Friday, May 27, 2011

The Nature of Time and Decisions

Okay, so look at this and tell me what you see:

      1.   2.   3.
A.  O   O   O
B.  O   O   O
C.  O   O   O

Believe it or not, this is a diagram to explain how we make decisions.

No, I'm not telling a bad joke. This is an actual, real thing that I'm ripping off here...

Column #1 is past, #2 is present and #3 is future.
Row A is superstructure, B is structure and C is substructure.

The bolded 'O' in the centre is where you are in this precise moment and the problem you need to make a decision on.

Let's just get it out in the open right now that this post is based on a conversation I had with my father, who is an HR guru and Philosophy major in university (we often have strange conversations that no one else can, or wants to, understand). A much prettier version of the diagram is something he's used before as a guest speaker and when consulting for different companies.

The columns are pretty self explanatory, but the rows probably need a bit more... When you make a decision, you not only take into account the actual problem/circumstances (the structure), you also draw from your core values/beliefs (the superstructure) and also all the small things that contributed to the problem at hand (the substructure).

Clear as mud?

Well, now back to the columns. Not only are you drawing from the sub and superstructures, you are also looking back to the past and forwards to the future. Looking back is easy, but the future? Yup. We do it all the time. We project a number of hypothetical futures based on each choice we MIGHT make, then try to decide which hypothetical future looks best.

...even for simple things like buying a movie.

Y'know, right now you've got a normal DVD player... but soon you might get a Blu-ray player, but maybe by the time you are looking to purchase that new player, a new technology will be sitting all shiny and new on the shelf.

So you're standing with 4 copies of 'Alice in Wonderland' in your hand... the regular DVD, the Blue-Ray DVD, the combo pack (with both discs) and THEN there's the 3d edition with a total of three discs, or even four discs if it's a Disney movie!

Then while you're standing there holding 4 copies of the same movie, you start thinking back to that weird conversation about time and decision making and suddenly everything about this specific moment seems absolutely absurd. So you drop all the discs, walk out of the store and just watch the damn movie on iTunes or Netflix. let me skillfully shoe-horn in a writing comment into this page of weirdness...

So your characters... when they're making a decision, they're also under the influence of the cute little diagram at the top of this post. Sure, the reader isn't going to want to read a 20 page internal monologue of the character agonizing about every aspect of each tiny substructure pieces, the overarching substructure that influences how the character makes decisions and why, or the past and future projections... but the more pieces that you, as the writer, think about and try to slip into the story through subtext and other hints, the more real your characters will be.

There's nothing worse than a good plot, a good set-up and good characters... who suddenly make a decision that makes the reader scream in frustration and throw the book across the room.

Don't be that writer.

Since I'm editing project #2 at the moment, I'm thinking about this a lot. The older brother's *substructure* is that protecting his younger brother always comes first, no matter the cost to others, or to himself. Though the course of the story, this shapes every decision he makes and, while at times he seems to be contradicting himself in the *structural* decisions he makes, they are always in alignment with his core desire to protect his brother.

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Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)