Selecting the Details

Table of Contents

Chapter 5


  1. Saying more with less.
  2. Motif
  3. Allusion and Genre.
  4. Comedy and tragedy.
  5. Foreshadowing
  6. Character foibles.
  7. Carving up you characters.
  8. Symbols


Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity. – Charles Mingus


Real life is far more complex than any story ever written.

During even the most mundane events, if I were to fully record what actually happens, there wouldn’t be enough room in any book to hold all of the characters, viewpoints, and memories – and nobody would want to experience this mountain of information in a story even if I could somehow capture and present every detail exactly as it happened.

For this reason, a story must be selective.

Instead of portraying every character who might possibly occupy a setting, the writer picks out a representative few.  Instead of showing everything that could actually happen in a real-life situation, the writer trims events to just a handful representative scenes.

A full-length motion picture screenplay contains about as much material as a 70-page novella and runs on-screen for about two hours.  A 300-page novel can be read comfortably in a day and a computer game can be played in a week – and yet, by comparison, we live our lives on this Earth for decades and encounter hundreds of new people each year.

How can I possibly create more than the vaguest story in just seventy pages? …or three hundred pages?  Or 10 gigabyte of graphics, sound, and text on my computer disk?

We start by selecting the essential details and use them to say more with less.

And we leave out everything else.


  1. MOTIF

Long ago playwrights discovered how an audience dislikes extraneous characters – for example, a minor character who makes a splashy entrance, says or does something memorable, then vanishes without explanation, never to return, as it turns out.  During the entire play the audience maintains an inventory of story elements and they will keep this character in mind, assuming that the splashy entrance was an introduction.  When the character fails to return, the audience feels a growing sense of wasted effort.  In the same way, an extraneous event left unresolved in some noticeable way will annoy the audience because they are keeping all events in mind throughout the story and a loose end that pops up for no reason will be tracked along with the rest.

An audience always assumes that everything in a story is there for a reason and if a character shows up as though a main character or event takes place that seems to be important – the audience expect to see a follow-up.

This happens when writers forget that this is a story, and start to include detail because that is how they see the real world.  But, a story is not the same thing as the real world.  No one expects a story to contain extraneous detail like in the real world.  The audience expects that everything in the story is part of the story.

Yet no matter how well we introduce and remove characters or how clearly we develop and resolve each scene, we still can’t tell a story with characters that are constantly doing new and unique things – nor can events happen just once. That’s too complicated, and simply isn’t how storytelling is done.

Since the dawn of storytelling, playwrights and other artists have instead developed a shortcut of recurring themes, symbols, and mannerisms – all of which can be introduced at length, then reused without reintroduction while the story unfolds.

This sort of shorthand is called a motif [mow-TEEF]. And it is the only way we can hope to fit everything into a story without driving the audience nuts.

Early in Episode 28 of the original Star Trek series we see how Spock must cover his Vulcan ears to avoid suspicion from 1930s New Yorkers (as though they would ever notice!)  As the story unfolds, Spock also wears his hat to remind us of how strangely out-of-place these events are for the characters (he never wears a hat as a Star Fleet officer).  Nothing more is said about the hat.   It’s just there making the point over and over.

We also see how Sulu is injured by a flash of electrical sparks – and we see this again when Spock’s memory machine fails.  We also see how Spock and Kirk steal clothes out of desperation, just as they later ‘borrow’ tools for the same reason.

Once a motif is set, it can be reused like a familiar sequence of notes in a symphony, or a repeating pattern of colors in a painting, or a simple gesture from a character – like how McCoy is always chewing his thumbnail when nervous.  Through repeating motifs, more can be said with less because the writer can tell the story using simple references.  Meanwhile, the audience can track familiar elements – keeping the complexity at bay and the audience less distracted.



Through the use of motif we can greatly reduce the complexity of a story, yet even with a shorthand of recurring elements there is still an upper limit on how many elements can fit into any one story – and the use of motifs as a shortcut method all alone is still hard to do.  Beyond recurring motifs what other shortcuts could we use?  Maybe the writer could borrow well-known motifs from other stories?

This, in fact, happens all the time.  Some scenes are so routine that we can leave them out entirely.  For example, instead of showing the details of traveling by airplane, the character can be shown leaving an airport in a cab.  Because we’ve all seen many older stories showing the details of air travel (in addition to our own experience), we don’t need to see this at all anymore to know how it works.

Even wild ideas like when a space ship goes into “hyperspace” – we don’t need to have these explained in new movies because Star Trek and Star Wars and a host of other space sci-fi stories have made this the standard-issue solution for faster-than-light space travel.  Why invent a new method?

When shortcuts are used like this, the writer is mining a treasure trove of established ideas and ways of saying things by tapping into a structure we call genre [ZHON-ra].  Genre is a type, style, or category in the storytelling – like a western, or science fiction, or historical drama, or romantic comedy, or fantasy.  The look, the feel, the colors, the sounds – everything can be borrowed from an existing genre.  And when this happens – as it should – our story begins to take on a somewhat familiar flavor without adding lots of detail, thereby easing the workload of an audience while freeing up space to develop unique story details.

There is nothing about utilizing standardized genre motifs that keeps the writer from exploring new territory.  Tapping into the language, symbols, and themes of famous stories is a shortcut that allows the writer to say more with less.  As a writer I need to get on with my story and quickly push through the different stages as quickly as possible.  Without shortcuts we would never get past the prologue before we buried the audience with too many newly introduced elements.

New genres are blending and evolving all the time.  Men in Black, for example, breaks new ground as a combination of two genres – science fiction and situational comedy.  Before this film, almost all science fiction was serious drama, and almost all comedy stuck to more mundane events.  Computer games have genres, too, and over time the treasure trove of available ideas has grown from “Pong” and “Pac Man” to games about war, skateboarding, car racing, football, and a host of others including sneaking around old castles to steal from rich guys.



Going all the way back to the beginning of storytelling, every story falls into two basic genres – comedy and tragedy.  In fact, the whole happy-face sad-face motif on playbills originates with the ancient Greeks who made a big point of this distinction. A tragedy relieves rising tension by allowing the protagonist to survive each conflict with some hope of continuing the battle. Whereas a comedy relieves rising tension by poking fun at the situation.

Many storytellers have discovered how a slight blending of both techniques sometimes works even better, such as Stars Wars where all kinds of crazy thing are getting said during the heat of battle – especially when Han Solo is around.  Yet ultimately the Star Wars series is a tragedy because of how Luke finally saves his father only to have him die soon afterwards.

The groundbreaking TV series MASH, on the other hand is basically a comedy which often includes serious material (and sometimes whole episodes without a laugh track) in order to keep the overall story from turning into a melodramatic farce.

Tragedy is used inside a comedy to keep it from getting too light, just as comedy is used inside a tragedy to keep it from getting too heavy. Yet, no story should ever completely cross the boundary between comedy and tragedy once the die is cast and the story begins to play out – and certainly never after the midpoint crisis.  Otherwise, the audience will not know if they should be laughing or crying …taking the story as a joke, or taking it seriously.



Every important story element should be shown early in the story in order to prepare the audience for critical scenes that come later.  Closer to the end of a story the pace is picking up and there is no longer any time left to reveal new elements.  Foreshadowing is a special use of motifs just for this purpose.  ‘Plant it early’ so it’s there when you need it.

The whole idea of foreshadowing rests on what I’ve been saying about the prologue – the audience has no idea what anything means near the beginning of a story. Anything can happen early in the story and still not say too much.  Early motifs used as foreshadowing can lay in all of the critical story elements for later use without say yet exactly how they will be used.

Early in Episode 28 of the original Star Trek series we see several foreshadowing events… Spock berates himself for failing to record history as it flashes through the time machine annulus.  Kirk dives for McCoy just when McCoy runs into the portal, hitting the deck hard with is arms wrapped around thin air.  Kirk and Spock escape from a New York City cop with Kirk saying, “let’s get out of here!” Of course these three elements seem fairly ordinary early in the story.  And they help to add depth when we see how Spock’s tricorder is central to their success… Or how the next time Kirk grabs for McCoy he bear-hugs McCoy and keeps from saving Edith… Or just after escaping back to their own time when Kirk once again talks about leaving, but this time adds the “h” word for good measure (which almost kept the episode from airing in 1967).

The other day I saw the best example yet of foreshadowing on the DVD jacket for the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes.  Here, painted in exquisite detail, is the final climatic semi-mind-blowing scene of the whole movie – but without knowing the story, nothing is spoiled and instead, the image is simply pre-planted for maximum impact once the truth is finally revealed on-screen.

