OADA Model for Writers

Understanding human behavior in military operations has long been of interest to defense analysts. For several decades I made a living performing analysis and simulation of pilot performance and air combat for the Air Force. Our primary focus was on simulating the human decision making process. One process model we used extensively was comprised of four steps: 1) observe, 2) assess, 3) decide, and 4) act, or OADA. The general idea behind this and similar models is that, when we humans perform rationally, there are clear steps we follow. The first is to observe the situation around us; the second is to assess any changes in our situation; the third is to decide what action (if any) to take if a situational change occurs; and the forth is to take the selected action. Naturally, this is a continuous process we humans “run” in our minds over and over again while we’re awake. The most basic instinct of humans is survival and this process model supports the survival impulse.

As an illustration, suppose I’m walking down the left side of the street when I observe a truck coming towards me on the same side of the street. I initially think nothing of the truck, of course, unless I observe that it is being steered erratically. If its motion is erratic I quickly assess this information and decide to smartly walk toward the left, away from the street and to a nearby brick building. The truck now has my full attention as I observe its continued erratic movement. I move faster and notice an entrance into the building that I can duck into. I observe that the truck has not reduced speed and is now coming over the curb, heading in my general direction. As it does I run into the recessed entrance and try the door. It opens and I enter just as the truck’s front corner hits the front of the brick building and it starts to buckle. I jump as far into the building foyer as I can and, seeing a woman behind a large custom desk, yell to her to take cover as I crawl for the left side of the desk.

In the above example it is obvious that I’m continually observing the situation, assessing what has changed, deciding what I should do about it, and then doing it. When writing about a protagonist (or any character) in a story I find it useful to keep this OADA model in mind. Why? Because I can logically consider what my protagonist is thinking about and what s/he is doing. If nothing much is going on around him, he may be thinking about his goals (wants) and the plans he has developed for reaching them (foreshadowing). Or he may be mulling over events of the past (giving the reader a taste of backstory) or formulating questions or issues that will serve to guide his future activities. In other words, there are many things our characters can be doing and much of it goes on in their minds. Why is this so important? Because knowing this information gives the reader clues as to the character’s worldview and what meanings they associate with what situations. For example, a woman may be in a dangerous situation but feel that as long as her pet Rover is with her she can fend off any attackers. The reader may understand and even relate to this viewpoint but may have a different assessment of the situation. The point is the reader understands why the woman acts the way she does.

There is much more to say about the OADA model and ways to expand it to serve as a tool to help us writers navigate character behavior. This is the first of several posts I plan to write on the topic so stay tuned.

 

Blame Transference

Novels are a rich resource for examining human behavior. To be sure, human behavior is what story writing is all about. When we read a novel and see some parts of ourselves in it this makes the novel more meaningful, more real, and more relevant. We may also see character behaviors that offer insights into the behavior of people we’ve encountered.

From this we might conclude that authors possess extensive training in human psychology. It’s true there are authors who have such training but my research suggests they are a small minority. Apparently this is not a big handicap for most novelist judging by their success. However, readers must judge for themselves how well an author captures human behavior in a story. I observe that many adults have a good grasp of human behavior. Indeed, one need not be old to have encountered many human emotions in one’s self and in others: anger, sadness, excitement, elation, enthusiasm, curiosity, apathy, disappointment, hubris, revenge, and many others. Furthermore, most adults have some understanding of how people relate to each other, including displays of: respect, envy, pity, jealousy, abuse, disregard, resentment, love, and hate. Most emotions can be expressed either against things or against ourselves, or against other people.

In this post, I want to draw attention to blame transference. The word blame suggests that something has gone wrong and there is the issue of who’s responsible. The responsible party is of course the one to blame. The consequences of such blame depend on the circumstances, but a screw-up at work could result in loss of pay, status, or even the job. Our egos can also suffer when we do the adult thing and accept blame when appropriate.

Blame transference is all about people assigning their blame to someone else (or something else) who is not responsible. For example, if Sue has a lousy childhood because of her parent’s dysfunction then they are responsible. Whether Sue blames them or not, interestingly, is another matter. Suppose Sue grew up never feeling unconditional love from her mother. She might blame her mother for this – except she has another conflicting emotion: the desire to put her mother’s needs above hers in an attempt to win her mother’s praise and acceptance. Sue has confused and even replaced the underlying long-unmet need for maternal love with a here-and-now need for her mother’s praise and acceptance. An objective observer might suggest to Sue that as a mature woman she accept that the past cannot be changed and acknowledge her mother’s shortcomings (even confront her if Sue feels the need or will). Further, Sue would do well to seek praise and acceptance elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are not enough objective observers around and Sue doesn’t get the insight she needs until much later in life.

