KISS in Stories

Keep it simple, stupid. This simple rule can be applied successfully to a lot of things, especially instructions. Anything with instructions too complicated usually results in my blowing something up. It’s not pretty.

My bad.

More to the point, though, it applies to stories as well. We’ve all seen a story that, had it not clogged itself up with a lot of unnecessary details or intricate plot threads, might have been great. Battlestar Galactica, Crysis 2, Mass Effect 3, all of their failings can be summarized in five words: they didn’t keep it simple. Now let’s be clear, just because a story is simple does not make it “dumbed down” or unsophisticated. It means you treat your audience with respect and not waste their time by cluttering up the story with a lot unnecessary crap. But what do I mean by unnecessary crap?

Well let’s look at something like A Game of Thrones, either book or mini-series. There are a lot of elements in George RR Martin’s stories, intrigue, espionage, war, romance, and the many themes he explores throughout all of them. At first glance George RR Martin’s stories look like they break the rule of keeping it simple, at least on the surface. I mean some of the machiavellian twists, the presence of so many characters, and the constantly shifting allegiances of those characters should make the story incomprehensible in theory. So why is it such a popular, and easy to read, story?

Because he does keep it simple, and he does so by doing what is sometimes the hardest thing for a writer to do; he cuts out anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Every scene in the mini-series, and every description in the book, go directly to helping move the story forward. There’s no scene that exists solely for it’s own sake. The audience may not understand how it contributes the story, at first, but in the end it all comes together. With a sprawling saga like A Song of Ice and Fire it could have been easy to fall into the trap of over-describing everything. He could have spiralled into a vortex of royal hereditary lines, the intricacies of the wool trade in Westeros, or taken us through the process of crafting a sword all the way from mining the ore to a how many hammer blows it takes to shape the blade. Yet he managed to stay above this, and not include anything that wasn’t helping to advance the story.

That’s tough to do as a writer, because for us, every single thing we write is interesting. For instance in the science fiction book I’m writing, I had a really cool scene of the main character space walking along the hull of a battleship. I really liked it. Problem is, though, it really has nothing to do with the story itself. It doesn’t advance the plot, it didn’t help characterize any of the characters, it was just fluff. So I cut it out. I’ve stashed it away because I still like the idea, and perhaps in a future story I’ll be able to directly incorporate it into the plot, but for right now, my current story doesn’t need it.  It was just cluttering up the place, making it difficult for the story to keep moving.

Let’s pull out everyone’s favorite ending and see what happens when you include stuff that just doesn’t need to be in the story:

Beating this kid up never gets old

Okay, so what did Mass Effect 3 include that could have been cut? Well first of all, let’s just ignore the fact that Mass Effect 3 deserved a much better ending than this, and see just how the ending we did get could have been better if only they’d cut out some things.

1. The Kid

The kid Shepard sees killed adds absolutely nothing to the story. We can surmise that Shepard is disturbed by the sight of the boy dying, what with all the freaky dreams he has about the boy, but Shepard’s character never really changes as a result of it. The dreams he has are the only indication that Shepard is affected at all by the event, and those dreams don’t really seem to evolve his character or advance the plot. We don’t see Shepard suffering from sleep deprivation or anything. The destruction of Thessia was actually a much better catalyzing event for Shepard’s character, because we saw him change as a result of that event: snapping at Joker, self-loathing and anger in his conversations that follow. We cut out that kid and suddenly the whole story improves. We don’t get a “WTF?” reaction from seeing a glowing blue version of the kid on the citadel, and in fact we can bring in an old friend of ours who was sadly neglected in Mass Effect 3:

Yay! Someone remembered me!

Yeah, we replace that kid with a final appearance by Harbinger, either as a holographic simulation like the one we saw on Virmire or telepathic communication (because at this point why not?). Heck if necessary Harbinger can spout off that crappy dialogue, at least then it’s delivered by a verbose and forbidding voice which at least makes it sound cool.

2. Miranda Lawson and her Family Issues

Was anyone else a bit weirded out that we suddenly came across Miranda Lawson during the mission on Horizon? I know I was, mainly because it didn’t seem relevant to the story. Now let me ask you this: if you removed Miranda and her family from the mission, would it really change? Would there be something lacking?

For me at least, the answer is no. Replace Miranda’s father with some final boss, either Reaper or Cerberus, and really nothing would change. Miranda’s family subplot contributes absolutely nothing to her character or the story as a whole. She’s basically there because they wanted to shoehorn in as many of the Mass Effect 2 cast as possible. In fact, she can die in Mass Effect 2 and you still end up having to solve her family problems at Horizon. She’s like the crazy ex-girlfriend that’s constantly dragging you into her drama, she just screws everything up. Don’t get me wrong, I’d loved to have seen Miranda actually contribute the story in some way, but she doesn’t and she should have been cut from Horizon.

Of course, cutting her from Horizon means there’s no one there to plant the bug on Kai Leng. Well, allow me to alleviate that little hiccup as well.

3. Kai Leng

Seriously, look at this guy:

Don’t you have a Metal Gear Solid game to be appearing in?

Now I know we’ve been in a downward spiral in terms of character design in Mass Effect, going from somewhat practical space gear in Mass Effect 1 to form fitting lingerie-armor in Mass Effect 3, but this guy is just way too over the top. More to the point though, he doesn’t need to be in the story. There isn’t a single thing in the game that would change without him being there. In fact, removing him actually fixes some of the problems. First of all who remembers this scene:

The top comment says it all:

Am I the only one that simply can’t watch this without coming up with a thousand ways to kill Kai Leng?

Watch the video: there are several times when Kai Leng could have just been mowed down by Shepard’s entire squad without risk to Thane. But someone wanted to give Thane a tearful goodbye and came up with a horribly contrived battle to the death in order to give Thane that moment. The problem is that there were plenty of better ways to do it: make it simple.

Have Thane holding off a dozen Cerberus troops while Shepard and crew try to break through a door to help him. Let Thane take them all out himself but become fatally wounded in the process. It would make his death more heroic because it was actually a fight that he could believably lose. Then let Shepard say a tearful goodbye there and have Thane tell Shepard to get to the shuttle where Udina is planning to escape with his last breath. On Thessia, we don’t need his ugly mug to screw things up for Shepard, god damn Reapers were all over the damn place and if you really wanted to get Cerberus involved, any run of the mill strike force would have sufficed. On Horizon, don’t have some stupid deus ex machina of “Oh I planted a secret bug on him!”, just go simple and say you hacked a computer or something. This isn’t difficult to do.

What I’m saying is: to hell with Kai Leng, he was superfluous and completely over the top.

You know what have worked even better and solved two of the above problems in one go? Have Miranda Lawson come back as the right arm of the Illusive Man. It’s an already established character that the audience knows and cares about, she’s extremely capable and a credible threat to Shepard, and it adds emotional weight to the story. Then on Horizon we can uncover the truth of how she was indoctrinated following Shepard’s arrest, whether by accident or intentionally, it doesn’t matter. In the end, we’d be forced to put a bullet in the head of a dear friend because the Reaper’s corrupted her so thoroughly. That would have been a powerful scene, one with real emotional weight and a traumatic event for the characters. It would have added to the story, rather than just diluted it like Leng did.

4. The Last Ten Minutes

Now I think we all know what happened at the end of Mass Effect 3: They ran out of time. EA booted it out the door much too soon. Bioware’s PR guys can deny this all they want, but let’s face it, there’s really no other explanation for the ending. No one could have made that on purpose. So you know what they could have cut, and made the ending at least palatable rather than atrocious? Those final minutes with the kid.

Am I the only one who was practically in tears during that scene? That was a powerful finale, with the two guys who started this whole journey, sitting down and sharing their final moments together.

You know what? I would have been okay with the Catalyst simply parking its rotund ass on the citadel and wiping out the Reapers with some space magic. I still would have complained, of course. I would have pointed out that they should have done more, and you know what, that’s okay. I would rather be telling Bioware what they could have added rather than telling them what they should have removed. Of course there will still be the issue of the Illusive Man and his strange powers at the end, but that’s small potatoes compared to the kid.

So yeah. If Bioware was that short on time, this scene is where they should have cut it. They could even have used the same Destroy ending, minus the stupidity of the God AIs logic, it’s actually not a bad way to go. Cut the stupid part of the Relays exploding and the Normandy crashing. Cutting out that final ten minutes might have given them enough time to give us an Animal House style epilogue or even a Halo 3 funeral service on a devastated Earth.

That’s why you need to keep things simple: it’s just better that way.


  1. I thank you for this advice. I’ve been tinkering with a story for a foundry mission in Star Trek online. I’ve been trying to write a rich story with losts of side things and plots to do and its had been some what cubersome to make. I think I’ll cut most of it and leave a basic story and release it only then add a small second story later on if it doesn’t brake the first draft.

    Yes alot those aspects above should be outright removed or alters.

    Since getting my hands on the demo I was worried. The first mission showed us a complete stranger (The Kid) dying and that didn’t sit with me. I could only see it as a cheap shot to emotionaly backmail me. The dreams in the main game just stabbed that point across.
    I don’t mind the game pulling on my heart stings but a small little child? They could of used Kadion/Ashley. My shepard loved Ashley. The only Member in all three games that he romanced and he choose her to die in ME1. My Shepard choose Kadion not because he like him but because he was protecting the bomb and I reasoned that I couldn’t risk the Reapers disarming it so sent shepard back. The Mission over love. A Dream Ashley could of tormented shepard through out ME3 because he desided that she should die and drive the point to shepard that people are dying because of what he do or doesn’t do.

    Miranda Lawson. Oh boy do I hate this woman. so I’ll come back to that.

    Kai Leng..Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Heck if ME3 is going to tell you go buy the expanded universe books. As you said this guy could of been relaced by an enhanced henchman at any point. If fact that would of been better as then the henchman could of been stopped and killed at anypoint and be replaced with a slightly diffrent henchman in later story points.
    Like the Thane scene the temple should of been another location he would of died. He was standing out in the open to heal while a chopper was spray firing behind him. The point of that scene was to set the player up to fail and make this Leng fellow look cool. If the chopper prevent my shepard from shooting iy wasn’t hitting my squad mates on the other side of the room so why could of shot him and if the chooper was hitting them at the same time as me then Leng would be dead as he was standing in the middle of the fire covrage.

    The Last Ten Minutes. I’ve been ranting the same point to some friends of mine about this. As soon as the beam it shepard I was under no illusion that Shepard has surived it. My Shepard was dead his body just hadn’t relised it. So I was on the edge of my se..floor. Shepard dying, brokern bones, blood bleeding out filled with adrenaline (Slow mode). Reapers had killed him and his squad but he was going to take those -blank- down with him. So he crawled through the bodies of the dead to finish the job he started and save everyone else but himself.
    Then the Icing on the cake Shepard and Anderson. Two friends dying together with the battle won.
    To me Shepard should of said something like “We did it Anderson” With a strugglering smile. Anderson gives do replied be sits there with his eyes closed.
    “Anderson?” Shepard reaches out and gives hsi friend a nudge on the arm. Anderson gives out one last breath.and goes still.
    “We did it.” Shepard whsipers to himself and looks out the window to the battle. Reapers forces exsplode filling the window view with new stars. Then Sherpard closes his own eyes for the final time.
    To me thats the real ending and I even went back and played the final chapter again just to turn the game off before the platform rose.

    Right Miranda Lawson. PR and the game camras during conversation really felt to me that Bioware put her there just for selling sex appeal. “Oh check this squadmate out. Shes perfect in everyway a man should want her. So beautiful and look at that backside. Don’t you want her?”
    Er no. Still theres more a charactor then looks so I overlooked my first feelings about her and dived into her story. Like it at first. Family troubles, Is a victim, feels that her acomplishments are not her own, etc all good stuff. And then her personaliity and the way she treats others. Ho ho ho what an eye opener. She holds most of the rest of the crew incontempt. Dispite the fact she had some one wanting to control and infulance everything she does she was convinced that its the right thing to do to shepard. Since its not her then its perfectly alright to control somes life. This then leads to Jack. They have the same story – a rich and powerful man has engineered a small girl to be the best of that they want from them and seek to control everything about them. Miranda/Father = Jack/The Illusive man. Again because its not her whos victimised then its perfectly fine for it to happern. No simpafy at all for anyone other than herself. Jack and Miranda were polar opposites to me. same story but one was nice on the outside but a bitch on the inside while the other was a bitch on the outside but really sweet on the inside..
    This caused me to really hate Miranda and ok. Its good to have a character in a story that you hate but have to work with. What annoyed my was that my shepard in ME3 treated her like old friends for no reason other than the Bioware staff really like Miranda. I would of like to see Miranda and Shepard grudgingly working together. Enermies ont he same side or like your idea. Your playing with regrate to fight someone you like while I playing with sweet venagance.

    My gosh what a rant. Sorry about that . Guess its been too quiet on the ME3 news front and I’ve been stewing on those issues.

    Keep up the blogs.!

  2. I wish I had the PC version of the game to edit out the nightmare sequences and Kai Leng then patch the Catalyst as Harbinger. I think the story with Miranda and her family would have been fine if it was an optional side mission rather than try to tie it into the main plot. Though your idea for replacing Kai Leng with Miranda would have been awesome but would have pissed off the fans that romanced her. Unless, of course, the only way to save her is to have had romanced her in the second game then she was saved by the power of love; makes as much sense as the real plot. The Anderson/Shepard scene at the end was touching; I even felt bad for poor broken Shepard after that scene when s/he was nagged by Hackett to do even more. Shepard had done more than anyone else in the universe and s/he couldn’t even get a well deserved moment to recover and savor that moment.

    KISS is a good rule to follow and should be a requirement as part of any proof reading. I don’t write very often but when I do, I do see myself going on random tangents that don’t really amount to anything important. I see it published stories as well; like the Lord of the RIng series, I hated those random ballads and didn’t see the point of why they’re there other than making a long story longer.

