Plots as tightly-coupled or loosely-coupled systems

‘Have you had a good day writing?’
‘Well … I’m not sure. I wrote a lot of words. Just not what I was expecting to write.’
‘You finished the chapter though?’
‘Um … I think so.’

When writing, have you ever felt like things were coming unstuck with your outline? Or perhaps you deliberately never plan at all and let the characters lead the way? This blog post explores how your plot can be thought of as a tightly-coupled or loosely-coupled system and what that might mean for your novel.

Although a term more commonly used in programming, the concepts of loose coupling and tight coupling can be applied very effectively to systems thinking. Some academics have used them to apply to organisational theory (one of the higher systems levels) but they can also be applied to biological or ecological systems as well.

The essence of a loosely-coupled system is one where there is a lack of interdependence between subsystems. These systems are inefficient (as there is a lot of wastage) but they are flexible and adaptable to change. To take an example, a market composed of many small businesses engaged in short-term transactions can be categorised as a loosely-coupled system.

On the other hand, a tightly-coupled system is one where the relationships between subsystems are more controlled and where there is strong interdependence. A business or institution run along old-fashioned bureaucratic lines can be conceived as a tightly-coupled system. Another example would be a factory manufacturing cars to a just-in-time model. Tight coupling reduces waste, increases efficiencies and speed of process. However, these systems do not cope well with changes in the environment and they are prone to sudden catastrophic tipping points where things can spiral out of control. Recent examples would be the extreme price movements caused by high frequency trading algorithms.

So, this is all very abstract … what does it have to do with writing? Well, if you have ever written a story, or read about the writing process, you will have come across the phenomenon when the ‘characters take over’ the story. As a writer, you had a specific path you needed your characters to follow and, for some reason, by the time you’ve got the end of the scene, things haven’t turned out as you intended.

Perhaps this doesn’t happen to you? The fact that it doesn’t could be for the following reasons:

1. You’ve already worked through all the small details of the scene in your outline or synopsis and, when you write the scene, you’re simply filling in the gaps
2. You’ve forced the characters into carrying out actions that feel a little false but, dammit, they’ve given you the outcome you needed
3. You didn’t really write a chapter outline and just let the characters take you where it felt most natural.

Taking these explanations one by one, I would suggest that number (1) is rare, especially with dialogue-heavy scenes. If you know what everybody is going to say and do, down to the smallest of details, you’ve already written the scene!

Number (2) is familiar to readers and writers and can be thought of as writing to a tightly-coupled plot. A tightly-coupled plot will drag the reader along a clear path of cause and effect. They will munch through your prose, wanting to know what’s coming up next. It will grip and take them through a series of coherent events. But if you force this too tightly, they will find the characters flat, automata designed merely to make doors open and guns get fired and wars get started. They will finish your story with an adrenalin rush but will never dream of the characters you’ve made. Because they know they were just there as a plot device.

As soon as your character does something that makes the reader wrinkle their nose in disbelief, you’ve lost your reader. You’ve broken the spell. Stories work because they suspend a reader’s disbelief. Think of the last cheesy horror film you saw when the writer contrived to have one of the characters ‘separated’ from the others.

Number (3) is a common approach and can be thought of as writing to a loosely-coupled plot. For a number of writers, it feels more in tune with letting their characters live. The justification is that until you actually start putting words down on the page, or letting lines of dialogue pop into your head, you can’t really predict where things will take you.

Plots work on cause and effect (see this blog post) and interdependencies are cause-and-effect relationships. Therefore, a loosely-coupled plot will have cause-and-effect relationships but they may be broken up by stuff that simply happens! There may be localised moments that flow in a believable fashion but they may not serve a coherent overarching story.

Loosely-coupled plots will have very believable characters but you’re going to have a very baggy story, with redundant sections, where readers may think it feels real. Without that overarching story driving things forward, they’ll drift off and lose interest (‘that chapter read just like a day at work’).

So, what’s the right approach? As with all these things, you need to get the sweet spot in the middle. That is all. Bye.