‘In What Universe Is That Lightly Toasted?’ – Chaos Theory For Writers Part Two

It all depends on where you start.

We are often berated – by those who know about these things – that the opening salvo of one’s book or short story is vital in keeping the reader with you. A slow or boring start, apparently, loses people quickly, and since most Amazon fiction sales are, these days, initiated by a quick peep at ‘Look Inside’, having an excellent first ten per cent to your book is crucial to sales. Or so I am told.

Of course, there’s a lot of sense in this, as well as a lot of nonsense. Passing trade may well be caught by an unexpected visit to a sales page, and equally may be lost by it, if the writing is not good. But how many books have you read where a very promising start has decayed rapidly into dross, or a slow warm-up has gradually developed into one of your all-time favourites? Not to mention the implied insult to the reader’s intelligence and application, if there are no sex scenes, murders or swearing in the first few pages to excite them.

I digress. See where I ended up by starting where I did. That’s not what I was intending to write about today at all …

And that is why a smattering of chaos theory can be so useful to a writer. Because in chaos theory, it all depends on where you start… I’ll try to explain.

In the mathematical construct which we have come to know as chaos theory, several apparently contradictory notions are true. The theory is used in mathematics to describe what happens within something called a dynamical system – that is a system involving the movement of something where the geometrical position of a single point of it is time-related, such as the pendulum of a clock. (Well, broadly speaking.)

The most important aspect when applying chaos theory to such systems is that the resulting apparent randomness of the system is actually dependent on its initial conditions. In other words, however it starts off, that start will create under-lying, non-obvious patterns that appear random but can be detected, observed and described, and are always related to the initial conditions. Start the system in a different place and you’ll get a different apparent randomness.

Such wonderful logic gives rise to the even more wonderful paradox that dynamical systems are both deterministic and unpredictable. Love it!

Okay, having got spectacularly lost in my own mind-meanderings, I want to suggest that this is great recipe for a fiction writer. Whatever you decide to write at the beginning of your story will determine what happens later, even though you may not know where your story is going, provided you are true to the flow and apparent randomness of what decides to appear on your page.

If you take the approach, as I do, that it is best to start in the middle of a story and find your way out, and in order to do so, you allow yourself to inhabit the universe unfolding before you – rather than merely describe it or, even worse, try to control it – your creation will take on a life of its own, the characters telling you what they want to say, what they need to do and what happens next, resulting in a very real piece of writing that comes alive for the reader, too.

People often think that writers are the ones who determine their stories. It is this premise that lies behind all the fundamentalism about how one should write, I think. But stories have a life of their own, and finding out where they’ll go is what is so fascinating about the process. For example, I believe JK wept when she discovered she’d have to kill off Dumbledore, but she respected the demands of the story in front of her.

I once met a very angry man, who claimed to be a writer and who wanted to know exactly how to write a successful novel. ‘And don’t give me any of that guff about the characters telling me what to do,’ he said. What other advice could I possibly give?

The willingness of a writer to step into a different universe and to discover how ‘they do things differently there’, is an essential ingredient of their talent and if one cannot allow the randomness of the true story to determine the story-line, one will be forced into a dull kind of rigidity. Of course, one can write by rules and formulae but using them that way is as boring as most of the maths that gets taught in schools – it bares little relation to the real thing.

Start with the first words you hear, the first scene you see. Open your heart to the creativity of chaos and jump into what feels like a random universe. Then, what appeared at first to be a complaint, may be revealed as a line of enquiry. To requote Sheldon (from The Big Bang Theory, for the uninitiated): ‘In what universe is that lightly toasted?’

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