    1. Oh definitely, Lord of the Rings is terrible in this regard. There are so many things in those books that contribute absolutely nothing to the overarching story or to the characters.

      I have enormous respect for JRR Tolkien and the world he created, but to be frank, I don’t think of him as a very good writer. He was first and foremost a linguistics major, which is why he came up with an entire fictional language for the series. I mean he’s not the worst writer in the world, not by a long shot, but he’s not someone you want to emulate if you want to become a writer. Still, he created a world which popularized the modern Fantasy setting we all know today, so due credit where it’s due.

      That’s part of the reason I prefer the movies over the books, however. Peter Jackson took a lot of the unnecessary crap out of the movie (though not all of it unfortunately), and even improved the characters a fair bit. In fact I think I might have to go into how the movies improved on the books in a future blog post!

      1. That would be a good topic for you to cover. My experience with Tolkien’s writing was buying a bundle pack of the LOTR series plus The Hobbit. I don’t know how I managed to get thought The Hobbit other than skipping the ballets but didn’t even get a fourth of the way through the Fellowship of the Ring and proceeded to never touching the books again. Making a book or a story unnecessarily long deters people like me who aren’t big into reading in the first place.

      2. It’s true, LOTR is quite long and sometimes boring, but unfortunately as Jackson cut huge chunks out of the story, sometimes he cut out important stuff as well, creating potholes in the process, which were filled with crap from Jackson. All in all the result is ambivalent at best – he managed to create a sugar-coated, hollywood-stlye happy end story, which most probably wasn’t in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote his books.
        Yeah, and one more thing, Tolkien created 10-15 languages, not just one – actually he wrote the books to use his languages somehow, not the other way around 🙂

        1. The Lord of the Rings films weren’t masterpieces of storytelling by an stretch of the imagination, but I still think they did a better job of telling a story than the books.

          I didn’t realize he’d created 15 languages, that’s pretty impressive. However it was the fact he wrote his stories to use his languages that made LOTR such a difficult, cumbersome read. He wanted to show off his languages, which is fine, but he did at the expense of the story.

          I’m still writing the blog post on this subject, which I should have up by next week, where I’ll go into more detail. Always interested in hearing dissenting opinions though!

      3. … I’m pretty sure as such definitions go you gotta say Tolkien is an excellent writer. I love the language in his books. It is evocative. I’ll admit The LOTR is harder to chew into than say the Hobbit, but many great books aren’t exactly easy reads. I guess one can argue technicalities but with Tolkien… it kinda feels like saying Shakespeare wasn’t a good writer because most of what ha wrote was light entertainment and soap operas. It feels like missing the point. I really didn’t like the movies though. They lacked the right feel.

        1. I’m going to be reading through the LOTR trilogy again before doing my post. It’s probably been 5 or 6 years since I last read them, and I’ve learned alot in those years so my opinion might change when I reread them.

  3. When I played trough ME3 the first game I really disliked Kai Leng. I no longer do.

    Cause of the renegade interrupt.

    Beating his smug face into the ground was catharic to say the least. Smug jackass that he is.

    I lost Thane at the suicide mission in ME2 (only casuality) so I never got the fighting scene. Still I looked it up later. I don’t really care about him losing either cause of well “He couldn’t even finish a terminally wounded drell. Some assasin.” Or as I like to say “…that was one incompetent kid.” Preach it Thane!

    And yeah. Kill the ending. Use a Cain.

    The thing that annoys me the most with it, and there is a lot… you couldn’t continue playing the game afterwards. After the ending your brought back to the Normandy right before comitting to the final sequence with a note saying they’ll add extra content. But I was really looking forward to some kind of epilogue dlc. Something that deals with the aftermath of the reaper war.

    Ah I don’t know. I could probably spend hours finding one thing more disappointing than the other. There was so much wrong with it. RIP artistic integrity of EA. RIP.

  4. I agree with what you said in regards to Thane’s death and how it didn’t need to happen via Kai Lang; However, as cruel as it may sound, I think he should of just died of his Kepler’s Syndrome. You can keep in EVERYTHING ELSE about his story, he’s survived longer then expected, he reconnected with his son, etc., then after the Citadel 2 mission, you get a message from Kolyat (not sure if I got the name right) saying that Thane’s dying. No heroic death, no blaze of glory, and there is nothing Shepard could do about it.

    Throughout ME3 Bioware tries to instill a sense of hopelessness in the player, and personally I think this (on top of being a player sucker punch) would of aided that.

    As for Miranda… Well, all I can really say is that I cannot think of a more proper resolution to her plot line and for your relationship with her to wrap up. Admittedly, it was shoe horned in rather crudely. It probably should of been a sidequest (like Kasumi’s War Assets mission) instead of in the main plot.

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