Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Consider the Patterns

I'm often caught up in thoughts about how some study on human behavior applies to writing. Last night before bed I read a blog post from Donald Miller about intuition and decision making, and the bottom line was this:

Sometimes we just sense that something is wrong or off, and we should pay attention to that sense. What may be happening here is that our subconscious is picking up on a conflict in patterns...things are not as they should be, given the information we have.

This is not always a bad thing.

When I danced in college, I had no training in ballet (I took my first barre class at 19). What I discovered was that much of ballet is about patterns: three tendus to the right, followed by one to the left; three to the left, followed by one to the right. As I found the patterns, I could mimic the movement. It was soothing, an entire world laid out in knowable patterns. And somehow--I never quite understood it--when I focused on training my muscles in these patterns, it enabled me to do all sorts of more interesting things later, when given more complex choreography.

In writing, I wonder if the same is true: We (or our characters, if you write fiction) need enough pattern so readers can know who we/they are. And yet too much pattern makes our lives (and thus our stories and characters) dull, rather than comforting. Often the BEST moment in a book is when a heretofore predictable character goes completely off the beam.

Consider the picture above, of the New York City Ballet. From a foundation of years of predictable pattern work at the barre, these dancers now have the capacity to create something much bigger, more interesting...and unpredictable. So we watch, wondering what will happen.

Think with me, if you will, about these questions:
1. Are you mostly predictable, or does your story have some swerves?
2. Has that changed has you've gotten older?
3. If you write fiction, are you comfortable letting your characters do something unexpected?
4. What is one unexpected thing you could do today, just for practice?

If you want to answer #4 in a comment below, that might be fun :)

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