2/15/2023 ~ 3 min read


Cover image

Al Gore Drumming by Stable Diffusion 2.1

Stable Diffusion’s generation of: Al Gore drumming. You’re welcome. Interestingly, Midjourney wouldn’t accept a prompt with the word (or name) “Gore” in it.

When a software developer is wrestling with a particularly difficult problem, either a gnarly bug or maybe a complex al-gore-rhythm, they will sometimes resort to a technique called rubber duck debugging (or rubberducking). Where they talk to a rubber duck and explain the problem they have in order to solve it. That’s right. They basically pull an Ernie and talk to their rubber ducky (you’re the one). And you know what? It works really well.

You may wonder why. And that’s understandable. On the surface, it seems crazy to talk to a cute piece of plastic and expect an outcome that doesn’t include a straight jacket.

At its core, it’s a bit of a reverse of Einstein’s (alleged) quote:

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

So the act of ordering your thoughts about your problem in order to verbalize it is where the magic is happening. As you explain it as if to a child—or a rubber duck—you realize which part, or parts, you lack a solid understanding of. And that’s where you need to dig in. Sometimes, however, just by explaining a problem, the solution pops into your head. I’m sure you’ve had this. I know I have. Many times a full-blown solution to a problem springs to mind mid-sentence as I’m explaining it.

What does this have to do with writing fiction?

A Rubber Duck Plotter by Midjourney

The somewhat terrifying combination of keywords from this post as interpreted by Midjourney: rubber duck, ernie the muppet from sesame street, dancing, albert einstein, six year old

I’ve experienced a similar effect when chatting with AIs about a plot I’m working on. Sometimes I ask for suggestions, or analyses of whether the story hits the beats of a particular writing framework I’m working in. But in order to ask these questions, I have to give the AI context. And I have to do that in the form of summaries (or overviews, or synopses, whatever you want to call it) of my story. And by boiling down the characters and plot into small chunks, other than sounding like a disgusting stew, it clarifies what I’m trying to do. Or maybe the problem I’m trying to solve.

A lot of times, the AI’s replies aren’t particularly useful in themselves. Pretty much rank pablum usually. But it’s a place to start. Something to look at and say, “Naw, this is how I’d do it.” And really, that’s what I’m looking for anyway. I don’t want an AI to write the story for me. I just want a sounding board. Someone, or something, to bounce ideas off of and get some feedback. Even, or perhaps especially, if I ignore it.

So I guess that means I’m a Rubber Duck Plotter.

Headshot of Matthew McCray, with apologies

Hi, I'm Matthew McCray, a science fiction/fantasy author and purposeful maker. Please sign up for my newsletter to get updates on my writing and other projects.