Tag Archives: plotting

The Gentle Art of Escalation

There are many ways to create conflict in a story. In life, we tend to avoid conflict as much as possible, if we aren’t looking for trouble with a chip on our shoulder. But as an author, we know that if our story is to be interesting, stuff has to happen. A story in which there is no conflict is not a story. Yes, I know someone can likely name a book in which there is no conflict, but I stand by my assertion – I wouldn’t want to read it!

Now, the conflict doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t start out with “and then, she had to save the universe.” No, you reach that through the gentle art of escalation. My common shorthand for plotting is ‘chase your hero up a tree, and then throw rocks at him.’ Being me, I also let him figure out how to get back down and save the day, but I’m not a horror or Literary writer.

I had a classic case happen in my life yesterday, which led me to thinking about this, as I’m also working on scaling up the final conflict and climax in my work in progress. Picture this: our character has a job interview. And a dinner party later in the day, which she is hostessing. No problem, there is plenty of time for both. She can’t find her suit slacks, as her daughter’s wear the same size she does, but again, rolling with it and heading out the door. Finding the location of the building, buzzing in and obtaining a badge, goes smooth. Eventually someone comes out to greet her, our character remembers her name, follows her around the corner and…

Into a room where two other people are sitting. Unprepared for a committee interview, this is the first step in escalation. They sit, she sits, and looks down at the table. There’s a sheet with a familiar math problem on it. The first step of the interview is for our character to do math, with three strangers staring. She chokes.

Escalation is intended to put our hero in a book into positions where he can dig himself a hole, and try to get back out of it. The classic try-fail sequence is usually repeated in three’s, allowing for the final triumph to have that much more impact as he finally learns, grows a strength he didn’t know he had, and wins the day.

The math? Well, telling funny stories, getting it about half right even without a scientific calculator to use (classic double take and lifted eyebrow made the whole team bust up) and going on to geek out the quiet member of the team talking instrumentation and accuracy may have won the day. It certainly made our example of escalation feel better on leaving the building.

Giving the character in our book the false feeling of confidence is a great way to set up a secondary conflict, as he trips gaily along the path to home and dinner, having escaped the tree with the rock-thrower (who probably got bored and wandered off), and steps right into a pit in the middle of the path. Oh, Hero! Why don’t you look where you are going?

Real life? Leave the interview feeling like it was good in the end, run through the grocery, get home, pull into the driveway… And get a phone call. It’s a recruiter for a different job, could you please email me… Cooking, emails, phone calls. Dear sweet fuzzy Lord above, why the he*% am I getting four calls from different recruiters about the same job in one hour?!

A great way to escalate conflict in a book is to make one conflict into two, oh, wait no, it’s three now… Suddenly our hero is juggling a fall into a pit, the previous occupant being a hungry tiger, and his wife is home in their boma slapping a cooking pot against her palm suggestively while food is getting cold.

And then, in the real world, just when you have the bread sticks final rising, the phone rings again. It’s the first recruiter. Do you have time for a short phone interview? Oh, sure, why not, company isn’t due until 7 and it’s not 5 yet. As our character is hanging up the phone and printing out paperwork, there’s a knock…

Our hero in the tiger pit has to claw, bite, and scratch his own way out. If that is through a superhuman burst of strength and ability due to his love and respect for the woman tapping her toe impatiently next to her ruined dinner, all well and good. But having someone else happen along and scoop him out is never a satisfactory ending. The cake has to be real, not a phantom lure which vaporized when your reader reaches it.

The dinner was good, the cake was real, and our hero was forgiven when he arrived with a new tigerskin rug.

Go see how you can practice the gentle art of escalation in your stories. Remember, dropping a mountain on your hero right out of the box just breaks the poor unsuspecting souls. Build up to it, and you’ll have something worth reading.

The cake is not a lie

The cake is not a lie

 

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Typing in the Dark

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

— Robbie Burns, To a Mouse

I had a very busy day yesterday, little of it related to writing, and something happened in the morning that got me thinking about plotting. So this morning I’m trying to compile my thoughts into a useful form, typoing in the dark (not an actual typo) and taking a page from Dave Freer’s book by using a bit of poetry. It’s a well-known bit there in the middle of the first stanza I’ve quoted. (That’s by no means all of the poem, and if you can read dialect you should enjoy the whole thing.)

