Crafting Stories with Spontaneous Order

Pioneered by economist Friedrich Hayek, “Spontaneous Order” is the idea that in a mess of apparent chaos – an order usually appears, without specific guiding direction by any single person.  It’s a common explainer of things that we experience everyday, examples including language, which naturally arose without direction, the internet, where the best websites rise and remain successful among millions of duds, and in market exchanges and trades made between interacting people.  Evolution is also often cited as an example of “Spontaneous Order.”

This is an explosive idea.  When you start to look at your daily interactions, you see evidence of spontaneous order in everything.  Ever walk up or down a busy escalator in a big city and notice two separate lines naturally form?  One, with individuals choosing to ride the escalator passively, standing on one side, making room for those who would rather move quickly down or up the escalator on the opposite side.  Occasionally you’ll see a sign indicating this is the norm, but usually it just happens.  Spontaneous Order.

What is the secret of this principle, and what does it have to do with writing?

One theory about the origin of spontaneous order is that things have a nature, and usually act in accordance to their nature.  In the case of our escalator example, people want to achieve their own aim and not harass or be harassed by others.  The result: if your aim is to ride passively, you clear out of the way of the person whose aim is walk briskly.  Why?  Because conflicting aims profit neither you or the other person and lead to negative consequences for both of you.  You don’t want to be harassed.  You want to ride passively.  He doesn’t want to harass you.  He wants to walk down the escalator.  Spontaneous Order, if we follow this theory, is the natural alignment of all things in accordance to their nature to work harmoniously.

When we create a story, we create characters who have particular natures.  They need things, they want things, and action is their means to achieve their ends.  In writing a story without pre-planned structuring, what I have noticed is that the feeling of “self direction” I’ve talked about, where the story seems to communicate to you where it’s going, is largely a result of strong willed characters taking action.  I give the characters their nature, their desires, and very quickly the options become extremely limited as to how they would act to arrive at homeostasis, to arrive at the fulfillment of their nature.  The most action on my part is the act of sustaining the conflict.  If I took little control over the impulse of this character, he would want something, get it, and that’s the end of the story.  He’s happy, I’m not.  Short stories are wonderful, but you don’t learn as much from a page as you do from ten or twelve.  So as I go along, following this character’s actions, I start putting up road blocks, creating walls.  The character’s impulses change in response to these inconveniences.  Pretty soon, you have a much longer narrative, with a character who has been forced to step out of their comfort zone and use more challenging means to arrive at their desired ends.

As I’ve written about previously, all stories desire homeostasis.  Spontaneous order is the means by which they attempt to arrive at that homeostasis, through the nature and will of the characters actions.