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Conciseness | Writing 101

When I'm plotting and planning a narrative, there are three main elements I think on: Character and Conflict we've covered. The third is Conciseness.

In this case, what Conciseness means is the tendency for the story to become more and more focused as a narrative or scene goes on, until eventually, at the end, you arrive at the point. At the reason the story or scene exists.

When you're a journalist, you do this in reverse. The point of the story goes in the first sentence, maybe even in the headline itself, because that's the most effective way to relay information to the reader. In fiction, the most important part of the story goes last, to signify its importance to the reader and leave an impact as they close the book or leave the theatre.

Let's explain with an example. Let's present some facts, and then display how we'd write the story if it was journalistic non-fiction, and then how we'd do it if it was fiction. In journalism, this is called a Pyramid Story.

Facts: A man named John Doe was stabbed three times. He is dead. The person who killed him is unknown. The person who killed him is at large. The police have no suspects. John Doe worked as a Political Analyst. John Doe had a wife, Marian, and two daughters, Ceecee and Deedee. John Doe is 33 years of age. John Doe was from Ohio. It happened in an alley outside his work.

So if we were writing that as a journalist, we'd do the most important thing up front, likely in the first sentence or headline: Police advise public dangerous murderer on the loose. Is that the most important thing? Maybe. Depends on how important John Doe is. If he was a celerity or someone very important, maybe the most important thing is that he's dead. But assuming he's not important to anyone but his family, then a murderer being on the loose is likely the most important thing to the public. An unknown man is at large after fatally stabbing John Doe, 33, of Ohio three times. Moving on to identifying the victim and that he's dead, but still focusing on the fact that the killer is at large first. Levels of importance. And we don't give all the details of John Doe's life here, just those needed to identify him. The incident occurred at night outside his place of employment. Police have no suspects. Again, hammering that home. John Doe was a Political Analyst for the Dole Campaign. He is survived by his wife, Marian, and two daughters. Things that aren't important to the murder last.

But if we were writing this in fiction, we'd probably start with John Doe at home, show him interacting with his wife and children. Then we'd likely show him at work, see him interacting with people there. Show us what he does. Is he cheating with a co-worker? Is he antagonistic with his boss, setting up a red herring for the killer? Then we'd show him leaving work, show him being stalked through the alley, being paranoid. Then we'd see the stabbing happen, we wouldn't show who the killer is, and we'd end on the killer running off. The most important thing is last.

See the difference? Same facts, arranged differently. When it's non-fiction in order to communicate the information you present the most important thing up front, when it's fiction, at the back.


Reader Hack: If you're in post-secondary school and need to get a lot of reading done and don't have time to do it, you can use this to speed-read. It's not ideal, but if the work is properly written, you'll get what you need to pass the test. If it's non-fiction like an essay, read just the first line of every paragraph / section. It should be formatted as "most important thing first" then followed by examples, so you can get the gist by just reading the start. If it's fiction like a short story or novel, read the ends of scenes. The most important thing in any scene should happen at the end, and the rest of the scene should just be arriving at it.


This Conciseness should work within each scene, but also within the narrative as a whole.

In individual scenes: Ever notice now most description of a scene happens at the start, at the "wide part" of a triangle/scene? We describe the world up front, then less and less as we just let characters exist within it. We also introduce the characters that will be in a scene at the start. If there's conflict dialog in a scene, it starts out being Broad and then Narrows to being Specific, just like the Triangle does. You start out arguing with your spouse about the dishes, and by the middle you're arguing about how they're not reliable, and by the end you're revealing that you know they're cheating. Broad to Specific.

In a Narrative as a whole: a theme will become clearer and clearer as a story goes on. In the start there may be slow scenes to establish character, to establish the world, to establish elements needed. As the story goes on and things have already been introduced, these things become tighter and tighter, until we're only getting the information needed.

  1. Show who your character is. We're showing that he's a "By the Book" cop who "Defends the Innocent."

  2. They Want Something. The plot kicks off by a want to Defend the Innocent? Some killer or threat is introduced to innocents in the story?

  3. The Enter an Unfamiliar Situation to get what they want. At this point in the story the character changes / does something unfamiliar to accomplish that want in the last part. According to our map, what's changing is that he becomes willing (or is coerced into) breaking the rules in order to protect the innocent.

  4. They adapt to that new situation: We see our By-the-Book cop adapt to his new reality of Breaking-the-Rules, testing the lines of what he will and will not do. Is it slowly corrupting him?

  5. They Get what they want: There's a dark shift happening here, as we change from "Defend the Innocent" to "Catch the Criminal." Maybe we find the innocent but, in the Pay a Heavy Price moment, something awful has happened to them, forcing a change in the character/ novel worldview?

  6. They Pay a Heavy Price for it: We are now willing to break the rules but are no longer motivated by defending the innocent, we are focused on catching the criminal.

  7. They Return to where they started,

  8. Having Changed: In this last section we're in the Upper-Left Quadrant. Maybe the character has some kind of come-to-Jesus moment where they see how far they've gone. Maybe they catch the criminal and are on the edge of exacting revenge on them, but at the last moment prove their valor by rejecting the "Break Rules" mindset they experimented with and chose to bring the criminal in by-the-book. Roll credits.

This character starts broad, experimenting with who they are. Through the events of the story, they narrow their worldview, eventually becoming who they are at the end / at the tip of the Triangle. Similarly, the Theme also arrives at what it believes the point is: whatever you end on, that's what you're saying is the correct point-of-view, in storytelling language.

Remember when we looked at the first episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink? The same thing occurs here. John Watson starts as unfocussed, as many things, and we're not sure of the man he is or the man he is going to be. As he goes along he loses the parts of himself that are extraneous: he no longer has PTSD, he no longer has a limp, his hand no longer shakes. Finally in the last scene, at the tip of the Triangle, he is who he will be: the Man-of-Action partner of Sherlock Holmes.

This is a large part of what we mean when we say we want to write with conciseness. We want to bring the story to the point of communicating with the reader what your intent is.


Like this and what more of it? I teach interactive online classes over Zoom, three-four times a year for 10 weeks. Take your writing to the next level! Click the link for more information or to contact me.


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