Fractal Storytelling

Karen McCulloughKaren McCullough is the author of ten published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. Her most recent release is A GIFT FOR MURDER, published in hardcover by Five Star/Gale Group Mysteries. She invites visitors to check out her home on the web at and her site for the Market Center Mysteries series,

What the heck is a “fractal” you’re asking?  According to Wikipedia a  “fractal is ‘a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole,’  a property called self-similarity.” ( In (maybe) plainer English, it’s a mathematical relationship where patterns are repeated within themselves in ever small increments.

Think of the coastline of the United States.  On a map it shows as a line that curves and dips, but is rarely straight.  Zero in on a map of the coastline and you discover that no matter how big or small the chunk you look at, it still has those curves and dips.  Walk on the beach and you’ll see small curves and dips in the water line.  In fact, when someone decided to measure the entire coastline of the U.S. they found it impossible to give a precise figure because the measurement varied with the size of the increment they used to measure it.

Fractal patterns occur in many places in nature, from the huge scale of mountains and rivers, to tiny things like snowflakes.  In fact a snowflake pattern is the classic illustration of a fractal.

I like to think of that as a useful way to model the stories we read and write. On the largest level is the overall plot arc, beginning where something important happens or changes and proceeding through a series of steps that lead to resolution of the “big problem.”  In mysteries, that usually means solving the murder or catching the bad guys.

But those in-between steps toward solving the problem each have a similar rhythm of a problem set up, steps taken toward resolution, and then getting an answer (or at least part of one).  Think of stories where the detective has to hunt for a witness, then finding him, may get answers to one question that raise another whole issue to pursue. The sleuth then has to search for another witness, look for further clues or try to establish a different story, and again the search is on.

And those smaller steps can frequently be broken down into even smaller problems to be resolved: how to find an address, how to get there, tackling a reluctant witness, cornering a possible suspect, etc.

That breaking down of big tasks and big risks into smaller ones and then even smaller ones is how you keep suspense on every page. One of those after another, with the big problem shrouding it all, creates the kind of story that keeps people turning pages to find out what will happen next.

The same is true to some extent of characters.  The overall story reveals major aspects of a character, but it’s in seeing them take all those smaller actions and make the day-to-day and moment-to-moment decisions that we begin to get a feeling for what really lies below the surface.

Fractal storytelling helps create that illusion of richness and immediacy, that depth that feels true to life.  It gives the sort of experience that lets the reader sink into the book and not what to come out until it’s done.