What happened in the morning, you’re wondering, and am I ever coming back to it? Yes, I am! The strange thing that happened started in the bathroom, where my First Reader gave the dog a bath. Now, the door to the backyard where the Beast hangs out is reachable through the kitchen, so the first I knew of it, was a wet dog running into the kitchen where I was making lists for the day of cooking and canning.

Now you’re wondering what this can possibly have to do with plotting. Is it the surprise element? The sudden violent death of a community of fleas happily living on their doggy planet?

No, this is about cascades and consequences. You see, I try to keep the kitchen floor reasonably clean, but between Miss MuddyPaws (yes, the dog has a lot of names. Officially, she only has one, Tricksy. It’s descriptive of her) coming in and out the back door, and three child-things who are using the same door, the kitchen floor suffers. This is, sort of, like your protagonist’s life. It’s not perfect, It’s old, beat-up linoleum, but he’s content with it the way he has it, and he’ll straighten it out when he has the time.

Now, along comes the author like a wet dog shaking out her (fortunately short) fur all over the place and leaving pawprints. Your protagonist is suddenly in trouble. Not a lot of trouble, just enough to have him reaching for a kitchen rag with a slight feeling of dismay. Wiping down the fridge, our hero looks at his life (the floor) and realizes that the wet pawprints are a little muddy. Good Heavens, that did more damage than he thought. Time to pull out the mop and do a bit more damage control…

As an author, it’s tempting to let the characters we’ve created rest on their laurels. This can lead to what my First Reader calls the Golden Boy syndrome, where no matter what happens in the book, you just know it’s going to be all right. There’s no tension in any crisis, we know the hero will win. In this case, the mop will rub out the pawprints, and the kitchen work can begin anew and…

Nope. You know what’s coming next. Or you think you do. You might not expect that the brand-new sponge mop, still with the sponge wrapped in plastic, would snap in half when the plastic was pulled off. Our hero has completed his first try-fail sequence, and is now standing there with a perfectly good mop-handle, an effective weapon… but not the right tool for the job at hand. Here, we could cast him into despair. He could collapse in tears on the muddy floor, flailing with his rag and making it all worse. But you and I, we like Human Wave stories, so instead he just pulls the sponge off and tosses it, puts the mop handle where it could be used if needed, and pulls another mop out. Our hero is resourceful. He’s got no less than three mops in there with the broom.

At this point in the story it’s time to talk about escalation. That first crisis point wasn’t too bad, really. A quick swipe, and you’d have it all cleaned up, you think. The broken mop, well, that was a minor obstacle. But what you, my dear author, are going to throw at Heroic Mopper next is bigger, more time-consuming, and will take a lot more effort to cope with. He’s got his mop-bucket, a rag mop (not ideal for the job, but less fragile than the sponge) and he’s all ready to go… until he realizes that the floor a lot dirtier than he thought. He stares in dismay at the very muddy water now in the mop bucket, and takes a deep breath. Mentally rolling up his sleeves, he pours some vinegar in the water (because for some reason there is no floor cleaner in the house) and starts to get the whole floor wet, not just where the pawprints were.

Our hero is now stuck into the job, he has to go on, and get it done, there’s no going back. And we’re not going to make it easy on him, as authors. We’re going to force him to adapt, improvise (the vinegar) and overcome. In writing, this will appeal a lot more to readers than the guy who has all his sh*t together, can instantly lay his hands on the right tool, and probably didn’t have a dirty kitchen floor to begin with. However, even with our man making progress, we’re not going to stop throwing things at him. He’s going to get the whole floor damp, and then dump the (dear god where did all that dirt come from?) bucket to start a fresh batch of mop water, because this mess is too much to get in one bucket.

Now here we have a damp floor, the third sponge mop (with a self-wringer, which the rope mop did not have. We’re upgrading our hero’s weapons, since he’s having to fight and earn them), and a bucket full of clean, warm water with some vinegar in it. Our hero is going to triumph, surely! Victory is in sight! Plunge the mop in the bucket, wring it out, and….

