Although this is an article about writing, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.
Anyway, one of the games I got after upgrading to a vaguely modern refurbished computer a couple of weeks before preparing this article was the 2013 remake of a 1990s first-person shooter game called “Shadow Warrior”. Although I don’t know when or if I’ll review the remake, one of the many differences between it and the original game is the highly simplified level design.
In short, the levels are fairly linear things where there is one “correct” path through a sequence of arena-like rooms. Even the game’s “secret areas” are often almost in plain sight when compared to the carefully-hidden item caches in the large, complex levels of the original game. Yet, I’m still having a lot of fun with the remake since the game has been designed around this loss. In other words, the remake is more of a “Serious Sam” style game where the emphasis is on thrilling fast-paced combat against hordes of enemies rather than on exploration, puzzle-solving and combat.
But, what does any of this have to do with writing fiction?
Well, since I got back into reading regularly about a year earlier, I’ve also noticed a very slight trend towards simplification in modern fiction. Of course, this doesn’t affect every modern book, but it’s noticeable when you do something like comparing a thriller novel from the 1970s to a more modern one. Whether it is a slightly less descriptive or less formal writing style, shorter chapters, shorter sentences and, in some cases, explicitly spelling out things that older novels expected the reader to work out on their own via observation and thought, modern novels are more likely to be less complex than older ones.
So, is this a bad thing? In some ways yes, in other ways no.
Simplification has happened for a number of good practical reasons. For starters, novels now have to compete with games, phones, boxsets, the internet etc… for people’s attention. So, a slightly more “matter of fact” writing style that can be read easily, moves along at a good pace and keeps the reader gripped is a way for writers to hold their own against the competition. It’s a way to make books a bit more readable in these hurried, overloaded times. And, given that the whole point of reading novels is to spend time in an enjoyable and interesting way, it’s good that books have become more optimised for this.
Secondly, everything is relative. Although older novels might seem more complex, they were probably just considered “ordinary” by the standards of the time they were written. For example, a typical 1970s novel might seem a bit more formal and complex than a typical “ordinary” modern one. But, in the 1970s, the 1970s novel would have probably been considered “simplified” when compared to one from the 19th century.
In other words, simplicity and complexity are relative to the time that a novel is written. With the exception of some literary authors, writers don’t usually set out to write novels that require an academic degree, an ultra-large vocabulary and/or lots of time and note-taking to read. Novels are meant to be something that the average person can pick up and enjoy. So, they will be optimised for whatever is considered to be this at the time.
Thirdly, it makes books more fun whilst keeping most of the good stuff. Although reading a more complex or formal novel can be a really satisfying experience (in the way that playing a challenging computer game from the 1990s can be), there’s something to be said for a book that is just effortless fun to read. Not only that, “simplified” modern books will often keep a lot of the essential elements of a good novel (eg: atmosphere, descriptions, characterisation etc..), but spread them through the novel more evenly or get them across to the reader in ways that don’t slow down the pace of the story. So, “simpler” modern novels can often be a lot more fun to read.
On the downside, this simplification does have some problems. For starters, it makes it slightly harder for writers to use a really distinctive narrative voice. Likewise, unless it is done very well, the story will seem very slightly less atmospheric and immersive. The reader also doesn’t get the sense of achievement that might come from finishing a more complex book.
In addition to this, it also slightly limits what stories can do. Since film and television have had such an influence on more modern fiction (eg: the “show, don’t tell” rule etc..), many modern novels are less likely to do the kinds of interesting things that only novels can do.
Whether it is using language in clever ways, spending significant time focusing on a character’s thoughts/emotions, using more unusual narrative styles, clever literary experiments or even just creating a really vivid sense of place through sustained passages of description, books can do a lot of cool and unique things when they don’t have to worry about being similar to film or TV.
So, yes, “simplification” in many modern novels is both an awesome and a terrible thing. But, if there’s one constant with novels, it is change. Books are a response to the time and place that they are written.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