Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 3

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In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy never actually mentions the hedgehog and the fox, but he does talk at length about another animal made famous by an ancient Greek. About a third of the way from the end of the novel, he inserts an extended aside about Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which allegedly proves that all motion is impossible. Tolstoy notes that calculus, “a modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small,” offers one possible solution, and he goes on to make the same argument for historical science:

In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man’s mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units…Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history. To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved. No one can say in how far it is possible for man to advance in this way toward an understanding of the laws of history; but it is evident that only along that path does the possibility of discovering the laws of history lie.

Reading this section over again, I realized for the first time that I’d seen much the same language somewhere else. More than seventy years before the Foundation series, Tolstoy was talking about psychohistory, and in remarkably similar terms. For Tolstoy, the perfect historical science would be a matter of integrating all the infinitesimals of individual human behavior; for John W. Campbell, it would take the form of symbolic logic; for Isaac Asimov, it was something like the ideal gas law. (If there’s one thing we can say for sure, though, it’s that Asimov wasn’t directly influenced by Tolstoy—he says in his memoirs that he tried and repeatedly failed to finish War and Peace.) And all three men were interested in seeking what they conceived as the laws of history, which would allow it to be treated as a science with the same explanatory and predictive power as physics or chemistry. The problem, of course, is that this collides headlong with the troublesome notion of free will, as Tolstoy writes in a lengthy epilogue to his novel. The italics are mine:

In history what is known to us we call laws of inevitability, what is unknown we call free will. Free will is for history only an expression for the unknown remainder of what we know about the laws of human life…Only by reducing this element of free will to the infinitesimal, that is, by regarding it as an infinitely small quantity, can we convince ourselves of the absolute inaccessibility of the causes, and then instead of seeking causes, history will take the discovery of laws as its problem…And if history has for its object the study of the movement of the nations and of humanity and not the narration of episodes in the lives of individuals, it too, setting aside the conception of cause, should seek the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimal elements of free will.

And Tolstoy was never able to reconcile his unmatched knowledge, as a novelist, of the unique qualities of individual men and women with his desire for a calculus of history, which requires, as Isaiah Berlin observes in The Hedgehog and the Fox, that all of its infinitesimals be “reasonably uniform.”

If Tolstoy were alive today, he’d presumably be interested in the rise of data journalism, which represents an attempt to implement some of these principles in practice. In reality, it’s as vulnerable to error and wishful thinking as anything else, and much of it represents the same old punditry dressed up with a fancy new infographic. Both the qualitative and quantitative forms of political coverage suffer from a tendency that Tolstoy identified nearly a century and a half ago:

Postulating some generalization as the goal of the movement of humanity, the historians study the men of whom the greatest number of monuments have remained: kings, ministers, generals, authors, reformers, popes, and journalists, to the extent to which in their opinion these persons have promoted or hindered that abstraction. But…the connection of the people with the rulers and enlighteners of humanity is only based on the arbitrary assumption that the collective will of the people is always transferred to the men whom we have noticed.

Replace “men” with “information” and you have a fairly good critique of the fundamental weakness of so much data journalism. Just because an available set of numbers is interesting, seemingly correlates with broader trends, and fits nicely into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean that it has predictive or analytical value, and equally important factors may go unremarked. And Tolstoy’s original point about the overemphasis on great men holds as well. Trump, if nothing else, is one of “the men whom we have noticed.” We can hardly help it. And this makes it hard to look past each day’s new outrage to get at anything deeper.

So where does that leave us? Tolstoy, unsurprisingly, ended by becoming cynical about intellectual claims of any kind, to the point of sounding a little like Trump himself, as Berlin writes: “Tolstoy looks on [intellectuals] as clever fools, spinners of empty subtleties, blind and deaf to the realities which simpler hearts can grasp, and from time to time he lets fly at them with the brutal violence of a grim, anarchical old peasant, avenging himself, after years of silence, on the silly, chattering, town-bred monkeys, so knowing, and full of words to explain everything, and superior, and impotent and empty.” (Tolstoy’s trust in “the untouched depths of the mass of the people” also has a slightly more sinister ring to it today.) Some degree of skepticism is obviously warranted, even if, as Berlin notes, it can all too easily turn into despair:

This, for both Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, is the central tragedy of human life; if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world; above all, what presumptuous nonsense it is to claim to perceive an order merely on the strength of believing desperately that an order must exist, when all one actually perceives is meaningless chaos—a chaos of which the heightened form, the microcosm in which the disorder of human life is reflected in an intense degree, is war.

