The Butterfly Effect In Storytelling

There’s a Jurassic Park quote I paraphrase often, and that’s “Life finds a way.”

On the blog, you’ll find me saying “Life finds a way to get in the way,” typically regarding setting writing goals for myself or when something doesn’t go as planned in my non-writing life and I have to rearrange my schedule because of it.

Jurassic Park also offers its own variation on today’s subject: The Butterfly Effect.

As Dr. Malcolm puts it, “It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. The shorthand is ‘the butterfly effect.’ A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine.”

The Butterfly Effect isn’t a means of predicting the weather. Instead, it’s something of a form of Cause and Effect.

In recent years, there has been a rise in choice-based and story-driven video games. Titles like Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, Life Is Strange, Until Dawn, and Detroit: Become Human operate on player choice, meaning that the player is in control of the storyline but is also made to face the consequences of their actions (in most cases, at least. We’ll save my feelings about the final choice in Life Is Strange for another day).

The Butterfly Effect is also one of the techniques I use in writing, and with one of my all-time favorite games, Detroit: Become Human, being released on Steam this past week two years after its PS4 debut, it seems like an opportune time to share the role it plays in the plotting stages of my process.

Note: Spoilers ahead for several of the aforementioned choice-based games, as well as Undertale, Man of Medan, and Life Is Strange 2.

What Is The Butterfly Effect?

Sorry, Ashton Kutcher fans! We’re not here to break down the 2004 film of the same name.

The Butterfly Effect has its origins in chaos theory. Essentially, it is the idea that a small change can result in massive consequences at a later point in time. The common example, as detailed by Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, is a butterfly. This butterfly is depicted as flying, and the flapping of its wings is able to stir up just enough wind to contribute to a storm.

The idea is associated with the work of American mathematician and meteorologist  Edward Lorenz, with his description of The Butterfly Effect coming about in 1969.

Years prior, in 1963, Lorenz published a paper titled “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow” in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, which included his findings that atmospheric modelling is typically not able to make long-term predictions.

As he states in that paper, “Two states differing by imperceptible amounts may eventually evolve into two considerably different states…If, then, there is any error whatever in observing the present state—and in any real system such errors seem inevitable—an acceptable prediction of an instantaneous state in the distant future may well be impossible….In view of the inevitable inaccuracy and incompleteness of weather observations, precise very-long-range forecasting would seem to be nonexistent.”

Here, Lorenz means that these devices tend to be inaccurate in their predictions because they cannot account for changes that initially imperceptible, so they cannot always be relied upon for long-term predictions.

One factor of The Butterfly Effect is the inability to see how far the consequences may extend. As such, we may fail to notice the tiniest of changes, and these tiny changes may seem inconsequential and have an impact we can only understand in retrospect.

The Butterfly Effect In Video Games

Choice-based video games have become increasingly popular in recent years.

I personally think the rise of streaming on platforms like YouTube and Twitch are among the reasons for this. When a streamer goes live, a choice-based game can lead to more interaction with their audience because they can let viewers decide what choices to make via chat or polls, which can help or hinder them. This may lead to the “Good Ending” or what would be considered a successful playthrough, viewers seeing outcomes they themselves or other streamers did not get, or just laughing at the streamer’s reaction when they accidentally kill off everyone in the lodge in Until Dawn after nearly getting everyone out alive.

When starting the game, players will be greeted with a message of how the game changes based on their choices. Some will not mention The Butterfly Effect by name, whereas others like Life Is Strange hit you over the head with it.

Games like Until Dawn might offer glimpses of what is to come, in this case via totems players find on the ground while exploring their environment, that can guide the player to the outcomes they most desire, but others just leave a little note like “Clementine will remember that” in The Walking Dead games or have a little butterfly symbol pop up on the screen to inform the player they have done something that has altered the course of the story.

In the case of Life Is Strange, the player can use Max’s rewind powers to go back and undo something, but for the most part these choices are commitments and cannot be changed. With high-pressure situations and timed QTEs that can have their own consequences if ignored, it can make for compelling gameplay.

These games tend to allow for and even encourage multiple playthroughs, as players might be led to wonder what would have happened if they had done that one thing differently or might want to play completely differently. The first ending someone playing Life Is Strange 2 might be that in which Sean crosses the Mexican border and Daniel remains in the US. Since the game’s four possible endings depend not only what you choose for Sean but the role model he’s been for Daniel, the player may be inclined to do a second playthrough with Sean being on the meaner side or have him decide to surrender to the police rather than flee to Mexico—or both.

A Pacifist Run in Undertale compared to doing a Genocide Run is another example of this, as the game is impacted by how often you kill or spare monsters in your path.

Special achievements may also be unlocked for playing the game more than once, like the “I’ll Be Back” trophy in Detroit: Become Human, earned for killing Connor in every possible scenario.

