The British novelist Jasper Fforde joined attendees of the Brisbane Writers Festival in Queensland, Australia to explore the creation of plausible, intriguing imaginary worlds in a half-day workshop.
Fforde is known for eclectic genre-bending novels including the Thursday Next series, which follow the exploits of a woman who is able to cross the boundary between literature and her reality.
I was interested to see if Fforde’s work could be useful for strategists and foresight professionals trying to craft evocative visions of the futures we might inhabit. Although his stories tend to be set in wild and comic universes, his workshop had more than a few nuggets of wisdom for people trying to imagine futures they could strategically act on.
Fforde opened the workshop by emphasising that the literature of the fantastic isn’t about prediction – he gave Blade Runner as an example of science fiction which was not diminished by the fact its version of 2019 did not include cellphones.
“We’re looking for plausibility, not believability”, he told attendees. This is akin to the premise of scenario planning, where the aim is not to predict the future, but to craft visions of futures which would challenge our assumptions. (You don’t evaluate a scenario on whether it comes to pass or not, but whether it aids you in making strategic decisions).
In the same spirit, Fforde pointed out that many apparent novelties were merely evolutions of things that already existed. Many technological innovations – including the mobile phone – were really just a matter of taking existing inventions and making them smaller and faster. He drew a parallel between the “text speak” shortcuts we use on a cellphone and the various abbreviations and acronyms which were used to shorten messages in the days of the telegraph.
Fforde explained how his novels consisted of what he called “the logical progression of an idea”, beginning with a “narrative dare”: a question or principle which he would tease out to the fullest over the course of a book.
He gave the example of asking what roads would look like 1500 years from now. Imagining them to be self-repairing technologies, he decided that they might glow at night, warm themselves in winter, and perhaps even nourish themselves by “eating” matter such as leaves which fell onto them. (Larger blockages could be displaced by the roads shifting them to the verge on a rolling wave).
Then Fforde imagined the road surface keeping an impression or palimpsest of the things that it had eaten – an afterimage, even, of some hapless soul who decided to sleep one night on the self-warming blacktop of a carnivorous future highway.
In Fforde’s book Shades of Grey, this mental sketch becomes “Perpetulite”, a “self-maintaining building compound, used mostly for roads […] Intelligent and with a powerful memory, Perpetulite draws organic nutrients from the air and soil to maintain its rigid agenda.”
The substance becomes part of the adventure on which Fforde takes his characters, and proves able to convey people even when they lack vehicles, by carrying them across Fforde’s future England on a rolling wave.
Stranger still, the fanciful wonder substance seemed rather more close to reality when Dutch roadways piloted road markings which used a self-charging glow-in-the-dark “photoluminising powder”.
Fforde found that extending and iterating his stray thoughts often yielded provocative and original visions. A single idea in itself might not be especially original, but a good writer trying to imagine the future would build on their first thought several times, taking the “less well-trodden path” on each occasion in order to arrive at something truly unconventional and provocative. The very best ideas, said Fforde, were the ones that “had legs” and didn’t exhaust themselves quickly, providing substantial fodder for a novel – or for a strategic conversation that challenges our assumptions.
“You get to a unique idea by taking enough steps off the well-trodden path,” Fforde concluded. “You look down and find that you’re stumbling through originality.”
Taking a snapshot
Once Fforde had found the idea, built from the original “narrative dare” which he set himself, he began building a story.
This involved repeatedly moving forward and backward through the plot, tweaking it as he went, adjusting and correcting text as the story revealed itself to him and he incorporated new ideas.
Much as foresight work is only valuable if it can inform decision making, Fforde told participants that “Ideas are just an exercise in empty cleverness if they’re not made relevant to the plot of your novel”.
He explained that he didn’t strictly plan his work in advance, often discovering character and plot as he proceeded through his early drafts. Subsequently, he might excise irrelevant material, combine multiple characters into a single figure (sometimes creating complex and conflicting personalities by doing this), and trim down the worldbuilding so that only enough remained to guide the reader.
“You are not writing an entire world,” he told attendees, “you are writing a snapshot – a vignette of a much larger world”.
The same applies for scenarios, which contain just enough information to provoke useful strategic discussions. Overburdening decisionmakers with the detail of an imagined world can hamper the process of actually deciding what to do next. The trick, for both Fforde and the scenario planners, is to figure out the details which are necessary and evocative, making action compelling and driving the reader to ask: “What next?”
“Get your information to people, get your picture into their head, in as efficient a way as possible,” Fforde said. “It doesn’t need to be loaded with a massive backstory – you can cut out huge amounts, leaving in the bare bones so that readers get where you are going.”
Once a great fictional world has been imagined, the writer can explore it, but so can writers of fanfiction – just as scenarios and strategic visions can be shared to provoke a wide-ranging, open-ended conversation. As Fforde pointed out, great ideas tend to leach out into a wider creative ecosystem in time:
“Speculative fiction is the sandbox of the literary world, and the ideas we play with will furnish other writers’ books many years on.”
