The Strange Attractor: A place to find the fresh in old ideas

A Guest Post by: Patrick Sullivan

After a while, all ideas can fall into a vat where nothing seems interesting or new, whether because of how much you read or how much you write, or both. I’ve been struggling with this these last few months as every idea feels like it is either too similar to a previous novel I’ve written as part of my path to craft-mastery, or simply too close to genre norms to be interesting.

This is when I remembered the concept of the Strange Attractor, a concept often talked about in Hollywood circles. An easy way to build something different is take two known things that most people have never seen together, then mash them into something new. Not every combination will work easily, depending on how their edges link up.

Theoretically you could even jam yet more strange attractors together, though it is possible to dilute things too far. With one primary idea (example: A traditional fantasy novel) and one oddity (Example: An intergalactic exploration story) could lead to something that is fresh even if the underlying pieces are rather standard and seem uninspired at first glance. You don’t even have to have a 100% unique pairing, but if it has been done often it is no longer a strange attractor.

It is important to remember there is a big difference between a full on strange attractor (two complete story concepts being meshed together) and a smaller idea that simply flavors what you are writing. You can get away with adding a lot of these to a story, and arguably this is the smart way to go as long as they don’t drown out the original core ideas that make up the foundation of what you are writing.

If you struggle with this, treat it as a much simpler writing trick: the What If? Ask What If I mixed two totally random ideas. While not necessarily a full strange attractor, Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series was based on a bet where he took two disparate ideas chosen by someone else and turn them into a series. The concepts: Pokemon and the Lost Roman Legion.

Every writer wants their readers to feel like they have engaged with something new and fresh, but at the same time something that makes them feel at home. It sounds like an oxymoron, but the mix of resonance with the known and something that feels strange can breath life into things that may feel stale otherwise. If you are struggling to find the right idea for your next story, steal an idea from Hollywood and start using Strange Attractors.

If you want to read more about this concept, Terry Rosio has an excellent post on the topic. you can read more about it here.

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Patrick Sullivan is an explorer of ideas across many forms, from digital data and code to stories. He grew up in southern Arkansas, but found his true home in Denver, Colorado where he now lives working in the software industry while writing tales he intends to someday share with the masses.


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