Using Chain Reactions in Novel Plotting: The Perception Effect

Books Falling Like Dominoes

I heard an anecdote by an Amish farmer at a conference last week that instantly made me think of novel plotting. While not the goal of his presentation, it certainly inspired this writer’s imagination and made me consider how I could apply such subtle chain reactions to Amish Wavingmy writing.

A local citizen outside of the Amish community recently complained to the speaker that the Amish aren’t as friendly as they once were. The drivers in their buggies don’t even wave anymore when they pass. Relieved to hear the reason, the farmer quickly set his acquaintance straight. The local Amish no longer wave to Ohio motorists as a safety precaution. So many drivers are talking on their cell phones or into earpieces that the Amish are afraid to become another distraction. A sudden movement , such as a hand wave, in a distracted driver’s peripheral vision could result in their car wrapped around a tree.

Now, some of you may think this Amish community is being a tad over-cautious, particularly if you’re one of the multi-taskers the farmer referred to, but safety statistics aren’t important. I’m not concerned with facts no matter how well documented. Perception is the key here. Regardless of whether it is sensible, perception drives people’s choices in reality and novels.

You’ve probably heard the hypothetical example of the flap of butterfly’s wings causing an escalating series of chain of reactions ultimately resulting in a hurricane. In chaos theory, it’s known as the Butterfly Effect. Think of my example as the Perception Effect.

This Amish community perceived their usual wave to have an effect on distracted drivers.  The perceptionAngry Amish may have been due to an actual event in which one member out for a spin in their buggy waved and the cellphone-wielding motorist swerved a bit, or maybe just the imagined potential for mayhem. Again, doesn’t matter.  This perception then spread throughout the community until the waving ceased, which then resulted in the citizen’s perception that the Amish are no longer as friendly.

Let’s take this one step further shall we…  What if the Amish farmer the citizen approached hadn’t been in his seventies but instead a slightly hotheaded twenty-something or a teen nearly ready for their Rumspringa?  What if the citizeFarm Subdivisionn had been less polite, or came with a set of hooligan friends? What if the instigator had a developer father just itching to dig his bulldozers into those Amish farms?  One stray fist in a public place, and the perception of a minority of the citizenry becomes “fact.” A few chain reactions later, and the farmers are forced to defend their farms and way of life in the County Board Room with only their stoic wives and a local minister for support.

While this is so not my genre, you can find similar examples within paranormal/fantasy, from Harry Potter to Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels. Sometimes all it takes is one little misunderstanding and a bit of magical nudging to turn otherwise rational people into a mob, or even worse, PTA mom’s with good intentions (e.g. Beautiful Creatures).

Romance novels frequently use this tactic to keep the hero and heroine apart until the final love scene.  In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, poor Claire ends up beaten by both the villain and the hero after she runs away and almost gets her rescue party killed. But how was her new husband to know she was only trying to get back to her own time and her old husband when she never told him?

Personally, I think the more subtle your instigating event and the more dominoes leading to the big crash, the better. Perhaps one of the best examples is the machinations employed bLittle Finger Game of Thronesy George R. R. Martin’s characters in the Song of Ice and Fire. It takes hundreds of chess moves and several books to get us to the game changing Red Wedding.  And then there’s Little Finger, a character who works people’s perceptions better than Harry Houdini in order rise in the social ranks.

So as you plot your next novel, you may want to consider making psychology work for you, and start a chain reaction leading to the NY Times Best Sellers List.

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