Economics and Plot: Vol 3, Genres

If you have not yet read Vols 1 and 2, do so before reading this article.  

This volume will cover multiple different genres or approaches to writing a narrative, and how the
applications of economic theory can be understood within and complement each style of storytelling.


Historical Accounts & Non-Fiction

It is difficult to think of historical accounts as being an art form, but in fact if plot has real artistic value than what is history, but a series of events, characters, and actions that took place in the real world.  It is quite harder for one to come up with a plot hole when writing a piece of nonfiction, because there are no plot holes in history.  Because we are so confident of the economic integrity of historical accounts these stories can also be used in the greater discipline of economic theory and the study of choice.  Historical examples are used to support or refute theories as long as the sources can be trusted because it can be held that those past events follow true economic laws.


The realm of fiction is where a lot of the skill of an artist comes in formulating a plot.  Anything can be made up to fit the story that the author wants to portray.  This comes as a freedom for the writer but also a trap with which they can easily make mistakes in.  Historical accounts are almost by necessity relatable to the real world because of both the economic laws found in them and the real events that relate to the present world.  For fiction writers, the author must be incredibly careful to have the plot follow proper economic reasoning or else the connection and meaning of the work will have little effect.  The only limit of a fiction writer is their imagination meaning that they can create any premise from which to start their plot.  This gives them an incredible range with which to create plots that convey a meaning and is likely why most works that are considered with artistic or literary merit do not limit themselves to non-fiction.  This may also have to with the fact that many facts in history are unknown while a fictitious story can have every single detail filled in by an ambitious writer.  


Allegory may be a somewhat synthesis between the real world non-fiction plot and that of a fictional story.  In an allegory, the author creates a fictional story with a plot that includes many plot events, characters, and actions that exist in the real world as well.  It is a way that an author can write the non-fiction story while being able to fill in all necessary plot gaps, and also use their freedom of fiction to accentuate scenarios that they see as important or want to emphasize.  Allegory uses the plot to not only bring in connotations from the possibility of those choices within it’s own plot, but also to raise connotations from the non-fictitious plot of the real world.  After those connections are established the author may further their own plot into how they believe real choices and their consequences will be within their own fictitious model of non-fiction.

Fantasy & Science-Fiction

It may seem initially inane that the problem that a knight has while battling a dragon can have any relevance to attributing meaning to any problems in the real world, but often fantasy and science fiction are cited as some of the greatest works of literary achievement.  It is easy for a creative writer to design a dragon or a spaceship that does not exist in reality, but it is very difficult for an author to create a plot that does not follow economic law.  Even wizards evaluate means and ends, and in one way or another try to maximize their utility.  Markets still function in the same way even if they are for space widgets rather than earth widgets.  Fantasy and Science Fiction are used often with allegory to create a fictional world in which fantastical creatures and aliens are exaggerations of the real world things which they represent.  It is difficult to use other scientific possibilities to represent reality, and the use of fantasy and science fiction are an incredibly powerful shortcut for writers to use in connecting their fantastical fictitious world to the real one.


A game is typically not thought of as a plot, but in fact might be the best example of one.  In a game the rules and setting are the economic environment, the players are the characters, and the various choices they have throughout the game are the determinants of the plot.  This may not apply to certain abstract games such as puzzles.  The only thing that game designers choose are the rules and the design of the game pieces.  The rest is left up to the choices of the players, and the rolling of dice.  A game designer may use the theme of a game to allow players to realize the connection between the choices they are making, and what they are valuing to a real world example of someone in that situation.  


The goal of these posts was to synthesize the understanding of what makes a plot work and how choices are made in the real world.  The validity or relevance of a plot being based on the having its plot points connected to economic law is the same as the validity of a painting having its colors be within the range of the light spectrum that can be seen by the human eye.  Different genres function similarly to different strokes of a brush.  Games are analogous to the painter being able to draw themselves and others into their painting.  If we can consider a painting beautiful because of the connotations that it draws the viewer to because of its masterful combination of color, then we can consider a plot beautiful because of the connotations that it draws the reader to because of its masterful combination of economics.

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Two Christmases and a Birthday Worth

There is a lot of economics in Christmas, and I’ve been waiting to post this article since I first saw a recent episode of South Park.  South Park just recently finished up its 20th season in which they commented on a wide range of topics as they usually do.  However, one particular joke in one particular scene stuck out to me.  

Did you catch it?  When Cartman’s laptop, iPad, and iPhone are being destroyed he pleads to the boys by saying “This is like two Christmases and a birthday worth of stuff!”  Imagine if Cartman had been perhaps a 30 year old man.  He very likely would have cried out, “This is like 3000$ worth of stuff!”.  Kids, especially before they’re teenagers, are in a very different economic situation than most people, but they still function alongside many of the same basic rules.

