The Shadow Plot

Why It’s Okay To Cheat On Your Projects

A few years ago I found myself at a party in conversation with a musician whose career had involved a series of experiments with different genres of sound. At some point in our exchange, I made a passing reference to his “capacity for reinventing himself,” or something along those lines. He shook his head before the words had finished rolling off my tongue. “It’s not reinventing yourself,” he explained. “It’s more like this: you’re recording an album with a certain feel to it, and there’s this one little snippet, the way the rhythm guitar sounds on the bridge of one song, and you hear that and think: maybe I should make a whole album that sounds like that…”

I practically slapped him on the back in solidarity. “That’s exactly the way it’s always been for me writing books.” You set off to tackle a certain theme or historical story, and along the way some little subplot or background detail catches your attention, and you start to fantasize about transferring it to its own, larger stage. Friends of mine have often joked about the borderline ADHD sequence of topics that my books have pursued: from interfaces to ants, from video games to cholera. And yet almost all of them contained a direct link to one little fragment of the book that preceded them. In a sense, they reproduced by spores.

My first book Interface Culture had a chapter on intelligent software that speculated a bit on what culture would look like were it governed by self-organizing recommendation engines; that thread ultimately spiraled into my second book Emergence. That book contained a few (mediocre) speculations about the science of consciousness, which I then promptly expanded into the full-dress neuroscience of Mind Wide Open. When I was writing about innovation and collaborative networks in Where Good Ideas Come From, I found myself wanting to break out into a wider political argument about the power of non-market networks in modern society. That became the mini-manifesto of Future Perfect.

Only one of my books actually came to me by sitting down in front of a metaphoric blank canvas and trying to come up with a topic. (That was The Ghost Map, which ended up having many themes in common with Emergence.) The rest began as little reveries during an earlier project: fantasies of escaping the book you’re currently slogging through and starting fresh with this new idea, the shadow plot, the one that you just stumbled across a few weeks ago and that seems so full of promise. The positive spin on this is that the books themselves have a subtle lineage to them that I like. But at the time,in middle of writing them, it feels more like philandering.

On some fundamental level, this romance with the shadow plot is a form of distraction. But just because it’s a guilty pleasure, it doesn’t mean it’s not also a productive one. It’s the kind of distraction that ultimately pays dividends, if you can keep it from overwhelming your primary focus. This one of those places where I find keeping a spark file turns out to be essential. You don’t have to drop the main thread to pursue the shadow plot. You can just jot down a few musings about it in the spark file, and feel confident that you’ll be able to revisit them with a clear head when the current project is over. If the idea is in fact a keeper, it’ll still be interesting six months or a year later.

I find myself dreaming of shadow plots reading other people’s work, in more subtle ways. You read a paragraph or or two in someone’s book and you think: I wonder what a whole book on that topic—or, more often, in that tone—would be like. When I was in my early twenties, I spent a crazy amount of time thinking about a few diagrams in Frederic Jameson’s neo-Marxist book of literary theory, The Political Unconscious, where he described what we might now call a platform stack of different interpretative models—structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, New Criticism—that could somehow all be simultaneously deployed while still being faithful to an underlying Marxist framework. A few years ago I got into a conversation at the offices of the UK magazine, Prospect, with the wonderful science writer Oliver Morton. Somehow the Jameson book came up in conversation, and as I described my late-college obsession with it, I suddenly realized that the shape of Jameson’s argument—not the actual content, but the way the interpretative systems were stacked on top of each other—looked exactly like the “long zoom” approach I had been using, and writing about, in the last three books I’d published.

In the world of sound, what my musician acquaintance was describing has become technically much easier with digital tools. The shadow plot is a bit like sampling: take a fleeting moment from an existing song—a drum break, or snippet of a vocal—and make that the foundation of a whole new track. You can do that in a matter of seconds in GarageBand or ProTools. But with words, the digital tools don’t make all that much a a difference, beyond saving a rough sketch of the shadow plot for later revisiting. In the world of text, it’s a great idea to expand a sample from your own writing into a whole new song. Just remember you’re going to have to write out the new score by hand.