Man of Medan encourages a second go (and seems to want to justify its short length) by unlocking the Curator’s Cut after completing the initial playthrough. This allows players to see what’s happening elsewhere when characters are split up. In the main storyline, the player goes on the dive with Alex and Julia and explore the wreck before he proposes, but in the Curator’s cut they remain on the Duke of Milan with Conrad and Fliss. An alternative mode allows two players to play these halves simultaneously.

The gravity of these choices vary in how much they affect the overall story arc because the story itself is often on a set path, which can sometimes to criticism because in either case the character may have an alternative line of dialogue but the event still occurs regardless.

I really enjoyed Until Dawn, but it’s not perfect by any means. Taking inspiration from literally every horror trope out there, it’s intended to be a playable B-level horror flick. There are characters who die no matter what like the Flamethrower Guy (whose not even given an actual name beyond that or Stranger). You can’t save Josh at all; he is either killed by Hannah in Wendigo form or becomes one himself. No matter the choices you make, you always end up following the same trajectory. You always end up blowing up the lodge.

The only differences will be minor in the grand scheme of things like a character missing from a scene if they were killed off prior to, which can be kind of funny when Mike and Sam are walking though the mines and freaking out about the “bodies” when the only body there is that of the Flamethrower Guy compared to, say for example,  Emily being strung up alongside him or Ashley’s ripped-off head being in a cage. For the most part, once a character has avoided their last potential death scene, they don’t have much more to contribute one way or the other. Even if you do get Ashley, Chris, and/or Emily down in the mines with Sam towards the end of the game, Sam will just send them all back to the lodge while she goes off in search of Mike. Like they’ve served their purpose and don’t need to be involved anymore.

That’s one of the reasons I love Detroit: Become Human so much. Unlike other video games where you’re making choices as you progress towards the same end, Detroit really does a fantastic job of making you face your own consequences. One slip up and Kara dies. It can mean the difference between her and Alice being taken to a camp where Androids are being dismantled or making it over the Canadian border. As the player, you get to decide whether Markus leads a peaceful revolution or an aggressive one, and that in turn can be one of many factors determining the fate of the characters.

Despite its flaws, Detroit is really the first game that I have seen really explore the potential of The Butterfly Effect and use it to its advantage.

Speaking of paths, I realize I’m starting to stray from the topic at hand.

Let’s get back to that, shall we?

The Butterfly Effect In Writing

When I’m plotting a new writing project, my process includes a lot of asking why? and what if?.

Why would this happen? Why does my protagonist want to achieve this goal? Why does the antagonist want them to fail?

What if the character does this? What if they don’t succeed? What if they do?

Asking questions like these helps me to direct myself as I’m acquainting myself with a new idea and its cast of characters. Looking at the story through the lens of cause and effect lays out the path ahead because thinking about what happens after a significant event and what would have led up to it can help me identify gaps that need to be filled as I’m drafting or obstacles my characters may face as a result of their actions in their efforts to achieve their goals, as well as the fallout as I approach the last couple of chapters.

Additionally, I’m also asking myself how and what causes this to find the reasons and motivations behind these events.

I find that my stories are sometimes fueled by character decisions, and the consequences they face as a result, so figuring out what drives them is important.

I’ve taken a liking to using The Butterfly Effect as a means of laying out these paths because thinking about the choices a character is met with and how they handle those decisions and the consequences can guide the story’s direction.

Even before the first page, a choice has been made, and the story’s events are the result of choice, whether directly or indirectly. Along the way, more decisions are made, sometimes to counteract a previous one or stop a situation from getting worse, or out of a desire to keep things on an even keel.

And what happens when those decisions are not as the character or reader expects?

In my historical romance Bound to the Heart, when Eve unexpectedly drops by Zach’s home, he decides to stay and spend time with her rather than going to White’s with Henry as planned. Not going with Henry results in him not being there to stop a fight from breaking out, resulting in Henry being taken into police custody. This sets up a few consequences impacting not only Zach’s romantic relationship, but the relationship with several members of his family.

Even though Zach’s deciding to hang back didn’t seem like too big of a deal in the moment, it comes with significant consequences.

Sometimes, we think we can predict the future, or at the very least wager a good guess as to where a story will go. If a character agrees to take part in something sketchy, we may assume that the logical course will eventually have them being met with some consequences. What we don’t always know is how drastic those consequences will be, or how the character will manage to evade them.

Other times, our assumptions can be wrong, and for the character, that can mean scrambling to pick up the pieces.

As an author, asking yourself things like And then what? can help direct your story. Nothing is without consequence, and readers may feel unfulfilled if the characters are not made to face the repercussions of their actions. The choices they want or have to make, those they actively choose to not make, those made for them, and the times they must compromise.

And that is the effect of The Butterfly Effect.


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