Money is used for many different purposes, one of which is that it functions as a unit of account.  This means that when we try to measure value between items we refer to how much money we would be willing to spend on it to give our desire a numerical value.  Since money is divisible, transferable, and valuable it lends itself to this use.  However, it is only useful to this purpose from a perspective where you are actually using money regularly.  

Children rarely buy a majority of their own needs with money, but they still spend something.  When an adult spends money on something their cost is an opportunity cost.  They lose the opportunity to buy the next best thing for the same amount of money.  Kids often make a list of things that they want for Christmas, and they also often order their list.  When children ask for the top present for Christmas or their Birthday they lose the opportunity to ask for the second thing on their list.  Thus to children, Christmases and birthdays function like a unit of account allowing Cartman to say that his electronics are worth to him Two Christmases and a birthday.  Gift-giving occasions are still not money as they can’t be exchanged, spent on anything, or saved up over time, but they offer a route for children to receive one of the many societal benefits that we gain from a currency system.  

Economics and Plot: Vol 2, Applications

If you have not read Vol 1 yet ,do so before reading this article.

As I stated in the last article, a plot can only be considered relevant at connoting a message to the audience if it follows economic reasoning.  This doesn’t make economics the sole determinate of how good a story is.  Remember, this method can only be applied to the pure plot.  Other literary devices can be just as effective if not more so.  We can still use a criticism of the piece through economics to determine a plot’s coherence.  Coherence is not in and of itself a artistically superior pillar of a story, but is necessary to open up certain doors to the writer.  In this article, I will elaborate on some of the applications that plot coherence offers to a work.


Plot Holes and the Suspension of Disbelief

A plot hole is a gap in the flow of logic in a plot or the blatant disregard of relevant information.  If the author doesn’t regard information about the world that they have already established then the actions of the characters will likely be economically incoherent, and limit the value of the story.  It is unrealistic to assume that an author can create a world that has absolutely zero plot holes, but as a rule of thumb the fewer plot holes the better.  Plot holes are often mistaken to be a part of the plot that isn’t explained.  However a plot hole has to directly violate economic law not just possibly violate it.  The author gives the audience relatively little information about the world behind the story, and there are many other economic factors that may affect the surface story.  An example of this misinterpretation that often annoyed me was in The Lord of the Rings.  Many plot hole whistle-blowers will claim that Gandalf could easily have called upon the Great Eagles of Mirkwood to drop the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom instead of making poor Frodo do it.  However, unlike most of Tolkien’s work he gave very little information as to the background of the Eagles.  Even though we see Gandalf acting friendly with them we really have no idea what their goals and motivations are in the world as a whole.  The suspension of disbelief is occasionally necessary to keep a plot coherent.


Crossroads as a Question

Often characters will find themselves in a situation where they have to make a decision.  If they had all of the knowledge that they needed  to make this decision they wouldn’t find themselves at the crossroads and the plot would continue.  When a character is stuck in this position the reader is presented with the same question.  By showing that a character lacks information it asks the reader whether they have the proper information to answer the question as well.  This may be transient knowledge about the plot of the story, or it may be something deeper that in fact the reader or author also does not know such as a moral question.  The reader might in fact have an answer that neither the characters in the story nor the author has which can lead to quite a bit of frustration.


Perspectives as a means of Revealing Information

The amount of information that a reader has about the fictional world is incredibly important to what the reader can draw from the plot.  The way that an author designs the telling of their story is integral to the amount of information that the reader has and the best example of this is the perspective of the story.  First person limits all of the reader’s knowledge down to one person, and the crossroads method can be applied more often.  A plot from one perspective can evoke more thoughts of personal choice and moral deliberation.  Third person gives the reader far more information, and gets them to understand the greater world.  A multi-perspective presentation of the plot can offer more social, political, or economic questions because they give the reader enough information to believe they could actually answer such questions in both the fictional world and in similar circumstances in the real one.  



No author is perfect and plot holes do often arise in a work, but this doesn’t mean that nothing can be understood from the incoherent story.  Sometimes incoherence, intentional or not, can shock us to the degree that we realize what makes this plot incoherent.  Often comedy will use this tool, and a particularly good example would be South Park.  The characters commonly act in incredibly contradictory, and not utility optimizing ways.  This brings out flaws in the characters that represent people in the real world, and make us laugh.  When we find unintentional incoherence it also might tell us something about the author’s views or understanding of how the real world operates, and whether our view of what that is is validated by this plot.
Vol 3. Will cover specific genres and elaborate how they use plot in their own ways.

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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.

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