Catch the bucket with the corner of the sponge, spilling it over most of the floor. Our hero, so elated a moment ago, stands there jaw dropping as a flood of water rushes across the floor, under the fridge, almost out the door to the front entry. As Authors, this is where we bring our hero to the breaking point. This is the lowest moment. The moment where the hidden dogbunny of dust and dog hair pops out from under the fridge to float defiantly on the cresting wave of defeat that is threatening the rest of his life… He springs into action. This time, he not only wields the mop, herding the water away from the fridge and entryway, he calls for help. With friends (coffkidscoff) at his side, he beats back the enemy, using everything in his armory against them. Mops, dirty towels from the laundry basket (damning that he’d done the laundry and there were only two he could call on), even pushing water out the back door and into the yard, he’s finally got the enemy licked.

And then, the crisis over, our hero can pack up the tools, put the bucket away, hang the towels to dry a bit before returning to the laundry, and look contentedly at his kitchen floor. It’s cleaner than it was, for sure. There’s still some damp patches, but those will dry. You, the author, can foreshadow a lead-in to a new book by inserting a little about the dogbunny cowering under the bed, shaking his wee fist and vowing revenge on his drowned and trashed cousin. But the Heroic Mopper stands triumphant, and then you give the readers their cigarette moment.

What’s that? Well, Dan Hoyt is the man who explained it to me as the moment of satisfaction following the final climax of the book. The hero had triumphed, and now you give him – and your readers – a moment of peace, a glimpse of the rewards he’d fought so hard for. In the Heroic Mopper’s case, that would be making Lego gummy candies, processing twenty pounds of peaches, making peach skin jelly from the peels, making a chocolate mayonnaise cake, and a batch of Old-Fashioned Ice Cream. Then he can stand there smiling while his family feasts, with a clean floor under his feet.

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… I’m in trouble deep.

I always figured papa was sort of entitled to preach, as he was obviously doing the rescuing.

This is at least in part one of those ‘curse of the Buddha’ posts, which may change the innocent joy you had in reading… because it’s about the levers behind the story. And once you’ve seen them, you can never quite go back. So now is the time to quit, if you’re just a reader. If you’re a writer, I am sorry, but you really ought to read on. Oh, and in the interest of transparency there is only one mention of Sad Puppies in this post…

And you’re safely past it now.

I got suckered into this, as I am very bad writer who has had to try and learn what comes naturally to most people. I learned my ‘writing skillz’ from the Skool of Scientific Deniability, Impenetrability, Rotten Grammar and Shakespearean Spelingg, and it shows. Seriously, I had a delightful Germanic style which would have done Hegel proud. Sometimes I managed as many as two sentences to the page. I believe I did manage a paragraph once that was less two pages long.

In the process of unlearning – which was long and painful – and involved many self-beatings until the morale improved — I had to actually work out what most of you know instinctively. I am in no way a master of this craft. I’m a journeyman, but it has meant I have some value as a bad example.

So: I happened to make an idle comment on facebook about the two phases that any story has, for me. Firstly: The part where I take the character – probably from trouble – and drop them into a real morass. I said how this came naturally to me, because I was singly experienced at it. In fact, you might say I am positively gifted at willfully going where angels cop a sickie rather than venture in. I will own up to being a man of no small ingenuity at going places and doing things where even the Evil Emperor Mong* covers his eyes and shakes his head. I can write from experience, which is easier than having to look it up. It is of course sadly true that fiction has to be believable, whereas fact just is – which also makes it harder.

The only difficulty is choosing the awfulness for maximum depth. Sometimes an author is spoiled for choice. And you face the chess player’s dilemma – you have to work out all the probable (if not possible) courses of action from this.

Still, being a writer gives some sort of purpose to that miss-spent youth (I have continued to enjoy a happy childhood for long time, at least as far as getting muddy, bloody, and as dirty as a happy ten year old is concerned.)

But of course, with the exception possible of a few miserable books…

Every story needs a second stage: where the character tries to dig himself out of the bloody awful mess you have put him into.

This is important: it’s not about whether they succeed or not. That’s actually NOT a requirement. It’s if they tried, and how they tried.

I personally have seen enough misery in the real world. If I wanted leaves in the wind of events blown to their destruction, I could open a newspaper, or turn on the TV. My characters HAVE to dig themselves out of the hole. They might die reaching the top, but even dying will be a victory. YMMV. I can only talk for myself.

So you have mister fiendishly ingenious get-into-trouble, the sort of guy who you think ought to be embarrassed to get another Darwin Award, trying his best to kill his characters, or at least make them very, very sorry to be alive.