I can say without hesitation that I’ve been guilty of transferring (my) blame to others on several occasions. In general, I can say that at the time (thankfully years ago) I knew I was reacting badly to a difficult situation but didn’t realize I was “taking it out on someone else.” Fortunately, life has a way of educating us as we age and are better able to look back and see things for what they were. As a result, I now do my best to look out for potential transference situations, both in myself and the people around me.

I don’t think fiction writers give this behavioral phenomena as much attention as it deserves. Considering that it can and does cause all manner of problems in people’s lives it should be on the short list of problems for protagonists to have to deal with.

The Perfect Murder Mystery

I’ve read my fair share of mystery novels. It’s a genre I enjoy, although I’m not an expert sleuth. Even so, after years of exposure to mystery stories and “true crime” TV shows I think I’ve got the hang of what an aspiring villain should not do when committing a murder. It’s pretty straightforward – just look at those who got caught and what they did wrong, and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

The first thing a villain must do if committing the perfect murder is have a plan. Whatever the villain does, he/she must not commit a murder at the spur of the moment. The reasons for this are evident in the subsequent rules that follow.

Rule #1: No crimes of passion.

Another painfully obvious observation from true crime stories is that law enforcement is always looking for links between the victim and the killer. These include relatives, in-laws, co-workers, bosses, love interests, and rivals. Clearly, as detectives find and identify links, they hope to discover all possible suspects and then narrow in on the guilty party.

Rule #2: No known relationship to the victim.

Hitchcock’s 1951 movie Strangers on a Train gives us an interesting twist on this rule. In the story two men who meet on a train explore the idea of each killing someone the other wishes to have killed. One wishes his wife dead and the other wants his father dead so he can get his inheritance. Because they are otherwise strangers, this “exchange” of murders represents a good example of Rule #2.

However, another thing that becomes obvious from these stories is that people who go soliciting other people to do their killing make a crucial mistake: now at least one other person knows about their nefarious plan. If the other person goes to the police (before or after any murders happen) the villain is exposed.

Rule #3: Confide in no one.

This was the error made by the murderer in Hitchcock’s movie. Once one of them killed his co-conspirator’s intended victim, the co-conspirator knew he did it. Later a witness verified who the killer was when the “innocent” co-conspirator refused to go through with his side of the deal.

So, we come to the situation where the villain must do the dirty deed himself. The first smart thing to do is to make sure that no forensic evidence is left at the scene of the crime:

Rule #4 Leave no forensic evidence at the crime scene.

Next, it is wise to put as much time and space between the villain and the victim’s death as possible. The classic example of this is the killer secretly damaging the brake lines on the victim’s car. Later, the victim drives down a dangerous road and the brakes fail, causing the car to fall down an embankment and kill the driver. Naturally, the villain is careful not to leave a trace that he was the one who damaged the brakes. Also, the villain is many miles away at the time and place of the driver’s death. A similar but more dramatic approach is to mount an exploding device under the victim’s car. The car ignition could turn on the device and blow up the car and its occupant. Even better, the use of a time delay would trigger the explosion some time later, likely after the car was driven away. This scheme increases the likelihood that the car is moving when the explosion occurs, probably making the crime scene more complicated for the police to analyze.

Rule #5: Ensure separation in time and space between the killer’s actions and the time/place of the murder. Go for the appearance of an accident.

Complying with all the above rules is very nearly impossible. Thus, the villain needs a technological solution in order to achieve the perfect murder. Specifically, the villain needs a non-human (i.e. robot) co-conspirator that can do the dirty work yet never “spill the beans.” This could be something as simple as a flying drone programmed to fly to the victim’s location and crash/explode on them (essentially a smart bomb). Or it could be a sophisticated humanoid robot that gets the job done much like a human would (using a gun, knife, explosives, fisticuff, etc.). As long as these robotic devices are not traceable back to the villain, and the villain ensures he has a solid alibi, a perfect murder appears possible.

Now having laid down the theoretical requirements for the perfect murder mystery, there is only one concern left to address. If, as Rule #2 states, the villain has no relationship with the victim, why would they want to kill them? In true crimes, interestingly, this situation occurs rather often. It occurs every time a drug addict kills a stranger while attempting to rob them.

