The Shapes of Stories and How to Write Them

A good friend and regular reader, Anthony, sent me the link to a great anonymous blog a few weeks ago – Farnam Street.

Yesterday, they pointed to a brilliant set of rules on how to write a short story by Kurt Vonnegut:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

There is another video which is even more worth watching on the Shape of Stories:

It got me thinking about how we all love stories, the ups and downs of life, the drama unfolding, the game(s), the chase, the great ending!

Please share any insights or thoughts you have on this great subject below!

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The Lords’ Verdict

For those who have followed this blog for a while, you will know I presented evidence at the House of Lords’ inquiry on the present UK’s government’s policy on Next Generation Broadband.  So it was at midnight on Tuesday, the Lords published their report which can be found <HERE> entitled “Broadband for all – an alternative vision”.

Lord Inglewood was interviewed in a video:

“Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset.  The Government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy.  

The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the Government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”

The report has had a mixed response.  Supporters of a truly open-access fit-for-purpose National internet Infrastructure applauded.

Other analysts were eless complimentary:

Matthew Howett, lead analyst of Ovum’s regulatory practice, said many aspects of the inquiry’s report are “simply odd”.

“With nearly 50 recommendations and no indication of costs or how they should be met, it’s likely to be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe dream,” he said.

Odd it was for me that so many Peers took the time out to learn about the industry and the pros and cons of various options for technology and business models.  It was a piece of work that involved many hours of  their time to see the problem from different perspectives.  It challenged the status-quo and came up with an alternative vision for what the UK’s national internet access infrastructure might look like.  It was bound to be unpopular in certain quarters as it threatened the status-quo.

Sure, the government and BT’s in-house analysts might dismiss the ideas as pipe-dreams, but one wonders where the whole BDUK process is heading.  It might be the Games in London – but this particular game will go one well into the Autumn after all the athletes have left London.

It is definitely time for the status-quo to be challenged.  BDUK is at best a strange construction and at worst a totally bonkers policy for a government set on Localism and Community Engagement.  The Lords’ report went to the heart of this matter and has suggested a framework for a truly revolutionary approach to fixing the monopoly of BT’s infrastructure – particularly in the middle-mile.

At times, I think of giving up banging this drum and doing something more conventional and toe-the-line.  Yet at one minute past midnight on Tuesday, I had a new surge of enthusiasm that the ideas that we have been working on for several years now are getting some traction and that a body of revered and highly intelligent Peers actually understood what many on the fringes of the industry have been saying for a while.

If only the Government could stand back and listen to some of the concerns about the current vision and understand that they have alternatives that are better, faster and cheaper that will help the UK’s international competitiveness, we  might actually come up with something that really does get the economy back on its feet in a fairer way, based on an infrastructure that no single part is too big to fail.  Surely there is a lesson here from the banking system that is staring us in the face?

Come on, Jeremy.  Put the bell head back on the stick, put the bell down and start listening again.  Unless, of course, you get reshuffled – in which case it is round-and-round we go!

Source of quote and more on this story at:

http://www.cbronline.com/news/lords-uk-broadband-strategy-heading-in-the-wrong-direction-010812 

http://www.totaltele.com/view.aspx?ID=475352&G=1&C=4&page=3

 

 

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Everything will be All Right in the End…..

Susie, my wife, booked us to go and see a film on Sunday evening – “The best exotic Marigold Hotel”.   A very funny film and well worth watching!  You can’t leave the film and not remember the line that one of the leading characters, Sonny, keeps saying throughout the film:

“Everything will be all right in the end; if it’s not alright then it’s not the end.”

Apparently this is a quote of the Brazilian writer Fernando Sabino: “No fim tudo dá certo, e se não deu certo é porque ainda não chegou ao fim” – but I am not sure if he really was the originator or not.  Doesn’t matter.  It is a great quote.  Actually, Susie has often quoted the first bit at me and it is strange, but somehow, everything always does work out in the end….

Anyway, it got me thinking back to the Thursday Thoughts theme two weeks ago about optimism – and the Optimist’s Creed.

And so it was that last night I got to Chapter 24 in Daniel Kahneman’s Book “Thinking, fast and slow” (which I started to review last week) only to find that  this chapter – entitled “The Engine of Capitalism” is all about optimism too!  Or perhaps, more accurately, over-optimism.  Coincidence or what?

Kahneman summarises in a section entitled COMPETITION NEGLECT:

“It is tempting to explain entrepreneurial optimism by wishful thinking, but emotion is only part of the story.  Cognitive biases play an important role, notably the System 1 WYSIATI (What you see is all there is):

  • We focus on our goal, anchor on our plan, and neglect relevant base rates, exposing ourselves to the planning fallacy.
  • We focus on what we want to do and can do, neglecting the plans and skills of others
  • Both in explaining the past and in predicting the future, we focus on the causal role of skill and neglect the role of luck.  we are therefore prone to an illusion of control.
  • We focus on what we know and neglect what we do not know, which makes us overly confident in our beliefs.

