Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Drunkards Walk

There is an interesting problem in statistics called the “Drunkards Walk.” In this problem, we mentally lean a drunk up against a lamp pole in the middle of an intersection in the middle of the night. How he got there, we don’t know. Nor do we care. He staggers away from the pole. After each step, the drunk can move another step in any direction, including backwards. After a given number of paces, he falls. He lies there, face down on the pavement. We stand him up again, mark the place where he fell and lean him up against the light pole. We repeat this procedure over and over. It turns out that his multiple resting places form a normal curve with its peak in a circle around the lamp pole. The plotting of the “Drunkards Walk” has implications for the scattering of particles from the break up of nuclei, among other things.

The point of this story for writers is that we don’t care how the drunk got to the lamp post; all we care about is where he ended up – fell down as it were. In a story, we don’t usually care what led the main character to the place where our story starts. We care about how the drunk(i.e. main character) staggers around and where he falls down. And possibly what he does when he gets up. And how many times he goes back to leaning on the lamp post. Not how he got there.

The best writers limit the backstory to what we absolutely have to know – and then they cut out 50% of that. They feed it to us in little bits, when the question arises, when our curiosity is aroused, and not before we care enough to want to know. This is part of what makes them the best writers.

It turns out that we don’t really want or need to know very much.

Amateur writers are too often in love with backstory. They assert that the reader can’t understand the story without knowing the character’s life up until the interesting events occur. Baloney. The writer needs to know all this; the readers don’t.

So my best advice to amateur writers is remember our drunk leaning up against the lamp post -- and don’t tell us how he got there.