PYRAMIDS OF POWER
By Steven Savage
Archives available at The Way With Worlds Home Page
"As Brett Strongchin watched the Dark General fall, he knew now the world was safe, the Evil Army would be destroyed, he'd get the girl, and all would be well."
Wait a second here . . .
"Kono pointed his finger, and released a blast of Psi-Ki energy equal to 20,000 nova-ing stars, and decimated his opponent. This was easily accomplished, without fears of gravitic distortion, radiation poisoning, control, or a source of energy."
These are hideously egregious examples of parts of stories where things seem to happen too easily, where cause and effect done line up, and where simple actions have unbelievably massive repercussions. They can ruin stories; we laugh at them when we see them or grit our teeth, and we fear we may write them ourselves.
How do you avoid turning your hero into a world-toppling plot device, or creating weapons that make standard videogame fare look logical? I'm sure you'll be utterly shocked to discover I have a theory on this, and a helpful concept on designing how power and influence, from armies to psychic powers. Control your utter surprise, and read on about the Power Pyramids.
And I'm sorry I couldn't think of a better name.
THE POWER PROCESS:
Nothing happens without a reason. That seems obvious in writing, but the problem is having the correct reasons - and enough of them. The more of an effect something has, the more powerful a being is or the more deadly an army, the more you have to explain and explain in an effective manner. When figuring out how your characters, organizations, devices, etc. influence each other, get ready to put in some thought.
A character may be able to fight well because of a good trainer, or prefer to keep their hair short because they're used to it. Those are simple explanations for simple effects, and you really don't need much more than that. However, when you're explaining how a gigantic rampaging army remains gigantic or rampaging or how your advanced weapons gizmo decimates cities, then you've got more to do.
Visualize it as a pyramid. The higher you want to go, the more solid concepts you have to put into place. The more powerful the rampaging army, the more you'll have to explain and understand logistics, resources, and political impact. A deadly weapon will require resources and intelligence to develop and either a useful automated system or a trained staff to use. All your explanations combine to a "point" - a goal to be achieved, the top of the pyramid.
In addition, when building your "power pyramid" remember one issue that many people forget - how things do not get out of hand. A huge army can get out of control, suffer mutinies, and more. A deadly device can misfire/malfunction. A biological weapon can cause unexpected devastation, a visiting alien race may be benevolent but they may make errors that cause social unrest. When you have an effect, you may have unexpected effects, and need to explain why those don't happen.
THE EFFECTS OF POWER:
When writing I tend to think of two basic ways to achieve a result: by force and by subtlety. Writing either takes thought, so I'll address them separately.
RESULTS BY FORCE:
These seem simple to write - the Evil Army conquers the kingdom, the hero kicks the bad guy's rear end thanks to his training, the doctors cure the disease with a superpowerful antibiotic. Call it what you will, but in many cases you're just writing "force wins in the end." Its easy to do and in many cases logical
Unfortunately, explaining results achieved by force requires two things that can often be forgotten:
1) How is the force used (be it intellectual, military, technical, etc.) powered and how is it achieved? Its easy to hand out superpowers, armies, etc. but harder to explain just how much force is brought to bear. If you want a planetary devastation beam, that's going to take quite a source of energy. If you're going to have someone running a massive corporation, that's a lot of organization (and marketing, and useful products, and even more).
2) What are the side effects of this use of massive force? Brute power, be it military or financial, is not subtle. Taking a country, acquiring a rival, etc. all have repercussions - a military attack destroys resources and creates bad feelings, a corporate takeover may mean people who hate you are now part of your company. As mentioned above, track unexpected side effects when you have characters exert power, but especially when force is involved.
Force takes energy, and force is not subtle. Keep that in mind.
RESULTS BY SUBTLETY:
Subtlety is often forgotten when one writes. It can be more interesting to have the hero kick backside than solve things cleverly. However, realistically, things to happen because of subtlety, and some genres (mystery, romance) will require subtlety in many cases.
Whereas getting a result by force means overwhelming something, achieving things by subtlety means your characters achieve their end by not overwhelming a target. They may make personal connections, kill off an important individual, perform an action at a specific time that affects things critically, etc.
Of course, there are challenges to writing subtlety:
1) Subtlety requires the knowledge and intellect and skill to have an effect. A detective has to be able to put clues together. A seducer has to be able to charm. An assassin trying to stop a coup has to kill the right person.
2) Subtlety can be thought of as working at a "critical-point" - making a connection with another person, finding the right clue, etc. Make sure the critical points ARE critical points, that seducing the Queen will really make a difference, that finding that clue really solves the mystery.
Subtlety also may have to be communicated at least a bit to your reader so they know what's going on. Sometimes you can be too subtle, and loose the reader.
With great power comes great challenges in writing. Remember, just as force can backfire and subtlety can be lost, not writing power correctly can ruin a story. Take your time and think ahead.