When it rains

This is one of those “life does this, and your books might feel a bit more part of a larger world if you do it too” things. Of course, in pantser-world, I don’t usually have to do it consciously – it just happens. Rather like life. Or excrement.

I’m sure everyone knows that when things are not going well, bad things tend to accumulate (or at least it seems that way). When you’re busy, you get busier. Chaos gets more chaotic despite attempts to make some kind of sense out of it. Whether this is something that actually happens or just the way human minds filter experiences doesn’t really matter: as far as we’re concerned if that’s what it feels like that’s what it is. It’s why giving something a name is so powerful – you can invoke the thing by using the name, even if you don’t know what the thing is beyond the name (this is what gravity was for many years – and arguably still is. An observed thing that caused objects to be attracted to each other in a clear, predictable relationship. With the name and the rules around it, the thing itself didn’t have to be known).

Proverbs tend to capture the way life works – that’s why they got to be proverbs. “It never rains but it pours” is typical, and means about the same thing as “Feast or famine”. Both describe the clumpiness of events, where you’ll get a period of time that’s pretty stable and everything trundles along more or less as normal. Then something tips and the next thing you know the excrement is happening and y0u’re dodging the foo as fast as you can (and inevitably not dodging all of it).

Doing this to your characters feels about right – provided that most if not all of the excrement can trace back to a decision made by one of your characters. It doesn’t work just to drop random mountains on them (although a strategically placed mountain can work wonders when things are slow or you’re stuck). But, if your character has to undertake a long, arduous journey to gain something, make the weather miserable, the locals unfriendly if not outright hostile, and of course, when your character gets to the end of the trip and finds what he’s looking for, it’s not what he thought it would be and it makes things worse. If there’s an antagonist, he can always make more trouble for your lead.

At some level we expect that when things go badly they’ll keep going badly. It’s the way our minds work – the same way as we expect that when things are going well they’ll keep going well. Stories are satisfying in part because they do the things we expect. They fit the pattern of things getting worse, then the sudden change to good and getting better – a change that in life is often triggered by some unforeseen and often random event but in a story needs to come from the characters.

If you watch any single athlete (the sport doesn’t matter) for any length of time you’ll see it happen. Things will be going well and the player will be on song. Then something happens – they miss a shot, or fumble a catch – and they can’t seem to do anything right for a while. Possibly they’ll regain their rhythm during the event, possibly not.

Heck, you can see the same thing in your own life (though I really do not recommend this) any time you have a near-miss while driving. Those of you who drive, you know very well that most of the time you’re not concentrating on driving. All the little adjustment happen without your conscious input – until something goes wrong. Then for a while, you’ll focus but you’ll drive very badly. You’ll be jerky, your judgment will be off, and you might well have more near misses or have an accident. You don’t start driving well again until you relax and the subconscious patterns take over again.

It sounds counter intuitive, but it makes sense once you know how the system works. Subconscious processing is cruder but faster, where conscious processing can be much more precise but takes a lot longer. When you’re dealing with a bit less than a ton of metal and plastics hurtling along a road at speeds human bodies weren’t meant to travel, conscious processing isn’t fast enough (actually, the same can be said of just about everything we find ourselves in. Once we’ve got the patterns into our subconscious we’re a whole lot better at it, for just about any value of “it” you care to mention).

This is why we expect stories to serve up the same kinds of patterns we know from our lives, and give them meaning.

All of which is a bloody long way to say I have absolutely nothing to talk about today because life is in “Keep Kate busy” mode. It’s mostly not bad-busy, but it’s still not much spare brain to think.

6 comments

  1. Actually that was very good writing advice. Characters ought to have bad days too. In fact, I know one who _deserves_ a bad day. Minimum.

  2. Yes, statistical clustering. But some of it is a bias in observation and memory retention. Sometimes it is easier to notice and remember bad stuff piled on bad stuff. Either way, as Pam says, this is a useful thing to think about as a writer and a story teller.

    1. It’s both – but it’s something that people are aware of and expect to a degree, so useful for a writer to remember.

  3. And when things go too well for a character, cynical readers start waiting for that falling mountain, because, well, life. That or the character starts bracing for disaster, especially if they do a lot of work with technology or are in the military. “Everything’s working perfectly. Something must be wrong.”

    1. Absolutely. That’s a handy perverse form of character torture, letting them go insane second-guessing themselves as things continue to go well. Until they don’t, of course.

Comments are closed.