Thinking Inside the Box

Thinking Inside the Box

BALTIMORE — Sometimes, and frequently, people make things a lot more complicated than they need to be. Let’s be innovative! Let’s think outside the box! Every time I hear the latter my automatic response is to cringe, or laugh. To say “think outside the box” is to not be creative at all. It’s an unoriginal cliché to begin with.

What might be unusual these days is to be boring, to think inside the box, and be successful doing it. That feels like an undervalued trait to me. Because if you think something hasn’t been done before, chances are it has. Maybe in a different form, or on a different platform, or in a different language, or by a different group of people, but the solution to your problem has probably been created. You just need to apply it to your specific situation.

Take writing. Let’s say you have trouble coming up with story arc for your brilliant novel. Writer’s block, you might call it. Well, chances are you just don’t know or haven’t planned out what you want to do very well, or considered the simple route.

Some of the most successful story formats in use today have used since the beginning of written time. Our brains actually need to hear and learn stories to make sense of the world, and some of the most consumed tales ever have been told over and over and over again, albeit with different characters and settings and at different times.

Evidence: Several years ago a group of researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide collected computer-generated story arcs for nearly 2,000 works of fiction, and they classified each into one of six core types of narratives, based on what happens to the protagonist.

The mere fact that 2,000 pieces of fiction can be categorized cleanly into six buckets should tell you something. Here are the six:

1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Taking it a step further, the researchers said that “Rags to Riches” was the most popular arc among writers, but it isn’t necessarily the emotional arc that readers reach for the most.

That’s typical. How often do we not take into consideration what the audience, or what the world actually wants? And instead just do whatever we think is cool, or simply what we want to do, just for the sake of being different or what we think is new.

The categories that include the greatest total number of books are not the most popular, the researchers found. They examined total downloads for all books from Project Gutenberg, then divvied them up by mode. Measured this way, “Rags to Riches” is eclipsed by “Oedipus”, “Man in a Hole” and, perhaps not surprisingly, “Cinderella,” all of which were more popular.

The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I., The Atlantic, 2016

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a formula to these things. But often that concept is totally forgotten in whatever noise we have going on in our lives, or someone telling you to think outside the box. There’s times to do that, sure, but it’s not all the time.

What I Wrote or Edited This Week

Could an Adam Jones-Orioles Reunion Be Possible?, Baltimoremagazine.com. The argument for it, before Jones, the former Orioles captain, signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday night.

For class, 100-plus word sketches of nine possible children’s and young adult book characters.

The memoir is edited.

What I Read This Week

Diary of a Concussion. A well-written first-person account of a traumatic brain injury.

What I Watched This Week

NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s very smart thoughts on certain players’ mental health and the fact that they are truly unhappy.

Afterward, Charles Barkley told the millionaires to stop complaining. A few years ago, I would have said the same thing, but mental health problems affect every single person in this world, athletes included. We’re all human, that much we know.

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