 

Read More Fiction – Simile Sins

Successful fiction writers have a few pieces of advice they all have in common. In this post, I want to address this one: read more fiction. According to this popular viewpoint, one of the best ways to learn how to write fiction is to read a lot of it. In the past few years I’ve tried to follow this advice by both reading more fiction and reading a wider range of fiction. Outside of my mainstay genre of science fiction, I’ve read mysteries, thrillers, YA, and adventures. This has given me a broader perspective on many aspects of story writing.

A consequence of reading more is I also read more closely. And hence, also more critically. I think this is natural for me as I’ve spent much of my life analyzing things. I tend to read the first sentence of a paragraph, consider its meaning, and then go to the next and repeat the process. I mentally combine the meanings as I read along and form a collective overall interpretation of the paragraph. If the paragraph is well structured it is clear to me what it says and what it accomplishes in the narrative.

I’ve found that some sentences can be very disruptive to this process. The nature of this disruption can be described by my reaction to reading one of them; usually the reaction is, “Say what?” I’ve noted that certain types of sentences cause this reaction more often than others. Specifically, this seems to happen the most when I come across similes.

Many fiction writers either believe, or have been taught, that similes are essential creative “brushstrokes” in the world of literary fiction. There’s no doubt that a well-formed simile is a joy to encounter. It tends to enrich us, perhaps even provide us insight. On the other hand, poor similes can throw me right out of the story. What follows is what I consider a pretty good simile:

“Getting Joe to take out the trash is like trying to push a rope.”

What makes this a good simile is that we are all familiar with rope and we all know that, while it works well for pulling things, it is not good for pushing things. Unfortunately, rope does not give us any insight into Joe.

The following is a sentence I arbitrarily picked from a published fiction novel involving sailboats:

“His fingers kept crawling up the sides of his jacket like crabs”.

Not bad in my view. We’ve all seen crabs or videos of them and have seen their sideways movement. There may even be a bit of insight if the jacket wearer’s fingers are slender.

Let’s try another one, also from a fiction novel but this one was published by one of the big five publishing houses:

“The blossoms smelled like sex as the warm breeze scattered a confetti of pedals upon us.”

Ugh! I have all kinds of problems with this sentence. First, I did a Google search and there are many opinions about what sex smells like. Only a few mentioned anything about blossoms or the like. Second, sex doesn’t really have much to do with the paragraph this line appears in (take my word for it) although the first-person author may have had romance on her mind. Third, the phrase a confetti of doesn’t work well when we all know that confetti is composed of different colored very small pieces of paper. I would drop out the phrase entirely. Here is how I would have written the sentence:

“The warm breeze scattered the fragrant blossom pedals upon us.” 

Of course, this is no longer a simile. However, we all have experienced fragrant blossoms and can readily envision the wind scattering them on us. Sometimes as writers we work too hard to try to form creative, enriching similes. I’m especially mindful of the definition of words when composing a simile. If I end up with a simile that I feel might be a stretch, or is awkward, I take it out rather than risk throwing the reader out of my story.

Here is one last one –  taken from a book on fiction writing:

“Fiction writing can be a difficult, lonely job – like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”

This is pretty good although I’m not a big fan of it. On the one hand, I get what the author means. On the other hand, why the Atlantic Ocean? The Pacific Ocean is by far the largest ocean. Perhaps the author didn’t think people would know that, or be that picky; after all, the Atlantic is the second largest. I think I understand the bathtub: we all are familiar with them, they have no locomotion, and no way to steer. Also, they are too small for much company. Thus, the trip would certainly be slow going and lonely at best.

Unfortunately, the bathtub offers no insight into writing (not even if one is talking about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho). Another reason I am not a fan of this simile is that, while I’ve done a lot of travelling, I’ve never crossed the Atlantic Ocean (so I have no personal reference as to how big it is). I have flown across the Pacific Ocean, but that goes back to my earlier comment. Lastly, there is a strong element of danger in crossing an ocean in a bathtub that has no counterpart in fiction writing.

If I had tried to write this simile I would have left the ocean and bathtub out of it. Rather, I’d have gone for phrases like self-incarceration with extended periods of solitary confinement. The thing about self-incarceration that appeals to me is that, interestingly enough, it would give me plenty of time to both read and write fiction.