Pattern recognition is something we all learn as children and is, in fact, a crucial step in early childhood development, such as recognizing our parents’ faces. As we get older, we learn to read, we learn to understand what traffic lights mean, what signage all over the place means, we learn to decode jargon and spot sarcasm and irony, and so on. In other words, our ability to spot patterns grows. Some say that this ability is an integral aspect of humanity and that, for example, until robots can achieve high levels of pattern recognition, they will never be able to surpass humans. Some interesting readings on A.I. and pattern recognition can be found here and here. However, today I want to look at a layer to pattern recognition that isn’t often talked about and I believe for the older writer, is something that we can use to our advantage when plotting, writing, and editing a story.
How many times have you read a book or watched a movie and thought, ah, I know what is going to happen here – and, for the most part, you are correct? Besides being a fun parlor trick, this is also a level of pattern recognition that takes years to accumulate. For me, it means 30plus years of reading thousands of stories and books, watching entire weeks-worth of movies and TV shows, listening and singing along to endless hours of songs, etc. And yet, without meaning to, I have – like I think all bookworms and media-consumers of a certain age have – developed a high pattern recognition level when it comes to tropes, motifs, archetypes, and themes in our cultural creations. I mean, that is the whole point of them, right, but it really rings a bell at a deeper almost intuitive level now that I am older. So, this is not quite as sweeping as it sounds, which means here come the caveats: of course, I am somewhat a creature of my environment, which means there are large swaths of the world whose culture I know very little of, much less the commonly-told tropes in their stories. I am also a child of the 80s, a cis-gendered white woman to boot, and I like the genres and categories of media that I like, so lots of limitations there as well. Still, the pattern recognition goes deep.
It is one thing to recognize which wooden block goes where in a child’s game, but it is another thing to be able to spot a love triangle a mile away, to recognize a rags to riches story in just a few words, to see aspects of the Hero’s Journey* or the Fool’s Journey being played out or attempted to be played out by friends or to realize that you yourself have been following these well-worn steps too. This ability reminds me of the book The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey where the titular godmother is constrained to follow “The Tradition,” aka fairy tale archetypes, or else. This means, for example, when she spots a would-be “Cinderella” then she must make sure that the girl’s life follows the steps of the Cinderella tale, no deviations allowed. Same as girls with long hair must be Rapunzels, young men must be helped with quests, and so on. It’s a fairly fluffy and fun read, but I really enjoyed and remember the godmother’s reaction and recognition of those tropes and how they could be manipulated *because* she knew them so well.
This is just the tip of the iceberg if you want to study these patterns that we recognize in our stories. For example, there are story beats that are used with pacing issues particularly. There is also the whole study of folklore, starting with the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale and continuing with the works by Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes. And of course, there’s the study of the Tarot, aka the Fool’s Journey mentioned above, as well as Campbell if you really must.* But just by perceiving this ability you have been long cultivating, there is already a lot that can be done. Look at your writing and see if you recognize any characters or plots that are familiar to these patterns and see how that can be turned around, subverted, or uplifted and expounded on. In other words, be aware of the patterns in your own writing. Or, if you haven’t started, find one that particularly resonates with you and use that as a jumping-off point. If you haven’t seen it before, delve into the exhausting richness that is TVtropes.org. You will be sure to make connections, see patterns, and start writing. This all may be boringly obvious to many writers, but for me, it has been a real a-ha moment.
* It must be noted that there are all kinds of problems with Campbell’s monomyth theory, of course, and anyhow the theory itself has been played out, in my opinion, particularly in movies, partially due to the deluge of screenwriting books that are structured around this Hero’s Journey idea. Still, it is undeniably a deep part of the culture and thus recognizable in the stories we are told.