Thursday, December 10, 2009

How is Plot like a Rube Goldberg Machine?

Kersten Hamilton poses this question on her Unblog. Her comparison of plot to Rube Goldberg machines could not have come along in a more timely manner.

I just got back from India via Singapore, Tokyo and LA. At LA International Airport, the layover was too long and diversions for the stranded too few. An art exhibit with moving parts drew much attention. It was mounted on a board and placed on the landing on the way to the (closed at 11 pm) food court. Several people, including toddlers, teenagers, and a few gray-haired birds like me, stopped for long periods of time to gape at metal spheres dropping down plastic chutes and setting off pinging bells. Parts moved seemingly at random, but in fact their movement was dependent on the lifting or falling of flaps and lids farther back along the continuum. One section of the maze got stuck sometime close to midnight. This caused the spheres to pile up. It also caused an exhausted child to throw a screaming fit, until a couple of guys in airport maintenance uniforms came along, turned the whole thing off, and fixed the jam.

The machine (wish I'd taken a picture) both attracted and demanded attention. Plot attracts attention from a reader. The events of plot engage us in the story at its most immediate but they should ideally lead us into more introspective terrain, allow us to link cause and effect, invite us to engage with the characters. Plot also demands attention from the writer. You have to take care of it, or it will come back later to bite you and make you scream. Better you than the reader.

The machine at LAX was Goldberg-like in that it was over-engineered. It employed way more pulleys and shafts and gears and pinging bells than were really needed to make those metal spheres drop into their shutes. Those of us who worry about our plotting abilities also often tend to over-engineer our story lines. Too many characters end up serving the same purpose. Too many story turns lead nowhere. Speaking for myself, I always have to plant too many of these superficial events in an early draft. In draft form, redundancy is actually a note to myself--Hey U! Pay attention to this and figure out what it means! When I'm ready for this next layer of story, I can think about which events are really needed, and which ones ought to be cut.

The machine was all at the same distance from the viewer. This is not true of all Rube Goldberg devices, some of which can be elaborately three-dimensional, but it was true of this one. Plot, unless it's backed up by sufficient depth of character, can be flat, all at the same distance from the reader. Plot with insufficient motivation can be simply puzzling. You see a lot happening but you have no idea why.

The guys in uniforms who came along to fix the machine served the same function as the live animals in Rube Goldberg's drawings--a pencil sharpener for example involves a squirrel popping out of its hole and a bird pecking away. The reader serves this function with reference to plot. As writers we must refrain from making every last connection explicit on the page. We avoid didacticism when we trust that the reader is intelligent enough to get the point.

Rube's drawings were absurd in nature, and it's their absurdity that provokes laughter. One genre that bends the conventions of plot, laughs at them and invites the reader to do likewise is humor. In humorous writing, the links can be twisted, shaped, and reshaped. Absurdity can be taken to fantastic levels. Form itself can be re-engineered and employed to comic effect, with the reader invited to be part of the joke.

So Kersten, here's your answer. Indirection is probably the biggest lesson a fiction writer can learn from Rube. Plotting can be fun if you come at it slantwise.


  1. You're so right. An intricate plot that works is like a beautiful machine that delivers the reader, through unexpected twists and turns, to the final destination. So much easier said than done, but thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Lovely post, Uma. I love the analogy and the message...tell it slant!
    Thank you.

  3. Well said, except where it might be taken to mean anything goes in the imagination behind Story. Good Story is good for Life; stupid or wrongful Story makes destructive themes appear valid.

    The ubiquitous, well published, latter IS the weakness of Rube Goldberg plots and themes!