Occam’s Razor, the simplest solution wins over the more elaborate one.

Too complex? I’ll give you an example from my current WiP. In just a handful of scenes I had five feuding families in the city of Venetria. One had lost a son in a duel with one of the MCs, the other hated the same character because he humiliated the youngest in a brothel, the third had a mother who was using the other MC in a power play between families and the last belonged to the the leader of the city. Great, lots of character, lost of subplots, lots of depth. Then why did I feel like I was drowning? How was I going to tie them all together? I took out my razor and started cutting. I cut the first family out and rewove them into the second. Turns out that the dead son was the eldest of three and his death was the catalyst for the feud. Which then transformed the situation in the brothel into an escalation of the feud (same thread) and it allowed the matron of the third family to play the feuding families against each other. As for the leader, well he simply wants to stop all of this before it spins out of control.

By looking for a simpler answer I was able to tie many of the lose strands that otherwise would have been left unresolved or resolved badly. I like to use the razor as part of what I call the Inner Outline or Questioning Your Manuscript. As I write the story I pause and ask questions. Using such questions to reach the simplest explanation allows me to cut through my own mental fog and create a solid foundation for the story.


2 comments on “Occam’s Razor or Why Quantity Does Not Equal Depth

  1. Agreed! I love a big, thick novel but more for more’s sake just stinks. There’s got to be just enough complexity.


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