The Writing Rookie #9: Realms of Probability

Apologies if this is only semi-coherent. It’s based on a set of thoughts that have been composting for a while. I want to post them before they rot entirely…

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

I used to not have a lot of respect for writers who had trouble remembering the details of their story and keeping them consistent. I mean, I noticed. Shouldn’t it be easier for them? It was their story, after all.

If only it were that simple…

There is, it turns out, a very good reason why writers have a hard time keeping track of the details in their stories. Readers have it easy. They only have one story to keep straight in their head — the story that the writer actually published. Writers, on the other hand, have their heads crowded with all the versions of the story that might have been, roads taken and not taken and all the possible paths from a to b — along with those versions of the story where b wasn’t the destination at all, and where they wound up at endpoint φ instead.

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I’ve noticed what seems to be a mental split personality between the part of the writer’s brain that generates a story and the part that writes the story. The latter is a reporter — but much more than that. It’s also the part of the writer’s brain that maintains expectations based on audience awareness, genre conventions, models of good storytelling, and all the other elements external to the story that contribute to what the writer Wants To Accomplish.

Better yet, it strikes me that we might consider a threepart division into the artist’s id (the story-generating part), ego (the reporting/writing part), and superego (the external expectations and ultimate purposes part). I like that idea, so I think I’ll use it for the rest of this post. Probably.

But back to the point I was trying to make…

Unfortunately, the reporter/writer part of the writer’s brain (the ego) can’t simply build a story to order out of the expectations of the superego. Instead, the superego must place an order with the id — the story-generating part of the writer’s brain — and that’s where the trouble starts.

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From what I’ve read, heard, and experienced, writers typically begin a story with some kind of idea or image in view: a situation or scene or conflict involving some particular characters. Over time, the initial impetus grows and connects with other ideas, and eventually it becomes a plot.

Along the way, the characters and the story itself develop their own internal logic. Writers talk about knowing a story has taken on a life of its own when the characters start talking back to them, or when things start happening that the writer didn’t consciously anticipate. Both of those, I submit, are manifestations of the writer’s id doing its job.

Each story incorporates a multitude of probability arcs, as I like to think of them: ways that characters are likely to act, based on our perceptions about the nature of people; ways timelines are likely to unfold, based on our sense of how quickly events and situations can change; outcomes that are likely to result from specific causes, based on our notions of causality in the real world.

Each of these arcs must follow a path that doesn’t strain our notions of probability too much. And all of them — each probability arc for each character, timeline, and set of connected events — must work simultaneously in order for the story as a whole to work. The fact that they all inhabit the same story framework further complicates matters, since changes to one arc typically require changes to others as well.

It reminds me a bit of Bézier curves, which I was introduced to as a feature in an in-house paint program I had to document many years ago. The artists who used the program attempted many times to explain to me what a Bézier curve was. I never really did figure it out, except that if you specified certain points and various other parameters, the computer would automatically generate a curve for you that went through the points — but if you changed one of the points or one of the other parameters, you could get an entirely different curve, in ways that I couldn’t possibly predict. It was very cool.

My point is that even a minor change in one of the fixed points of a probability arc can radically change other parts of the story. This is one of the reasons why story revisions can be such a tricky thing.

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Sometimes the story that’s delivered by the id varies in some way from the story the superego wants to write.

Sf&f writer C. J. Cherryh talked once about a scene where one of her characters balked at what he had to do for the sake of her plot. “I’m not stupid enough to go in there!” he told her. “Oh, yes, you are,” she said, and generated a squadron of pursuing security forces to make sure that he did.

The point of Cherryh’s story was that it’s the author’s job to boss the characters, not vice versa. I find it noteworthy, though, that she didn’t simply overrule or ignore the sense she’d developed for what her character would and wouldn’t do in specific circumstances. Instead, she massaged the plot to make the needed event happen without violating character plausibility.

The ideal relationship between the id and superego, I’m convinced, isn’t for either side to be giving orders. Rather, there should be a dialogue between them (mediated, presumably, by the poor ego, which may be part of why writers are so generally known for having ego problems).

Case in point. One of the problems several early readers of my novel pointed out was that the story starts fairly slow. (This remains true, to some extent.) However, suggestions on introducing additional “interim” conflicts to catch the reader’s attention kept feeling false to the story I was trying to tell.

And then someone suggested that my main character’s best friend was accepting the fact that his best friend was gay far too easily. Thinking about it from a perspective of character probability, I realized this was in fact true. And suddenly the solution to one problem became the solution to the other problem as well, as the best friend’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to hide just how freaked out he was by his friend being gay became an additional source of rising tension in the story — without introducing an extra plotline that just didn’t belong there.

