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    The Scientific Method In Fiction Writing: A Hypothesis
    By David Sloan | November 5th 2012 03:52 PM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About David

    David is a neuroscientist in the field of sensory-limbic circuitry. He published his debut novel, [Brackets], in October 2012. He is a member of...

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    Scientists take a great deal of pride in the Scientific Method, and not just because it’s a method named after them. The Method is the basis for their authority. It is the universally accepted tool for finding all facts about the universe, the unbiased straight-and-narrow path that we wish all of the world’s irrational people would find more often.

    Oh, you think that’s condescending? How do you know? What are your controls?

    I was thinking about this because I just wrote and published a novel (shameless plug!). I wrote at night for free while I got paid to do science by day. As I imagined the inevitable media firestorm which would surely surround release of my self-published book, (which, so far, has netted me an impressive $1.00 in total print royalties) I was sure that I would be asked the following question in some interview: “How is your process as a scientist similar to your process as a writer? In other words, how is writing fiction like an experiment?” And I imagined that I would sit there in my black blazer and sip from a cup for too long because I didn’t have a good answer.

    They should be similar, science and fiction writing. All art is experimental, right? Maybe, maybe not. It depends in how firmly you stick to the Scientific Method. For art to be an experiment, there must be a hypothesis, a planned methodology, the execution of something that will prove or disprove the hypothesis, and some conclusion about the results. For those writers who sit down and “just write” in the hopes that they crash into something unique, that is not experimenting. That is playing (or, to be nice, exploring). For those writers who want to get a character arc to go from point A to point B, and they design a plot to build the arc, that is not an experiment. That is engineering; it’s building to spec.  

    So, is there anything in fiction writing that really uses the Scientific Method? Since it is the pure fountain of all truth, and the lofty goal of art is to convey truth, then there must be a connection.

    The Scientific Method is applied in fiction writing to identify the rules of a fictional universe. The materials for these experiments are characters.

    Let’s study an example. Say you are writing a story about two twin brothers. They grow up in the same house and have similar childhoods,but, like all twins, they have slight differences in character.

    Now, right there, a lot of rules about the universe have been given, and a lot of assumptions have been assumed (for example, you probably imagined the brothers were human and are identical). Your relationship as a writer to these hypothetical people is irrationally strong; you created them, youimagined them, and they live full but foggy lives in your brain. And it is your responsibility to do something to these brothers, but you may not know exactly what yet. It is time to conduct your experiment.

    You, as the writer, must first choose which brother you will do something to. Choose one, give him a name like "Ehy", and send him to grad school to get his doctorate in physics. Now, based on your perspective on this brother’s universe, you must form a hypothesis about what will happen to this brother. You must make hypotheses about the nature of graduate school, whether it is a nice or nasty place,whether the people there will build him up or knock him down, whether the graduate school is on Earth or obeys the linear flow of time or is inhabited by warlocks. So you send the brother there, and you see what happens. The story will change based on the results.

    Here is where the serious scientist says, “Wait a minute! What happens in the story is completely subjective. There are no wrong answers. Literally anything can happen to this brother because the brother doesn’t really exist,nor does this universe. This is stupid.”

    Wrong! For fiction to be written, the writer must approach the story as if there is an actual fact about every outcome in a given situation based on the rules of a specific fictional universe. If the writer does not have this attitude, the story will never happen. The writer must know when a story is right, because it conforms not just to the writer’s expectations of where the story should go, but to all of the laws governing that character’s universe, whether or not they conform to the laws that govern our own. That’s why writers are always arguing about whether or not something is believable. How could any part of a story be unbelievable unless there were some laws in the story that dictate credibility?

    And how are all laws discovered? The Scientific Method.

    Therefore, the Scientific Method is necessary (though not necessarily sufficient) for good fiction writing. And I wrote this whole article just to see if I could make that point.

    (Bonus question: what would the other twin have to do in order to be an effective control case?)

    Comments

    Hi David,

    Thanks for this.
    As a scientist and fiction writer myself, I have often pondered how the two threads of thought connect in my mind. Interesting point you make about the rules governing the individual fictional universes we create for our characters. That's definitely the way it works for me. It's as if there's a boundary in each book – an invisible line that sets the context and limitations of the actions the characters can take. One step too far (or not far enough in some cases) and you can almost hear the reader saying, "That would never happen!"
    I like the $1.00 honesty – I'm sure it will increase from that!!

    Tweeting your article off to some friends . . . thanks again,
    Amaya

    The writer must know when a story is right, because it conforms not just to the writer’s expectations of where the story should go, but to all of the laws governing that character’s universe, whether or not they conform to the laws that govern our own.
    That's right. Everything has to fit within the realm the writer has created...Even when odd things happen, if the story is well-designed, the event will be consistent with previous details, flaws or strengths of the characters, adding to its verisimilitude.