How to diagnose a sick story using triple loop learning
by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
As a first-time, part-time author who spends more time at work dreaming about writing than actually writing, I often have moments where work practices will seep into my writing regime. Recently, I discovered the benefits of using a project management approach to solve a whole slew of writing maladies – including a project evaluation technique called triple-loop learning that can help you to diagnose the real problem with your story.
Knowing there is a problem is usually easier than knowing what the problem is. This is especially true for writing. When we read a bad book, we can usually pinpoint the culprit of our poor reading experience – ah, the benefits of objectivity and emotional distance. When we are writing, particularly when we are writing something that bleeds our desires and dreams onto pages lovingly crafted over a period of hours, weeks and months – it’s harder to step back and see things clearly enough to diagnose the problem.
So, what is triple loop learning and how will it help me to fix my book?
Triple-loop learning is the process of evaluating a problem across all three aspects of where things could go wrong. There’s a lot of literature out there on single-loop, double-loop and triple-loop learning, but ultimately it all comes down to how the diagnosis question is framed.
Single-loop learning is the most narrow in its focus – it assumes that the problem is in the doing, and asks “how are we doing this wrong?”.
Say Jedda is reminiscing about her time in Cuba and wants to make some killer mojitos to stave off the post-holiday blues. She downloads a recipe from the Cool Times in Cuba website, purchases the ingredients and gets busy with muddling and mojito making. But her mojitos just aren’t working for her – she can’t figure out why, but she is determined to make it right.
In a single-loop learning environment, Jedda would look at what she is doing wrong. Is she using too many limes? Is she using the wrong sugar? Has she added the soda water too soon? Has she mistaken basil for mint at the supermarket? All Jedda wants to know is, has she followed the recipe the right way?
In writing, these questions often manifest as: Have I used the right word or is my writing grammatically correct? Have I maintained consistency with the character’s profile and the rules of the story’s world? Have I removed redundant words and eliminated lazy adjectives and adverbs? Have I correctly translated the three act structure into my story and have I stayed faithful to my outline? Have I followed the rules of good writing and storytelling?
For many writers that is where the diagnosis stops. But sometimes, the problem isn’t in the how.
Double-loop learning broadens the scope of diagnosis and looks beyond the doing and focuses instead on what is being done – it assumes that the problem is in the rules themselves.
In our mojito example, Jedda would rule out any errors on her part (the doing) and start to ask questions of the recipe. Is the recipe any good? Is it authentic? Is there a better recipe out there? So she looks at the reviews for her Cool Times in Cuba recipe and sees that it consistently rates poorly. She finds some alternative recipes with rave reviews and sets about recreating them faithfully.
In writing, double-loop learning gives us the opportunity to question the rules. Instead of asking are we following the rules right?, we can ask are we following the right rules? Question whether you can improve your outline – shake up your major plot points, find different ways to inject conflict and tension, revitalise your protagonist by deepening their characterisation. Or, go even further and question whether the three act structure is right for your story – consider Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure, or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheets as possible alternatives.
Typically, problems will have been uncovered by this stage. Sometimes, however, you will have to take it one (scary) step further.
Triple-loop learning goes beyond the how and what to question why? It asks the question you have been avoiding. The one that has you breaking into a cold sweat at the mere mention of it. Is the problem in the idea itself?
Poor Jedda is still unhappy with her mojitos, despite her mixology skills par excellence and superior recipe. And then it dawns on her – the problem isn’t how she is making the mojitos or even the instructions for making them – the problem is that mojitos won’t beat the post-holiday withdrawals of fun in the sun in Cuba. Mojitos in the cold, blustery dead of a Sydney winter is actually a bad idea. So she shelves the mojito idea and makes herself a delectable dish of boeuf bourguignon.
Sometimes the problem is the story itself – you don’t connect with it, you’ve outgrown it, you’ve discovered (during the in-depth exploration that accompanies the writing of it) that it is boring, trite, irrelevant, outdated or just not that into you. My advice? Salvage what you can and start afresh with a new story that you want to write and that makes you excited when you write it.
Mikhaeyla Kopievsky is a first-time, independent author of speculative fiction. She is currently drafting the first book of her Divided Elements series, a dystopian sci-fi that sees Anaiya 234, a dedicated Fire Elemental, undergo an identity realignment to hunt down a resistance group threatening to destabilise the ordered society of Otpor.
When Mikhaeyla is not working on her novel (or escaping cold mornings and Dry July with daydreams of Cuba and cocktails), she is blogging about observations and lessons on writing compelling fiction at [w]rite of passage.
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