Moving the cloud
Much of writing can be taught, or learned by trial and error, according to Fforde: techniques of plot or characterization or dialogue, structural elements and flourishes. However, he said that “the 3% that really makes a difference to your storytelling is who you are and how you see the world”, that unique and irreducibly personal idiosyncracy.
Fforde gave Douglas Adams as an example of the kind of writer who might not always offer the most ornate or well-wrought prose, but whose unique and well-thought-out worldview made his every book compelling. (We spent some enjoyable time reflecting on the way Adams uses his Babel Fish, which can translate all known languages as a byproduct of feeding on brainwaves, to forward an argument for the non-existence of God).
What’s the equivalent of this “irreducible 3%” in foresight and strategy work? It’s exactly the same: the unique experience, perspective, identity, and worldview that you bring to a conversation. Your way of seeing the world enriches the conversations that you can have about the future; a diverse group of people bring distinctive worldviews will have livelier conversations about what might awaits, asking a wider range and variety of questions.
Given that foresight work is an art and not a science, bringing one’s whole and complex self to the conversation can be hugely beneficial, as together we try to tease out the futures which could await us and which would be most likely to challenge the way we currently see the world.
Fforde emphasised the extent to which our personal values have an impact on the world, and should therefore be the subject of reflection. He said that we write, and make strategic decisions, in order to “huff the cloud of collective consciousness” in a favourable direction.
The No-Plan Plan
One of the issues which comes up in strategy work is the extent to which you should plan, and the rigidity and level of detail which you should expect from your plans.
Often a rigid plan can prove to be a burden rather than a benefit; as futures emerge which were not those which we anticipated or favoured, it turns out that it’s more useful to be flexible and judicious from moment to moment, than overcommitted to a prescribed future.
Fforde described how his own novels are written in an improvised, unplanned way, moving forward from an initial premise to explore plot, characters, and situation in a way which demands him to hop forward and back. Gradually he weaves something which is coherent, compelling, and sufficient to the needs of his readers without being overloaded with detail.
Instead of explicitly planning for future events in his work, Fforde would lay in little details and comments in his drafts which could later be expanded into key plot points or story elements. (He gives the example of a recipe for “Unscrambled Eggs” mentioned as an aside in an earlier book, which later pays off in a discussion of time travel).
Fforde told attendees at his workshop:
“I knew I didn’t have a plan when writing my book, so I had to plan for not having a plan. So instead, I left myself little jumping-off points to explore in the future”.
Fforde compared these points to spotting dropped kerbs on the sidewalk of an uninhabited road. A passer-by can see these features and know that there is a plan to build houses there at a future date.
This reminded me of two aspects of good strategic planning. One is the ability to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances, sometimes by preparing an anticipatory playbook of situations and actions which might be faced.
The other is the sense, articulated by Pierre Wack, that the future has in some ways already happened, and a good strategist is merely looking to explore the implications of how it will unfold, moving forward from the present. Such a strategist will look at the heavy rain which is falling in the mountains and knows that this will mean floods downriver tomorrow, and high water at the river’s mouth on the day after that.
In the same way, the features, like dropped kerbs, which Fforde litters his text with, are story elements which have the capacity yet to unfold.
Finishing it off
How much is enough planning? How much is enough novel writing?
Maybe it is never truly possible to say. Fforde cited the old saw that a novel is never truly finished, merely abandoned. Because the motor for his creativity is the “narrative dare” – equivalent to the challenge or problem posed to a strategist by their client – Fforde must decide when he has complied with the challenge he set himself, and move on to a new one.
It reminded me of something Rafael Ramirez had told me about “good enough” scenario planning:
“The metaphor I use is buying a television. If you don’t have a lot of time, or your organisation has been cut back, you may have to do only a good-enough piece of work: like buying a cheap black-and-white television to see who has won the World Series.
If you have enough time or funds, you can buy yourself a big colour television which shows more detail about what is happening. You can put your scenarios in the local newspaper to ensure they are widely seen and widely circulated, and if you are doing that, it is worth spending more time, seeking more opinions, circulating the scenarios beforehand.
To get more detail, better arguments, better references: a better, more detailed colour picture on your television. But getting started costs very little indeed.”
So there might be a pragmatic reason to stop planning, or stop writing that novel, but it is held in tension with the drive to make your story as good and as useful as it can be – whether that’s for the purpose of entertaining the reader, or informing strategic leadership.
As Fforde put it,
“The drive to make it better, to keep reworking it to be the best it can be – the sense that it’s not good enough yet – that’s the furnace that keeps your creativity going.”
I hope these notes help to keep your furnace burning bright too. Best wishes from the Brisbane Writers Festival 2019.