Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Narrative Proofs

I have been working on a new story idea lately, and as I push concepts around to see if I can actually make a story out of my idea, I have come to the somewhat startling realization that what I'm essentially doing, when I put together the barest of bare-bones original outline for novels, is creating a sort of mathematical proof of the story.

For those of you who slept through maths in school, a proof is a demonstration that a statement is true, using deductive reasoning. Sort of like a syllogism, you know. You essentially create a list, or a chain, of statements, each statement building off the preceding ones. Oh, go look it up. This isn't a math class.

Anyway, one of the very first things I do when I have an idea is begin attempting to build a story, creating a "proof" of the story. Me, I like to imagine the outcome of my premise as soon as possible, because my essential definition of a story is "a narrative describing how some state of affairs came to be." That means that I am telling my reader how we got to the end of the book, and that ending is the most important thing about the story. So I am working my way to that end, step by step, in my "proof."

For example:

I have this idea about innocence, and I get the concept Red is walking to her grandmother's. For whatever reason, I decide that I want Red to end up with a strong character. A woodsman, say. So my premise is "Red is walking to her grandmother's" and my endpoint, the theorem I wish to prove, is "Red ends up with the Woodsman." How do I get from my premise to my theorem?

1. Red walks through forest
2. Red ends up with Woodsman

I could have Red meet the Woodsman, they fall in love and run away together. Say, that's...dull. No conflict, no drama. I could have them meet and hate each other, and for some reason they get thrown together and have to solve a problem and see that they are indeed not only compatible, but they are attracted to each other. So that's more interesting. So I need a problem.

1. Red walks through forest
2. Red meets Woodsman
3. Red and Woodsman don't get along. Lots of conflict.
4. Red and Woodsman go separate ways
5. Red and Woodsman solve problem
6. Red ends up with Woodsman

So good so far, as Richard Butler used to say. So what's the problem they're going to solve? Maybe there's an evil creature in the forest. Like, I don't know, a wolf?

1. Red walks through forest
2. Red meets Woodsman
3. Red and Woodsman don't get along. Lots of conflict.
4. Red and Woodsman go separate ways
5. Red encounters Wolf, who is Very Bad
6. Wolf does Very Bad things
7. Red and Woodsman give Wolf his comeuppance
8. Red ends up with Woodsman

And so on and so forth. The original outline, the first "proof" of my WIP "Cocke & Bull" looks like this:

As you can see, it's just a list of chapter titles, but the titles all meant something to me and I could follow the narrative down the list and see that it all made sense and led from the premise to the theorem (the ending I envisioned). So I have, at least at the very basic compositional level, a fairly rigorous method to establish the character arc and the plot arc (the plot arc is a function of the character arc in the way I write), and I need to have this in place before I can start to write. There's loads of room to improvise, and sometimes the "proof" changes drastically as the ending changes. I am currently working on a change in the novel that's in my agent's hands, and for the last week or so I've been knocking myself out trying to create a workable "proof" for that novel that allows the story to work if I make the change I have in mind. It's been a job of work, getting that "proof" to function all the way from start to finish. I've wasted lots of paper making up versions of the story that don't work at all, but thankfully I have stumbled upon the Big Idea that will let my new idea play out correctly.

Anyway, as you can see these attempts to create informal proofs of the narrative are really just a form of brain-storming that result in lists. I'm a big fan of lists, though sometimes I make charts instead. Look back at the hand-written list of chapter titles for my WIP. As I begin to write each chapter, usually I don't just jump immediately into the prose, but instead spend an hour or so making one of my informal "proofs" of the chapter, so I know what I'm doing. These are looser in structure than what I've got above, and are combinations of lists and chunks of dialog, mostly. I have several notebooks lying around the house just for working out these sorts of proofs.

So my point, if I have any today, is mostly just to say that I realized at about 3:00 yesterday afternoon that what I was doing when working out my original story ideas was to create these informal mathematical proofs, and I think that's sort of interesting. To me, anyway. Does anyone else work in a method similar to this? I know that we have here our share of "seat of the pants" writers, so likely this post has been a long yawn-fest for you. But I'd be very interested to see examples of other people's outlines, if possible. Or descriptions of outlining processes, especially in the initial stages of pulling a novel together.


  1. Maths always terrified me; but this is a rather fun way to plot!

    Love the title for your new work, especially since my WiP takes place about a half hour walk away from those two old inns.

  2. Grumpy about us non-mathematicians?

    And just for the record, I'm a born pantser and I found this post very interesting. Of course, I'm trying to reform my process into something slightly more organized, so it's interesting to see how YOU do it. I seriously doubt I could use mathematical theory to outline my story, but hey...whatever works for ya.

    Watching you walk through the storyline as you identify chapters, characters, and conflict is very useful for someone as inexperienced as I. So thanks for going through it. Nice post, Scott.

  3. Not a big math fan here. *But*...what a great post, and interesting process. As I'm currently "finding" my process for outlining, I think I'll have to steal this little brainstorming bit and assimilate it into my note-carding process. I think this might be the "missing piece" I'm looking for.

    I've been doing scene outlines with notecards - one scene per notecard, just a sentence or two to describe what happens in each scene. My problem is, I start with this huge, convoluted picture of what I want the end to be with subplots getting tangled everywhere, and because of that I have trouble getting back down to the basics when I go to do the notecards. What eventually happens is I get frustrated trying to get all the scenes down (can't see the individual trees for the forest, I guess), and just start writing, reworking the scene outline as I go.

    I think your "proof outline" here will help me get the big, convoluted story knocked back down to it's basic elements so I can actually see the basic scenes I need again. Then I can write the "proofs" for each scene on my notecards as I start writing each one. Genius, genius I tell you! :-)

    Thank you! I'm going to work this into my current outlines today, and see how it goes. (Thanks for letting me ramble/brainstorm here too - sorry this is so long!)

  4. I'm normally a seat of the pants kinda writer. Normally. I have two projects where I've done a rough outline - very rough, btw.

    I pretty much took the idea, figured out the main conflicts, and then bullet-pointed the main ideas/scenes I wanted to cover. It wasn't very pretty looking, but it's a guide, not a detailed map.

    In fact, my current WiP is based on a rough outline with many of the bullet points being conversations that I need to happen throughout the MS.

  5. I've been working on a "plotting for non-plotters" workshop and my speaker notes sound a lot like this.

    H/H trying to get on with their lives
    They meet/interface/at cross purposes
    Bad stuff happens.
    They fix it and have a HEA.

    Then, looking at the characters:
    Randy wants to be a good cop.
    Sarah wants to have a successful business.
    Randy and Sarah want each other.

    Then it's just a matter of expanding, and trying to keep it from being easy for them.

  6. I'm not a mathematician, nor do I likely understand mathematical proofs. In fact, proofs were always my weak point in the trig class I took, lo these many years ago. But the concept of demonstrating something step-by-step has apparently stuck with me, and it's a good analogy, I think, for the way I find the essential story.

    The thing I like about this method is that you can stop as soon as you know enough about the story to begin writing, and you can keep adding detail if you like and use it for a scene-by-scene map if that's what you like. Whenever I make any sort of major change in the character or plot arc of a WIP, I sit down and do one of these brief outlines to make sure that everything still works.

    I also like to work this way because it doesn't lock you into any specific kind of story structure. This has nothing to do with the 3-act, or 5-act structures, nor anything to do with the 12-step "hero's journey" some people use. It's all just cause and effect and you can do two or more side-by-side for multistrand novels and see how the timelines add up and how the stories interact, if you want. Like I say, I'm fond of lists and charts.

    I have a six-month timeline for my WIP's 80K-work first draft, and using the above slim outline, I've managed to be 2/3 of the way through the draft while being 2/3 of the way through my six months. So it works for me, and that's what I care about!

  7. I really like this analogy / strategy. I am a fan of Sudoku puzzles. I aced first semester geometry in HS when we did proofs (tanked trig in second semester, though). My college math course were finished my first semester with Philosophy 150 - Logic, and I aced that, too.

    I don't like doing math with numbers unless you put dollar signs in front of them.

    My outlining process is similar. With FATE'S GUARDIAN, I have third-person limited and I switch character POV for different scenes, so my outline for the beginning of the book looks like this:

    Part I- A Haunting Event
    2. Gil- Crayfish Creek
    3. Troubadour- Fight at the Flaherty’s
    4. Julie- Coming Home
    5. Gil- You Won’t Believe This / A Witness to Murder
    6. Troubadour- Attacks Julie
    7. Julie- Soul Trapped, Missed the Light
    8. Troubadour- Distractions Trigger Misplaced Memories
    9. Julie- I’m dead, past lives
    10. Troubadour- Attack on Julie
    11. Julie- Escapes again

    I list the character, so I know I am weaving their stories together and pacing them properly, and then a blurb to show the main plot point for the scene.

    The tough part with this style of storytelling is not to confuse the reader with the POV shifts, though.

    I hate taking the easy path.

  8. Rick: Don't even get me started on POV shifts. As I work on my first draft of "Cocke & Bull," I'm just following the action through the characters, letting the POV change as necessary. What I have in mind is something like the old Russians, Dostoyevski and Turgenov, crossed with the Hemingway of "Francis MacComber." I feel free to change POV in mid-scene, but the action has to belong clearly to the POV character when I do that. Though I do plan through which character the action is supposed to be told in each chapter. Sometimes I change my mind on the fly. Right now, in the chapter I was writing over lunch, I closed the narrative distance so much that it was very like first-person instead of third-person limited. Which is something I like to do. That and ramble, obvs.

  9. *grudgingly* math is irrelevant..... math is irrelevant... math is irrelevant.....

    Math is the Middle Ages of my existence.
    anyway. XD
    The outline you dressed is exactly what I do whenever I want to write something, prose or poetry, or even character backgrounds when I want to have a character that doesn't have a clear purpose to the story yet. It's a very useful process.

    But still completely irrelevant to math. :p *denialmuch*


  10. I like the analogy a lot.

    I consider myself a non-outliner, however, I write a lot about what I'm going to write about before I allow myself to start writing about it, and during the process as well. Eventually, I get to that "proof" part...the part where I've decided that the outcome is going to be c, so I have to configure a + b to end up equalling c.

  11. Nice post. I love math, it crazy cool!

  12. Scott, I've shown you the "ice-cream" thing, which when used the right away, is the most amazing proof to figure out if a story works or not. But that's after it's written. My husband's been through the two classes that teach this model in-depth, and the more I learn about it the more amazing it is. I can't wait to see his professor publish it so you and Davin can read it and gloat over it like I do. Sigh.

    I like your proofing, though. I try to do that loosely when I start a new novel. Which I need to do soon.

  13. If I had to compare my process to anything, it would be how my 11th grade English teacher made us outline our term papers.

    List of objectives for book/chapter/scene.

    Notecards with all the ideas for said book/chapter/scene. (These cards are often mental and only handled with my mind.)

    I figure out what needs to happen in the part I'm about to tackle, usually by looking at my objectives list, then I shuffle through and shuffle up my notecards to figure out the parts of the chapter. Then, I write.


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