Using the concept of the Critical Path when writing fiction

Engineers and managers are all familiar with the concept of the Critical Path in a chart of the workflow on a project: it is the set of things which have to be done in a particular order and sequence to get to the end of the project, and for which there is no possible alternative.

For example, you can’t put up the walls of a house until the foundation and the floor over it is in (don’t get creative on me – the effort to build the walls first, and then create a foundation etc. – familiar to those tasked with moving an old house – is the exception which proves (TESTS) the rule).

This concept helps a lot when writing a scene.

Words appear on a book’s pages in linear order (again, don’t get cute on me with ‘pick your own adventure’ stories and embedded links in new-style ebooks). Movies start at the first frame – and you watch them in order. Life proceeds along a timeline, second by second. Chronological is the logical order for putting stories into a mind.

It seems obvious. But when assembling a scene out of pieces, all the results of brainstorming, all the things in your conception of the book which somehow ‘belong’ in this scene, the critical path (CP) becomes the structure to build on.

Bob can’t say to Janet: “I like your red hat” until Janet comes in, wearing the hat.

Janet can’t think: ‘Bob is an idiot for liking this horrible hat’ or ‘Bob is a sweetheart who always says he likes my hat’ until Bob says something.

Critical paths can’t be shortened unless individual segments within them can be shortened. For example, it takes a team of three Amish brothers ten days to build a tiny house on a trailer, because it takes three days to prepare the trailer. If, instead, the trailer could be ordered ready-to-build, without the extra metal bits it takes the Amish brothers three days to remove with welding tools and metal grinding tools, then the house will take seven days to build.

Critical paths are segments which, laid end to end, form the SHORTEST path through the project. In a well-run project, all other parts will be done in parallel, so as to be ready when needed. Just like on a project workflow chart, making an actual timeline is useful when a scene seems stuck.

Once the critical path = the minimum required path = the shortest path is laid out, other things can run in parallel (such as actions going on in the background of a movie).

A chronological consideration for scenes is: How long does the scene take in real time? If there is an action scene in which timing is critical, things happen one after another – and there may not be time to insert long paragraphs of thought, not only because the characters are busy, but also because even thoughts take time – and the time isn’t there.

I lay the scene out with the CP composed of actions and dialogues first, because those things take ‘actual’ time. Then I decide where to put the critical path pieces of introspection from the pov character, those which are crucial to the story, which occur in a fuzzier ‘inner’ or ‘thought’ time. This forms the skeleton of the scene. A read-through should confirm all essential pieces are included, and the scene makes sense.

Only then do I find places for the other necessary pieces of the scene – the bits that have to go in this scene somewhere. Setting, description, backstory, foreshadowing, voice and style, characterization and theme. And try to get the words right.

Then I read and edit for flow. I read it out loud if I’m not sure. I compare to the pov character’s other scenes for consistency.

The rest is art, and can’t always be justified precisely in the logical world (and shouldn’t be).

But with the CP underpinning, the scene has a fighting chance not to set off the reader’s ‘Wait a minute – that doesn’t make any sense’ detectors. Or mine.

It helps with brain fog. Does anyone else write this way?


2 thoughts on “Using the concept of the Critical Path when writing fiction

  1. Circe

    This is helpful for non-fiction writers as well! The world tends to unfold chronologically, and keeping that in mind will help me order some sections. Theory wants to jump in before my readers know the timeline. The Middle Ages are background to what I am writing, but aside from an introductory chapter, I have to revisit them, the Reformation, and etc., before arriving at the present. The tricky part is visiting more than one geographical location as well as point in time. In that case, I am working from broad to narrow, but collapsing two chapters into one to avoid repetitions. The conversations in my head or page must wait their turn. Some theory, or foreshadowing of future theoretical discussions, wants to sneak in, if only to explain the purpose, relevance, or (detest it as I may) the “so what” of burdening the reader with history.
    Did you create the CP method? You appear to have one of the least foggy brains of which I know. Your defogging techniques seem to be working well!


    1. ABE Post author

      The human brain craves order (at least the one I got does). To the point of finding ‘order’ in random events, if necessary, which is one of the logical fallacies you have to guard against. We know this instinctively when telling stories out loud to one other person – as when you tell a story to a friend over lunch.

      It’s when you try to do it do a group, or an audience you most probably won’t ever meet, such as when you write, that the brain trips itself up and gets all literary on itself. I find ways wherever I can to counter that tendency, because I’m as fond of the well-turned phrase as the next writer.

      The critical path graph concept isn’t mine, and isn’t even new – anyone who has been in charge of building a battleship or a nuclear submarine has one hanging on the wall: it is what determines when to buy the champagne for the launch party (hmmm – I like that image).

      I just stole it. I do a lot of techniques on paper that I used to do in my mind – it seems to help, and apparently helps me maintain the illusion of functioning – thanks for the compliment!



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