Chaos Theory and Narrative - Just Me and the Captain — LiveJournal
Jul. 30th, 2013
09:59 pm - Chaos Theory and Narrative
I think everyone understands chaos theory at an intuitive level because everyone understands stories. Chaos theory is about systems that are sensitive to initial conditions. This isn't a new insight that was discovered only fifty years by Lorenz (though he applied a rigor that was previously lacking); it's been part of the human consciousness for eons. The poem "For Want of a Nail" goes back several centuries and is quite illustrative of the basic premise of Chaos theory. But most stories portray this theme on some level.
Most people almost take for granted that they're certain moments in life that seem small at first, but have huge ramifications later on. The insight that Lorenz had while studying the weather is that every moment is like this. The problem, I think, is that we're simply unable to connect the dots most of the time. When I say a butterfly flaps its wings causing a wildebeest in Africa to sneeze startling his neighbor who starts running causing the rest of the herd to follow suit kicking up a lot of dust in the atmosphere starting a circulation that gradually builds up speed as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean and develops from a tropical wave to a storm that eventually hits the east coast forcing you to open your umbrella, that's easy to follow because I just provided you with the chain of cause and effect. But as a practical matter, meteorologists are simply unable to foresee this very logical series of events because another butterfly in China just flapped its wings in the opposite direction counteracting the whole thing. The end result is nobody can predict the weather more than 10 days out and we throw our hands up in the air declaring the system inherently unpredictable and therefore chaotic.
But not every system is chaotic. A frictionless pendulum swinging in a vacuum in a universe devoid of all other material is very predictable. Yes, such a construct is a fiction, but the model works pretty well for simple pendulums in the real world too. The minor influences just don't have all that much of an effect. And I think that's how most of us live our lives: we're aware that they're inherently unpredictable, but for the most part the little things simply don't matter, or if they did, we can't see how they do.
And that's where stories come in. We seldom tell stories of the utterly predictable because they're boring. The art of the narrative is determining those moments that are truly chaotic where a minor action causes reverberations throughout existence. The thing is, we can usually only tell when those moments are in retrospect. It's nearly impossible to figure out which moments act as the butterfly and which act as the pendulum. Will picking up a penny on the sidewalk radically alter your life or make you exactly one cent richer in a moment that will be utterly forgotten in a week? If it's the latter the moment is stable. But if it's the former, this is the beginning of a great story. But then there's the third possibility where it's the former, but you're never able to trace the point of divergence to that particular moment. In any case, at the moment you pick up the penny, you don't know which it is.
I'm not sure I really have a point to all this, but hey, it's my blog and I can write pointless entries as it's my prerogative. But I see the tension between the psychological need craving stability yet also wanting to establish a pattern through narrative where none may actually exist. Did World War I happen because Franz Ferdinand's driver made a wrong turn or was it inevitable because political tensions in Europe had been mounting for decades? In an RPG, could a character unexpectedly discovering a magic item throw the whole plot in turmoil or will the GM ignore the potential ramifications and force things back on track by fiat? Will choosing between a pair of identical looking fortune cookies after a meal be a mundane experience or start a chain of events that will cause me to meet the love of my life which I would have missed had I chosen the other? Sometimes I think Ray Bradbury got it wrong in a "A Sound of Thunder" and the universe somehow heals itself of the minor alternatives as it heads toward some sort of convergence. But maybe that's just a defense mechanism to free myself from the terrifying responsibility that every moment is full of pregnant possibility.