What was more extraordinary is that as I was reading this, a good friend and follower of this stream, David Brunnen wrote to me and  sent me this link: http://www.innovationpolicy.org/my-new-book-title-eh-the-future-will-be-okay   with the  comment: “Worth a read I think – partly because of his realistic assessment of US R&D funding and partly because Rob gets close to the tendency that has long-plagued the ICT world – eternal optimism and hype.” 

Even more coincidence.  Anyone else thinking about optimism, over-optimism and the way we think about the future?  Please join in the flow by commenting below!

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Thinking, Fast and Slow

I was browsing the bookshelves in a provincial airport lounge last month.  I really like browsing business books in these sorts of places (as opposed to ordering books from Amazon).  You find things you would not normally find and you can pick them up and read the gist of what the book is about in a very tactile way.  Something Kindle struggles with, I think.

Anyway, I came across a what looked like interesting title “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.  Being one always on the look-out for new Thursday Thoughts, I bought it and have started to read it…

The book is written by Daniel Kahneman who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his pioneering work, developed with Amos Tversky, on decision-making and uncertainty.

Interestingly, there is a quote on the front cover by Steven Pinker which says “(Kahneman is) certainly the most important psychologist alive today”  I thought the blend of economics and psychology would be interesting – and I have not been disappointed!

To begin with, Kahneman’s says that we all have two “systems” of thought.  He adopts terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West referring to two systems in the mind: System 1 and System 2.  Thee labels of System 1 and System 2 are, apparently, widely used in psychology.  For those of you, like me, who are mere lay-folk in the art of psycho-babble, this was news!

Here is an extract from the introduction which outlines the two systems:

“When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices and decides what to think about and what to do.  Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book.”

Kahneman describes System 1 as: “effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2”.

In rough order of complexity, he describes some examples of the automatic activities that are attributed to System 1:

  • Detect that one object is more distant than another
  • Orient to the source of a sudden sound
  • Complete the phrase “bread and…..”
  • Make a “disgust face” when shown a horrible picture
  • Detect hostility in a voice
  • Answer to 2 + 2 = ?
  • Read words on large billboards
  • Drive a car on an empty road
  • Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master)
  • Understand simple sentences
  • Recognise that a “meek and tidy soul with a passion for detail” resembles and occupational stereotype

The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: the require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn way.  Here are some examples:

  • Brace for the starter-gun in a race
  • Focus attention on the clowns in the circus
  • Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room
  • Look for a woman with white hair
  • Search memory to identify a surprising sound
  • Maintain a faster walking speed than is natural for you
  • Monitor the appropriateness of your behaviour in a social situation
  • Count the occurrences of the letter  a in a page of text
  • Tell someone your phone number
  • Park in a narrow space (for oct people except garage attendants)
  • Campare two washing machines for overall value
  • Fill out a tax form
  • Check the validity of a complex logical argument

The interesting thing that I have learnt so far is that we use System 1 and System 2 interchangeably throughout the day – and each system performs very important and different functions.  Kahneman’s main thesis is that the intuitive (System 1) often arrives at a conclusion or judgement without the detailed logical evidence for that decision being through by System 2.  There are many examples he gives where this is so – and here is one of them from page 43 of the book:

“A disturbing demonstration of depletion effects in judgement was recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The unwitting participants in the study were eight parole judges in Israel.  They spend entire days reviewing applications for parole.  The cases are presented in random order, and the judges spend little time on each one, an average of 6 minutes. (The default decision is denial of parole; only 35% of requests are approved.  The exact time of each decision is recorded, and the times of the judges’ three food breaks – morning break, lunch and afternoon break – during the day are recorded as well.)

The authors of the study plotted the proportion of approved requests against the time  since the last food break.  The proportion spikes after each meal, when about 65% of requests are granted.  During the two hours or so until the next feeding, the approval rate drops steadily, to about zero just before the meal.  As you might expect, this is an unwelcome result and the authors carefully checked many alternative explanations.  The best possible account of the data provides bad news: tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole.  Both fatigue and hunger probably play a role.”

The book is certainly worth a read and I hope that even these small excerpts have make you think – even if only to understand we all have two systems of thinking that dance to the daily cycles of our more basic animal behaviours – and that, for all important decisions, gut-feel or intuition is not enough and that it is important to engage System 2.  An aspect of thinking I sometimes struggle with!  And it appears I am not alone – since the book highlights this as one of the main causes of human suffering in the world today.

Graphic from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/evalottchen/6352121909/in/photostream/

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Clean Thinking and Clean Language

Have you ever been in a situation where you say something that you regret later? For example,  I was with a close friend the other day trying to “help” her work through some problems.  The suggestions that I made to her were taken the wrong way and the conversation broke down.  Purely because I put too many of my own thoughts into the flow.

It made me think: I wondered whether there was a way we could communicate without putting our own ideas, suggestions and bias forward?  In my research,  I came across a whole system of communication that originates in psychotherapy that allows you to do just that!

The originator of the approach was a guy called David Grove (whom I never met) – who died far too young four years ago in January 2008.  The ideas behind the system have various names – but one of the best-known terms is that of “Clean Language” – popularised in an excellent book published shortly after Grove’s death called “Clean Language” by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees.

