The fractal nature of plotting a novel

This is a ‘crazy way Alicia writes’ post – be forewarned.

I just came in from a wonderful bike ride (I can’t walk, but I can ride reasonably well), with all kinds of questions floating around in my mind about the nature of the future – mine – which one set of people are pretty convinced will require taking my back apart and ‘stabilizing’ it – with no promises of anything, just the possibility of ‘preventing further deterioration,’ and I am not in a good mood about it.

Having written it all out – you don’t want to read it, not yet – and decided how to use the fury to write a particularly useful little piece in the current chapter (I’m revising Chapter 16, and looking at 16-20 – the end of Book 1 of Pride’s Children – as a unit), and having found myself some options in a yoga book I already had, I had to get out in the Spring air.

But Hamilton Square is gorgeous in the spring – pink and white and yellow and deep magenta everywhere, the dogwoods and cherry trees are littering the streets with their pink and white confetti, and I am musing about the internal structure of writing that attempts to resonate (or so I tell myself) to think of more important things.

[Mathematical weirdness begins

Humans are subconsciously aware of the fractal nature of reality, and, when they look at stories, see the same nature.

Does that make any sense? The simplest comparison is the ‘beginning, middle, end’ nature of every piece of writing. We’ve all had the ‘Huh?’ reaction to the ending of a piece of writing that just stops rather than resolves (non-fiction, newspaper articles in particular, does this intentionally), and the annoyance of a confusing beginning that makes the reader have to work too hard to figure out where she is and what’s going on, with the confusion surrounding a muddled middle that meanders.

Dramatica is fractal by design. The choice of ratio has been 1:4, and this structure gives rise to all the complications you could possibly hope for. It is possible to see more complexity in the degree of your fractal (1:6 or 1:8), less likely to see everything as black and white (1:2 – a yes/no option for every choice), or splitting things into 3 at each level, but it would be possible.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat shows a four-part structure, too (he uses three Acts, but his second Act is twice the length of the first or third Acts); when he lays his ‘beats’ out on a corkboard, he uses four lines, the middle two of which correspond to Act 2. He divides his 40 ‘scenes’ into roughly four groups of 10.

Just as going from 1D to 2D to 3D to 4D in mathematics raises the level of complexity (for those who don’t have differential calculus in their backgrounds: be happy – and skip this part), there comes a point where the basic difficulty has been illustrated, and the number of dimensions makes obvious how the equations are going to go from now on. For me, this happened between levels 2D (two variables) and 3D (three – duh!), because the addition of that 3rd variable resulted not just in another variable to deal with, but complicated cross terms between different possibilities: for 2D (x,y), the only possible cross term was xy. But for 3D, cross terms were not just xyz, but xyx, or xzy, or other combinations of three of the variables, and it was NOT obvious how to create the next level of complexity in how the variables affected each other – regardless of how many times my math textbooks left the 3D version as ‘an obvious extension of the text for the student.’ Lousy texts, lousy teachers, lousy methods – because it was easier for them to leave the longer equations out. They were extremely difficult to figure out for a novice, and I spent wasted hours at it. Going from 3D to higher dimensions – and yes, the dimensions go to infinity, though most calculi go no further than maybe 20 or so additional dimensions – WAS more obvious.

I’m seeing that effect now, as I revise the design of the end of Book 1. There is a mathematical felicity to the design that I hadn’t even realized I was building in. There must be some ‘story structure’ in my brain, because Book 1 is 20 chapters, and the last ‘Act’ is Chapters 16-20, but I’m pretty sure I was NOT being deliberately mathematical when I laid out the plot, figuring out what happened in the story that took it where it went.

The fractal nature is evident at each level: chapters have scenes, scenes have beats, beats have paragraphs, paragraphs have sentences…

And the beats are like mini-stories, with an introduction, setup, conflict in the middle, and some kind of resolution at the end, with ends to sentences, paragraphs, beats, scenes, chapters, Acts, and the individual Books, each calculated for effect – as are their beginnings.

So at each level, I get to tell a story, and assume that the levels above and below will take care of themselves – because that’s the way they are set up.

Where is the ‘writing’ part? The Art?

The variability comes in the writing. Beats are never rote or formula – each takes however long it takes in time to write and space on the ‘page.’ Some stories can be told with four words, others need a lot more.

But in a similar way as the coastline on a map shows the same variation in its inlets and promontories as you go closer and closer – or farther out into space – stories have an inherent graininess – mine, anyway – that I find somehow satisfying. The pieces interlock and fill a level, the levels have the same ‘feel’ to them – but on a different scale.

And I’m finding a deep satisfaction in re-visiting the levels prior to doing the actual writing/revising, a feeling of ‘Yes!’ – this has to happen HERE, and that has its place THERE.

I may be the nuttiest writer on the planet – and I shake my head sometimes at the complexity that my mind insists on building into everything I tackle – but I’m having fun again, after the low spot where I wondered if this whole process is worth the enormous amount of time and energy it consumes.

Mathematical weirdness ends]

Go out there and enjoy Spring if it is happening where you are. I love the States, but I grew up in Mexico City, and there really aren’t any seasons there (okay, two: dry and rainy, with a bit of cold around the Christmas holidays so you can wear your woolies to the Posadas when you sing in the street and carry the statues of Mary and Joseph).

My natural tendency with nice days is to think, ‘Okay – the weather is now the way it is supposed to be always, and it will be there tomorrow and forever after,’ which is not true, and conflicts violently with the known fact about New Jersey’s weather: if you don’t like the weather, wait two hours – it will change. Hard to outgrow your childhood imprinting. So I ‘forget’ to go out and enjoy the pretty – and it becomes something else, and I missed it. And the next day rains. Or is muggy. Or freezes.

Don’t imitate my bad habits. Go, ride, walk, breathe.

What are you doing to celebrate the beauty of the Spring?

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4 thoughts on “The fractal nature of plotting a novel

  1. juliabarrett

    Oh you physicists kill me! I may be able to grok what you’re saying but I can’t break it down. Although my brain can work in four groups of ten. Jake and I play four games of basketball- to ten points.
    I’m very glad you got out today and I love and admire the way your mind works.

    Like

    Reply

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