Programming and fiction

Scott Mitchell asks whether programming and writing fiction can coexist.

I would respond that the two can coexist. Programming and writing fiction share some common traits. Off the top of my head, I can think of four common traits between writing fiction and writing programs. I’m sure there are others, but this is what immediately comes mind.

The first common trait is creativity. In order to write a good story, you have to be able to come up with creative ideas. To design a programming solution to a new and unique problem, it helps tremendously to have a creative mind. You can write programs without being creative. Many programs are written in a formulaic fashion. However, there is a preponderence of fiction that is formulaic as well. Harlequin romances, Star Trek books, and Piers Anthony all come to mind when I think of formulaic fiction.

Another common trait between writing fiction and programming is being able to organize a vast amount of information. Designing large programs requires the ability to boil down complex tasks to simpler descriptions. It requires the ability to see the project from the 50,000-foot level as well as being able to drill down and understand the minutiae. Writing fiction requires the ability to organize a society. The fiction writer must be able to express the common themes and traits of the story in a succinct fashion. The fiction writer must also be able to drill down into the specific events and interactions of the story and understand how they fit in with the broader characteristics.

A third trait shared between programming and writing is improvement through iteration. You write a program. You use the program. You understand weaknesses and faults in the program. You rewrite portions of the program. Sometimes, you end up starting from scratch and rewriting the entire program. When writing fiction, you start with an outline. You develop a rought draft. You review the draft. You ask others to review it. You understands faults and weaknesses in the writing. You rewrite portions of the work. In some cases, you end up starting from scratch and rewriting the entire story.

The fourth common trait is logic, believe it or not. It requires a logical mind to design a program. Likewise, a good story has logic. How often do we criticize a movie because it has “plot holes”? These kinds of stories lose their logical connection. They introduce surprises out of the blue that are simply contrivances to take the story in the direction desired by the author. A good story has logical connections between everything.

Language is considered a left-brain function. Logic is a left-brain function. Creativity is a right-brain function. It is the balance of the two that creates good results, whether it is a computer program or a work of fiction.

Many of use are dominant on one side or the other. There are lots of engineers who can do complex math problems in their head. They are left-brain dominant. There is a much smaller subset of these engineers who can come up with new solutions to math problems. These people are more balanced.

Lots of actors are very creative. They can just feel emotions and act on instinct. They are right-brain dominant. There is a much smaller subset of these actors who are able to express their creative ideas in words. These people are more balanced.

So what is my point? Writing good fiction requires a balance of left-brain and right-brain activity.

There are activities we can do to exercise one side of the brain. A good writing instructor will understand which side of their student’s brain needs the extra development and be able to suggest activities to encourage development in the student’s weak areas.

That’s my stream-of-consciousness on the issue. I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts.

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