Economy and efficiency as motivations in fiction

Something I see quite often in both submissions and published fiction (including movies) is plots that hinge on people taking implausibly inefficient approaches to achieving a goal.

It's certainly true that individuals and organizations quite often behave inefficiently. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a character or (more often) an organization or government choosing a really truly ridiculously inefficient and roundabout means to a straightforward end, when there would appear to be much simpler/easier approaches readily to hand. Sure, that too can happen in real life (can you say building papier-mâché aircraft in East Anglia to fool the Nazis? talk about unlikely!), but sometimes real life is awfully implausible.

This comes up a lot in time-travel stories. Say organization A wants to get rid of the leader of organization B. In too many stories, the very first idea that organization A comes up with as a viable approach is to invent time travel and then go back in time and kill leader B in his or her infancy.

(I suppose it's a little silly of me to presuppose that time travel is possible and then object to particular uses of it on plausibility grounds. I guess some of my argument is just my gut feeling about how people are likely to behave, given a ground situation.)

Of course, if time travel already exists and is cheap, this isn't so implausible. But I've seen stories in which, as far as I could tell, a government sank huge amounts of resources into creating time travel (sometimes with no reason to expect that it's even possible) in order to take down an opponent. And it just seems to me that in almost every situation, there've gotta be not just simpler ways to go about getting rid of the enemy leader, but ways that the government in question is more likely to try first.

Similarly, some uses of clones often run up against this difficulty. If you don't use the handwavey genre convention that clones can somehow be "force-grown" to adulthood in a matter of minutes or days, then growing a clone to adulthood from scratch is almost always gonna be more time-consuming and resource-intensive than other approaches. There are plenty of ways around this problem; still, there are too many clone stories that don't take this kind of economic plausibility into account.

Speaking of economic plausibility, it's long been a staple notion in science fiction that in the future, we'll move people to other planets to solve the population problem here at home. I had been reading sf for over 20 years before a friend pointed out to me that, unless you have basically free energy, that's ridiculous. There are over six billion people on Earth, and if the current growth rate remains unchanged (which is unlikely, but that's a separate question), we can expect that number to double in 60 years. So even if we could move three billion people to another planet today, that would only buy us 60 years before we were back to current numbers.

And anyway, moving that many people doesn't make any sense. How many people can you fit on a spaceship at once? Say you somehow develop a really humongous spaceship that can hold the entire population of New York City, about 8 million people. Then you would need "only" about 125 such spaceships (or 125 trips) to carry a billion people. How much energy does that take? How long does it take? How do you keep people from breeding while this relocation program is going on? And by the way, how do you keep people from caring about being removed from their ancestral homelands, and fighting bloody wars to stop the relocation? Sure, you can advertise about how much better things are off-planet (cf Blade Runner), but that's gotta be mighty effective advertising to get half the planet's population to leave behind everything they know.

If you postulate free energy, then you can take as many trips as you want--but if you've got free energy, there might be better things you could do with it to reduce population pressures than try to move three billion people to another planet.

Another example is fighting a war on the surface of a planet; as we discussed in that old journal entry, there are certainly plenty of reasonable justifications for that, and it's arguably a genre convention anyway, but often the author doesn't bother to justify it (or, apparently, to even think about whether it makes any sense), and that tends to annoy me.

Many conspiracy-theory plots fall into the category I'm talking about, of course. Which is more plausible: that the protagonist is nuts, or that thousands of people are all playing their parts perfectly with the sole goal of keeping our hero from finding out one particular fact? Of course, this example shows the limits of my complaint, too; there are plenty of great conspiracy-theory plots, and in some cases the conspiracies even end up sounding kind of plausible. Or else they're trying to make some broader point about society (think The Prisoner) and aren't so concerned about mundane plausibility. Or else they're using elaborate plans as a genre convention (as in the Bond movies). All that is fine; still, there are plenty of stories in which the good guys or the bad guys engage in ridiculously roundabout and inefficient ways to achieve a goal, simply because it'll be more dramatic than doing it the simple way. Or (and I think this is really what bugs me) because it didn't occur to the author, after they came up with the cool complex approach, that there might be a simpler or more likely way to do it.

