A Matter of Diminishing Returns

Today I want to talk about diminishing returns, vis-à-vis how not to be despised by your readers to the detriment of your career.

Diminishing returns, for those of you who are a little hazy on the concept, is the decrease of incremental per-unit return upon adding more of one factor of production.


If a farmer uses more and more fertilizer, after a certain point he will begin to see less and less return per unit of fertilizer, because there is a critical mass of effective, efficient fertilizer usage, and after that the fertilizer becomes more and more useless until the plants are literally smothered.

In my opinion, writing shouldn’t ever involve math, but in this case, the law of diminishing returns is a good concept to follow on a grossly general scale.

For instance: description is good up until a certain point, after which every additional word begins to lose effectiveness (less return [reader understanding/enjoyment?] per word).  Now it begins to make a little more sense.

I believe that this law is especially important when dealing with character pain (be it mental, physical, relationship-al, etcetera).  Character pain, as discussed in my last post, is purposeful so long as there is something being achieved.  BUT lo, there is a critical mass of character pain, after which you, dear author, will begin to look more and more like a sadistic bastard and the novel will become less and less enjoyable.  You are drowning your plants in fertilizer.

Sad Plant is sad.
Sad Plant is sad.

The problem is, is that this critical mass is variable from work to work (sounds like a cop-out, don’t it?)  Because of this, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • What are you trying to achieve with any particular pain?
  • What does this instance of pain do to achieve your story/character goal?
  • Would the goal be reached just as effectively without the pain?

If you answered “yes” to the last bullet point, really think hard before laying on that hurt, if only because of the law of diminishing returns.

Overall, be aware of what you are trying to do with your writing, what effects you want to bring about in the audience, and judge each instance from there.  [Pain may also be substituted with other various aspects of writing or character building, i.e. description, use of swearing, miscommunication, dialogue, you get the drift.]

Take this all with a grain of salt; I’m not the only writer giving advice out here.  Let’s very quickly analyze one of the giants of the fantasy genre; GRRM and the chaos of aSoIaF. This is a series where character pain is so common that it is almost completely devoid of meaning.  That won’t keep anyone from reading, but has it affected overall enjoyment?  Well, I’ll let you all decide 😉

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Don’t steal my words.  They’re mine. Zachary Barnes 2015©

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