the fractal nature of story

Where do fractals come from, and what do they have to do with stories?  Mathematicians have developed a formal definition of fractal in terms of quantities such as Hausdorff dimension, and while this is a fine and well-tested definition, it doesn’t provide much of an origin story for a fractal.

Fractals often arise through infinite processes, either involving an iterative process (this built from a process with an input and an output, and continuing to use the output of each run as the input for the next run of the process, seeing what happens as we do this without end) or a branching process.  And it’s the branching processes I want to think about today.

The reason for this is that it ties both into the sorts of things I spend time thinking about anyway (as one of my main areas of mathematical interest involves fractals and the processes that produce them) and into something that I wrote about some time ago.

Because I see stories as branching processes.  As I go through the process of getting a story on paper, I find myself caught up in this branching of possibilities.  At each point in a story, my characters generally have the option of doing one of several, or one of many, things, and yes, sometimes things I’m not expecting them to do (even I’ve given them the choice) or occasionally even the completely unexpected.

So the writing of a story begins to look like a tree, with the narrative and the action starting from an origin point and moving in one of several possible directions, and branching at seemingly almost random points along the way.  Each trip through the tree, starting from the origin point and taking one branch here, another branch there, then gives a different story.

I don’t want to speculate at this point on alternative universe versions of writers choosing paths through some shared story tree and so producing different stories, though this would be something worth exploring at some point.

Or whether we can organize Borges’ library into a tree along these lines, so that instead of patrons roaming the shelves, looking for our life stories, we might become ants crawling along the bark of this one massive tree, wondering whether the branch we’ve taken is the branch we should have taken.

And so I go back to my own story tree, the one I started exploring some time ago, and see how far along the thinning branches I can climb and what story I will have at the end.






~ by Jim Anderson on 30 June 2019.

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