The paradox of psychohistory—which we see in both Tolstoy and Asimov—is that it becomes especially attractive in wartime, when our desire to predict the future feels particularly urgent, even as the events themselves make nonsense of our pretensions. That’s worth remembering now, too. And perhaps the only lesson that we can take from all of this lies in Berlin’s conclusion: “We are part of a larger scheme of things than we can understand…We ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it.”

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2017 at 8:36 am

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 2

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Almost a year ago, on the morning of the inauguration, I wrote on this blog: “Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable.” That’s true not just of this election, but of human existence in general. As Isaiah Berlin puts it in The Hedgehog and the Fox: “Practical wisdom is to a large degree knowledge of the inevitable; of what, given our world order, could not but happen; and conversely, of how things cannot be, or could not have been, done; of why some schemes must, cannot help but, end in failure, although for this no demonstrative or scientific reason can be given.” The irony, of course, is that if fifty thousand votes had gone the other way last November, we’d be drawing a starkly different set of lessons from a confluence of circumstances that were fundamentally the same. In his discussion of Tolstoy’s view of war, Berlin brilliantly skewers the fallacy of so much of this kind of political and historical analysis:

With great force [Tolstoy] argues that only those orders or decisions issued by the commanders now seem particularly crucial (and are concentrated upon by historians) which happened to coincide with what later actually occurred; whereas a great many other exactly similar, perfectly good orders and decisions, which seemed no less crucial and vital to those who were issuing them at the time, are forgotten because, having been foiled by unfavorable turns of events, they were not, because they could not be, carried out, and for this reason now seem historically unimportant.

All history, to some extent, consists of retroactively picking out explanations that happen to fit with what actually happened, and since we tend to think in terms of narratives and protagonists, perhaps the most common model of all is the myth of the great man—and the gender isn’t an accident. Tolstoy is rightfully contemptuous of this whole notion, as Berlin notes:

There is a natural law whereby the lives of all human beings no less than those of nature are determined; but…men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues and heroic vices, and called by them “great men.” What are great men? They are ordinary human beings, who are ignorant and vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, individuals who would rather take the blame for all the cruelties, injustices, disasters justified in their name, than recognize their own insignificance and impotence in the cosmic flow which pursues its course irrespective of their will and ideals.

Any individuals who believe that they can somehow influence the course of events are gravely mistaken, and Tolstoy devotes much of War and Peace to the castigation of “these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing, desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid facing the bleak truths…[and] all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness.”

And it’s revealing that Tolstoy reserves his greatest scorn for the one person whom we’d be least likely to describe in such terms. His portrait of Napoleon is both hilariously unfair and not entirely inaccurate, and although any such comparison is inherently ridiculous, it’s hard not to read this description without thinking of Trump:

[Napoleon spoke] like a man who values every moment of his time and does not condescend to prepare what he has to say but is sure he will always say the right thing and say it well…It was plain that Balashëv’s personality did not interest him at all. Evidently only what took place within his own mind interested him. Nothing outside himself had any significance for him, because everything in the world, it seemed to him, depended entirely on his will…The commencement of his speech had obviously been made with the intention of demonstrating the advantages of his position and showing that he was nevertheless willing to negotiate. But he had begun talking, and the more he talked the less could he control his words. The whole purport of his remarks now was evidently to exalt himself and insult Alexander—just what he had least desired at the commencement of the interview…He evidently wanted to do all the talking himself, and continued to talk with the sort of eloquence and unrestrained irritability to which spoiled people are so prone.

And a little while later, we read: “It was evident that he had long been convinced that it was impossible for him to make a mistake, and that in his perception whatever he did was right, not because it harmonized with any idea of right and wrong, but because he did it.”

There are moments when Tolstoy deliberately takes this portrait too far, as Berlin writes of the views of the historian Nikolai Kareyev: “Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him; the ‘important people’ are less important than they themselves or the more foolish historians may suppose, but neither are they shadows; individuals…have social purposes, and some among them have strong wills too, and these sometimes transform the lives of communities.” This rings true of both Napoleon and Trump. But so does the following passage, in which Berlin goes beyond the hedgehog and the fox to uncover an animal that has been lurking in the background:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter—a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

If Jared Kushner had actually read The Hedgehog and the Fox, I’d like to think that these lines would have given him pause, if only for a second. Tomorrow, I’ll conclude by considering what Tolstoy and Berlin have to say about the problem—which Kushner should be taking especially seriously these days—of “how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise,” and whether it’s at all possible to predict what might come next.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2017 at 8:04 am

