Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Black Swan Events

In its day, this was the epitome of mathematics and engineering. It was more than a rich man's toy though. It was a study tool. Meticulous mathematics was applied to the gear ratios and the movements so that the model mimicked, as best it could given the scale, the observed workings of the cosmos. This was applied technology. The cutting edge of science.

Beyond that, look at the artistic detail the craftsmen put into their work. The marriage of Art and Science. Absolutely beautiful.

And a huge, murky load of codswollop.

How could I help loving something so exquisitely wrong? So tragically failed? It is pathos, schadenfreude.

Of course it's easy for us to look back and snigger. Circular orbits. What were they thinking? But those people weren't idiots. They observed, they pondered, they crunched their numbers with amazing accuracy without computers or calculators. Their only mistake was that they didn't question every little assumption that they used as their basis for their higher theories.

Then Copernicus dropped a black swan event on them. I'm sure that their brains were blown away.

A black swan event is an outlier - something so far out of imaginable circumstances that you fail to work the possibility that it might happen into your theories. And why would you? It's SO far outside the realm of the imaginable that you can't imagine it. That's the point.

For those mathematicians and astronomers, elliptical orbits were a black swan event. For us, it's built into our expectations. We think we can afford to look smug. But think about this. When did you learn about dinosaurs? In the 1970s? Guess what. Half or more of what you learned has since been completely refuted. Dinosaurs were warm blooded. Some raised their offspring. There's no such thing as a Brontosaurus...

So what does this have to do with writing, you ask?


If you're looking for a story to tell, how about placing your character in their equivalent of a pre-Copernican universe. Everything moves in order. Everything is predictable. They may not be happy, but they understand their world and they've carved out a place in it. Then throw in a black swan event. Shake up that world like a snowglobe and set expectations on ear. Make your character have to face every given in life and question how valid it is.

Examples: Gone with the Wind. Alice in Wonderland. The Color Purple. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Interview With the Vampire. Topping From Below.

It works in every genre. Almost every murder mystery involves a black swan event. Who really thinks that they're going to die? I mean now? That person isn't going to pull the trigger. That one little lump of lead can't be enough to kill me. This isn't really happening, is it?

Many BDSM novels follow this path. I can't believe I'm doing what that person told me to. Am I really going to obey that order? Am I getting turned on by this?

One note of caution though. Like Copernicus, you better be able to back up your tale with some believable patter. We're as invested in our version of reality as those astronomers were. If you're going to destroy our comfort zone, you have to replace it with something equally real. Not only does your protangonist have to finally accept or endure topsy-turvy, your readers have to willingly follow you. Make things as dire, dark, or absurd as you wish, just make sure we have a reason to buy into it. Black swans we might be willing to accept, but purple crocoducks?


Amanda said...

Ha, this is great, Kathleen. Just what I'm doing in a current story, but didn't have any name for it. One small note, just because I noticed: the "it's" in your first sentence should be an "its".

Keziah Hill said...

Hi Kathleen great comment and good advice.
Keziah from the land of the black swans