Mathematical Methods in Writing

Fear not all ye writers who (like me) fear the word math. This post will not have any equations in it. This is mostly a quick glance at how ideas can form from often seemingly unrelated subjects.

Although I have no talent whatsoever for anything with numbers, I do enjoy learning the foundations of mathematical logic, especially in relation to linguistics. And in studying linguistics, and more specifically stylistics, I’ve acquired new approaches to my own writing.

However, to be honest, I would have never thought that math, of any kind, would help me figure out a story.

I’m currently reading Mathematical Methods in Linguistics (hence the inspiration for the post title). Not for fun, mind you. Though, to be honest, not necessarily begrudgingly either. Last semester I took an elective course titled “Mathematics for Linguists I” (it could have been better titled as mathematics for linguists who haven’t done more than add and subtract in at least six years), and now the exam is finally creeping up on me. Some writers out there have both a gift for mathematics and a gift for words, and somehow employ both methods of thought to produce fantastic stories.

I, however, am not one of those writers.

Strangely enough, today while reading a section on set theory to refresh my memory, since it had been some months since I’d last studied it, I started thinking about a novella gathering dust in the back of my mind. My problems with this particular story originally stemmed from the world building (as is typically the case with me), and in this specific instance, something wasn’t connecting in my mind between one character’s relationship to the world and another character’s arrival into it. And then bam! The basis of my character’s beliefs erupted from the mathematical material I was reading. Bam! Suddenly the world made sense.

I started thinking in terms of set theory: Character A is an element of Set A, while Character B is an element of Set A and Set B. They are inherently connected because if one character is a member of Set A and B, then, based on how I define the rules by which an element is a member of a set, essentially I canclassify how they would interact with members of other sets. If I look at sets in terms of world or environments and put the characters within them, I can stipulate how all things are connected. And this connectedness is a huge part of my story idea. Needless to say, it grew into more sets, subsets, and elements, and, well, my notes look something like this: Set A  = {x| let x be all chosen souls in the universe}, Set B = {x| let x be ‘wandering’ souls chosen by character A for Planet A}, and if Set B is a subset of A . . .

At least, it didn’t extend also into a collection of complementary Venn Diagrams.

But, hey, if I’m going to study, I might as well use it for my writing too, right?

Have any of you ever gotten inspiration, ideas, or unexpected help from something normally unrelated to the subject of your story?


11 thoughts on “Mathematical Methods in Writing

  1. Wishing you best of luck with all studies! Just don’t forget to take breaks! hehe…God bless! It sounds like you know what you’re up against, girl! 😉

    • Thank you! Luckily I only have two exams this month; the rest of the time is for research and writing. 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting! Yes, definitely. Understanding the basic methods will arguably provide a solid foundation for honing the finer principles later on.

  2. Excellent example of how an openmind can us to a path of internal discovery, even in a trade/field beyond our personal interest. I remember having such epiphanies when I was in high school and college. Now that I am older, I am occasionally struck by something in my regular workday. Yet, memory is fleeting and it rarely makes it to paper. Think it is due time I carry a pad of paper in my back pocket for such occurrences .

    • Yes, you should keep that paper and pen handy. 🙂 Lately I’ve been in the habit of carrying a small notebook with me whenever I leave home. There have been too many moments in the past when I’ve forgotten to take it and then regretted it later. Thanks for the comment!

  3. This was really interesting. I will definitely experiment with this method. I have a feeling that if I lay down all the sets infront of me, I might see new relations that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.

    • I’m so glad that someone else might try this. For a while I was wondering if perhaps I’d been staring at the book for too long. 🙂 If you do experiment with this, please let me know how it goes for you!

  4. I don’t know anything about set theory, but the idea’s interesting. I tend to define my characters by the way they come into conflict over a shared job or interest – for example, Mulder and Scully’s different attitudes to the supernatural, McCoy and Spock’s different emotional or detachedly rational ways of dealing with problems.
    It’s a different approach, but not necessarily that different in practice.

    • I’m not sure set theory would work for me each time, but it gave me the boost I needed for that story. Your approach also seems to stem somewhat from connections. Connecting in opposition, perhaps? Your characters connect in similar situations/positions (external factors?), but have different internal approaches for dealing with the shared experience/interest. I like your approach. I bet it allows you to get a decent grasp of their actions/reactions to events, and further develops their personalities.

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