Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It’s time-honored advice that authors can learn as much – if not more – from badly told stories than from works of genius. Good writing, after all, is idiosyncratic; there’s only so much you can learn from Twain or Hemingway before you’re simply learning their style, whereas poor writers highlight the pitfalls you might tumble into when honing your own voice and crafting your own narratives.
I was lucky enough, recently, to encounter a piece of media that had gone wrong in a very specific way. While by no means an out-and-out failure, it so clearly suffered from a specific plot issue that it acts as a near-perfect example of what to avoid when writing your own stories. Of course, it’s no help to simply say ‘don’t do this’, so in this article I’ll be exploring the problem evidenced by this particular piece of media and explain how it can be avoided in your own writing. Let’s begin, then, by revealing the problem.
Life on the Road
The story follows sales rep David Brent as he attempts to make it in the music business via a series of poorly organized gigs, trailed by his less-than-enthusiastic bandmates and in turns ridiculed and pitied by his workmates. Brent is a purposefully embarrassing character, the apotheosis of ‘cringe comedy’, but one steeped in pathos. The comedy of his story is in the comparison between how he is seen by others and how he would like to be seen (and, of course, his efforts to bridge the gap). Key to this type of humor are the characters who surround Brent, and it’s here that David Brent: Life on the Road fails in a way that The Office never did.
David Brent: Life on the Road has what equates to two supporting casts: Brent’s colleagues, who we meet at the beginning of the movie and again at the end; and Brent’s bandmates, who occupy the middle of the movie. The problem is that his colleagues are fleshed-out characters with a range of opinions and feelings towards Brent. They care if he succeeds or fails, even if some of them would prefer the latter. The bandmates, on the other hand, are two-dimensional cut-outs provided to facilitate Brent’s over-the-top attempts to be liked.Make sure interesting events intersect with interesting characters.Click To Tweet
In short, the interesting characters are kept away from the interesting occurrences. The supporting characters who care most about Brent – the voices that the viewer would most appreciate during key story moments – are pushed aside, while no life is given to the characters who actually witness his misadventures. There are a couple of exceptions, but it’s an otherwise glaring error. The question, then, is how can it be fixed?
Oddly, the answer is ‘really easily’. Early in the story, the viewer is told that Brent is taking time off work to go on tour, but it’s quickly revealed that a) he doesn’t have as many vacation days as he thinks and b) he has only managed to book gigs that are within easy driving distance of his home. It would have worked – in fact it would have made more sense – to have him stuck at work each day, facing the mundanity of his life, and the opinions of the more interesting supporting cast, at the same time as he is striving for something more. This would mean he would no longer need a second supporting cast, and the band could be done away with.
Of course, ‘improving’ an existing text is always a subjective enterprise, but the above alteration reveals a basic drafting technique which it’s difficult to argue wouldn’t have improved David Brent: Life on the Road. This technique is known as ‘folding’.
‘Folding’ refers to a technique used in smithery. While the truth is less exciting than the legends which have grown up around it, the forging of Japanese blades has often involved literally folding steel. The material is heated and folded repeatedly, removing impurities and more evenly distributing the carbon content.
This is exactly the treatment your story needs during drafting, and the technique that could have improved David Brent: Life on the Road. Folding the two supporting casts together would have created a single, stronger cast of characters, and this is something you’ll often be able to do with your own writing.‘Folding’ a story fills up wasted space and strengthens the narrative.Click To Tweet
So how does it work? Well, it depends where you’re applying it. It’s certainly something I’ve suggested for writing characters before. In How Many Characters Should A Novel Have?, I suggested merging two simple minor characters to create a single, more interesting character who fulfills the roles of both, but this technique is widely applicable. The same can be done with scenes – if you can introduce two characters and foreshadow a later plot twist in one scene, then don’t use two to the same ends. It can even be done with plot points – if your character is involved in a heist and a love triangle, it makes sense to try and resolve both in a single stroke.
You can even apply folding to the entire plot of a book. Comedian Louis CK has talked about how folding has helped improve his stand-up sets, describing how he writes twice as much material as needed and then condenses it into a single show, forcing out everything that can’t justify its place.
I used to describe it like the way they make samurai swords, or used to: that they bang it, and then fold it, and then bang it again, and then they fold it and keep banging it. So, you know, they pound on it and they fold it, so that they’re squeezing out all the oxygen… [they] just keep making it perfect. So every time you think ‘I’ve got an hour’, no you don’t. Write another hour, and then fold it into that one. And then get rid of all the impurities and all the bad stuff, and then keep doing that.
– Louis CK on Charlie Rose
Folding is a way of achieving minimalism in your story, something which is almost always advisable. The best stories are those which are compact – where every element is placed with purpose and has a function within the larger narrative structure. Any part of your story where this isn’t true is the ‘impurity’ the blacksmith is trying to remove. Your story is stronger without it, so focus on creating solid steel.
The grumpy landlord method
For an example of how easy it is to fold your work, imagine a scene in which you want two characters to be interrupted while in conversation. The idea is that the characters seem like friends who enjoy each other’s company – who hang out even when the reader isn’t ‘watching’ – and that the interruption seems urgent.
That’s fine, but in the current version of that scene, the conversation itself is useless – it’s the impurity our blacksmith is trying to force out. Instead, fill that space with hard steel. Use it to tell the reader more about the characters, fix a location in their memories, or foreshadow a later event. In real life, two people left alone might default to discussion of sport or the weather, but that only makes sense in a story if you’re planning a tornado or a shootout at the stadium (or if you’re trying to show that the characters have nothing in common – even then, you can get more out of the scene).
