Would it be possible to write a worthwhile story by rolling dice at crucial points?

There have been a lot of complaints (or jokes, really) in this forum about how predictable key plot points are in some genres. E.g., in a war picture, the soldier who’s always talking about his plans for after the war is the one sure to die before the film ends. In a slasher film, the teenagers we see having sex will be victims. And so on.

Suppose I set out to write a story/screenplay, and insulated myself from the temptations of “dramatic necessity” by rolling dice at each crucial plot point to determine who lives and who dies, or to determine whether the ingenue winds up with guy A or winds up with guy B or decides to chuck it all and focus on her career? After all, that’s pretty much how it works in real life, and art is supposed to imitate life.

But could a story worth reading or a movie worth watching be constructed in that way?

Philip K. Dick always claimed he wrote his masterwork, The Man in the High Castle, by rolling the I Ching. You can believe that or not, along with the other claims he made about the drugs he took while writing.

The problem with flipping the coin is that neither life nor a good novel is a series of either/or choices. It’s always about the gray areas. Compromise. Third choices. Doing nothing. You’d probably wind up with something like some tv dramas, where each week you have a life-changing plotline that somehow leaves everybody the same the next episode.

You mean like “Choose your own adventure”?

It’s an interesting idea and could have merit; I often come to places where I have to decide what happens next and there are two (or more) options. The problem is that if you choose the wrong option, it will make the book worse. At the very least, you’ll have to rewrite a lot in order to make the option seem reasonable.

I realize it’s not what you’re asking, but there seems to be the third, preferable option: make it unpredictable by writing better stories. A case in point I’ve just finished reading is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series: well-written and incredibly unpredictable. Really like real life (well, with dragons and all, I guess).

But as to your real question, I doubt it. There’s that scene in Futurama where the theater audience gets to determine whether or not the main character would have a furious laser-gun battle or re-do his taxes; he does the taxes in the end. I’d think a coin-toss would end up forcing you to follow boring routes to an indeterminate end along a path that’s bound to dictate the plot to you (the writer) rather than you dictating the plot. In other words, how would you construct backstory, plot lines that intertwine and meet at odd moments, the works of a truly good novel, if you’re subjecting your writing to chance?

I suspect that the keys to making an approach like this work would be in your ability to justify the decisions (in terms of character and background) and your ability to deal with the fallout in the story. It’s not enough to come to a decision point, flip a coin, and say, “She rides off into the sunset with Guy A hogtied across her saddle.” You would need to backfill with reasons for her decision. Similarly, if your random coin tosses point to the death of a character with critical information or skills that will be needed later in the plot, you have to find a way for the survivors to work around the problem.

This is not to say that an interesting, entertaining work couldn’t result from this approach–it could be a useful way to throw complications into the story. It would probably work best if your coin tosses were done while you were developing an outline. That way you could lay the groundwork for character choices along the way, and come up with ways around any plot-breaking outcomes. It would also constrain you to only use the coin toss for important decisions, and not wander into the hideous morass that a purely stochastic story would devolve into.

You know what, though? I’d bet if you did that, and managed to do it well, some people would still complain that it was too predictable. :wink:

Not quite the same, but I’ve published a short story I wrote by using a Tarot spread with each of 10 cards from a different deck.

Would such a book be any good? I don’t know. I guess it would be a bit of a crapshoot.

Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique.

Well, if you want to avoid cliched foreshadowing, just leave it out of the book. Pick the characters that die, pick the guy the ingenue will ride off into the sunset with. But don’t telegraph that to the readers. If the purpose of having a random character die in that gun battle is to show the reader that random people die in firefights, then simply have the character die unexpectedly.

I guess the question I have is, what exactly do you want your book to accomplish? What themes do you want to show? If one of the themes you want to communicate is that unexepected things happen out of the blue, you don’t need to roll dice to accomplish that. In fact, rolling dice will make it a worse story.

I mean, suppose you roll the dice to determine whether the character’s mother lives or dies in that car accident. If she dies, then your book becomes about his reaction to his mother’s unexpected death. But is that the book you want to write? Do you have anything interesting to say about what it’s like to have your mother die unexpectedly? If not, then leave the guy’s mother alone. And if it doesn’t matter whether the character’s mother lives or dies, then don’t write about his mother. Leave her out of the story, she adds nothing.

I thought the whole point of a novel was to escape from messy, icky, long-parts-are-boring reality.

One might, I suppose, construct a story from a transcript of a role-playing game. There, the characters have definite, chosen goals, and choose what they’re going to try to do to achieve them, but the roll of dice determines whether and how well their plans succeed. If the adventure is well-designed and well-managed, they usually will be able to achieve their goals in the end, but how they do so is unpredictable to everyone involved.

It seems to me that that could be a reasonable way to simulate the intrusion of random external effects into the plot of the story; but it also seems that if you have good characters, in a given situation the author would know what they would do (not that it’s somehow “obvious”, just that what makes a person real is that he or she bases decisions on personal criteria and past experiences, not on random chance), and so this would not be a viable way to recreate the lives of authentic characters.

It’s not quite the same thing, but I think Alain Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking should be mentioned.

At the beginning of the first film, the main character lights a cigarette. The second films starts exactly the same way, but the character changes her mind after picking up the pack of cigarettes – hence the titles. The structure of the movies is complicated, as everytime a character is faced with a choice, two possible outcomes are shown. Does he tell his best friend’s wife he’s in love with her? The following scene shows what happens if he does, the one after that if he doesn’t. The movies’ story grows like a tree, with several very different arcs, at times funny, at times tragic, and many different endings.

It’s definitely experimental, and certainly intellectual, but in the process, genuine emotions are expressed. An important point, I think, is that while the stories differ, the characters are constant and their drama is merely expressed in different ways.

You could, evidently, pick a single thread at random from these movies, which is more or less what the op suggests, and end up with an interesting movie.

There are books like that; a variant of the choose-your-own-adventure books. The Crossroads Adventure series, for example. At various points you choose options, roll dice against this or that skill or characteristic, and see what page you turn to next. Whether such a story could actually qualify as good is questionable. Probably; but I expect it would be harder than writing a good linear novel.