And then you have the same guy – Good-Dave — trying to dig them out. Oh and mister fiendish-and-evil Dave KNOWS exactly what he’s doing and will thwart it at every turn. ‘Whata mistake to make!’

Tch. A mess. No wonder my good friends Sarah and Cedar were leaning on me to write my method.

Sigh. The problem with this as with so many things… is that you’re watching the wrong hand.

Work it out. You’re looking at a guy who keeps doing things you think ought to win him a Darwin award. Who has been going into sea that no sane man would go near, wriggling down underwater caves to find… sometimes lobsters. Sometimes eels. Sometimes sharks. A guy who opened hundreds of rock-climbing routes everyone said were suicidal. Who has been stranded on more mountains in killing conditions than you’ve had birthday treats. And that leaves out things like fighting wildfires, cutting down 100 foot trees piece by piece from the top, and rescuing others from their folly in the sea and mountains, and the mindlessly stupid stunts, which have included getting in the middle of a knife fight with a sluice-plank.

There are plenty of photographs and witnesses – people who will confirm I’m daft as a brush, and they took pics to prove it.

Seen the other hand yet?

I’m 55.

I started diving in the rock-pools while my brother was in the sea… at 5. I started climbing at 8.

I have done things which could kill the unsuspecting Darwin Award winner thousands of times. I’m still alive. I hurt a bit at times, but I’m still doing them.

Which has to mean several things.

1)I’m actually better at surviving, at getting out of trouble, than I am at doing stupid things. For now. That could change tomorrow.

2)They probably aren’t quite as stupid as they look. If I actually had the poor judgement it looks like I have… I’d be dead, many times over. I have the skills and tools, and a cool head and quick mind under fire or stress. Darwin let me live to breed. I am actually a lot more careful and cautious than it appears. I have a lifetime of a lot of varied experience and I know my ability and know the risks. I take active steps to minimize them, short of not doing it all. That will fail me one day. I know that.

3)Therefore… I’ve fooled you. And THAT is what you have to do to your reader. Your character HAS the tools and skills to survive. If you’re a writer worth your salt, you will have shown the reader every one of those tools before the event – probably at least three times. Thus, when it happens, using those skills and tools it will seem plausible – remember this FICTION – it needs to be plausible. If not it’s either fact… or badly written.

And now that you know that author is a stage magician. Now you cannot go back. Now you’ll be looking for that other hand. It is always there, if the writer is worth his salt. Everyone’s methods differ. I am not a pantser. Ask Kate. I plot. My plotting starts with intractable problems. Problems which SHOULD destroy a random individual, or society or world. Problems I can make worse. Surprisingly often a whole book has come out of someone saying ‘That’s impossible.’ Or ‘You can’t do that.’

Because nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

I work out how to solve them. Then I build the character and setting and make sure the elements of how they can be used to escape the predicament are there. The combinations may be unlikely. Shrug. I am an author. I can change characters and circumstances until they not only are likely, they’re damn near inevitable. When I do it well… you don’t see it coming. You’re watching the other hand. But because this isn’t a ‘magic trick’, the escape is perfectly logical and plausible… in retrospect.

Doing it well worthy of huge respect, because it is very hard, and takes a lot of skill. THAT- from the writer’s point of view is great writing. The reader shouldn’t even notice.

Now you know. Now you will see the build up to it. Now hopefully it will make it easier to do for yourself. You may not need to do it this way, but I do. Of course, having worked it out in advance, doesn’t mean it doesn’t change as we go along. It does, because Nasty-Dave is still doing his fiendish best, and sometimes an author’s plans do not fit with a character’s nature.

YMMV… but that’s mine.

BTW this was an example of showing, not telling. I’m curious as to how many people noticed.

*A fine oriental noble gentleman with long mustachios who has advised the ‘other ranks’ (such as me) impeccably for years. If you need further explanation I suspect Jonathan La Force could help you out. Graphically.

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Push-Button Start

I’m back. I didn’t mean to take two weeks off from blogging, but that’s what it ended up being. It’s not that I haven’t written anything in two weeks, just that what I have written was for a class. I feel like I am coming up from deep water at the moment. I came home yesterday afternoon once I’d finished up with the last of the final exams, and I did some math. Really easy math. How much would I have to write every day in order to produce 200,000 words this summer? Once I had that number, I talked to my First Reader and took the rest of the day off. Last night? I binge-read. When I have the time and no guilt holding me back, I read very quickly, and I’d finish one book and roll right into the next one. I’ve been working my way through two series, and I wound up alternating back and forth between them. Dana Stabenow’s Liam Cambell mystery books, which are set in Alaska and while they aren’t the most brilliant of books, are still fun reads (and the first book in the series, Fire and Ice, is free!). And Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson series, which was highly recommended to me and it’s as good as they said it was.

