The Fractalization of Fiction

Abyssal, a fractal desktop wallpaper by ShiftedReality.

(title credit to Gregory Frost, which is fair because he says he’s stealing this post for his upcoming class.)

So while I was teaching my short story workshop at Philadelphia Writers’ Conference this year, one of the attendees asked me why I broke scene descriptions into beginning, middle, and end.

He continued, “I’m used to thinking of stories in terms of beginning, middles, and ends,* but not scenes. So why are you?”

My answer:

Short stories are fractal. Scenes have a beginning, where the character needs something — either a piece of the larger goal, or a subsidiary — and sets out to accomplish it. They have a middle, where the goal becomes harder to reach, or something interferes. And they have an end, where the goal is achieved — or not, and the action rises into the next scene (until the final scene).

Check out Gregory Frost’s short story “No Others Are Genuine,” for an excellent example of this. The first scene begins with something happening, the middle gains us a hero, the end delivers us a plan for moving forward.

It goes deeper. Each paragraph in a scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even if it’s just one sentence.

“I’d been trading stares with a Metro dog. My feet were killing me in heels I should have stuffed into my sometimes bag, and the dog was curled up tight as a croissant on the brown vinyl of the only available seat. I narrowed my eyes at it; it huffed pleasantly and covered its nose with its tail.” from Elizabeth Bear’s “This Chance Planet,” at

And each sentence has a beginning, middle and end. A launching off point, an arc, and a landing.

“After the funeral, Quang Tu walked back to his compartment, and sat down alone, staring sightlessly at the slow ballet of bots cleaning the small room—the metal walls pristine already, with every trace of Mother’s presence or of her numerous mourners scrubbed away.” from Aliette de Bodard’s “Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight” (Clarkesworld, January 2015)

Start thinking about stories as fractal objects, and you’ll find yourself tightening every word until they are the most necessary, and watching the whole structure expand out into an amazing shape.

This relates to what I posted a couple of years about “power positions,” where Nancy Kress lectured at Taos Toolbox about ending each sentence, and paragraph, and scene on a strong note. (Nancy Kress wrote Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, a key book for writers of all lengths.


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