sylvia ashby

Fractal Novels

What do snowflakes, cauliflower, and novels have in common?
The answer to this question is: fractals.
Fractal geometry is relatively new – the term was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975. A fractal is a geometric pattern that repeats at every level of magnification or in Mandelbrot’s own words “a fractal is a geometric shape that can be separated into parts, each of which is a reduced-scale version of the whole.”
Think of Russian nesting dolls.
But how are fractals relevant to writing?
Fractals help us study and understand scientific concepts, such as the way plants grow, as in broccoli or cauliflower; the patterns in freezing water – snowflakes, and the brain waves. Anything with a rhythm or a pattern has a chance of being fractal-like.

And what is a text, or a novel, if not a concept that you’d like to put through to people and be understood? The more structure there is to a text, the easier it would be for those reading it to make sense of it.
In his work “Poetics” Aristotle puts forth the idea of the three-act structure.
“A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.” He writes.
I think that should be applied universally. I think that every part of every text – paragraph, sentence and even phrase, should also have “a beginning and middle and end”. In other words, it should be fractal. What is found in the whole should be found in its parts. That is how a text becomes consistent.

Let take the first paragraph of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austin as an example:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged…” is the beginning. Its purpose is to ease us in. It could be by adopting a universally known phrase, like here or something punchy that’d excite us, so we’d carry on reading.
“…a single man in possession of a good fortune…” is the middle of things. It’s not as exciting as the beginning or as dramatic as the end, but it’s still indispensable. It’s one of those things that you need to know in order to connect the dots.
“…must be in want of a wife.” Is the end. The climax in which, after all is said and done, all should be revealed. In good texts it’s surprising, as it is here. In bad texts it’s common and repetitive and dull.
“A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.”
It’s as simple as that.


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