But that was yesterday. I think I went through four books in eight hours, give or take, as I was doing other things in there, too. I wasn’t just reading to forget my sorrows and drown my troubles. Finals week was pretty rough, but it was over. No, my idea was that I needed to reset my brain so that today, I would be able to write fiction. Granted, I still need to do some reading. But I need to switch over to different books, and make notes while I’m reading. This book I’m working on will need me to read Kjelgaard, L’Amour, Andre Norton (specific books, I had Galactic Derelict to read the other day and it didn’t help), and probably Heinlein’s Juvies. Like I did with the Pixie for Hire series, I want specific flavor notes, and they will help get my brain all oiled up and ready to purr like a kitten.

Last night was mind candy reading. Today it’s time to figure out how to actually turn the production back on. I have a few methods for this, because by now this is a familiar place, coming back to fiction after a semester-long hiatus. I finished Dragon Noir in February and haven’t written anything but blog posts and papers since then. I have no idea whether any of this will work for you, but it might, and frankly I haven’t had my coffee yet, nor time to think much since I left a warm bed. So here you are, and here I am, trying to get my brain started. It’s not, title of the post notwithstanding, as easy as a push-button start. It’s more like a cranky little outboard motor with one of those pull-cords you expect to break off in your hands any second, so you have to pull hard but not TOO hard and…

I’ll go do dishes. Sarah says that works for her, too, or ironing. Pretty sure that Sarah and Amanda and I all find that standing in the shower works. It’s not the running water, I don’t think, but the mindless task that our body can take care of while the bulk of our mind is set free to wander. Given that I’ve taken two weeks off of pretty much everything, I know I have dishes to do. Or, if the First Reader did all of them, I’ll find something else to clean. I know I need to organize and catalog the library again, we were unable to find a book last night that he needed, something that we both find frustrating… except that library organization will probably wind up like it usually does, with me sitting on the floor next to a heap of books, reading.

I’ll go for a long country drive or walk. This works both with and without the First Reader, and we have about six hours of drive time scheduled for tomorrow, heading down into Kentucky to visit family. I am sure that if my brain still isn’t running smoothly by then, that will do it. We bounce ideas off on another, and he tends to spark my mind very well when I’m stuck on a plot point. Today I am working at a party, and we will talk during that drive, too. The walk will hopefully happen, although our skies are rather gray at the moment. Any of these work because again, they get you doing something that you don’t have to think too much about, leaving your creative mind free to frolic off into… wherever.

I’ll write. This sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes just the act of making words happen starts to get the process moving. Once I have finished up with this blog post (after this paragraph, I think) I will pour myself some coffee, take the time to clean off my desk (it’s a foot deep in books right now, and I’m not joking about that. I have textbooks to sell/trade, fiction, and… dunno what that stack is…) and then I will write. Something. Might have to pitch it, tomorrow, once I have the distance to read it objectively. But today, it will prime the pump, like I vaguely remember on one engine you had this little bulb thingy and…. oh, who am I kidding. I know nothing about engines. Heh. There is a reason I write more horses than cars into my books. I’m about to write about a spaceship, and that will be a matter of ‘push the button and it goes’ because as an author, that’s my perogative. Now, if only my brain were so easy to deal with.

 

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What goes where

Umpteen gazillion years ago – or at least it feels that way – I read a truly horrendous excuse for a work of fiction. Mercifully I no longer remember even the title of the thing, but I do remember the result: I thought, “the stories I tell myself are better than that” (they weren’t. Probably) and started to seriously write them down.

Of course, I discovered soon after that what’s inside my head isn’t necessarily going to be the same when I’m done writing it down or typing it out or some combination of both. The act of taking the mental story and transforming it into a physical (or electronic) item that someone else can look at (maybe – my handwriting isn’t exactly good) changes what happens and the ground shifts underneath you.