Rooted in the idea that we all live with our own very personal, subjective metaphors, the technique allows the person being questioned to explore those metaphors without any judgement or bias from the interviewer  or therapist.

The basics of using Clean Language are simple:

  • Keep your opinions and advice to yourself
  • Listen attentively
  • Ask Clean Language Questions to explore a person’s metaphors (or everyday statements)
  • Listen to the answers and then ask more Clean Language questions about what they have said
If the person being asked the Clean Language questions is seeking to change, then the change can happen naturally as part of the process.  It is not a technique to force change on anyone!  I have found that there are equally useful ways in which to use the method: whether it is gathering information on a project, interviewing someone or asking children about their own worlds that they live in.
In the book there are twelve basic questions in Clean Language with a further 19 “specialised” questions.   However, to get going, other articles refer to the five basic questions which are designed to help clients add detail and dimension to their perceptions:

1. “And is there anything else about [client’s words]?”

2. “And what kind of [client’s words] is that [client’s words]?”

3. “And that’s [client’s words] like what?”

4. “And where is [client’s words]?”

5. “And whereabouts [client’s words]?”

There is a great video on the use of Clean Language in therapy – with some interesting results:

Another strand of this line of research was published in an earlier book “Metaphors in Mind: Transforming through Symbolic Modelling” by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins in 2000.  There is a short two-part article by Lawley on some of these ideas as they apply to organisations which can be found here: Metaphors of Organisation – an angle to this whole work that I find fascinating.  There is also a quote from Gareth Morgan at the start of the article which sums-up some of the ideas:

“All theories of organisation and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.” 

To open up our thinking, Morgan seeks to do three things:

(1) To show that many conventional ideas about organisation and management are based on a small number of taken-for-granted images and metaphors.

(2) To explore a number of alternative metaphors to create new ways of thinking about organisation.

(3) To show how metaphor can be used to analyse and diagnose problems and to improve the management and design of organisations.

I wish I had known this a month ago before the encounter I described at the beginning of this thought.  The outcome would have been very different, I’m sure.  I’m also very interested to know if you use any of these ideas in the work that you do.  Please comment below if you have any thoughts or observations.  In the meantime, try using clean language in your everyday work and play – it is a really useful tool – even if you are not a fully-trained psychotherapist!  It is so clean it can’t hurt anyone – and can actually be quite fun realising how much of our own “stuff” we put into normal conversation.

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The Future

Whilst exiting from the Underground Station at Canary Wharf yesterday, I saw an advertisement for a well-known global bank which said “The Future is Here”.  How banal.  How meaningless.  How hollow, I thought, when the banks are in such a mess.

Last week I found a quotation which, for me describes the future in a far richer, more eloquent, more creative spirit – written in an age when true creativity mattered more than contrived cloud-based global bank adverts.

Here it is:

“The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths

offered by the present,

but a place that is created –

created first in the mind and will,

created next in activity. 

The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.

The paths are not to be found, but made,

and the activity of making them

changes both the maker

and the destinations.”

John Scharr, Futurist

The trouble is, the bank in question is my bank!  What to do?  Makes you think, anyway.

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Honey, Pumpkins and Two Ninths

What joy! In the past week we have been taking off the honey and harvesting the goldengages and runner beans that have magically grown through the summer. It is a truly magnificent time of the year!

But our biggest success is the most ENORMOUS pumpkin – grown from two (out of nine) pumpkin seeds that I planted in July sometime. (The birds ate the other seven). Here is a picture of the triffid-like plant when we got back from holiday:

Great Oaks from little acorns grow, as they say. Even businesses have to start somewhere – but the natural powers of nature still let two out of nine seeds (for the pumpkin) and two out of nine hives (for the honey harvest) do SO much better than the rest.

I wonder if there is some formula that someone has noticed about productivity and two-ninths of any system being SO much more productive than the rest?

Makes you think!

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Reasons for the Crisis: Designing for Obsolescence

In a week where the Murdoch media empire appeared to lose its power, I came across this video “The Story of Stuff”- perhaps the most important “News of the World” that Murdoch’s empire was at the heart of ignoring.

Even if you have seen it, watch it again: it will make you think again about how the world works.

It is interesting how, with the launch of Apple’s Lion operating system we are still seeing “Design for Obsolescence” as one of the main design principles from what many say is the best design company in the world. It’s time for Apple (and the rest of us) to re-think design for the 21st century so that we can close the circle, not keep pushing the 99% waste down the pipe. Designing for Pull has to be a major factor in this redesign philosophy – and something I will come back to in future posts.

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We All Live on (Almost) One Island!

Whilst researching the great Buckminster Fuller, I came across a different way of looking at the world – which is called the Fuller (or Dymaxion) Map.

For all of the separation and differences we tend to create in our world, it is sometimes encouraging for us to look at the world through a unifying lens to realise that not only do we live on one planet – but that also we all live on (almost) one island!  Makes you think….

More on this – as well as other pictures at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dymaxion_map

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