Probability Lines


There are a lot of crazy powers being used left and right in Sergei Lukyanenko’s Watch books, but the one that intrigues me most is when characters “check the probability lines.” The stronger the Other, the further they can look along the lines, and thus reasonably predict how the future is going to play out. Lukyanenko fleshes out the idea in Last Watch, book #4 in the Watch series:

It’s not possible to see the future in the way that charlatans and fortune-tellers talk about it. Not even if you’re a Great Other. But it is possible to calculate the probability of one event or another: Will you get stuck in a traffic jam on this road or not, will your plane explode in midair, will you survive or be killed in the next battle? …To put it simply, the more precise the question is, the more precise the answer will be. You can’t just ask, “What’s in store for me tomorrow?”

The reason I’ve been thinking about “probability lines” so much these days is because I think the term (and ability) also apply to writing. When I finish a novel and want to get started on something new, I review all of the old threads that are still hanging out there.

Some of them include:

  • Where did Natalie and G disappear to after Xronixle?
  • What’s been happening in Perion City?
  • Where is Kaili Zabora?
  • Where did the Net get started?
  • How did Jape get his start?
  • How does this all end?

And on and on. The problem with all of these ideas is not that there isn’t anything to write about, it’s that if I look into the future, the probability of any of those ideas containing something truly interesting is quite low. I just don’t see an endgame, something to rival the twist of Por Vida or the Vinestead-universe-shifting progress of Perion Synthetics.

I want to write something interesting, but how do you get from here to there?

It’s a blessing and a curse to have a feel for whether a story will be interesting or not. I can build the world and the characters and give them some initial conflicts, but what’s the bigger picture? Why is this story worth a reader’s time overall? Sometimes looking ahead can stop a story dead in its tracks, and I’ll never know whether or not it would have turned into anything worthwhile.

On the other hand, it’s probably good not to spin your wheels on stories that go nowhere. So a guy does something and it’s challenging and just when you think he won’t accomplish his goal he does and then he gets the girl and lives happily ever after.

There has to be more than that. Right? A mystery. Some thrills. A twist no one sees coming.

In the Watch series, Lukyanenko tackles the idea of preserving good while doing evil. Or maybe preserving one’s humanity when given limitless power. Either way, it follows the main character Anton as he becomes a more powerful other. Throughout the books, he continually struggles with his place as an Other, going from a reluctant initiate in book 1 to a magician beyond classification in book 4. 

The stories are interesting because the entire world hangs in the balance, and yet we see it all through Anton’s eyes. His personal struggles have a context that means life or death for every human on the planet. The stakes don’t really get higher than that. Add to that the intrigue and mystery and double-dealings and schemings and everything… it’s just a good story. Every time.

I’d like to write a story about that. Probably not about magicians and witches and vampires, but something that’s close to our world but not as boring, and something bigger than just a single character.

Unfortunately, looking at the probability lines, nothing like that has occurred to me yet. Not that I’m complaining; it takes time to look at all the lines. I sit down with a small idea and try to follow each line, each branch, to a larger meaning. There are a lot of dead ends that look like expressways, and sometimes that means thousands of words get written and abandoned, but that’s writing for you.


  • I’m having trouble finding a good story to write.
  • Sergei Lukyanenko’s Watch books are excellent, and also great to listen to on Audible.

  • The Night Watch and Day Watch movies are also excellent. I wish they would make more.

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