A Flock of Headless Chickens

If you throw a group of people in a stressful situation, those people will be pushed to their limits or beyond. In some stories, though, the people in the group turn to idiocy. Let’s have a look at the Flock of Headless Chickens writing smell.

What is it?

Pushing people is what a writer does. Be it a murder, a life-changing event, or a natural disaster, a story usually starts with some external event that pushes the conflicts in the story into motion. In a lot of stories this inciting event pushes an entire group of people into a difficult situation. Think of natural disasters, zombie outbreaks, or a group of people try to colonize Mars.

When a group of characters is involved in a stressful situation, the writer should be well aware of the effects this has on group dynamics. Sometimes, the writer turns a group into headless chickens, running around without a brain. It’s usually one of two mistakes.

The first mistake is to focus too much on a small subset of the characters and letting the rest act like mindless sheep. The second is to set up a conflict between characters that nobody in their right mind would pursue in situation that the group is in.

Some examples

What happens when you drop a group of teenagers who were raised on a generational space station on post-nuclear-winter Earth? A lot of story-worthy things, but most definitely not what happens in the 100 TV show. The group of teenagers in that TV show crash on Earth, knowing there might still be radiation, with two of their number already dead, and without food or shelter. When they emerge from the crashed ship, it’s the first time they set foot outside a space station.

You’d think they’d be awed, scared, and that they would start creating shelter and find food. Preferably in a radiation-shielded place. That is not what happens. Ninety-five of the teenagers start partying like crazy, infighting, and settling old grudges, without any of them thinking more than a few hours ahead. This is doubly-insane, because not only are they stranded and in danger, they were also raised on a generational space station with extremely strict discipline instilled into the children from birth. The writers clearly wanted to focus on a small set of characters and relatable teenage woes, but they mostly made the characters act like 100 headless chickens.

Another TV show that annoyed me to no end is Lost. A group of people crash on an uninhabited island. Their response is to sit back on the beach and catch some rays until their water runs out. Over time, the background of all the characters is revealed. The fact they are stranded on a strange island only seems to drive the characters to double down on their life’s problems, at the cost of their lives and those of their comrades.

How to fix it

When you throw a group of characters into a stressful situation, make sure that they:

  • Don’t all act like idiots. Have some of them make useful suggestions or contribute to the well-being of the group in some way.
  • React to the stressful situation in an understandable manner. Of course characters can have conflicts unrelated to the problems at hand. They should. However, there is a time and a place for those things. No sane person actually professes their love during a firefight, for example.

In short, make not just the characters act consistently and believably, but the group as a whole as well.

That is not to say that a group can’t contain completely insane people, or people who lose it. Just make sure it’s not the majority, or introduce a plausible reason why the majority would be insane.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands