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FFC #70 - Why math is not like writing

Posted April 26th, 2021 at 09:40 PM by TGRF
TGRF's Fan Fiction Chronicles - Entry #70

I'm beginning to see why some people like math. In math the rules are absolute. The goals are plain. The obstacles are clear. There is a right way to solve every problem.

I admit to not being a mathematician. Therefore my interpretation of the field may not be entirely accurate.

Writing is like the opposite of math. Some things have rules, some do not. What rules there are must be followed, bent, or broken depending on the situation. There are usually several goals, and defining them is not easy. You also never know if you have the right goal or if you're working towards something else. The obstacles are hard to find for the same reason. If the goal is wrong, the obstacle is too. Often there are multiple obstacles. There are a multitude of right ways to solve every problem, each of which offer varying levels of success. Sometimes solutions create more problems.

It's easy to wish for the unchanging rigidity of math.

I would like to note that this feeling quickly vanishes when faced with such things as math tests.

Why am I saying all this? You can probably guess why: once again, TGRF is stuck somewhere in the writing process.

Some things never change.

I wanted to explain what's going on, since it's been awhile since I've given you a true update. And as is usually the case, updating you involves relating why things aren't working the way I wish they were.


Way back in FFC #61, I figured out (or thought I did) one of my biggest issues with writing: the absent middles.

In summary: I was trying to use character change to find a story, rather than using character change to structure an existing story. The issue is that character arcs have a beginning, midpoint, and end. Everything else comes down to: the character changes. That's not a story, that's an outline. Thus, by trying to use character arcs to create stories, I was coming up with stories with no middles.

In the above-linked FFC, this finally dawned on me. To prove to myself that this was in fact the case, I created an arc-less pure plot story. It worked great, until I got to the end, and realized why we need character arcs (things just kind of resolved, with no reason why they resolved). But the point is, it didn't have an absent middle. The middle was the biggest part (which is as it should be).

So I happily reported my findings and went on my way.

And now here we are again, staring at absent middles.

It turns out saying you know how to do something and actually doing it are two very different things.

Once again, I've been trying to create stories from character arcs. I need to stop trying to do that. What I need to do is to find a story that I'm interested in, and start there. Now, You might ask how I can start with a character arc and not a story.

I'm probably the only one asking this, but whatever. I need to think out loud here.

Take one of my more recent failed ideas for fan fiction. This idea started with a simple premise: Aquilla has just joined the alliance, and now must race to protect her amulet before Utgar's armies arrive. What's the first thing I did once I had that basic idea? I started creating an arc. Other problems aside, this created the issue where the beginning, end, and midpoint are fleshed out, but the middle comes down to: Aquilla changes.

I need to change that first step. Instead of going straight to a character arc, I should have done... something else. But what that something else is... that I don't know. That's where my issue is. I need to get a story, but at the same time I need to somehow make a character arc central to it (as I learned with the plot-based story), somehow without starting with a character arc.

It's like looking at an algebra problem with lots of variables, where more than half of them have nothing to do with the problem. And also where I don't know what the answer is supposed to be. Or how to solve for it.



Posted in FFC
Comments 4
Total Comments 4


TheAverageFan's Avatar
I guess you could try making a "stuff happens" plot first (you know, the kind you wrote when you were 9) and then see if you can fit a character arc into it

The pitch you give is a very plotty scenario to me, and I off the top of my head wonder what the character arc in it could be. You could probably give me a minute to think of a plot involving racing to hide the amulet from Utgar with lots of battles and a side-plot involving Drake's group in Aquilla's territory. Then you could tell me after the outline was done what the character arc was and I'd probably find a way to graft it onto the outline made (a few needed changes notwithstanding). The main problem with that would likely be that the arc wouldn't be the focus, just another element to the story.

I did that a few times in the fanfic competition to be honest, because you are often already given your plot in the form of a prompt. The arc I added after getting an idea, simply to give the story a bit more personality.

Posted April 27th, 2021 at 09:26 PM by TheAverageFan TheAverageFan is offline
TGRF's Avatar
@TheAverageFan Adding the arc in after the plot was created was indeed what I tried to do. And technically I could have done it, but it didn't feel... I don't know. Organic? Like it fit? It wasn't the focus, and maybe my problem is that I'm so unused to arcs not being the focus that it didn't feel right to me, but I don't know. It was definitely an interesting exercise if nothing else.

However, I'm researching how other authors go about making their stories. Hopefully this will help. I found a college class taught by Brandon Sanderson which he kindly put on YouTube which seems promising...

Posted April 28th, 2021 at 12:28 PM by TGRF TGRF is offline
IshMEL's Avatar
As a math teacher, I just need to push back on one thing here:

In math the rules are absolute. The goals are plain. The obstacles are clear. There is a right way to solve every problem.
The first parts are right, but the last isn't always true. In math, there is a right way to solve a problem -- and there are probably several other right ways to solve the same problem. It's a common misconception about math, and I often tell my students that there may be one correct answer to the problem, but there are multiple ways to get there.

But yes, solving problems in math is different than solving them in writing.
Posted May 19th, 2021 at 12:00 PM by IshMEL IshMEL is offline
TGRF's Avatar
@IshMEL True. I fear my experiences with algebra have faded to the back of my mind, but your words bring back certain... memories. I remember taking issue with the answer book several times when an answer was marked wrong because I hadn't solve it the right way Who cares how I solved it? I got the right answer, didn't I?!?

Posted May 22nd, 2021 at 02:02 PM by TGRF TGRF is offline
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