I love this research revealed in The Guardian today from a scientific study that claims to have found fractal patterns in novels like Finnegans Wake.
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been described as many things, from a masterpiece to unreadable nonsense. But it is also, according to scientists at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Poland, almost indistinguishable in its structure from a purely mathematical multifractal.
The academics put more than 100 works of world literature, by authors from Charles Dickens to Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Mann, Umberto Eco and Samuel Beckett, through a detailed statistical analysis. Looking at sentence lengths and how they varied, they found that in an “overwhelming majority” of the studied texts, the correlations in variations of sentence length were governed by the dynamics of a cascade – meaning that their construction is a fractal: a mathematical object in which each fragment, when expanded, has a structure resembling the whole.
Fractals are used in science to model structures that contain re-occurring patterns, including snowflakes and galaxies.
The idea of stories as fractals resonates with me deeply. Anything that happens is both part of anther happening, and has happenings within it. I take a walk in the forest. During my walk I see a deer. I follow the deer to a cave. In the cave I find a stone with my name on. Interesting, and it’s all still happening whilst I am walking in the forest, which is a part of the day that I wrote this story on. And so on.
I’ve been working with stories in this way for most of a decade. But it comes with problem. Part of the beauty of fractal structures is their complexity. A diamond is so beautiful because every facet reflects every other facet, and it’s a beauty almost everyone can share in. But complex writing quickly becomes something that only expert readers can enjoy. Finnegans Wake is anything but unreadable nonsense, but if your mind isn’t good at following complex linguistic and narrative patterns, I can see how it might easily appear to be.
Simplicity is a strength in storytelling. The line, not the fractal, is the model for most narrative. A linear sequence of events, connected one after the other by cause and effect, is most of our great stories work. But our minds aren’t linear. They skip between events connected by emotion and theme far more than time. And when you dive deeply into point-of-view and how your characters see the world, fractal shaped narratives seem natural.
How do you as a writer balance the needs of complexity and simplicity? Do you hold to only linear narratives? Are there techniques and ways you use to combine the fractal and the linear? I’d love to know your thoughts, please leave a comment below.
Umberto Eco shares wonderful thoughts on complexity in storytelling in the lectures recorded in Six Walks In The Fictional Woods, a fantastic read for writers grow their practice up to higher levels.