Of course, it’s all well and good saying that no space should be wasted, but how are you supposed to spot the moments, characters and conversations that aren’t doing anything for you? Well, my advice is to apply what I call the ‘grumpy landlord’ method. The idea here is to regard the details of your writing as tenants of your story. They’re taking up room, and you allow them to do so, grudgingly, because they pay for the privilege.Great editing means being a grumpy landlord – evict whatever isn't paying you back.Click To Tweet
That means, though, that every aspect of your story has to be paying rent. If not, it’s time to turf them out and give that space to someone who’s doing something for you. Remember, you’re not just a landlord, you’re a grumpy landlord; you need to be hunting down and interrogating aspects of your story, asking how they intend to pay you and when you’ll get your money. You can’t wait for those tenants to come knock on your door and tell you they can’t pay – you’ve got to stalk the halls of your story and knock on doors. It’s an active process, but one that pays off.
How to fold your story
One area that almost always escapes a folding is the setting of your story. This tends to be because you need a setting, in fact you need a bunch of them. That fact leads many authors to accept the first setting that comes along – their private investigators work in pokey offices and their elves live in the woods. These locations pay their rent, but only just, and it makes sense to look around for tenants who can fill the same space and pay more for the privilege.
Isn’t it, for example, more interesting to have your private investigator working from home? Doesn’t the reader then get a look into her private life, and she get the added discomfort of her clients seeing she’s unsuccessful? Or, if you want an office, can’t it be an office above a bakery, where she’s distracted by pleasant smells, or a fish market, where it’s the opposite? If even that is too extreme, ask yourself what she can see from the window. Is there something that can send her down a certain path of thought, or put her in a particular mood? Is there anything more this setting can do for you?
Folding your story depends on a methodical approach to making every choice count, even when you didn’t know you were making one. There are nooks and crannies full of treasure, but you’re going to have to hunt them out. Playwright Stephen Gregg (whose Twitter account is a fountain of fantastic advice) describes how to do this with characters.
Write the names of your characters on a piece of paper. Draw lines between them to show relationships. Missing lines? Dig in. #amwriting
— Stephen Gregg (@playwrightnow) July 28, 2016
Folding your story in this way is easier the more you know about it. In Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip, I talked about how you should know much, much more about your character than the reader will ever find out. I also promised that once that’s true, your knowledge will impact the story in dozens of unforeseen ways. This is one of them – folding is about asking ‘what’s the most I can do with this choice?’, and your background knowledge of your character, setting and plot will provide the answer.
Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog shows off some magnificent folding – Savage needs to highlight one brother’s cruelty and introduce a potential wife for the other, so he has the first brother drive a man to suicide. The dead man’s wife is widowed, and the second brother feels indebted to her. A lesser writer would have allowed these actions to occur separately – and they’d have even gotten away with it – but the interconnectedness of each character’s actions makes the story feel deeper and more complex.
One of the best things about learning to fold your story is that you’ll benefit in unexpected ways. Seeding connections results in moments you’d never have expected, or even planned. Gregg’s approach to character relationships means that characters who have never met might now have some idea of each other. Imagine a lightly hostile scene between two strangers, and then between two characters where one went to school with the sister of the other. What does each character think they know about the other, and why? It may seem like a minor detail, but you’ll find more often than not that it’s the source of a twist or opportunity that vastly improves your story.Seed minor details and they’ll blossom in later drafts. Click To Tweet
Don’t underestimate the value of writing your thoughts down. Answering ‘what’s the most I can do with this choice?’ aloud is one thing, but writing down your response gives you a concrete place from which to start. As you ask this question more and more, your written answers will form a map. How does Character D know Character A’s secret? Well, Character H let it slip.
There’s a scene in Friends based on this exact idea, as Ross is confronted with the idea that his girlfriend Rachel may find out he cheated via a sequence of seemingly irrelevant personal connections. It’s a great way to reveal that information – implying a real, vibrant world outside the viewer’s perception – but the masterstroke is that the information ends up with Gunther, the coffee shop proprietor with an unrequited crush on Rachel. It’s a smart, compact sequence of events that doubles down on an effective joke – Ross chasing after the information already worked, but the writers asked what more that sequence of events could do.
It’s worth noting that Ross even cheats with a woman his friends have discussed casually in previous episodes, and his search sees him confront a co-worker of another friend who reappears later on – very little goes to waste; that intermediary, minor character could have been anyone, but is used to make a protagonist’s workplace feel populated.
Know when to fold ‘em
Of course, to fold your story, you need to have something to fold. As Louis CK implies, coming up with an amazing block of content means writing at least double that in the first place. Folding your story should be done as part of the editing process, and only then. Try to plot these minuscule (but effective) details from the start and you’ll get lost in the mire. Likewise, try and seed them as you write and you’ll become too answerable to facts that don’t yet matter.
Instead, rely on your all-encompassing knowledge of the story as a through-thread. So long as you know the how and why of your core events, you’ll be able to fold them later without harming their internal logic. Fitting new information around the key facts is easy when you know their shape, but that means doing your creative research. Knowing each character’s backstory is the first step, but you also need to know the backstory of your world.
To learn how to detect the kind of filler that folding’s designed to fix, check out What Is Story Filler And How Much Is Necessary?, and try Improve Your Exposition Immediately With This One Simple Tip for a great example of how folding can improve your writing.
Do you have your own examples of folding done right, or do you think too much interconnectedness leaves a story cluttered? Let me know in the comments.