Chaos theory for writers


Silk’s Post #109 — One of the light-bulb moments for me at this year’s Surrey International Writers’ Conference came during the terrific panel discussion, “Edge of Your Seat Tension” with bestselling mystery/suspense authors Chevy Stevens, Hallie Ephron and Robert Wiersema.

The inciting question was a perennial one: do you outline your stories before you write them? (The debate between OPs and NOPs – or planners vs. pantsers, if you will – never ends, does it? It’s the Mobius loop of writing.)

Three heads nodded in unison, well, figuratively anyway. Yes! They all outline!

Damn. The buoyancy leaked out of me like a deflated balloon. I hated to hear this endorsement of the dreaded outline, especially from these admired writers.

Why? I am outline averse. I’ve tried traditional outlining a few times and never could stick it out to “the end”. I’ve flirted with all sorts of other plot planning schemes – from the formulaic to the esoteric – and I just haven’t found a method yet for anticipating my way through the entire sequence of a novel-length story from start to finish.

I lack that crystal ball in my head. Damn. How do these people do it?

Then one of them (Robert, I think) gave the game away. He always writes an outline, he said, and then always departs from it fairly quickly. I had a vision of a happy train jumping the track and chugging off across the hills and dales toward some unmapped and unscheduled magical station. A railroad relative of the Hogwart’s train, perhaps. Hallie chimed in with her own admission of outline abandonment. Chevy noted that her publisher likes her to stick to an outline. She sounded a little sad about that, I thought, like a kid who has to stay inside and finish her homework before she’s allowed outdoors to play.

This was all very liberating. Pantsers unite!

But wait. These writers do still outline, even knowing their stories are, more likely than not, going to skitter off in some unanticipated direction later. Why do they do it? I sensed I was still not off the story structure planning hook (in fact, I’m now immersed in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which seems a promising approach for naturally organic writers like me).

But I’ve been thinking about the tangled and dense issue of story planning for a long time, and there’s something that still bothers me about outlines. Something I’ve struggled to put my finger on. Something opaque that should be obvious, but isn’t (at least to me). Tonight I think I may have just conjured it to the surface.

It’s about predictability.

All writers (and readers) know that predictability on the page is a story-killer. A stone cold murderer of suspense. A fast track to boring oblivion.

But prediction is exactly what an outline seeks to do. It’s supposed to be a roadmap to a pre-determined destination. Just follow the map, strewing words about as you go, and you have a book. You don’t want the resulting book to be predictable for the reader. Yet the outline should do exactly the opposite thing for the writer.

Or should it?

We’re all familiar with the “Butterfly Effect”, a key element in scientific chaos theory. This charmingly named phenomenon comes from the title of a paper presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972 by Edward Lorenz, titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” (Eat your hearts out, all you writers out there trying to come up with a catchy title for your new book.)

In more scientific language, Lorenz’s theory is defined in Wikipedia as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic non-linear system can result in large differences in a later state.” Basically it means that predictability goes out the window when many different forces begin interacting with each other in complex ways. Wikipedia goes on to note:

The butterfly effect is a common trope in fiction, especially in scenarios involving time travel. Additionally, works of fiction that involve points at which the storyline diverges during a seemingly minor event, resulting in a significantly different outcome than would have occurred without the divergence, are an example of the butterfly effect.

( Note: This is not all there is to chaos theory. In fact, it’s the simple-to-understand part. Understanding the rest of it probably requires two or three high level university degrees in mathematics.)

To my own (admittedly non-scientific) mind, chaos theory’s application to plotting practically jumps off the page. After all, what is storytelling, if not a “deterministic, non-linear system” for examining the unpredictability of cause and effect in the great saga of human behaviour?

And maybe that’s why outlines so often collapse somewhere along the way to getting a story written. It is hellishly difficult to predict all the twists and turns – the chaos – that will result from the interactions between all the characters and elements the writer brings to life on the page.

Perhaps a good story should be capable of surprising the writer by jumping the tracks envisioned in an outline. At that point, what’s a writer to do?

a) Drag the story out of inconvenient chaos and back to the original outline?
b) Stop writing and do a new outline?
c) Go with the flow?

Chaos theory for writers would suggest that c) is the best answer. Maybe writing is an art, not a science, but the best stories are the ones that reveal some kind of truth about the real nature of life. And life is both messy and precise at the same time.

Just like the unpredictable act of storytelling.