Anton's Research Ramblings

Minimalism, or "How I Structure Code Quickly in C Without Getting Log-Jammed"

Because I was asked, here is an overview of how I code quickly in C without getting log-jammed in structural mess. A lot of this should work for other languages too. Key concepts - keep it quick to get stuff on screen, keep it fun, let structure emerge on it's own, write code that's low cost to throw out if it doesn't work out, don't make refactoring work for yourself. Basically don't follow any of the rules™!

Starting Off

I really like starting a new project with a blank page. Zen. Just think about the problem or what you want to make.

I break jobs down into agile-like tasks of roughly 2 hour duration - works well for me to balance work vs. reward and keep things manageable. I have a glorified TODO list - I like Trello. It's a TODO list with pictures. You can make a check-list to further break down a task. Pick something do-able and non-scary to start off. This is usually comprised of one or two functions.

Writing Functions

If it's a mathematical or geometric problem I like to solve it on paper first against several key test cases. I will then code these into a mini program to verify my code. eg:

If you can write a stand-alone program with one function until you get it right - great! Then you can just drop that function in to your program. It always helps to concentrate on the data - not on the structure of the program or function's components. Any good Algorithms textbook will tell you this. It's easy to do this with C as there isn't any sort of higher-level utility code to distract you. To design a function (or algorithm):

Don't be afraid to make a mess - you need to get a feel for the problem first. Allow time to tidy up later after you have experience with the problem. Iterations where you rewrite things a few times are fine. If you try to make "clean" structure first you are wasting time you could be using to get experience with the problem. You'll almost always be wrong the first time. Write in such a way that it's quick, and you don't mind scrapping it and starting again. Don't try to write generic or future-proof code. This is almost never used, takes ages to write, isn't fun, and it's a pain to clean up later. Wait until you need to reuse something several times before you do this - you'll have a better idea of the ideal structure later. Just make a few iterations reducing the amount of code and structure required. Small and unstructured is easy to make generic when you need it. Multi-class-multi-function-multi-file stuff is pretty much doomed to be deleted. Allow yourself to "go back to the drawing board" a few times.

So typically I have something like:

int some_test_data[1024];

void my_function( int* data, int number_of_items ) {
  if ( !data ) {
    // handle empty list here
  if ( 0 == number_of_items ) {
    // handle no-op here - maybe just return
  // do stuff with data here

int main() {
  // test case for empty data:
  init_test_data( 3 ); // some function to set up my input data
  my_function( NULL, 3 );
  print_data( NULL, 3 ); // unit test to make sure output matches expected output

  // test case for one item:
  init_test_data( 1 );
  my_function( some_test_data, 1 );
  print_data( some_test_data, 1 );

  // test case for 3 items:
  init_test_data( 3 );
  my_function( some_test_data, 3 );
  print_data( some_test_data, 3 );

  // ... and so on

  return 0;

Bigger Functions

Some functions will tend to be bigger. The "update all the people in the simulation" or "draw all the trees" function has several small jobs. That's right, I don't have: tree.draw(). It's better to loop over arrays - not have separate, encapsulated items. Where possible. It's easier to follow the flow of logic, and keep it in your head (I find). The computer hardware is designed to be very efficient at iterating over arrays of data in start-to-finish contiguous order. If you force access to be broken up across many small objects you don't get this advantage. You can make a small program to test this theory and see just how much faster. It's worth doing.

For bigger functions it's a pain to separate everything out into small functions, as they tell you to do, and it's then hard to follow and you have to do this tedious step-through debugging to find what order things get called. Use long functions. Split them up using {} blocks.

void draw_all_the_things() {
  { // --- trees get drawn here

    // set up GPU state etc for drawing trees - use the correct shaders etc

    drawTreesInstanced( all the trees );

    // or loop over and draw and at a time if required. in a loop:
    for ( int i = 0; i < ntrees; i++ ) {
      draw( trees_array[i] );

  } // --- end of trees block

  { // this block is something like draw all the rocks
    // similar stuff

  { // this block is something like draw the water
    // similar stuff
    // in
    // here

  // ...

Each block has its own scope for variables, so you don't need to worry about mixing them up. If I find myself needing to copy-paste a block a few times it's really easy then, to do this:

// i just cut and pasted my block and gave it a name
void draw_trees() {

  // set up shader etc here

  drawTreesInstanced( all the trees );

  for ( int i = 0; i < ntrees; i++ ) {
    draw( trees_array[i] );


void draw_all_the_things() {
  draw_trees(); // was a block

  // ...
  draw_trees(); // presumably i need to do this in a few places now

  // ...

