And You Thought Writing Had Nothing to Do With Math

Except it does, in an odd way. Because most long form writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, is storytelling, and much of storytelling is problem solving. And what is one of the best ways to learn how to solve problems?


Think about it. Your heroine is trapped in the cellar of an old wineshop with thirteen brigands, nine zombies, and seven thieves all trying to break in and chop her into little pieces. How does she escape, with only three empty bottles and a barrel of unused corks to help her?

I don’t know. She’s your heroine.

And it’s not just a question of figuring out plots. Every word you write requires careful consideration. How much exposition will you need to describe how your heroine got herself into this fix in the first place? What sort of clues will your reader need so that, even though he doesn’t figure it out until after the heroine, he can still say – aha! Now I see it! How little description can you get away with? (As little as possible – it’s an action scene.) Do you need to describe the heroine’s emotions? The sweat trickling down her forehead? What the zombies smell like? Do you need to write the story in first person or third?

Every time you write, you have to solve the following equation – X=fP+iC+cS+rV, where X is the number of copies you hope to sell, fP is how fun the plot is, iC is how interesting the characters are, cS is how cool the setting is, and rV is how readable the voice you choose to write in is. Figure that equation out, and the world is yours!

And the best part is that, unlike math, there is no one right answer.

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  1. 1. Harry Markov

    I’ll consider viewing this as a logistical puzzle, because if I think of it as Math, I’d probably never go back to writing. Math has tormented me for years on end. I don’t plan to dragging it in my writing. :D My personal drama aside, I love your equation. It covers key elements that make the story work. I’m sure someone else with mathematical inclinations can expand on it even more.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Harry – But logistical puzzles are math! Your torment is less than you think!

  3. 3. Ziv W

    Ummm, I _am_ a math fan, except none of the things you’re describing sounds like math to me…

    The heroine trapped in the cellar might need some physics, but not math. In the equation you suggest, all you’re really saying is that you want to maximize the values of any desirable factors – and _how_ you increase any one value isn’t math at all.

    Writing has a *lot* of problem solving, and many many delicate balances to be maintained… but I’m honestly not seeing any cases where describing the issue mathematically can be of any assistance.

    Indeed – in my experience, fiction requires a sense for all the elements you mention, but no one variable can be isolated entirely. “How fun the plot is” might depend entirely on the reader’s interest in the characters; “How cool the setting is” might be drastically affected by whether or not the writing style captures and showcases that coolness in the best light. You want *everything* to be good – or at least, to pick where you’re focusing, so you shine in a few areas (rather than being mediocre across the board).

    I don’t know. The connection to math seems to me to be misplaced. It seems to me like you’re trying to say something straightforward – “Here are important elements of story writing, and you want to be aware of them and know how your story is doing” – but the analogy you’re going for doesn’t really hold up.

    As an aside, anybody teaching that “in math there’s only one right answer” doesn’t understand math very well. Math is a whole lot more fun than that :D

  4. 4. S.C. Butler

    Ziv – My intent was for the post and the connection to math to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I also limited the math connection to be one of learning how to solve problems. Math is the best practice for problem solving I know of. You’re absolutely right, math itself is not going to help you solve most writing problems, even if you’re Charles Dodgson. And you’re also right about math problems not necessarily having a single solution, but then, as I said, I was being tongue-in-cheek. Most people reading this post probably think of arithmetic when they think of math, and arithmetic does tend to have singular solutions.

  5. 5. Andrew

    You mention math and everybody looks the other way. But I think your point is more valid than the initial glance at your cheerfully sarcastic post might cast…

    Writing is hard, telling stories is even harder and it takes (at times) a very straightforward/logistic/algebraic like attitude to solve the problems that any good writing may cause; for character, situation, publishing and the writer themselves.

    I will definitely keep this kind of post in the back of my mind, especially now that I’m toying with outlines is my old age…. Maybe there lies the actual math equation — outlines!

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Andrew – Cheerfully sarcastic – I’ll die happy if people think of me that way. And you’re working with outlines now? I still haven’t mastered that very useful technique.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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