Sunday, September 17, 2017

Q&A: What Does Fractal Storytelling Mean?

What is the "fractal storytelling" from your novel Stranger and Better supposed to mean?

Short answer: your guess is as good as mine. Heh.

Longer answer: from the beginning, the idea of patterns was laced into the book. There's "The Pattern" (an acid-induced vision), Ish's Zen rock garden pattern, metaphorical patterns of Martin's stay at the school, and a lot more. The ultimate pattern was supposed to be a fractal, a self-repeating pattern that was particularly popular during the years of the book (1992-1998, roughly). You could get posters and screen savers, and it made little appearances in pop culture (though its most famous moment is probably a lyric in Frozen's "Let it Go").

I thought I'd try to adapt that concept to the narrative itself. My early interpretation was that the book would often start a scene or idea, delve into a different scene or series of concepts, and then slowly work its way back out (in other words, sort of like the Seinfeld backwards episode, but in two directions). Each chapter would open and close with two halves of the same scene, and lots of other moments would zoom in or out between layers - the same way if you're looking at a fractal, you can zoom in and out, because it repeats itself.

Later, I decided it wasn't working very coherently, so I straightened out the entire story to be chronological, thinking I needed to look at it in order, before I could choose how to artfully pull it out of order. Eventually it seemed that it was better to tell the story mostly chronologically, and I needed to come up with another way in which a story could be fractal.

My next idea was that certain themes would repeat themselves. Scenes would parallel each other, sometimes direct repeats, sometimes mirror images, or occurring in other variations. For instance, there's one paragraph that appears three times, verbatim, but it comes as a response to three totally different scenarios, and then triggers three totally different results. Certain locations are revisited with different combinations of people, certain conversations are rehashed with different friends, or in some cases the same point is rehashed with the same friend, to a different conclusion. There's another scene where Martin's friend Leon ends up running away from him while standing in a park; in a much later scene, Martin ends up running away from Leon at that exact same spot.

Originally, briefly, I thought maybe I could make an entire book out of four themes: drugs, angst, lust, and competition, which would make up the four sides of the squared-off spiral that recurs as an image in the book - call it the four walls of the structure, or the four cardinal directions. Even further, I thought maybe I could even rotate through them, always in order. Probably two-thirds of the scenes do cover one of those four elements in some way, but as a guiding structure for a novel I couldn't make it work. It's on my wishlist for things to try again when I'm more skilled.

I dropped the four directions/themes idea, but the repeating scenes angle did make it into the final draft. Still, it didn't seem enough by itself to make things really "fractal." To add another dimension, I decided what the book needed was layers of commentary. So there are points where Martin comments on himself, on his writing, and on the writing process. But then I've worked in a kind of editorial train-wreck, where the characters who are supposed to have been assembling the book for publication start making comments about the narrative, and in some cases begin to bicker with each other and provide meta-commentary and meta-meta-commentary on the text. This culminates with a final layer, mostly revealed in the book's conclusion, which I won't explain to avoid spoilers. 

  Stranger and Better is available in digital format from Amazon ( ) and in print from most major online retailers.

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