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 1

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Over the long weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published lead articles on the diminishing public profile of Jared Kushner. The timing may have been a coincidence, but the pieces had striking similarities. Both made the argument that Kushner’s portfolio, once so vast, has been dramatically reduced by the arrival on the scene of White House chief of staff John F. Kelly; both ran under a headline that inclined some version of the word “shrinking”; and both led off with memorable quotes from their subject. In the Times, it was Kushner’s response when asked by Reince Priebus what his Office of American Innovation would really do: “What do you care?” (The newspaper of record, proper as ever, added: “He emphasized his point with an expletive.”) Meanwhile, the Post, which actually scored an interview, came away with something even stranger. Here’s what Kushner said of himself:

During the campaign, I was more like a fox than a hedgehog. I was more of a generalist having to learn about and master a lot of skills quickly. When I got to D.C., I came with an understanding that the problems here are so complex—and if they were easy problems, they would have been fixed before—and so I became more like the hedgehog, where it was more taking issues you care deeply about, going deep and devoting the time, energy and resources to trying to drive change.

The Post merely noted that this is Kushner’s “version the fable of the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing,” but as the Washington Examiner pointed out, the real source is Isaiah Berlin’s classic book The Hedgehog and the Fox, which draws its famous contrast between foxes and hedgehogs as a prelude to a consideration of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of history.

Berlin’s book, which is one of my favorites, is so unlike what I’d expect Jared Kushner to be reading that I can’t resist trying to figure out what this reference to it means. If I were conspiratorially minded, I’d observe that if Kushner had wanted to put together a reading list to quickly bring himself up to speed on the history and culture of Russia—I can’t imagine why—then The Hedgehog and the Fox, which can be absorbed in a couple of hours, would be near the top. But the truth, unfortunately, is probably more prosaic. If there’s a single book from the last decade that Kushner, who was briefly touted as the prodigy behind Trump’s data operation, can be assumed to have read, or at least skimmed, it’s Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. And Silver talks at length about the supposed contrast between foxes and hedgehogs, courtesy of a professor of psychology and political science named Philip E. Tetlock, who conducted a study of predictions by experts in various fields:

Tetlock was able to classify his experts along a spectrum between what he called hedgehogs and foxes. The reference to hedgehogs and foxes comes from the title of an Isaiah Berlin essay on the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy—The Hedgehog and the Fox…Foxes, Tetlock found, are considerably better at forecasting than hedgehogs. They had come closer to the mark on the Soviet Union, for instance. Rather than seeing the USSR in highly ideological terms—as an intrinsically “evil empire,” or as a relatively successful (and perhaps even admirable) example of a Marxist economic system—they instead saw it for what it was: an increasingly dysfunctional nation that was in danger of coming apart at the seams. Whereas the hedgehogs’ forecasts were barely any better than random chance, the foxes’ demonstrated predictive skill.

As intriguing as we might find this reference to Russia, which Kushner presumably read, it also means that in all likelihood, he never even opened Berlin’s book. (Silver annoyingly writes: “Unless you are a fan of Tolstoy—or of flowery prose—you’ll have no particular reason to read Berlin’s essay.”) But it doesn’t really matter where he encountered these classifications. As much as I love the whole notion of the hedgehog and the fox, it has one big problem—as soon as you read it, you’re immediately tempted to apply it to yourself, as Kushner does, when in fact its explanatory power applies only to geniuses. Like John Keats’s celebrated concept of negative capability, which is often used to excuse sloppy, inconsistent thinking, Berlin’s essay encourages us to think of ourselves as foxes or hedgehogs, when we’re really just dilettantes or suffering from tunnel vision. And this categorization has its limits even when applied to unquestionably exceptional personalities. Here’s how Berlin lays it out on the very first page of his book:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels…without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit [experiences and objects] into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

The contrast that Berlin draws here could hardly seem more stark, but it falls apart as soon as we apply it to, say, Kushner’s father-in-law. On the one hand, Trump has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams by harping monotonously on a handful of reliable themes, notably white nationalism, xenophobia, and resentment of liberal elites. Nothing could seem more like the hedgehog. On the other hand, from one tweet to the next, he’s nothing if not “centrifugal rather than centripetal,” driven by his impulses, embracing contradictory positions, undermining his own surrogates, and resisting all attempts to pin him down to a conventional ideology. It’s all very foxlike. The most generous reading would be to argue that Trump, as Berlin contends of Tolstoy, is “by nature a fox, but [believes] in being a hedgehog,” a comparison that seems ridiculous even as I type it. It’s far more plausible that Trump lacks the intellectual rigor, or even the basic desire, to assemble anything like a coherent politics out of his instinctive drives for power and revenge. Like most of us, he’s a mediocre thinker, and his confusions, which reflect those of his base, have gone a long way toward enabling his rise. Trump bears much the same relationship to his fans that Emerson saw in the man who obsessed Tolstoy so deeply:

Among the eminent persons of the nineteenth century, Bonaparte is far the best known and the most powerful; and owes his predominance to the fidelity with which he expresses the tone of thought and belief, the aims of the masses…If Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.

