Why is Writing Fiction so Difficult?

by Matthew Lowes

Years ago I taught a creative writing course, and I began the first class by writing a mathematical equation on the board. I suggested that the great difficulties of writing fiction could be understood through this equation. It was partly just a way to shock students into thinking about and seeing something in a new way. But the equation itself was a result of my own inquiry into the question: why is writing fiction so difficult?

At first consideration, it doesn’t seem like it should be. A friend of mine once remarked when I complained about some writing difficulty: “What’s the problem? Just make something up.” And indeed, in some sense this is good advice. He was only joking, but his comment actually helped solve my problem. When all is said and done, we are just making up stories. But like any good lie, you would like it to be believable … and like any good truth, you would like it have an impact. And to do this, you have to keep your story straight.

A piece of fiction may start with a character, a setting, an event, an image, or any number of things or aspects of these things. The story then builds with another thing and another thing and all the interactions and connections of these various elements. For the sake of argument, let’s call each one of these things, be it big or small, a story point.

The first one is easy. Take anything — the queen of a small island that is sinking into the sea … a young artist sent to the front lines of long and futile war … an ancient city on the edge of the desert … a fleeting glimpse into a stranger’s eyes — or just make something up. Like flashes from half-remembered dreams, these points bubble up from the subconscious, and a thousand stories begin to form.

One point, however, does not a story make. You have to add another point and another and another. And not only do the accumulation of points have to build tension and conflict, but they also all have to somehow exist harmoniously with each other. Each point that you add forms another connection, not only with the previous point, but with all previous points. And it turns out you can express this with an equation.

What this shows (I think … I worked this out with some help many years ago) is that for each new point added, the number of connections increases by a number equal to all the previous points. So with two points you have one connection; with three you have three; with four you have six; with seven you have twenty-one; and so on. By the time you reach fifteen points there are over a hundred individual connections. It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that the number of connections increases exponentially as you add more points.

Furthermore, this equation is only accounting for single direct connections to all other story points. If you want to count all possible connections through other story points, the numbers get truly astronomical — mind boggling! But you get the idea. There’s a lot to keep straight as you move forward. Luckily, it seems our minds are somewhat tuned to do this narrative processing work. Nevertheless, in any given story, and especially a novel, there’s a lot to keep track of.

And that’s just the telling a good lie part. If you want to include the good truth part, we’re going to have to add another dimension — a dimension composed of layers, consisting of all these same points on the level of theme, voice, writing, metaphor, character change, plot structure, mythic underpinnings, and so on and so forth, up to and including the ineffable.

That’s why writing fiction is so difficult.

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