How patterns work: the butterfly effect

Here’s a story template, with hero “Alice”. (I normally name characters in a template alphabetically: Alice, Bob, Charlie, etc.)

  1. Alice lives in a small community that is dependent on a single source of income (typically tourism);
  2. Alice has some special knowledge or insight which indicates some specific health danger to residents and tourists;
  3. Alice raises concerns about the danger in the community and proposes some action which will alleviate it, but at considerable cost (for example, by scaring tourists away, or by cost of repairs);
  4. The community rejects Alice’s advice;
  5. Alice turns out to be right – people die;
  6. Alice fixes the danger in some other way, but at great personal risk or expense.

This is the pattern of Peter Benchley’s Jaws and (with interesting differences) of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. It’s a very good pattern, and infinitely applicable: a coastguard in a tourist town in the seventies vs a killer shark, a doctor in a tourist town in C19th Norway vs a water borne disease, numerous disaster movies, and in short every single story where someone, somewhere about a third of the way through, screams “the Daleks/ giant ants/ tsunami/ triffids/ plague/ terrorists are coming: you have to evacuate now“. And, inevitably, no one listens.

Let’s call this pattern “Cassandra”. It’s a pattern that plays a little with reality – Alice is saying one thing, and everyone else is saying another, so perhaps she is simply mad? – but also with every individual’s common everyday conflict between their own ego and society’s demands. It’s also a pattern that is popular in the United States, for reasons I suspect are basically psychohistorical. (No coincidence they have their own form of killer shark, and he has orange hair).

Now, one of the things we do on Writers from Mars is to take story patterns and see how they can be varied. For example, suppose we change point 5, and have the hero turn out to be wrong? Suddenly the story is cynical, dark, antidemocratic: the maniac who sees dangers where there are none, and jeopardises other’s safety or wealth in pursuit of their delusions. There’s traces of this in Enemy, since it’s never completely proven the town’s baths really are polluted, or at least it’s never widely accepted. Stockmann’s (the hero’s) character and motivations must become more questionable to accommodate this: he is much more egotistical, even almost relishing his isolation, than Brody in Jaws. Nothing you could convict him of, but you catch a word here or there and suddenly he doesn’t seem so sincere. So changing point 5 necessitates changing the whole character of the hero.

Or consider the Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan[1]. Foster’s son is kidnapped midflight and nobody believes she even had him with her when she boarded – apparently, in Hollywood, airlines don’t keep passenger lists. Anyhow, she becomes more and more desperate, putting the safety of the plane itself at risk before uncovering a monstrous plan to crash the plane into – well, wherever, I can’t remember because the only important thing is that it’s monstrous. Foster foils the plot and saves her son – who, monstrously, is tied in the plane’s nose cone, so that he will die half a second before anyone else – how evil is that? At the end, as Foster, exhausted, carries her son through the throng of passengers that she’d just saved, an awed and contrite fellow passenger – one who had doubted the son’s existence and the mother’s sanity – whispers “she knew she was right.” Jesus, there is so much I could write about America just from that line! “It knew it was right.”

But suppose the movie is slightly different – and Foster is wrong, she only had delusions of having a son, there was no hijack, and she nearly crashes the plane out of madness. Is that even a story? Perhaps, if you leave the reality of the delusion open until the end. Suddenly you’re in that episode of the Twilight Zone – you know, the one everyone has seen – where William Shatner is looking out his window on the plane and sees a supernatural figure dismantling the wing. He gets help, no one else can see the gremlin (except the viewer), he gets more and more urgent, smashes a window, the plane has to land, he’s carted off to the looney bin. As he goes, an engineer examining the wing says that it was loose, so it was lucky the plane did land; but the engineer doesn’t know why the plane had to land, and so Shatner is doomed. He’s thrown his life away but – maybe? – saved everyone else.

Brody in Jaws, Stockmann in Enemy, Jody Foster in Flightplan – they all knew they were right (although, as I say, it’s unclear whether Stockmann was right to think he was right). William Shatner, on the other hand, had gone mad, so he presumably didn’t know he was right, even though it’s hinted that he was!

Next: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s two versions of this classic, and the remake is at least as good as the original. But there’s a salutary difference: in the 1956 version, the hero escapes his community, warns the authorities, and – because of a random traffic accident – they believe him. That’s a twist on the “Cassandra” pattern: he’s finally believed, but almost when it’s too late. But in the remake in 1978, the heroine thinks she’s escaped and starts to form a resistance, only to be betrayed: the aliens have won. That’s the complete opposite, although it is still clearly Cassandra. The two are very different films, even though their template differs in only one place at the very end. That’s what happens: the logic of the template change forces fundamental structural changes throughout the whole piece, a kind of butterfly effect for stories.

It even changes the characters. Brody in Jaws thinks the beaches should be closed, everyone else thinks they should be kept open. Brody made his call because he values human life above money, everyone else theirs because the other way round. Very different to Enemy of the People, where Stockmann values his own self-importance above money, and everyone else their own self-importance over Stockmann’s. In Jaws, the story is about the shark – the clue’s in the title. In Enemy, the story is about Stockmann – the bacteria are incidental – and the clue’s in that title, too!

The tragedy of the ignored prophet: from Brexit to climate change, from the walls of Troy to Hollywood’s latest asteroid crashing into Yellowstone volcano and unleashing a swarm of killer bees, the pattern is ubiquitous. The experts who know are ignored, the result is disaster, the experts are vindicated but at such cost that they’d really rather have been wrong to start with.

The punchline is that you can take a template – any template, lifted from some other movie or book or current politics or just idly made up – change a few fundamental elements, and you have a completely different story. It’s a kind of magic wand – just wave it, and you’re in a new story, a new world.


I owe the magic wand metaphor to the supercool author James Frey – so cool he wrote a novel, called it his autobiography, and it was so realistic people sued him when they found out he’d made it up. In my opinion, he should have got a special award for verisimilitude. Anyhow, I plan to come back to Frey’s remarkable idea of the “premiss”.


[1] To Earthlings, Flightplan is simply a bad movie, but to us martians, there’s no such thing as good or bad, only interesting or not. So check it out.

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