Monday, December 27, 2010

Does your story have a hypothesis?

First off, if you missed Scott's last post, please check it out because it's a great one!

There has been a big hullaballoo in the science world because some researchers recently claimed to have found a bacterium that is able to substitute the phosphate in its DNA with arsenate. You don't really need to know those details, but suffice it to say a lot of people are skeptical. Another scientist wrote a blog post arguing the different reasons why the original research can't be trusted. She includes this great line, which I think applies to fiction writing (at least MY fiction writing):

"There's a difference between controls done to genuinely test your hypothesis and those done when you just want to show that your hypothesis is true."

For me, each story I write has some sort of "hypothesis" or at least a question that is unanswered when I start the story. My hypothesis for my novel Rooster, for example, was that the world could sympathize with a man who was seemingly unlikable. My hypothesis for Bread was that a man could reach such a low that self-sacrifice was the best solution for him.

I start out with a hypothesis, and the job I assign to myself is to test whether or not that hypothesis is true. To do that, I expand on my story, I let it progress in directions that feel natural or "real" to me.

I try not to force it.

But, sometimes, when I do force it--when I suddenly throw in a bad twist in the story or when I make my characters do things that are inconsistent with their personality--that's the point when I stop genuinely testing my hypothesis and start trying to show that my hypothesis is true. I see this sort of thing in a lot of mediocre books and movies, when there is some point in the story where I feel like the creator is suddenly just trying to get to the finish line. I sometimes use the word sincerity to describe this sort of thing. When a story is forced, it doesn't feel sincere to me. The writing suddenly become a manipulative device to try and show a hypothesis. I don't know if other writers feel this way, but it captures my thought process as I'm working through a story.

As I write these days, the biggest challenge I face is to keep from forcing my story, especially when I get near the end. I'd say I haven't succeeded in doing this yet. I need to keep genuinely testing my hypothesis instead of trying to show that my hypothesis is true.


  1. What a great question Davin! Unfortunately, I can't answer it at this time.

    Post Christmas Hangover. I hope your holiday was most enjoyable.

  2. I also like to start with a hypothesis: I call it my "what-if?" It's the springboard for a good story, but not necessarily the backbone of it.

    It can be a very useful starting point for a character arc. For example, in my latest WIP, set in the 1870s, my MC does not want to get married. So what if she accidentally gets pregnant? Because I wanted certain things from my novel (a certain type of setting, some murders) I steered the plot in a particular direction, but still kept the "what-if?" consistent with my MC's traits. But I could see three or four more directions in which this "what-if?" could have taken my novel if I had wanted.

  3. I always suspected you approached your writing scientifically. :)

    I have a question for you. Do you think that a story can be "fixed" or "saved" even if the writer has done this in a first or second or third draft? Or do you think this is something that must happen in the first draft?

  4. Anne, I'm glad you're having more fun than I am! :P

    Jane, yes, that sounds a lot like what I do to. It's an exciting process for me because it feels investigative, and then we get the surprise at the end.

    Michelle, this is only based on my own experience. For me, it's a lot easier if I have this in the first draft. I think a story can be saved, but it takes a MAJOR rewrite. When I get caught in that situation, I always ask myself if it would be easier just to write a new story.

  5. I don't so much have this sort of hypothesis as I have some ideas I want to poke and prod. In "Killing Hamlet" I'm not really asking "what if Hamlet's best friend was behind the murder of the king?" so much as I'm examining the ideas of loyalty and friendship. So for me, it's more a question of what truths can I find about the larger issues with which my characters are grappling, and how many of these truths are contradictory? The more, the merrier.

    My characters and plots exist only to create a sort of social tension surrounding these larger issues, and a lot of the action creates strains between socially-acceptable behaviors and selfishness. So one of my big projects is an exploration of how societies dilute selfishness because pure selfishness is antithetical to the health of culture. And stuff. So no, I don't have hypotheses the way you mean it.

  6. Scott, your approach makes sense, given our differences in story-making in general. What's interesting to me, though, is that I think both approaches can yield the same results. Our Jake Jacket stories were move similar than I would have guessed they would be.

  7. Big D: And that observation supports my theory that you can't successfully reverse-engineer a story and make claims about how it was written or what the authorial intentions were or any of that. No matter how different our methods, we seem to be aiming at the same sorts of targets. Which only adds to the fun.

  8. Yes...even though this means I was wrong and you were right.

  9. Did we have a disagreement about this? Color me surprised and forgetful.

    I think we get ideas of "story" from our reading and other participation in stories. So there's a Venn diagram we could make of history and influence and I'm betting that the areas of overlap are pretty significant. And stuff. I have not had my coffee yet so this conversation is straining my little brain.

  10. Hm. I don't know if I start out with a hypothesis, necessarily, but I will usually start out with a question--for example, my current WiP started out with something along the lines of, "what would cause a man with deep-seated, firm beliefs in his cause to change sides?" I also start with what-ifs upon occasion.

    Great post!

  11. Jenna, Yeah, to me this is a very similar concept. Sometimes I leave it as a question when I write, and sometimes I form it into more of a hypothesis. Maybe I shouldn't be saying this out loud, but questions and hypotheses are interchangeable to me; it just depends on how you word it.

  12. I call it a premise, not a hypothesis, but it works the same. My premise for Not Her Mother Fate is: women are more likely to stay in abusive relationships due to family pressure than fear of harm if they leave.

    Sometimes, I think I try to hard to prove this and the message for readers to draw their own conclusions gets garbled.

    It is hard to stick to a basic theme - hypothesis or premise - and still get the story told that the author sets out to accomplish.

    The joys of writing/revising . . .

    A thoughtful post Domey.


  13. I usually start with an image or clip of dialogue. I want to find out where it came from so I start writing. I usually don't know whay question I'm asking until I answer it so I'm not sure that that would qualify as an hyphothesis but I definiatly understand the idea of keeping the story genuine and not forcing it into the shape that my consious mind thinks it should go in.

  14. Donna, it's definitely hard for me. But, I do think I'm getting better at it!

    Taryn, your approach makes sense to me. I used to work that way too, but lately I'm not able to do it as easily anymore.

  15. Dude, you are SUCH a geek.

    I love it. This is why I read every LitLab post. :)

    Happy upcoming New Year!

  16. I like this way of thinking about a story. I'm not sure I consciously use it for all stories.

    But my sf stories almost pose a hypothesis in the sense of being mental experiments. For instance, my Thousand Blossoms in a Day (in <a href = ">Conmergence -- now available in print!</a> the hypothesis was that life could exist in the first microseconds of the Big Bang. In a Xenophile story, I hypothesize that creatures that reproduce in such a way none of them knows paternity or maternity would share childrearing equally. And so on.

    But I'm not sure that's what you meant, Davin.

  17. Wow, my link sure didn't work right. I hate it when that happens.

  18. Now that's what I call interesting. Testing my hypothesis is something that has never occurred to me before, but it's such a simple idea.



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