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Planning a Novel: Fractal Method

Updated on June 16, 2014
A fractal pattern
A fractal pattern | Source

What are Fractals?

Fractals are an expression of both maths and art. They are self-similar repeating patterns - think of snowflake. When you look at a snowflake you see the whole thing, but when you zoom in on a part of it you see a similar version to the whole flake. That's the essence of a fractal.

What do you mean by 'Fractal Method'?

A fractal method is any method which involves iterative detail - starting from the big picture and working down into the details of the thing. In my opinion, this is the best way to plan a novel. We're going to start from the big picture and work down into the details.

The Big Picture

Ready to start planning your novel? Note: this method works best on a big piece of paper, rather than being word processed. So get yourself a nice big sheet of paper (stick two A4 bits together if necessary) and some coloured pens, and let's get ready to plan!

We're going to start with the Big Picture. This is a one-line sentence which totally sums up your novel. It is split into three parts: the who, the where, and the what.

The Who:

This is where you state who the main players are in your novel. Don't use names, and be as descriptive as possible! For example, it's better to say "a time-travelling pirate" than "peg-leg Pete", as already you're discovering things about your novel that you didn't know before!

The Where:

Where does your novel take place? Again, don't use place names, real or fictional, as these can be decided on in a later iteration of the fractal method. Use descriptive phrases, such as "on a golden space ship" or "fifteen miles south of the Coral Reef".

The What:

What is it that your characters, your 'who', do in your novel? Do they fight in some epic battle? Do they discover secrets about themselves they never thought they had? The key to this step, and the previous steps, is be descriptive. Don't be afraid to use cliche, either, if you think it'll help - "a fight to the death" is perfectly fine here!


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An iteration, or step, is the repetition of something. We're now going to iterate on our one-sentence summary and come up with something even more detailed.

First, underline your Who, Where, and What in different colours. Then draw a line down the page from each section pointing to some space where you'll explore your Who, Where, and What further.

Exploring the Who:

Exploring the Who of your novel involves employing the same three questions as we did when we wrote our one-sentence summary: who, what, and where. You can be even more detailed here. Your 'who' for this section can be a name, but it could also be something like a title. Your 'what' is who that person is - their job, their traits, their habits. The 'where' is all about their roots - where are they from? What brought them to the moment where the story begins? You'll need to do this for each character. Think it through carefully and soon you'll have fleshed out characters to work with!

Exploring the Where:

For exploring the Where we're going to ask three questions - where, how, and why. Where have you set your story - again be descriptive, but don't be afraid to throw in a place name or two if it helps you. How did the characters come to be there at the start of the story, how do they end up where they're going? And why did you set the story there? Does it need to be set in Michigan, or could you set it in Paris? Answer these questions and you'll have a solid sense of the place of your novel.

Exploring the What:

You may have noticed we're working in threes here, and we'll be doing it again for exploring the What of our novel. We'll be using the same three questions from exploring the Where, but in a slightly different way. First we'll be asking 'what' - what are your characters doing? Add more detail to your battle to the death, e.g. what rituals are involved. Then, ask 'why' - why are your characters fighting to the death? Is there a more sensible way they could settle their differences? Finally ask 'how' - how did the characters end up here? What emotional or physical journey did they get on to reach this point in the story?

Tidying Up

At this point, it's a good idea to take a fresh sheet of paper and write down any thoughts you've had whilst working on this novel - maybe you've had an idea for the sequel, or you've come up with an interesting middle name for a minor character who will help with the plot. Either way, keep track of these ideas now because you don't know when they'll come in handy later.

For some people, one phase of iteration is enough for them to begin planning their novel. If you still feel like you need more detail to work from, or your ideas aren't quite fleshed out enough, make another iteration: take each three components you worked on last time, and ask yourself the same questions. Eventually you'll arrive at a plan which works for you, and will serve you well when you come to write your novel.

Happy writing!


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