Faced with a Trump, little or big, Berlin’s categories lose all meaning—not out of any conceptual weakness, but because it wasn’t what they were designed to do. But that doesn’t mean that Berlin doesn’t deserve our attention. In fact, The Hedgehog and the Fox has more to say about our current predicament than any other book I know, and if Kushner ever bothered to read it, it might give him reason to worry. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

The way of the hedgehog

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The Hedgehog

Jean Renoir once suggested that most true creators have only one idea and spend their lives reworking it,” the director Peter Greenaway said in an interview a quarter of a century ago. “But then very rapidly he added that most people don’t have any ideas at all, so one idea is pretty amazing.” I haven’t been able to find the original version of this quote, but it remains true enough even if we attribute it to Greenaway himself, who might otherwise not seem to have much in common with Renoir. Over time, I’ve come to sympathize with the notion that the important thing for an artist is to have an idea, as long as it’s a good one. This wasn’t always how I felt. In college, I was deeply impressed by Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which he drew a famous contrast between writers who are hedgehogs, with one overarching obsession that they pursue for all their lives, and the foxes who move restlessly from one idea to another. (Berlin took his inspiration from a fragment of Archilochus—“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—which may mean nothing more than the fact that the fox, for all its cleverness, is ultimately defeated by the hedgehog’s one good defense of rolling itself into a ball.) My natural loyalty at the time was to such foxes as Shakespeare, Joyce, and Pushkin, as much as I came to love such hedgehogs as Dante and Proust. That’s probably how it should be at twenty, when most of us, as Berlin writes, “lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal.”

Even at the time, however, I sensed that there was a difference between a truly omnivorous intelligence and the simple inability to make up one’s mind. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to feel more respect for the hedgehogs. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that this classification really only makes sense when applied to exceptional creative geniuses. For the rest of us, identifying as a fox is more likely to become an excuse for a lack of fixed ideas, while a hedgehog’s perspective can become indistinguishable from tunnel vision. I’m neither a hedgehog nor a fox, and neither are you—we’re just trying to muddle along and make sense of the world as best as we can.) It takes courage to devote your entire career to a single idea, more so, in many ways, than building it around the act of creation itself. Neither approach is inherently better than the other, but both have their associated pitfalls. When you stick to one idea, you run the obvious risk of being unable to change your mind even if you’re wrong, and of distorting the evidence around you to fit your preconceived notions. But the danger of throwing in your lot with process is no less real. It can result in the sort of empty technical facility that levels all values until they become indistinguishable, and it can lead you astray just as surely as a fixation on a single argument can. These wrong turns may last just a year or two, rather than a lifetime, but a life made up of twenty dead ends in succession isn’t that much different than one spent tunneling for decades in the wrong direction. You wind up repeating the same behaviors in an endless cycle of tiny variations, and if it were a movie, you could call it Hedgehog Day.

Peter Greenaway

I don’t mean to denigrate the acquisition of technical experience, which is a difficult and honorable calling in itself. But it’s necessary to remember that once we become competent in any art, the skills that we’ve acquired are largely fungible, and we become part of a stratum of practitioners who are mostly interchangeable with others at the same level. You can see this most clearly in the movies, which is the medium in which financial and market pressures tend to equalize talent the most ruthlessly. It’s rare to see a film these days that isn’t shot, lit, mixed, and scored with a high degree of proficiency, simply because the competition within those fields is so intense, and based solely on ability, that any movie with a reasonable budget can get excellent craftspeople to fill those roles. It’s in the underlying idea and its execution that films tend to fall short. (There are countless examples, but the one that has been on my mind the most is Batman v. Superman. There’s a perfectly legitimate story that could be told by a film of that title—in which Superman stands for unyielding law and order and Batman represents a more ambiguous form of vigilante justice—but the movie, for whatever reason, declines to use it. Instead, it tries to graft its showdown onto the alien messiah narrative of Man of Steel, which isn’t a bad concept in itself: it just happens to be fundamentally incompatible with the ethical conflict between these two superheroes. Zack Snyder has a great eye, the cast is excellent, and the technical elements are all exquisite. But it’s a movie so misconceived that it could only have been saved by throwing out the entire script and starting again.)

