We all know that there are principles of writing, but can there be equations? Must a story be complex for it to be good? Can this complexity be determined or approximated by mathematical reasoning? Of course, stories seem to be much more than the sum of their parts at times, which directly contradicts Euclid’s fifth common notion. For the sake of building (perhaps totally unnecessary) bridges between the fields of mathematics and English literature, let’s take into account one of the fundamental concepts: real and imaginary numbers.
For any real number, imagine a line. Then imagine a point on that line being ‘zero’. To the left of zero, there are negative numbers from -1 onwards. To the right, there are positive numbers, from 1 onwards.
Imaginary numbers are usually assigned a relation i. These are intangible and would not exist along the number line. They are only there for reference. They are placed along a y-axis (perpendicular) to the 0-point on the line.
My mind went haywire, straight into free-association mode from this basic concept. Ruminating on relating this to the structure of a story. These i-numbers. Imaginary numbers. Intangible notions. Ideas and nomologies. On our x-axis here, we have the actual order of events:
John woke up. John went to school. John sought revenge on his bully.
But it is the intangibles that really perfect the story. Our so-called i-numbers that give the story complexity. And that’s the term used in mathematics. When you combine a real and imaginary number, you get a complex one.
So, what is our imaginary number? It could be anything, couldn’t it? John’s hatred. John’s shame. Resurfacing memories. The weather. Indigestion. Unexpected surges of Acetylcholine. Perhaps even the pathos or ethos of the story; which is the reader’s own feeling towards the the story, or how knowledge of its author affects the experience.
There are multiple, perhaps infinite, equations that can occur. But would they all work? Perhaps not. Add a factor to an equation and the whole thing must be checked over again to ensure it, well, adds up or balances. Unlike mathematics, however, there is no absolute in literature. Laws and theories exist because they have been tested multiple times and work every single time. If a theory fails in one instance, then the entire theory is either wrong or must be adjusted to acknowledge the fallacy.
The main difference between the two fields is that: Mathematics is truth, while literature isn’t. Mathematics is about law enforcement, while Literature is about the outlawed Wild West. Literature is a form of argument. It is the arts of perspective and persuasion rolled up and doubled-over. While no law works in literature, the real and imaginary number analogy still intrigues me. There’s beauty in the comparisons, though they are reaching.
I read that usually beauty is achieved by taking several complex factors, those which are so complex that they seem difficult to form something harmonic, and bringing them to a state of order. Profound, but simple. Easy with numbers. Difficult with words. But the struggle and reward are worth it.