Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Fractal Geometry of Story

by Rebecca J. Carlson

Last night I watched a documentary film on the history of fractal geometry, and it got me thinking. how can I use this to write a better story?

Yeah, I think that a lot. I think it about nearly everything. If I chop the end of my thumb off with a paper cutter I think, hmmm, how can I use this to write a better story?

Fractals are geometric shapes that repeat the same pattern at different scales. Like twigs join into branches, branches join into limbs, limbs join into tree-trunks, and the green grass grew all around, all around, and the green grass grew all around!'

When was the last time you organized a story or recorded details about a character using a bubble map? Yep, you guessed it. You were using fractal geometry!

Books have fractal structure too. Sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become scenes, scenes become chapters, chapters become parts, and parts become a whole novel. But there's more to it than that. Story itself should pervade each level. Each sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, part, and novel can tell a story.

Levels of meaning have a fractal structure. I think the best stories contain a character whose individual life may be a small thing, but it represents a whole that includes all of our lives, which in turn represents some kind of universal principle about life. A metaphor is a fractal, a pattern that we see repeated as we move from something small to something larger.

Social groups in stories can be fractal. How many stories use the actions of a small community to represent the actions of a whole culture, of a whole nation, or of the entire world?

Fractals are beautiful. Trees, mountains, rivers, ocean waves, clouds... all these forms in nature have smaller and smaller pieces that repeat the pattern of the whole. Being aware of fractals in our stories, and bringing out those patterns, can lend power and beauty to our written words.


  1. Awesome! I love it. :) Sometimes I'm not even aware of the patterns I put into my story, until I go looking for them. I'm trying to be more intentional now, and it's reaping some amazing results. :)

  2. Something about fractals helps me understand how God can keep track of everyone and everything. The church is organized in fractals. Our family tree is a fractal. He doesn't have to worry about every detail because it is part of a perfect pattern, and the elements know the program and obey... It's pretty cool.

  3. Love your blog today, Rebecca! It reminds me of the Fabonacci Sequence (the math ratio in many things of nature, where the ratio of an increasing pattern grows equally larger - like a snail shell or spirals in the seeds of a sunflower. It also applies to much of the human form.) I love that you apply it to writing. It's true! We want the plot to continually enlarge, pulling all these seemingly random bits in, and building tension until the poor reader hopefully gets a happy ending. You've got my mind going and I see a whole new picture. Thanks!

  4. I so have that too. Everything is inspiration and some kind of hint. Feels smart, doesn't it?
    About the fractions, Hollywood uses that a lot in everything. That's why they are so successful. Maybe think about it!
    Nahno ∗ McLein

  5. I hear you, Nahno! My favorite part of the documentary is the computer guy making the lava splashes from the last Star Wars movie.

    And Sue, I think our brains are wired to make these patters and also to love them. Good thing too!

  6. Very cool - I'm not sure I would have ever thought of it this way! Fractals are gorgeous - I'll have to think on my story a bit to see if it has the same kind of flow! :)

  7. Rebecca! You're such an inspired genius! Thank you for sharing your inspiration with us! <3

  8. I love looking for patterns. I'm always surprised at the simple complexity of everything around us. I'm even more surprised when I can duplicate it on a small scale in my writing. Thanks for this post to remind us all that we should be planning the patterns, not just stumbling on them. :) You rock.

  9. Ouch. Just the title makes my head hurt. LOL.

    There's a lot of wisdom there, though. :-)

  10. An editor once told the physicist Stephen Hawking that every equation he put in his book would cut his audience in half. I knew if I put the words "fractal" and "geometry" in my title, I might scare off half my readers.

    Thanks so much for reading anyways!

  11. I saw the same documentary, and I thought the same thing you thought, and it prompted me to look up fractal story structure... and then your blog came up. Awesome!


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