Chaos and Creating Fiction

From Writer Unboxed:

Some fiction manuscripts read as if they follow something that in mathematics is called a linear equation.  A linear equation describes a situation that is ordered and predictable.  Cause leads to effect.  One thing follows another.  One or more elements in a linear equation (X or Y) may be unknown but they are discoverable.  Just follow the steps.

In a linear equation, the outcome is pleasing but not a surprise. The answer sought was embedded in the equation all along.  Once you’re locked into a linear equation, there’s only one way in which things can go.  Getting through the problem is a mechanical exercise.  You know that your effort will be rewarded.  In the end, you will be satisfied but no more than that.

Chaos Theory is different.  It’s nonlinear.  It deals with randomness.  Most of nature and pretty much all human activity is chaotic.  Everything from crowds to cotton prices to water wheels to organic chemistry to fish populations to migration patterns to political revolutions are chaotic in nature.  They are unpredictable but also—thanks to the massive data crunching now made possible by computers—at least mathematically describable.  We know a lot about how chaos works.

It’s funny, though.  True chaos is a crazier ride than you will get on even the most maniacal roller coaster.  It’s disorienting.  Undergoing chaos, we feel helpless.  Yet it turns out that chaos is not completely disorderly.  Chaos is subject to its starting conditions.  It has unpredictable outcomes but arrives at those according to certain influences.  When looked at up close, chaos is a mess.  When viewed from afar, however, the mess comes into focus.  Think fractals and coastlines.  Chaos, it turns out, can be quite pleasing and strangely beautiful.

I mention all that because fiction reflects life.  As John Truby asserts in his latest book The Anatomy of Genres, story formulas work because they mirror human experience.  Love.  Mystery.  Wonder.  Terror.  Tricks.  Healing.  Seeking.  Finding self.  That said, as durable and comforting as the patterns of plot can be, even in well-crafted manuscripts there is often a sense that something is missing.  When things turn out the way that they are supposed to we cheer and yet, strangely, we may also feel vaguely unsatisfied.

When we feel somehow cheated by a well-constructed story, chaos can help.  Without that element, the story deck is stacked.  A novel becomes more like a linear equation.  A bit of randomness not only wakes up us readers, it also makes the progress of a story both more realistic and more satisfying.

When chaos is at work, the protagonist’s positive outcome is not a foregone conclusion.  Success must be truly earned and the random, playing-by-its-own-rules universe isn’t going to make that easy.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed