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Fractal Writing

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Recently, I returned my attention to an older project that I really wanted to sink my teeth into. When I last left it, I’d received feedback from one of my friends who told me, in no uncertain terms, that it sucked. This is fair enough. One of the things you have to learn as a writer (or as someone who works in any artistic medium) is to learn how to take criticism. So, after lots of bawling, and weeping, and casting curses on his name, I actually sat down and looked at the feedback he’d given me. Namely the ‘it sucks’ part.

I started to do some work on it, then left it alone, to work on other things.

But as I said, recently, I dug it out again. Scrapped pretty much everything I’d developed for it and decided to start afresh. New back story, new direction, shed those excess characters. In doing so, I found a new freedom. And this was in some ways… terrifying.

Facing the Fear

Lets be honest, writing is a daunting process. There are times I look at the book I’ve written, wondering how I ever managed to write the whole thing. I look at the book I’m writing, and wonder if I’ll ever reach the end (based on my current productivity rate, I’m going to say no). I believe it was David Mamet who once said something along the lines of “Ninety percent of your first draft will get scrapped”. Which makes things even more daunting. Not only do you have to somehow motivate yourself to get through a project, but you have to do so knowing deep down that only about ten percent will make the final cut. Tough odds.

This is kind of what I did with this project I went back to. This is a screenplay though, so it doesn’t have an excessive word count, like most of my writing. I’d split it into three parts, just to make it more manageable, and looking at it, parts two and three are terrible. Like, how could I ever even think that this was good writing? And what I had left I’d changed to such a degree that I have been reluctant to work on it because frankly, I have no idea where I’m going with it. While before I had a group of characters working towards a roughly common goal, now they’re all off doing their own thing. And I know exactly why this has happened. I have been subconsciously influenced (or perhaps inspired) by Mass Effect 2.

broken glass

Image courtesy of Abulic Monkey


Which leads us onto fractal writing. I felt that this is what I’d done with my script. I’d taken each of these characters, and really, what I could do is write each of their stories separately, and the choice could be made to follow one character’s path through the narrative, or another. Fractal writing like this has already been done, to a very limited extent. Remember Fighting Fantasy books? You’re in Scorpion Swamp and you can choose to go east or west? Well, each direction results in a moderately different story. The same (albeit on a (seemingly) more advanced scale) is apparent in the writing of video games, especially RPGs. You can make choices, which influence the way the game unfolds. Or at least you’re given the illusion that the choices you make have a huge impact on the turn of events. In reality, it wouldn’t be possible to provide an unlimited number of outcomes (it would require far too much in terms of both writing and programming), so while on a small scale you can be given far more options, in terms of the big stuff, it’s essentially yes or no, good or bad. I was given further food for thought on this topic when reading about the fourthcoming release of L.A. Noire, which has a script that runs up to 2200 pages. People who know me and my writing will look at this figure and think that’s probably just a normal script for me. But since video games are becoming a more mainstream form of entertainment, and they are becoming bigger and more complex, then you do need more options in terms of dialogue, and that is where the writers come into it.

So how do I relate this back to more ‘regular’ writing? Well, I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has written something, and then during the drafting process, made a small change which has resulted in a whole different branch through which the story can unfold. So which way do we go? Well, naturally, since we writers can be a lazy bunch, we tend to try and stick as close to what we’ve already written as possible. This is what I was trying to do with this project. Only thing is, as we all know, it sucked, so a change has to be made. I guess I feel I’ve gone a little overboard with wanting to follow every path though.


Fractal writing need not be such a bad thing though. It is obviously hugely experimental, that’s for sure. While those Fighting Fantasy books were very limited, they did at least provide different paths to unfold (albeit to the same destination). I know Matt has tried various writing experiments over the years, some involving branching narratives, but has anyone else tried? And had some degree of success? I remember back at university reading 253 by Geoff Ryman, which is probably as mainstream a fractal book that I’ve read. The major problem of course is the sheer volume of writing you’d end up with. And of course the number of different endings.

I wonder if it can work in any other medium than in video games. Obviously the degree of interactivity means that it is certainly the most forgiving medium for fractal writing. Does it have any place in the others though? In literature? Or cinema?

Has anyone else experimented with fractal writing, taking different paths, different narratives within the same story? I’d be interested to know.