Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Long Form: Fractals

Writing Wednesday

Perfect order is completely regular and predictable. A screen showing a single color is perfectly orderly.

Complete chaos is perfectly random and utterly unpredictable. A screen showing noise is completely chaotic.

But perfect order and perfect chaos are both perfectly boring. Where as things that are a complex mix of order and chaos are infinitely intriguing (at least in the case of the Mandelbrot set).

A representative fractal from Wikipedia.
Put another way, have you ever wondered how computers can draw impossibly complex things like clouds, landscapes, and trees?

The answer comes from the mathematics of fractals and iterative systems.

Fractals have a number of fascinating properties, but for our purposes we'll focus on self similarity. In simple terms, self-similarity means that the parts look kind of like the whole. A branch, for example, looks like a tree, and a twig looks like a branch. Of course, they're not exactly alike (giving us an element of randomness), but they are similar (giving us an element of order).

Good long-form narratives have a fractal character. One example, is when there are parallels between the outer and inner conflicts.

In the most general sense, this is because the parts all fit together and contribute to the greater whole. But it's more than simply satisfying the functional requirements. Consider buildings: while all of them must have a foundation, walls, and a roof, some transcend their merely thrown-together peers and achieve such integrity that you suspect they arose naturally instead of begin a contrivance.

There's more to it than the dichotomy between natural and artificial. A novel is arguably a purely artificial product. So are fractal algorithms. But the images they produce are remarkably lifelike.

I suspect that the reason long-form works are as long as they are is because that's how much time and space you need to explore the fractal character of the work in that medium.

What do I mean?

In a short story, you only have time for one beginning, one middle, and one end. Compare that to the levels of self-similarity in a novel:
  • Novels have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually made up of acts.
  • Acts have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually made up of chapter groups.
  • Chapter groups have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually made of up chapters.
  • Chapters have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually made up of scenes.
  • Scenes have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  • (and we could keep going with paragraphs and sentences)
That's about five levels of nested beginnings, middles, and ends.* You can get the narrative complexity that makes a long-form story rich and qualitatively different naturally if you see the particular beginning, middle, and end on which you're working as a part of the beginning, middle, or end of something larger.

Of course, no one is going to complain about lack of fractal character when they critique your manuscript. And consciously trying to make your story fractal will probably feel terribly artificial. As with other aspects of the art of the long form, it's something to internalize. That said, the best way to make your work more fractal is to look for patterns and parallels that can create similarity at different scales (i.e., act or chapter or scene).

* This, by the way is why people agonize over chapter one, scene one: it's the beginning (scene) of the beginning (chapter) of the beginning (chapter group) of the beginning (act) of the beginning (novel). That scene must start the story at a number of fractal levels--so, no pressure, right?

Image: Simon Howden /