Consider everything that will happen during critical moments of your story and work to ensure that these elements have already happened in some other way beforehand.  By added lots of foreshadowing, the audience is well-prepared to recognize these motifs immediately for what they are and what they mean.

And if something is planted early that isn’t needed later – get rid of it.



Characters are the most complicated elements of any story, and considerable attention is required when you are developing motifs for every main character in the story.  Dialogue is particularly troublesome because characters, like real people, could very well say just about anything at any time.  But a character can’t do this without totally confusing the audience.

Just like how events are recycled, characters need to reuse various mannerisms and catch phrases.  For example, Han Solo has a ‘bad feeling’ about a lot of things – and we get what he means without saying anything else.  C3P0 shuffles along and gets flustered in much the same way throughout every Star Wars movie, and notice how much mileage the filmmakers get out of R2D2’s various whistles and techno-squeaks.

Character mannerisms and catch-phrases can take the place of extended dialog, and quickly reveal clues to the underlying emotional state of the characters—yet only when the audience understands exactly what the mannerisms mean.  A major task is working to ensure that mannerisms come across as authentic gestures.  Some of this can be written ahead of time.  But there are no clear rules for non-verbal communication.  Often the writer knows what needs to be communicated – but sometimes finding a catch-phrase or mannerism is a matter of trial and error.

One thing to keep in mind – don’t overuse mannerisms and catch-phrases – or any other shortcut, for that matter.  Even better, have the characters do something.  Sometimes we know a character well, and their mannerisms flow easily.  Other times, a character isn’t a creature of mannerisms – such as Spock, who is very good at containing his emotions.

In short – if a character can reveal something about themselves without saying anything – particularly through deliberate action – that is usually the better way to go.



Sometimes a screenwriters will compress a story by inventing a handful of characters, and then slice them into several people at different ages (or even different genders).  The boy, the man, the grandfather, and the cousin can sometimes all be the same basic character seen in various forms at different stages in their life.  By doing this, the common elements of these character-sets can bring about a quick sense of familiarity – saving time otherwise wasted on introducing a bunch of similar players.  This is such a powerful tool that most writers won’t tell you about it – nothing beats a great character more than having the same character in many forms.  Is not Obi-Wan Kenobi really just an older version of Luke Skywalker? (Or George Lucas, for that matter.)

Of course sub-characters take on different paths and tend to evolve unique aspects while the story progresses.  In most ways they can be nearly the same throughout the story, and by doing this the writer removes extraneous details – saving precious space and time to say what is truly different, and unique.  There simply is no time for most things to happen in different ways when they could just as easily happen the same way many times.  Try creating a few really interesting characters that you slice up and reuse everywhere – it may work for you.



Creating motifs can take any form.  In Men in Black we see bugs everywhere because the antagonist is a bug.  In Stars Wars the light sabers of the Jedi focus on the minimal use of force to achieve spectacular ends.  In Apollo 13, Jim Lovell watches the Moon drifting by the window of his crippled command module and without saying a word we know what this means – that he will never get to walk there.  In ET, the plant is dying – then it is suddenly revived and we know right away that the Alien is alive again.

Writing stories is very much the process of creating symbols like these then using and reusing them to build what happens from more or less standardized Lego blocks.

Much can be said with the smallest symbolic details – once we know what they mean.  As you begin to see possibilities for symbols in your own story, take a moment to consider everything about each element that seems important and how it might be reused from beginning to end.

In Apollo 13, for example, the story begins with the launch-pad fire of Apollo 1 where three American astronauts are incinerated, and as the story unfolds we see how the motif of this fire shows up at every major turning point in the movie.  The fire comes up in the beginning with the Apollo 1 pad disaster …it comes up again when Jim Lovell explains the risks to his family before his mission.  It comes up during problems with their training.  It comes up at the launch of the massive Saturn 5 rocket.  It come up one more time when their service module explodes …and finally, it comes up during the climactic sequence while the crew reenters the Earth’s atmosphere like a human-occupied fireball with no clear idea if they are on-course or doomed to a fiery death.

Consider every shortcut detail to see how you might reuse it to underline similar events or moods or things that are about to happen.  Your story will say far more with far less, and leave your audience much more satisfied with a well-woven experience.

Next Time: Re-Writing — What we Really Do!

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