Using Occam’s Razor in Writing

By J. Alden Weir, Grapes, Knife and Glass

To write a story is to solve a problem: how to get from the beginning to the end. Finding a solution may appear simple, but with every variable introduced into the story, the route becomes more complex. As such, to successfully solve the problem of the story, the writer must look to simplify the variables whilst also subverting the reader’s expectations. Both can be achieved by considering each side of the law of parsimony, also known as Occam’s razor.

The basis of the law comes from the Latin phrase Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate (Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity) which is usually attributed to William of Ockham. It lays out the basic principle that the simplest solution tends to be the best one by shaving away unnecessary assumptions, and is used in science and scientific method, religion, and ethics.

Applying the Law

Every variable introduced into a story—whether character, setting, action or reaction—alters the direction of the story. By applying Occam’s razor, it can be posited that successful stories are told using the fewest necessary variables. For example, a story about a woman deciding whether to open an envelope that may or may not contain terrible news would only require the woman and the envelope, and maybe a room. To add in a talking rhinoceros wearing a hat would be overcomplicating the story as it is currently laid out. On the other hand, a story about a woman consulting a hat-wearing rhinoceros who can talk as to whether she should open an envelope potentially containing terrible news would indeed require said talking rhinoceros wearing a hat, and possibly some other variables as well.

“Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.”

Bertrand Russell

Embracing the law of parsimony allows writers to solve the problem of a story using the fewest variables. This increases pacing, streamlines narrative, and brings cohesion to plot whilst simultaneously drawing the reader further into the world being created. Coincidence and chance—whilst natural in real life—are rejected within fiction as readers are unable to cope with them, unless the odds themselves are purposefully referenced, as happens in comedies. Even then, the constructions come from known entities—characters either already introduced, or suggested—and interference with unknown entities is minimised.

Subverting the Law

Whilst efficiency of storytelling can be effective, there is no real story without tension. Subverting Occam’s razor—and therefore the reader’s expectations—can bring interesting and engaging results. For example, a story beginning with a man planning to bake a cake, and ending with a man baking a cake, will be dull without some form of tension, peril, challenge, or character change in the middle.

“When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

Theodore Woodward

Readers will naturally assume a story, or element therein, will follow a certain pattern; they expect the sound of hooves to be horses because it is the simplest, and therefore most likely solution. By instead making the source of the sound zebras, the writer can deliver a surprise that will prove both challenging and satisfying to the reader. It may not be the simplest solution, but it still works within the rules.

Understanding the Law

Aristotle wrote, “Nature operates in the shortest way possible.” In some cases this is true: both electricity and water will find the path of least resistance in the cases of lightning and rivers. However, the almost infinite number of variables which apply to nature—both at that moment and historically—render the veracity of Aristotle’s statement unprovable, and therefore not the simplest solution. In other words, the best stories require both the application and subversion of the law of parsimony. The writer must balance on the razor’s edge.

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