Good ideas, as I’ve often said before, are cheap, but the ones worthy of fueling a great novel or movie or even a lifetime are indescribably precious, and the whole point of developing technical proficiency is to defend those ideas from those who would destroy them, even inadvertently. There’s a reason why screenwriting is the one aspect of filmmaking that doesn’t seem to have advanced at all over the last century. It’s because most studio executives wouldn’t dream of trying to interfere with sound mixing, lighting, or cinematography, but they also believe that their story ideas are as good as anyone else’s. This attitude is particularly stark in the movies, but it’s present in almost any field where ideas are evaluated less on their own merits than on their convenience to the structures that are already in place. We claim to value ideas, but we’re all too willing to drop or ignore uncomfortable truths, or, even more damagingly, to quietly replace them with their counterfeit equivalents. Even a hedgehog needs to be something of a fox to keep an idea alive in the face of all the forces that would oppose it or kill it with indifference. Not every belief is worth fighting or dying for, and history is full of otherwise capable men and women—John W. Campbell among them—who sacrificed their reputations on the altar of an unexamined idea. We need to be willing to change course in light of new evidence and to be as crafty as Odysseus to find our way home. But all that cleverness and tenacity and tactical brilliance become worthless if they aren’t given shape by a clear vision, even if it’s a modest one. Not all of us can be hedgehogs or foxes. But we can’t afford to be ostriches, either.

Write like a hedgehog, think like a fox

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“The fox knows many things,” Archilochus writes, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And ever since Isaiah Berlin wrote his great essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, readers and critics have been dividing up writers into one category or the other—foxes who range widely over the world without any central philosophy, and hedgehogs who focus on one big idea. Really, however, most writers tend to alternate between the two roles: they’re foxes when gathering material and hedgehogs when the time comes to sit down and write. Writers have a dauntingly wide range of interests and obsessions, but in their actual fiction, they often rely on a handful of the same tricks—which is exactly how it should be. One or two good tricks that a writer has thoroughly internalized can be more valuable than an entire shelf’s worth of undigested literary wisdom. And while I’ve previously shared my ten rules of writing, I thought it might be worth distilling them down to the three big, hedgehog-level tricks on which I rely whenever I’m writing something new, even after everything else has fallen away:

1. Structure your stories one objective at a time. As Kurt Vonnegut points out, if you can make your central character want something right away, even if it’s just a glass of water, it will keep the reader reading. The key insight of my writing life is that if you maintain a laserlike focus on the character’s objectives at each successive beat of the story, without worrying about what comes next, the result will have a shapeliness and authenticity that you never could have achieved by planning from the top down. A character who has convincing objectives from moment to moment will also be convincing when you step back to regard him as a whole—and it’s both easier and more effective to concentrate on each beat in succession. This argument is emphatically made in David Mamet’s On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I know, which I recommend to everyone who cares about writing. The result may not always be inspired—Mamet’s own films can come off as flat and a little bloodless—but if you write a rough draft with this rule in mind, the damned thing will at least work. And that’s really all you can ask of it.

2. Think of the story in threes. George Lucas, who at his best was one of the great methodical, not natural, storytellers of all time, expresses a similar point in the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference: “The way I work generally is I figure out a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out.” And he’s right: it’s a lot easier when you have a number. In my own case, instead of the thirty or sixty scenes that Lucas talks about, I start with a pattern of three rough acts, which I know I’m aiming for even before I know what the story is about. Not every story lends itself naturally to a three-act structure, but it’s nice to have it in mind, both because it’s an intuitively appealing story formula with a beginning, middle, and end, and because, as Lucas points out, it gives you some useful parameters. And you can drill down even deeper, on an almost fractal level: I find myself dividing sections, chapters, and even individual scenes into three subsidiary units. This kind of structure, as arbitrary as it may seem, is an essential step toward finding a story’s organic shape. Which brings me to my third point…

3. Cut wherever possible—and at least ten percent. Just because you’ve structured a story in threes, and as a series of discrete objectives, doesn’t mean you need to keep all of them in the final version. In fact, the whole point of structuring the story so mechanically is to give you something to change—a solid substructure that you can refine based on how the resulting story reads in real time. If you’ve done your work properly, your rough draft will be a functional object that you can then shape at your leisure, knowing that you can always fall back on the earlier version when necessary. In practice, this often means pruning away the structure you’ve laboriously imposed: in particular, you’ll often cut the first and third beats of a given unit, leaving only the crucial middle. And, of course, you’re seeking to condense wherever possible. If you follow Stephen King’s dictum that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten percent, I promise that magical things will happen. These are simple, stupid rules, based on a couple of basic numbers—one, three, ten—that even a hedgehog can understand. But it’s the only way to release your inner fox.

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2012 at 9:57 am

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