6 min read

Attractor states in fiction

(Working through an idea. The working through was useful and maybe there are useful things in here as a result. Ironically I don't think the idea of attractor states was one of them.)

When I write fiction, I sometimes end up writing myself into boring situations. For example:

  1. Two or more characters talking, in dialog (i.e. not summarized), about nothing, with no subtext. How about this weather? This happens frequently whenever I try to write nonviolent conflict.
  2. A character repeating some action until it works. Eventually it does and they move on to the next wall to bang their head against.
  3. A character wandering around with nothing in particular happening. They bump into spooky images.

When I get myself into these situations, it tends to be hard to get out of them.

I sometimes think about these as attractor states. (Disclaimer: I don't know things about physics, I've only read about these, take with a grain of salt.) The idea is that there are states of the world, ways that things can be, that are more stable in some sense than others, and these are the attractor states.

For example, consider a rubber ball in a room with a table. The rubber ball could be on the table or off the table. In this setup, being off the table is an attractor state, because the ball may roll off the table, but once it is off it will stay off unless some person or Super Roomba robot maid or Golden Retriever comes and puts it back on the table. It is easy to enter the state of being off the table and it is hard to leave.

(This is of course abstracting a lot over different "ways the world coud be." The ball could be under the table or over by the floor lamp across the room, or on the rug, or in any particular place. We're also pretending that there is always a well-defined answer as to whether the ball is on the table, ignoring e.g. a state where the ball is balanced between the table surface and a chair that's too close to the table for the ball to fall through.)

The relevant feature of attractor states for my purpose is that there are "places" you can "get stuck." These "places" are "lower energy" than the rest which are "higher energy" (at least so far as I understand attractor states). By analogy these states of the story are places where I tend to get stuck – and they certainly feel lower-energy to me (boring).

The question is what to do when you find yourself in such a state? In the context of an attractor state, you need some something external to the system to come in and change things. That external thing means the person or the Super Roomba or the Golden Retriever that comes around to pick up the ball.

Reasoning by analogy... well, it's not clear what the "system" is, but let's say that it is the story. Well, you are external to the story, so you can make a change that gets things unstuck...

This analogy feels neat, but I am not sure it actually "works," in the sense of producing useful ideas for things to try. Obviously I need to change something.


So what actually can you do about this pattern of falling into attractor states? What can you do to avoid the attractors? What can you do to get out of them if you find yourself stuck? That's what I'm still trying to figure out. Here are some (terribly messy) thoughts:

  1. To keep out, maybe it is useful to touch base with your character. Specifically, remind myself of their goal/s, emotional need/s, and way of solving problems.
  2. It is probably not worthwhile to worry about falling into these states on occasion. First drafts are often crap, and they are not final drafts. But to not worry you'd have to be able to actually pull yourself out of them and experience that. That is a tricky part.
  3. The first thing, probably, is to notice that you are bored. That you are stuck. This may be hard, depending. Another tricky part?
  4. How to pull yourself out? Well, there's always the nuclear option, the famous quote: Have a man with a gun break down the door. But this is, shall we say, not always consistent with the story. If you want to appy it you have to contextualize it somehow. You could do that by genre but that seems much too coarse. You could do that by story, but that sounds like a lot of work, especially if you are early in the story and haven't even figured out what the story "is" yet. Overall this doesn't seem particularly useful in my context.
  5. How else might you do it? Well, you could stop writing and think. That seems dangerous. In my experience I tend to go on tangents and think myself in circles. You could stop and write about what should happen here. I tend to be a little more focused when writing versus sitting around thinking. Worth a shot I guess.
  6. Maybe the root cause is a lack of understanding? Of the appropriate devices for this scene that I'm getting stuck on, maybe. Like: Devices for creating tension, or horror. Or writing nonviolent conflict, things that involve talking around the problem or arguing or whatever. Certainly it seems true that I lack understanding in those areas, because when I try to write them I feel like I don't know what my (character's) options are. But this doesn't seem like it should cause a full stop. How many times have you heard of a writing class teaching 'devices' in such detail? How many times have you read a "writer's block" post about devices? I haven't read many. Though I could benefit from working on these things more, heuristically I think this probably isn't the main problem.
  7. For "things going according to plan," or linearly – the character just banging their head on the wall until it works – maybe it is useful to pull the rug out from under them somehow. Make something up if you have to. If your story starts with the protagonist arguing with their roommate about the room being messy, have someone walk in the door to fetch them for a meeting where the protagonist learns that their mother is dead.
  8. Maybe this is the important idea: If your story is stuck in a boring state, it is because your characters are doing boring things. If you want to escape the Boring Zone, you need them to do not-boring things. So, think: Can I have one of my characters do something interesting? If not, could I have someone outside the scene do something to push things in the right direction? A friend, enemy, rival, family member, stranger, whatever? If not, maybe I could have some event happen that changes the situation? Maybe I could blow up the moon? Or maybe I need torture my character?
  9. Or maybe boring things is the wrong frame – maybe it is boring because you are not connecting with the characters? Maybe sometimes it is useful to go deeper on the boring interaction? To sit with it more. To get into the character's head about why they are having it, what is interesting or satisfying or charming or surprisingly detailed about the situation. Or why they are going through this smalltalk despite finding it painfully boring. This seems like it might be a step in the right direction.

That excerpt of the Chandler essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," seems more interesting than the quote. I should see about reading that. In particular, from the Quote Investigator post linked above:

This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

Emphasis mine. Worth noting it's the essay from the "Saturday Review of Literature" published 1950, not the earlier 1944 essay of the same name published in "The Atlantic Monthly."

It is maybe also worth questioning whether attractor states are a bad thing in a draft. I think the answer is yes, to the extent that you end up there and either keep writing in the state or you stop writing. If you are able to get out, then I guess it wasn't such a bad thing, because you got through it in the end. Not much consolation, but there you go.