(The famous whip/sword/gun scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is an example of messing with genre conventions and viewer expectations in this area, as is the climax of Wizards.)

I think a lot of authors run into this kind of thing from a different angle: how many times have you shown your magnificently tightly plotted opus to your first reader, only to have them say "Why don't they just arrest the bad guy in the first scene and eliminate the need for the rest of the story?"

I guess all I'm really saying is: next time you're about to have your bad guys launch their entire space armada to chase down your hero's singleship; next time you're about to have your hero go back to the dawn of time so that they can plant a fake fossil in just the right place to cause a bad-guy archeologist to turn a fraction of a degree at exactly the right moment to let the good guy cheat at poker; next time you're about to have a rich character who's on the verge of death start growing a clone, in realtime, from an embryo, in order to have a replacement heart eighteen years later; stop and think about whether you have some sort of justification for it (and whether there might be an easier and/or more likely way to achieve the goal).

I don't care whether the justification is internal to the characters and institutions involved, or whether it's a meta-justification involving genre conventions and authorial intent; I just want the author to have some idea of why this is approximately the easiest, simplest, most effective, least expensive, or otherwise in some way best approach to achieving the goal.

14 Responses to “Economy and efficiency as motivations in fiction”

  1. Vardibidian

    May I add that The Plan only needs to be plausible to the character or characters in the story who set it in motion? It’s perfectly all right if the audience knows it will never work, as long as we can believe that the characters think it will work.

    In general (well, in farce) it’s a good idea to make the actual plausibility of the plan inversely proportional to the obviousness to the character; an actual good idea can just be put into place, but a Crazy Scheme (like cloning, time travel, or dressing up as Charley’s Aunt) has to really Seem Like a Good Idea at the Time. For instance, drinking a vial of stuff that puts you into a coma absolutely indistinguishable from death is a terrible idea—unless there’s a whole play beforehand to show you that Romeo is exactly the kind of person who would leap at a romantic, doomed, unlikely, magical, crazy scheme like that. The kind of guy who can only imagine the moment when he comes out of the coma, into Juliet’s arms, and is really incapable of doing any kind of risk analysis.

    This doesn’t necessarily apply to bigger society-wide issues like mass migration off-planet, although you could introduce factors that make emigration seem like a good idea (plague! PLAGUE! AIEEE!), but in general it’s a good idea to keep in mind that the justification has to apply to the character, not the reader, and that the easiest way to justify unlikely actions is to give the character fewer choices, or make him unable to see the choices he really has.


  2. Tempest

    Good post, Jed. I often feel the same way when I’m reading. I’m just not eloquent and all 😉

    So even if we could move three billion people to another planet today, that would only buy us 60 years before we were back to current numbers.

    Not if we got rid of the right people…. ::looks sideways at Africa and subtly points a rocket::

    But seriously, if folk were being shunted off to other planets for population control, it’s pretty obvious to me what kind of people would get the short end of the shunt. (My favorite SF story is “The Space Traders” by Derrick Bell which sort of addresses this kind of thing) The result could be that in 60 years the population would STILL be out of control and the people left would have to realize some difficult truths.

  3. Tempest

    Oh, and may I also add that stories/movies/etc. where you can point to a place and say, “Well, if it weren’t for this coincidence/lack of good sense in not taking this simple action, the whole story would fall apart/have ended right there,” really drive me nuts. Most people say I just shouldn’t think about it too hard. But if I’m going to turn my brain off for something, it shouldn’t have to be the plot. (It should be for Kiera Knightly or something else that’s fun to look at)

  4. Jed

    V: Good points. I should note, though, that in many of the cases I’m talking about, the insanely overcomplicated plan does end up working; it’s just that anyone who thinks about it for ten minutes can come up with a better, faster, cheaper, and easier approach that would also have worked.

    But yes, good points and good examples; I hadn’t thought about either farces or R&J, but they’re both good examples.

    Tempest: Yeah, good point about population control. And despite my throwing specific numbers around, I was vastly oversimplifying a difficult and complex set of issues/questions.

    …Now that I think about it (this isn’t a response to your comment, just an elaboration of my entry), I guess another way of putting what I was saying is something like this: say you’re a powerful government, and you’re worried that your population is growing too fast. You can (A) build hundreds of spaceships that are each a million times bigger than any spaceship ever built, and then move a substantial fraction of your population to another planet; or (B) make laws that limit the number of kids your citizens can have. It seems pretty clear that B is a lot easier and cheaper than A.

    if I’m going to turn my brain off for something, it shouldn’t have to be the plot.

    Yeah, in general I agree with this sentiment. But it brings me back to Ben’s “sources of reader pleasure” theory; if a book is good enough in other ways, I can forgive this kind of plot issue. See my review of Bet Me for an example.

  5. David Moles

    I think this is a special case of a general problem — namely, characters who do what the author needs them to do, instead of doing what the characters themselves need to do.

    Getting inside your characters’ heads seems like such an amazingly basic thing to do… and yet not doing it seems to get authors into no end of trouble.

  6. David Moles

    A tangentially related thought, seen in the latest Emerald City: “Books like this tend to center around the fact that the heroes never think to ask the right question until it is almost too late. If the reader manages to guess the truth early on then the heroes end up looking stupid.”

  7. Trent Walters

    “If you postulate free energy, then you can take as many trips as you want–but if you’ve got free energy, there might be better things you could do with it to reduce population pressures than try to move three billion people to another planet.”

    I suggest they use the free energy to miniaturize three billion near Hostess Fruit Pies. You could complicate the plot by forgeting to open the fruit pie before miniaturization and have spend half the story trying to pierce the outer hull. (Surely, this is not a plot development you’ve seen before, Jed.)

  8. Alaya

    Re Vardibidian’s comments on Romeo & Juliet:

    Um…Juliet was the one who leapt at the chance to drink the coma potion, and Romeo was the one who found her “dead,”– and, therefore, killed himself, which led to Juliet actually killing herself (you know, trying to get some extra poison from Romeo’s cold lips, “o, happy dagger” etc., etc.)

    And if I can add my own pet peeve: indescribably stupid heroines. I mind it when guys are stupid, too– but stupid girls seriously get on my nerves. There’s a book coming out soonish (The Sultan’s Seal, for all interested) where most of the plot is predicated on a girl described as “intelligent” being pet-rock dumb.

  9. Josh Jasper

    What about Unlimited Free Energy ™, synthetic wombs, robot creches, and generation ships? I know it’s been done before, but it’s plausible once UFE is a granted and we’ve had a few generations of biotech and cryonics advancement.

    To skip the synthetic womb issue, you could use pre impregnated frozen clones with nothing other than a lizard brain to keep breating after they were thawed. They give birth, the infants are harvested, and raised by whatever means you want (robots, cryogenixaly frozen real people, whatever).

    There. You don’t have to convince anyone to move off planet, but you can colonize the stars.

    It’s ethicaly monstrous though.

  10. Vardibidian

    Er, yes. Right. Um, that wasn’t me.

    No, as was recently pointed out somewhere, you get into trouble by not fact-checking stuff you know, because that’s the stuff that ain’t so. Still, my point is … well, honestly, I’m having trouble with the whole play, now. Juliet doesn’t seem like the “Poison! What a great idea” type to me, although Romeo is clearly a “kill myself over her corpse” guy. Of course, it’s been a while since I’ve read (or watched) the thing. I should go back and read it, but it means hefting my Riverside off the shelf, and I’m not sure I can do it anymore.


  11. Diana

    I read this, and I was like, good point, but duh…. we watch movies and read fiction because it’s emotionally satisfying. If the plot has to be far-fetched in order to get to the “necessary scene” (in which the protagonist personally confronts the antagonist and defeats him) so be it.

    What’s satisfying? Hero and villain’s fight culminates a hands-on, vicious fight, in which personal courage is the most important factor — fist-fight, sword-fight, light sabre fight, etc. What’s satisfying? Fate of the republic, human race, galaxy depends on the outcome. Is this ever going to be likely? Probably not.

    I mean, think about it. In all of human history, has anything major ever really hung on the outcome of a fistfight? Ever?

    But it spoils the movie to think this way. Take Will Smith’s robot movie. The most efficient way for the scientist who dies by the first scene to spill the beans would be for the scientist to call up Will, suggest a cup of coffee at a cafe, or go for a walk in the park, and then, safely out of reach of anything mechanical, just tell him what he’s found.

    Would I pay $10.50 to see that? I seriously doubt it.

    Is it realistic for hordes of people to waste a lot of time and effort trying to keep one secret from one guy? Of course not. Is this what paranoia feels like? Absolutely.

    It gets even less likely when they’re keeping the secret from a really charismatic & goodlooking guy. On the other hand, watching such a movie, you get to indulge both your feelings of paranoia and your desire to be, well, really incredibly good-looking while being nice, normal, intelligent(possibly brilliant), and not arrogant about any of it. (This combination is perhaps even more unlikely then the possibility your paranoia may be accurate).

    I remember once reading an interview with a director where, when the interviewer pointed out that most waitresses wouldn’t have as nice an apartment as the waitress had in the movie, the director responded that most waitresses don’t look as good as the actress playing the part.

    I could go on and on but you get the point.

  12. Jed

    Well, yes, most fiction is implausible to some degree. Really, I wasn’t saying “fiction shouldn’t be implausible.” I was saying, “Some fiction goes to really extreme lengths of implausibility of a particular kind, and that bugs me (even though lots of it is commercially successful).”

    Most of the things you (Diana) mention are things I consider to be genre conventions. (I didn’t read what you wrote about the robot movie ’cause I haven’t seen that yet, and still intend to.) For example, characters in movies and sitcoms who are very good-looking and have ridiculously huge apartments? That’s a genre convention.

    As for paranoia, that’s the kind of thing I was talking about in my conspiracy-theory paragraph. There are obviously plenty of good reasons to have unusually implausible elements in fiction, as I noted.

    What I’m talking about are the really extremely ridiculously implausible things for which the creator doesn’t have a good reason, not even the “it’s a genre convention” reason.

    Btw, for those who haven’t read it, TNH provides some very good further analysis of this phenomenon in her Making Light entry; follow TrackBack link at bottom of this entry’s page.

  13. Jane Carnall

    Tempest: Oh, and may I also add that stories/movies/etc. where you can point to a place and say, “Well, if it weren’t for this coincidence/lack of good sense in not taking this simple action, the whole story would fall apart/have ended right there,” really drive me nuts.

    In my experience, the very best way to get a radically implausible coincidence that’s necessary for the plot to work into the story without anyone noticing, is to have it at the very start of the story. Usually, the only time your reader will notice how radically implausible this coincidence was is if they re-read the story a couple of times.

    Lack of good sense can be covered for if you give your character(s) a reason for showing lack of good sense. (My best example of this is Diana Wynne Jones, The Ogre Downstairs, where the reason five children don’t ever explain to their parents why they are having significant amounts of trouble with two magical chemistry sets is because their mother and their father have just married, and they’re also dealing with stepfamily issues like whoa.

  14. Dragon Lover

    I love dragons. They have to be my favorite due to their great personality

    [This is obviously spam; it was intended as a link to a spam site about how to keep Bearded Dragon lizards as pets. And it has nothing to do with this entry, of course. But I was amused enough by the phrasing to allow it as a comment anyway, after removing the URL and email address.]


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