Complexity vs. simplicity: Stories that smell of the lamp, not of the sun.

In 1901, Claude Debussy wrote a letter to a fellow composer about the motivation behind his latest composition, Nocturnes. In explaining the accessibility of his new work, Debussy criticized the other songs of their day as having become needlessly complex, writing:

“They smell of the lamp, not of the sun.”

The same, I think, can be said of certain stories.

Not stories of a particular era, but any story that forgets the value of simplicity and sees complexity as a self-sufficient virtue — where craft distracts from, rather than elevates, the story.

Now, I’m not poo-pooing complexity.

Simple and complex stories both have strengths — the former being more accessible and capable of mythic weight, and the latter guiding us through engaging labyrinths of plot or the human condition.

But let’s be real.

We’re writers.

We love our craft, with all its intricate phrasings and wordings, and we like to push the boundaries — at least a little. So we let loose. We see what we can do, and draft convoluted sentences, over the top imagery, and wildly tangled twists.

Our motives are good. We’re excited by the craft, and it’s natural (even vital) to follow our instincts and passions in the first draft.

But in revision, we need to look back and consider whether all these intricacies still serve the story. If they do? Great! Keep them. If they don’t? Well, that’s when it’s important to “kill your darlings,” as they say.

Needless complexities distract and and create barriers for readers. They draw attention to the labor of your craft, rather than the story itself — making it smell of the lamp, rather than the sun.

Be ambitious as you write. Never back down from complexity, so long as it serves your purposes.

But don’t let needless complexities distract your reader from the sun.

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