Archive for October, 2012

Decomposing a Story and Military Strategy

So I’m sitting in the hallway outside of my class waiting, because I have about an hour and a half before class actually starts and figured I’d write a quick blog post, something substantial instead of just mindless BS, because I haven’t done that in awhile. Bare with me, dear reader, I’m typing this post via my cellphone.

Anyhow, figured since I’m at school, I’d talk about something I learned in school. Recently, we had a guest speaker in one of my anthropology classes (I’m an anthro major for those unaware…), a former lieutenant colonel from the air force  He came to discuss the importance of understanding culture in any military situation, mentioned how anthropologists play a role in the military, and then taught us what he called “decomposition”.

Decomposition is a method he would use to analyze a military incident and help the higher ups determine a course of action, by taking a scenario (for example: dictator in a hostile country is planning to attack America) and then brainstorming what observable variables would need to be present in order for this scenario to hold true (back to example: stock piling of armaments, increase in military activities, map of America with a giant target painted over it).

As he talked about this decomposition method of his, he reminded us of how it could be applied to anthropology, but listening, I couldn’t help thinking about how, as a writer, this is exactly what I do to lay out a story.

Some of the more “artsy” writers might claim that when they write, they just let the story flow out and see where it takes them, they may scoff at outlines as “taking the heart and soul out of the writing process”, condemn those who plan their stories out to a fault as not being true writers but instead writing machines just turning out stories without value as cheap entertainment for monetary gain. I don’t fall into this camp of individuals, and this isn’t to knock on anyone’s writing process because everyone has a different process and there is no right or wrong way, but what I am trying to get at is that regardless of these claims, all writers set out with some plan for their story, some direction no matter how vague, with a semi-destination in mind, and its the path your characters go on, the events that drive those characters to that destination, which are the “observable variables”.

When I write a story, I start by deciding the ending, plan several major events (these might be comparable to what are called ‘beats’ of a story) and then I decompose these scenarios to the base factors that they would need in order for the characters to get to each of them.  What is their driving (motivating) force?  How did they end up there?

The amazing thing about any good book is that at the beginning, things are ‘normal’ for the main characters; they’re going about their daily lives, everything in their world is basic routine, and suddenly BAM, something outside of the normal happens.  Then something else happens.  Then suddenly, before you know it, the character is on this journey and by the end of the story, you reflect back and just go ‘wow, how the hell did we get here from there?’ The how are those factors that you would identify during a decomposition.

Anyhow, wrapping this up because my class will be starting soon, I’m going to leave you all with a brain game to help you better develop your decomposition skills: open a random book  to the middle somewhere and decompose the scene on those pages, identifying what factors needed to occur to bring your characters to that point.

**Edited because one really shouldn’t write any article on a cellphone no matter how smart it claims to be while sitting outside of a classroom in a crowded hallway.  Maybe later I”ll expand on this and post examples of what I’m trying to explain…


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