The plot wheel and random idea generators

Erle Stanley Gardner is the author famous for creating Perry Mason. He was also noted for his prolific output; he wrote 82 Perry Mason novels in his career! How did he do it? By using the plot wheel. (Demo of the wheel at the link.)

Key to Gardner’s remarkable output was his use of the plot wheels invented and patented by another of his successors, a British crime novelist named Edgar Wallace. By using different combinations of possible twists and turns for both major and minor characters, Gardner was able to construct narratives that held his readers rapt for several decades.

Crime fiction web site The Kill Zone elucidates…

When Gardner kept getting rejection slips that said “plot too thin,” he knew he had to learn how to do it. After much study he said he “began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is.” He began to build stories, not just make them up on the fly. He made a list of parts and turned those into “plot wheels” which was a way of coming up with innumerable combinations. He was able, with this system, to come up with a complete story idea in thirty seconds.

I’ve been intrigued enough by the concept of a random plot generator to start work on a very basic music idea generator. It doesn’t actually write music; it’s merely a list of ways to accompany or dress up a basic tune (for example, by harmonizing a melody in thirds, or applying Bach style counterpoint to the melody.) I’m not randomly generating options though I might try and add that component later (though I would certainly use my discretion in choosing whether to follow the options it produces.)

But why would one want a plot generator or a music idea generator? Why not use the wonderful tool of human creativity? Mainly to overcome a problem that’s all to prevalent these days, the problem of too many options. When constructing a plot it’s very easy to say, “Our hero goes to Istanbul, no wait, Marrakech, no, Tripoli, and there he finds a golden sword, no wait, a magic coffee cup, no, wait, a mystical ashtray and then he…” You get the picture. Stories can suffer analysis paralysis if you can’t cordon your options in. The same goes with music and probably all creative processes. If we had all the time in the world then we could explore all the possibilities, but we seldom do.

The challenge of the “too many options” situation is that you have to know what to throw away. A plot wheel, or my proposed more advanced music idea generator basically uses chance to make these decisions. (A bit like John Cage’s chance derived music.) This isn’t a bad way to get the ball rolling though it probably results in somewhat hokey, discombobulated output. But if you want to knock something out, or are at a standstill, it’s a legitimate option.

This approach isn’t limited to creative processes, by the way. I used to go to movie rental stores and walk the aisles for close to a hour looking for the perfect movie. I probably would have been better off going to a section I liked (horror or independent cinema), throwing a dart and taking whatever it landed on.

My sense is that in this ever expanding world of choices – of 300 channel television, of a world of entertaining web pages (none more so than acid logic), of cheap travel, of Spotify and its collection of 300 trillion cds (I’m making that number up), of internet dating sites with hundreds of profiles etc. etc. – the problem of how to choose has become more daunting. A lot of technology evangelists say, “more choices are better,” but it many ways they are not. The process of choosing puts a heavy load on our brain. It literally tires us out. That’s why I feel choice shortcuts, like plot or music generators, have value.

This idea that to function efficiently one must eliminate unneeded information is not limited to people. The brain does the same thing. Here’s an interesting passage from Ray Kurzweil’s book “How to Create a Mind.”

[Vision scientists] showed that optic nerves carry ten to twelve output channels, each of which carries only a small amount of data about a given scene. One group of what are called ganglion cells sends information about edges (changes in contrast). Another group detects only large areas of uniform color, whereas a third group is sensitive only to the backgrounds behind figures of interest.

“Even though we think we see the world fully, what we are receiving is really just hints, edges in space and time,” says Werblin. “Those 12 pictures of the world constitute all the information we will ever have about what’s out there, and from those 12 pictures, which are so sparse, we reconstruct the richness of the visual world.

Kurzweil then notes…

This data reduction is what in the AI [artificial intelligence] field we call “sparse coding.” We have found in creating artificial systems that throwing most of the input information away and retaining only the most salient details provides superior results. Otherwise the limited ability to process information in a neocortex (biological or otherwise) gets overwhelmed.

So the brain has figured out how to allow passage of only essential information… to chose only the best channels from the 300 channel television, so to speak.

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