Weirdly enough, even my earliest efforts weren’t that horrible. I had zero idea about point of view so I hopped heads all over the place, and I didn’t know how to use settings so there was this tendency to gravitate to talking heads in space. What I did have was a damn good instinctive grasp of the big three: plot, character, and pace. Anything else can be fixed, often with relatively minor surgery to a book (well, not the head-hopping). If the pacing stinks, or the characters just don’t gel, or the plot sucks… it’s rewrite time. And I did rewrite. A lot. Usually in longhand, with a “final” version getting typed up on a rattly old manual typewriter, after which I tried to figure out what the hell to do with it (I wasn’t exactly rolling in money and even way back then I knew that I’d have to go via the US market -which since I was living in Australia was just a little difficult).

Most of those pieces are long gone to their merciful rest, but a few survived to get retyped into my first computer and I’m surprised by how much potential there was. What I needed then was someone to point me in the right direction, and to teach me the things that I knew instinctively.

Why the things I knew?

Because I didn’t know how I knew them. I can’t analyze the pacing of a book – but while I’m writing one I can feel when something needs to happen to boost the tension level, or when I need to slow down and let readers take a breather. I can write interesting characters, but be stuffed if I know how I do it. The books that tell you how to take this character trait and that one don’t work for me. I get the whole contradictory mix and it seems to work.

Plot is even more scary. It just flipping happens. I start a piece with no idea where it’s going and end up a lot of words later with something that falls nicely into a classic plot structure complete with echoes of all sorts of things – and I didn’t put any of it in there deliberately. In fact if I try to slide something in it winds up sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb and has to be excised. Even the bloody subplots just happen. A character makes a throwaway comment and I’ve got a new subplot running.

All this is fine, when everything is working. I get a running start and favorable winds and I’m flying (or at least waddling very fast). The problem I have with it – and it’s one I haven’t been able to fix yet after mumpty-umph years writing (mostly unpaid. My first paid piece was less than 10 years ago) and trying to figure it the hell out – is that when it stops, I don’t know what to do. I block. Usually I need someone else to look at it and tell me “you need this” – although sometimes I’ve needed to spend a year or more futzing around with something else instead.

So, plotters, where the heck is the secret decoder ring to doing this at a conscious level? This pantser would really like to know.

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The Power of the Conspiracy

It should come as no surprise that a lot of writers tend towards conspiracy theory – as do a lot of other highly creative types. After all, humanity in general is wired to lean towards finding patterns where none exist, and a conspiracy theory is nothing more than imputing some unseen guiding hand in events that should be unconnected – finding a pattern, in other words. We’re also generally wired towards finding meaning – even if there isn’t any. Meaning is the tool our brains use to navigate our world – which has the interesting result that most people would prefer a universe run by an evil mastermind than one that operates on a set of rules and random events (which, incidentally, does not mean what a lot of people think it means. Randomness is one of those concepts that doesn’t gel terribly well with human nature).

People who spend their lives – or any significant portion thereof – bringing new order from something that wasn’t there before are going to be even more attuned to patterns, and therefore conspiracy. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, paranoia. Working in a field where the outcome bears next to zero relationship to the quality of the creator’s inputs (once you get past the “good enough” bar, anyway – and that one’s been creeping steadily lower what with the creative industries busily devouring their young) will do that. I fight the tendency all the time – to the extent of reminding myself repeatedly that when there’s a choice between a conspiracy and stupidity – even the most breathtakingly unbelievable stupidity on par with putting one’s dong in a hornet’s nest – go with stupid every time. The people I want to accuse of masterminding some grand conspiracy usually don’t have the brainpower to manage even a small one.

All of which means that the last few weeks in US politics have been really really bad. It seems like every time I turn around there’s another conspiracy hitting the news after having lasted some time despite the obvious lack of competence of those involved. So are they really conspiracies run by evil masterminds?

Actually no – and this is something to keep in mind when plotting. Combining the groupthink effect (the tendency of people to go with what appears to be the consensus view in order to fit in) with a lack of diversity of opinion and a sense that retribution is unlikely (and who is less likely to face retribution than the tax man?) will get you to the same place as a grand conspiracy with a lot less effort on your part. The effect of people doing what people do (namely trying to do what they think their perceived superiors will reward them for) compounds itself in all sorts of fascinating ways.

Of course, I could be wrong and there could be a grand conspiracy afoot – in which case my flabber will officially be gasted.

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