Economics and Plot: Vol 1, Theory

Last year, I wrote an essay for my high school senior project.  Originally I began writing for fun, but then quickly realized I needed to turn something in (sunk costs I guess).  The question that I wanted to answer is, how can we relate the study of economics to characters in a fictional story, and what does it tell us about plot as an art form.  The essay itself was a bit too long to upload all in one go, but I thought I would summarize it in multiple parts.  This one is the theory, second are some applications, and thirdly the theory in the context of various genres.

Economics is traditionally a science for use in the concrete world.  However, I want to broaden the uses for the discipline.  Economics can be used anywhere where scarcity and decision makers exist to make choices.  When these things exist we observe certain patterns that we call economic laws.  These laws certainly exist in our world and we don’t have a choice to live without them.  Our intimate yet often unrealized connection with economics can lead us to appreciate the economic situations of others, and draw meaning and understanding from purely their position in the world.  Many people have probably already used economics in this artistic style before without even realizing it.  What most people would call plot in a piece of literature or a film, could be described as a series of actions, events, and values intertwining to create a story.

If economics is the understanding of the laws by which individuals make decisions in scarcity then any imaginary plot which assumes scarcity would also obey these laws.  It may be difficult to differentiate between plot and other parts of the work of art.  In film for example, the cinematography, lighting, acting skill, and editing are all important parts of the artwork, but none of them directly affect the plot.  If we were to strip away all artistic elements of a story and describe it in purely terms of the plot we have the plot all by itself.  This can be called the Pure Plot.  For example,  the epic poem of the Aeneid describes the great journey of Aeneas and his compatriots after the Trojan War.  The poem is famous for its use of poetry to emphasize points of meaning complimented by Virgil’s excellent craftsmanship of the Latin language.  If we ignore the poetry all that we have left is the pure plot.   Here is a pure plot version of Book 2:

  1. Aeneas decides to tell the Carthaginians the story of Troy’s fall.
  2. One morning, the Trojans find a large wooden horse in front of their gate, and the Greek ships are no longer on the horizon
  3. They must debate over whether or not to bring it into the city.
  4. Laocoon, a priest of Neptune, warns them that this horse is just another one of Ulysses’ tricks.
  5. Laocoon is then eaten by a serpent from the sea.
  6. The Trojans take this as an omen, and bring the horse in.  
  7. At night, Ulysses and his men come out of the horse and let the Greek army in.  
  8. Troy is destroyed.

Even though this passage has thrown out all of the “artistic” elements it still has a relation to our world in that the economic laws which govern the individuals in the story are the same as those that govern us, or at least they should be.  With a good understanding of how economics is the range in which plot is formed, economic analysis can be used to judge the validity of a plot and help readers and critics judge the validity of a plot as an artistic piece.  If a plot is artistic because it connects to economic realities of our world then connections that more effectively connote the message the artist wants to get across to more people can be considered better.  One way in which plot can be considered objectively better is that if it properly follows the economic laws that it is based on in the first place.  If a character’s action clearly violates an economic law then there is no way that that plot, or at least that section of the plot, can connote anything about the real world.  It would be the same as if an artist were to paint in a color that does not exist.  The reason that green can be effective in a painting is because we experience green in the real world and can connect the painting to those other parts of our life and the artist recognizes this.  If an artist was to paint in a nonexistent color there is no possible way that we could connect this artwork to our lives because we have nothing to connect it to and therefore can make no connotations about it. Strangely enough, this is a problem that no painter will ever have to face unless someone figures out how to paint in infrared or ultraviolet.  Authors however must make sure to avoid this mistake.

Vol 2 will cover some applications that I have discovered of how Pure Plot is used to connote something to the reader.

Thanks to Sarah Chaga Crispin and David McCauley as I came up with the idea in their class.

Picture Credit to

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