This is a nice, quick way of slamming code down without getting too messy, splitting up sections, and knowing when to split out into functions.

Multiple Files - Loose Coupling

I generally group related functions into a file. So when things get bigger I'll have trees.c with all the functions related to trees. Probably just one graphics.c with all the graphics functions. In past years the graphics stuff would have been a scene manager class in a scene manager file, with some complex inter-class relationships with various other managers for meshes, lighting, various inheritance for different types of mesh class... and so on. Now I'm old, tired, and grumpy, and want my after-work time to put stuff on the screen, not be whittled away refactoring structure, so I'll just have a floating load_ply_mesh() function that doesn't give a monkey's uncle about any other structure, and there are no managers or special relationships. This is loose-coupling. It's very important to building code that scales to a large size without getting tangled and log-jammed. It's efficient to add new features to, and doesn't drive you insane. I spend zip-all time thinking about the relationships between objects, which is the opposite of how we were trained to make software in college.

How long each file or function gets is entirely up to your experience and comfort preferences - more experienced coders are happy with longer stuff. Small, elegant solutions to hard problems can be very satisfying, but they usually start big and messy. I typically have one or two 'utility' files that are used broadly - maybe mathematics, log functions, and so on. Read similar code from others, or well known projects, to get improvement and reduction ideas after you've made an attempt.

You can do a pseudo-OOP in C if you like. Sometimes it fits, with the nice advantage that it's easy to shuffle it around when it doesn't:

Build Systems

All are frustrating. I use the command line until it gets messy, then paste it into a BaSh script. Then move to a simple, hand-written, human-readable Makefile. I never needed CMake, package management, or other autotools because I don't use any dependencies unless I absolutely have to. You can waste a huge amount of time farting about with libraries - it's often quicker to write them yourself if you think small, or drop stuff in to your own source code if it's small utilities or libraries.

Validation and Tools

I validate all my function parameters, particularly pointers. You can use assert() to guard any assumptions that you make about acceptable ranges of values. You should do this if eg a parameter is going to be used as an index to an array. Strings, parsing functions, and indices worth validating. Usually this catches things like when you add a new function two weeks later and inadvertently break some assumptions you made earlier.

void my_func( int* some_ptr, int some_val ) {
  // validation
  assert( some_val >= 0 );
  if ( !some_ptr ) {
    return; // or do something else

  *some_ptr = some_val + 1; // the function body

A nice integrated debugger is handy to double check your code. I quite like the C/C++ plug-in for Visual Studio Code these days:

Clang-format is great for automatically tidying your code. Valgrind is great for finding memory issues. Scan-build is a nice linter to find things like overlapping memory access or out-of-bounds array indexing.

If you're making small memory allocations, consider alloca() (look it up, it's handy for fast dynamic scratch memory that auto-frees). Otherwise, I use a big pre-allocated block and index into that for assets that stay in memory. That way you can free them all in one operation between resets / level loads etc, and don't waste time making sure every memory allocation is freed, or writing accounting code to track everything or [shudder] a garbage collector.


"But it doesn't even have feature X from C++, how do you cope?". The answer is almost certainly "just use an array, it was a better choice anyway", or "write it yourself, it will only take a few minutes.", or "no, you don't need it - think simpler - much simpler". Usually these are the right answers for small (and sometimes more complex) projects. Some things though, are still god-awful, and you'll have to put up with them. Strings - small problem, big time sink.

The Good Bits

Using C with no templates, virtual functions, or complex structures means your build times are super fast, which is nice for working quickly on side projects. No boilerplate code or cladding code is required - this stuff is very time consuming to write and maintain. No getters, setters, patterns, etc. Just solve the bite-sized problems that gets your creativity to a visual state. This is very motivating. Keep the iteration loop short like this.

Yes, you can work even more quickly in other set-ups - I had great fun in game jams with JavaScript + WebGL, but I'm very fast at C now and would probably be on par. Yes, you can use 'C++ but in C style'. Nobody ever does though - it always gets a bit bogged down with the ++ bits getting quite heavy. I like the Spartan approach and sacrificing a few comforts. It might make more sense to just show live coding of how I work in my after-work hour or two to get a feel for pace and progress. I do that sometimes. But I hope this made sense. Minimalism.