They say you learn something new every day.

Posts tagged ‘literature’

But we need a plot (07/01/2012)

I’ve been doing some story plotting recently.

It’s interesting because when you start plotting you think to yourself “gosh, anything could happen, this is going to be really difficult.”

However, when you start to think it all through, the options are much more limited than you think.

The plot I was thinking about was one of the characters being accused of something.

Now, in this situation there are only three things that can happen:

  1. He did it
  2. He didn’t do it
  3. You never find out

Those are the only three options. There are no other options. Logically, that’s all that’s possible.

Once you’ve got this far, you move onto the next stage, and again, there’s a logical pattern to it.

Whether he did or didn’t do it, there are only two options:

  1. He’s found out
  2. He’s not found out

Which gives us six situations:

  1. He did it – but they let him off thinking he didn’t
  2. He did it – and they find him guilty 
  3. He didn’t do it – but they find him guilty 
  4. He didn’t do it – and they let him off
  5. You never know – but they find him guilty
  6. You never know – but they let him off

Of course you can imply one way or the other (and that lies somewhere between you never finding out and the fact), but pretty much everything that can happen falls into one of these categories:

Of course, once you’ve set up all the logically possible alternatives you can start to think of ways of twisting it, the so-called “thinking outside the box”. Now we know what the box is, we’re free to do that.

  • Maybe the thing he is accused of doing never actually happened.

Of course, this is actually just a variant of #3 or #4, but twists it slightly.

  • Maybe something else happens that’s so momentous that the accusation is forgotten about.

Again, this is a variant of #5 or #6 but twists it slightly.

Of course, even if you don’t want to think too far out of the box, you can think about which of these has the most emotional weight. Thinking of these, the ones that move me most are the ones that contain the word “but” 

  1. He did it – but they let him off thinking he didn’t
  2. He didn’t do it – but they find him guilty 

It’s interesting, because Ali Smith’s characters talk about the power of “but” in There But For The

Mark: I’ve been invited to this dinner party next week.

Miles: But?

Mark: But, well, I don’t want to go.

Miles: But?

Mark: But what?

Miles: Just but.

Mark: What do you mean, but?

Miles: Exactly what I say. Those sentences all sound like they have a but attached.


Miles: So. You’ve been invited to this dinner party next week, but you don’t want to go. You don’t want to go, but—but what comes next? See?

Mark: I get it. You mean like a game.

Miles: I mean more than a game, I mean, like actuality, like how things happen. Like … I was going home, but, this man asked me to go for a drink, so here I am.

Mark: Is it always but? Can it be and?

Miles: Yeah, but the thing I particularly like about the word but, now that I think about it, is that it always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting.

Mark: Like … this thing happened at the end of the play which threatened to spoil the whole thing—but …

 There But For The

I suspect “but” is probably part of the key to emotionally engaging plots.

However, the real “discovery” here was about this way of thinking about plots. When you start plotting, you feel that anything could happen, and that it’s all up in the air. But, once you put down the “fixed” points, the options are more limited than you might think.

I feel it’s a bit like the idea of “back of the envelope” calculations:

It was in the middle of a fascinating conversation on software engineering that Bob Martin asked me, “How much water flows out of the Mississippi River in a day?” Because I had found his comments up to that point deeply insightful, I politely stifled my true response and said, “Pardon me?” When he asked again I realized that I had no choice but to humor the poor fellow, who had obviously cracked under the pressures of running a large software shop. 

My response went something like this. I figured that near its mouth the river was about a mile wide and maybe twenty feet deep (or about one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a mile). I guessed that the rate of flow was five miles an hour, or a hundred and twenty miles per day. Multiplying
1 mile x 1/250 mile x 120 miles/day ~ 1/2 mile3/day
showed that the river discharged about half a cubic mile of water per day, to within an order of magnitude. But so what?

At that point Martin picked up from his desk a proposal for the communication system that his organization was building for the Summer Olympic games, and went through a similar sequence of calculations. He estimated one key parameter as we spoke by measuring the time required to send himself a one-character piece of mail. The rest of his numbers were straight from the proposal and therefore quite precise. His calculations were just as simple as those about the Mississippi River and much more revealing. They showed that, under generous assumptions, the proposed system could work only if there were at least a hundred and twenty seconds in each minute. He had sent the design back to the drawing board the previous day. (The conversation took place about a year before the event, and the final system was used during the Olympics without a hitch.)

That was Bob Martin’s wonderful (if eccentric) way of introducing the engineering technique of “back-of-the-envelope” calculations. The idea is standard fare in engineering schools and is bread and butter for most practicing engineers. Unfortunately, it is too often neglected in computing. 

It’s my theory again that ways of thinking about computers can help in other areas of life. If you think logically about your plot, you’re not making up ideas, but you’re working through the options. Rather than making something up, you’re picking something. And choosing is easier than inventing.

If you don’t do this, I can’t help but think when we plot, we’re doing what Steve Krug in Don’t Make Me Think calls “satisficing” that  can easily lead you to plot yourself into a dead end:

[…] most of the time we don’t choose the best option — we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing. As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it. 

I’d observed this behavior for years, but its significance wasn’t really clear to me until I read Gary Klein’s book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Klein spent 15 years studying naturalistic decision making: how people like firefighters, pilots, chessmasters, and nuclear power plant operators make high-stakes decisions in real settings with time pressure, vague goals, limited information, and changing conditions.

Klein’s team of observers went into their first study (of field commanders at fire scenes) with the generally accepted model of rational decision making: Faced with a problem, a person gathers information, identifies the possible solutions, and chooses the best one. They started with the hypothesis that because of the high stakes and extreme time pressure, fire captains would be able to compare only two options, an assumption they thought was conservative. As it turned out, the fire commanders didn’t compare any options. They took the first reasonable plan that came to mind and did a quick mental test for problems. If they didn’t find any, they had their plan of action. 

Previously, I think this was how I plotted stories. However, in future, I hope to try out my logical strategy of putting down what I do know, and filling in the gaps with all the possibilities. It’s like creating a decision tree.

Tag Cloud