Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bigger Doesn't Mean Better

Tony Fisher - Modifies Rubik's type puzzles
(Somebody who's actually more obsessed with the Rubik's Cube!)
 Once you conquer the Rubik's Cube, you'll keep your eyes out for the next big thing in puzzling. 

First it will be the Rubik's Revenge, or the 4x4.  Then it will be the Professor Cube, or the 5x5. 

Next, feeling particularly confident, you'll send away for a 7x7x7 cube.  This puzzle has seven layers of tiny pieces in every dimension.

It's so large, it bulges.  You'd have a hard time convincing your Geometry teacher that this is in fact still a cube!

I actually have a 7x7 cube.  What I quickly learned was that Bigger isn't always Better.

Turning this puzzle is difficult because there are so many layers to deal with.  It jams when the layers are not perfectly aligned and some of the small pieces can pop out.  But the dramatic size is really the problem.  It's simply too awkward and difficult to hold.

Once you get past the novelty of yet another variation on a similar theme, this enormous cube doesn't seem worth the hassle.

The same can be true with your writing.  Bigger doesn't mean better.

As writers, we are inundated with all sorts of advice and it's difficult to know which lessons to heed.  One piece of advice I often hear is along the Go Big or Go Home theme.  You've got to hook readers and keep them hooked.  That won't work with boring stories or boring characters.

The problem is that unpublished writers often interpret this to mean grandiose stories and characters.  They err on the side of melodrama rather than creating compelling drama.  So they will introduce more plot complexity.  They will bring you bigger explosions on Page 1.  They will bring you more stuff happening to characters we can't identify with.

A car explodes on a busy street in the first chapter.  A house explodes later.  Eventually, you decide, there must be a nuclear explosion before it's all over.

But really, your stories don't have to be grandiose.  Readers can see right through gimmicks.  When a reader abandons an action-packed story, it's usually because it's just become too awkward and unwieldy.

Now, there is nothing wrong with explosions.  But you can wow your reader with subtlety too.  Think about how much more powerful it is for the reader to experience tension and suspense, rather than having their hair blown back.

How would you make your story better than that last best seller?  It's easy to think Bigger.  But the reality is that publishers (and readers) want "the same, but different".  By the same, this means doing what is tried and true for a genre.  By different, this means original, but not melodramatic.

Tony Fisher (shown above) has been successful modifying Rubik's type puzzles because he is able to tap into what was successful with the original puzzle and still keep that essence with his various inventions.

What do you think?  Is bigger better?


  1. Oh, phew. I thought this was going to be about BIG BOOKS, which of course, you know I quite enjoy.

    I'd like to emphatically agree that subtlety is a wonderful thing. And quite underrated.

    1. Right on! I like BIG BOOKS and I cannot lie! :-)

      I was tempted to add something about the 500,000 word epic fantasy novel that somehow remains unpublished, but I restrained myself.

      On a serious note, I'm glad agree with the subtlety point. If I could add one example, although I'm thinking of the movie, it's Hotel Rwanda. This was an extraordinarily evocative story and none of the violence was shown overtly.