One of the things I think about a lot when I’m writing–but have only written about a little and tangentially–is cognitive load: The amount of data we expect readers to juggle and integrate. Readers only have so much cognitive bandwidth; writing that begins to overload this bandwidth is, at best, “challenging”–or, more frequently, simply frustrating and tiresome.
Managing Someone Else’s Cognitive Load
One way (the primary way?) of managing cognitive load is to balance the new/interesting/challenging items/structures you want readers to handle by giving them very easy-to-digest formulaic frameworks. E.g., Do you have a very complicated plot? Then either give them a very constrained set of characters (e.g., very few in number–like in Primer–or highly caricatured, like in The Usual Suspects). Numerous or very psychologically complex characters? Keep the story running in real-time (Hitchcock’s Rope), or confined to a single location (Reservoir Dogs), so readers don’t have to track both shifting alliances and shifting time/place. Very elevated language, or a challenging invented argot (Clockwork Orange, looking at you)? Keep the plot straightforward and the structure rigid (Clockwork is, at its heart, a very simple morality play broken into three equal-weighted acts, and tracing a downright medieval character trajectory).[*]
And so on. There’s a million combinations, but it starts with realizing that your reader’s attention is finite and precious, and you need to make hard choices in directing and managing that attention.
The 45/45/10 Formula
My fall-back formula for managing cognitive load in a story is to break it into 45/45/10 by word count:
- The first 45% of the words are the Setup: Characters and situations are presented and relationships made clear.
- The next 45% of the words are the Tangle: A complication disrupts (or at least complicates) the situation laid out in the Setup.
- The last 10% of the story is the Resolution: The knot is Untangled, for better or worse.[**]
45/45/10 stories have pretty consistently proven easier for me to place than anything else, and I believe that’s because they are much easier to read. (It’s a very common pattern–you see it all over short stories and novels–and students of creative writing will no doubt notice that it’s basically a boiled-down version of the infamous three-act structure I was going on about last week. Just to make a quick point about process, though: I fall back on the 45/45/10 as a way to analyze things I’m revising, or to help me suss out where I should go next if I lose the thread of my narrative, but it isn’t like I use it to generate stories. It’s a formula into which I plug in characters, situations, and problems, not a handle I crank so that a black-box will poop out a salable story.)
Penn & Teller Cut Through the Tangle
So, all that said, here’s Penn & Teller’s version of Sawing the Lady in Half. I love P&T, but not just because they are good magicians (in fact, having seen them live now and again, I can see that they aren’t always that hot, in terms of the mechanics of sleight-of-hand; they botch things just as often as any other live pros). What I love about P&T is that they make the fact that magic is a narrative art front and center; it’s not about technique or gimmicks or effect, it’s about telling stories (just like good ads and good poems and good stories). And, because I’m still a post-modern comp lit student at heart, I’m tickled even further by the fact that their stories are always metafictions, stories about the nature of stories themselves, and story telling. They are meta-magicians whose work, over the long haul, comments on and critiques their craft in a deep and loving way. I love that meaty, rich approach, which means that even if I occasionally find the execution a little weak, I don’t care because the overall narrative of the trick is itself delightful and instructive.
As is the case here: this trick–and oldy, but a goody–falls tidily into my best belovéd 45/45/10 formula: They give as a full Setup–with four characters (one of them being us, the audience, who in P&T’s stories is always a character), they Tangle that Setup, and then they Resolve it in a way that implicates everyone involved (including us, the audience). it is a tight and lovely 3min35sec. Watch it, and watch the clock while you do:
[*] Incidentally, the importance of managing cognitive load applies to non-fiction, too, from sales copy to persuasive essays and PowerPoint presentations and autobiographies of Dead White Cis-Males: If someone is reading–or watching or listening–then their attention is finite and you need to manage that attention, for their sake as much as for your own.
[**] I first stumbled across this ratio when I was writing “The New Guys Always Work Overtime”–which won the Asimov’s Readers’ Award and is basically 45/45/10 to the word. (Get a FREE copy at that link! Or buy it for a buck from Amazon below!)