Working with the writer’s id often requires a process of self-interrogation. Back when I was trying to work out the plotlines for the second half of my novel, I ran into a thorny problem of just why my bishop (whom I had characterized as a convert in his teens) hadn’t served a mission — and why his father-in-law, a former bishop himself and role model, hadn’t pushed him to do it. I spent quite a bit of time working out a chronology of my bishop’s youth — stuff that mostly didn’t get into my novel. I also spent several hours talking at my brother-in-law (one of my best sounding-boards) about my bishop and the chronology I’d developed for him, just to see whether it made sense when I heard myself talking about it — and to see whether it worked for someone else.

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Which leads me, I suppose, to my closing point.

We sometimes hear about people whose stories spring fullgrown out of nowhere, like Athena from the head of Zeus. I’m skeptical about such things. For me at least, plots work better after they’ve undergone serious work — after I’ve worked and stretched and cursed (flip! fetch!) about the parts that don’t work so well, and with great effort made myself consider and try out alternative possibilities.

On the other hand, I also don’t believe stories can be composed based on market analysis, generic expectations, artistic values, or other external sources. At the most, those can guide the elements you chop up and put into the compost heap for your id to consider — the starting-points and raw materials for stories.

And then it comes to life, and the infinite possibilities of untold story make way for the possibilities of the story as it might and could be, and eventually — after long interaction (or maybe pugilism) between id, ego, and superego in the realms of probability — to the story as it finally becomes.

7 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie #9: Realms of Probability”

  1. I like this conceptualization of how writing works because it doesn’t over-mystify and yet it allows for id-ness.

    I haven’t attempted anything as complex as a novel yet, but I have returned to stories after 2-3 years away and been surprised to discover that it wasn’t at all what I had thought I had done and that apparently there was a newer version of the story in my head even though I hadn’t been actively working on it.

  2. Intriguing essay, Jonathan, especially your id-ego-superego division of labor. I’m always fascinated by other writer’s theories on the process of writing.

    Science fiction grand master Fred Pohl had a very detailed theory on the subconscious’ role in writing on wrote a very good how to write book on it. At least one sf writer I know who more or less subscribes to his theory has named her subconscious “Fred” in tribute and can go on at length about the tussles she has with her “Fred” while writing. I’m always at a lost at how to react to these conversations as my reality doesn’t act the way hers seeems to.

    Nor do my characters ever talk to me — any more than my toaster does. “Oh my, Lee! You’re putting in the slice of bread the wrong way again. Turn it 90 degress or it won’t fit in the slot.” My subconscious doesn’t anthropomorphise my mistakes with household appliances; I just can’t see it suddenly doing so over fictional characters. They’re just characters for Pete’s sake.

    I guess I’m more along the lines of of that “fullblown from Zeus’ brow” type of writer. My subconscious’ tuckered out after doing the conceptional plotting. All that writing and plot mechanic stuff is the conscious mind’s job, thank you very much. My subconscious is going back to bed. (There’s a reason it’s called subconscious!)

    — Lee Allred

  3. Lee,

    I have to admit that my characters don’t actually “speak” to me either. What happens instead is that I’ll write something, then something will nag at the back of my mind saying, “He would never say *that*!” And then I have to poke around until I figure out what’s wrong, and/or generate something that feels like it fits better.

    (But then, I actually do hear voices speaking when I’m writing. I’m an auditory reader, and an auditory writer as well, apparently. When I write and type words, I hear them being voiced in my head. So I guess in that sense I *do* hear my characters speaking to me.)

    I agree that in the end, many of these apparent differences lie probably in how we (and/or our Fred) choose to view the writing process – the masks and models we utilize in order to make it work for us. User interface, in other words. The cake is a lie.

  4. Fascinating indeed. My own writing process conforms with the theory pretty well. And for me, it is supremely difficult to get the superego to shut up. I blame most, if not all, of my writer’s block on this division. It wraps around my mind so tightly I can’t connect with the emotions necessary to feel what my characters feel, which is the only way I can control them.

    Ultimately, I’m appreciative of the superego, no matter how intervening it is. As long as it’s hushed enough to let me authenticate the story, it betters my writing, if only through anxiety.

  5. Yeah, I too have a rather active superego. I suppose that’s why critics rarely make good writers.

  6. Such an interesting subject, and a source of real headache and heartache for any fiction writer, I think.

    I think the analogy I operate under involves surfing… it’s toughest to get going, and takes some force and effort on your part, but once the plot and characters take over, it’s a matter of allowing the wave to take you, and directing your board through the wave to hit the places that you had planned on. I guess you could say I let my characters boss me sometimes (whenever I see that the plot could possibly go another way). It really is a tough balance, as you’ve so aptly described. And in the end, it takes a few manscripts to really feel comfortable with the feel and force of the current that a plot and characters will bring to your process.

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