What does “fractal reading and writing” mean, anyway? Writers tell stories – or at least, most of the time they do. In storytelling, the author presents a reasonably-linear sequence of events, usually gathered and aligned into larger units such as paragraphs, scenes, chapters, or related stories for sequential viewing by a reader. The result is a single overarching sequence of pages bound into a physical book. As authors and readers, we expect this kind of organization.
The Web is an entirely different matter. Linking in hypertext gives both author and reader considerable freedom – in fact, links can afford so much freedom that storytelling or any ordered narrative can easily become chaotic, distracting, and incoherent. How does an author restrict linking to some desired scope? The problem isn’t limited to hypertext and the Web, either, because readers who use the Web extensively often find themselves skipping here and there in their reading of a printed text as if it were linked. Reading habits tend to spread.
The problem appears both for fiction and nonfiction, but nonfiction adds its own complications. Footnotes, sidebars, asides, expositions, glossaries, references, cross-references, indices – these all constitute challenges for authors attempting to maintain a reader’s attention on a main line of narrative.
An author may of course try to limit all reader choices to a straightforward text that has no added material, no forward or backward references, and no notes. This turns reading into a plod along a single path, with nothing to refresh the reader’s attention through contrasts, recollections, promises, or diversions.
Perhaps it is better to acknowledge openly what we have practiced all along as writers and readers: we jump around, skip back and forth, reread and restate, divert ourselves to other section or even other works altogether, and generally twine our practices of communication into a series of flows and jumps. We can usefully term these practices as fractal reading and writing.
Patterns of Fractal Reading and Writing
Reading can be smooth or it can be bursty. Some readers can sustain a steady intake of printed text word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, for long periods. This depends heavily on how well-attuned the reader is to the presented material’s ordering and content. The ideal marriage of reader and author generates the smooth “page-turner” experience, in which the reader sails uninterruptedly through a narrative from beginning to end, not missing a detail or rereading at all. Much formulaic writing aims at such an experience for readers, since both author and reader understand and embrace the formula of a genre of writing, such as a subgenre of romance, combat, suspense, horror, or science fiction.
Such a marriage is generally a publisher’s ideal, since it sells many books. The author reaching beyond the accepted formulas familiar to readers faces a struggle, not so much to enter into marriage with readers, but more to get just a one-night stand to start with. True fractal reading requires fractal writing, and our behavior with texts is changing as we read and write in a fast-changing digital world.
Fractal reading: what is it? We all do it without thinking, even when we think we are reading linearly. Behind the text entering our vision is all the text we have read earlier and remember, coupled with our thoughts and reactions to both the vision and the memory. Whether you read a lot of text or a little, the text all looks and feels like other larger or smaller parts of the texts we are processing in the background of our brains. A paragraph evokes a whole novel, a whole textbook triggers an embedded poem, a word suggests a long-evolved plan. Readers AND writers do this kind of evocative association all the time. Now we have links, haste, and new layers of consciousness, and fractal reading is what we do more and more. We surf everything now.
Fractal writing is producing the works that amplify fractal reading. These works echo themselves from word to phrase to paragraph to scene to chapter to book and beyond. With such treatment, good writing catches extra fire.
Figure 33 shows the written text as black line segments. It contrasts the reading process for a linear book (brown) with that for a collection of Web pages (salmon-pink) and that for fractal text (light purple).
Figure 33 – The threads of our attention
Readers do not read every word of any book, and we do not read any book in exactly the order the author sets forth. The lines in the figure show skips, backtracks, and rereadings – we all do these things. Reading a book is encouraged in the one sequence in which the book is published. Reading the Web has no bounds at all. Reading a fractal text takes a middle path: the reader can skip and follow among different threads of narrative, but no Web intrudes to distract from the content.
In the image above, the black lines reflect the way writers present a work in its own timeline. In the left image (conventional book form), the writer may show two or more units in parallel time streams, or skip over segments of time altogether. As long as the sequence of presentation keeps the reader turning pages in order (brown line), reading is mostly linear. On the Web (pink lines), reading jumps all over, sometimes even exiting from the writer’s work altogether and returning. In a fractal text (purple lines), reading does both, but the writer’s task is to limit the jumping in order to tell a story, to narrate a lesson, and to interrelate relate stories and lessons, with reader excursions optional and supported.
Contrast, Paradox, and Metaphor
There is cognitive advantage in generating texts and works of presentation in which the focus of attention is from time to time moved abruptly from one unit, one sentence, or one word to the next. This is obvious when we recall the opposite sort of experience. Each of us has no doubt attended a lecture in which the speaker drones along in a near-monotone with no gesture or visual stimulation, and we find ourselves awakening only after the lecture is done and people have stood up to leave the room.
A good speaker or writer understands this problem. Both receive cautionary training in enlivening their presentations by adding elements that contrast with those that come before and after them: a joke, a little dance step, a seemingly-unrelated anecdote with a twist of relevance, and so on.
Contrast separates and differentiates a focus of attention from its background. A change of scene, of point of view, of purpose, of any major feature of a narrative generates contrast, and the reader’s mind must in the moment make the leap to the new context. Leaps are interesting, because we are compelled to connect the beginning of the leap with its end.
Paradoxes illustrate extreme contrast. How can something be visible and invisible at the same time? How can it be true that the universe was created in seven days but also created in a great almost-instant expansion? Confronted with a paradox, one’s attention is riveted, and one’s cognitive abilities are challenged. Those leaps a writer offers a reader from one scene or subject to an entirely different one look at first like paradoxes.
Metaphors exploit contrasts by generating connections between two or more seemingly-unrelated ideas. In the change of scene or subject a writer urges the reader to develop metaphors for his or her own use in resolving or embracing the change.
By its use of seemingly-disconnected orderings of its units of presentation, fractal writing offers the writer more opportunities for the use of contrast, paradox, and metaphor in engaging readers. In so doing, fractal writing amplifies the cognitive advantages inherent in changing the focus of attention.
Writing a Fractal Text
Because skipping and rereading are expected and encouraged in fractal texts, the fundamental unit of presentation to readers in such texts must be compact and relatively self-contained. Whether one is writing a scene in a story or a lesson in a textbook, there must be some visualized or felt stability of context for the reader. Shifts made abruptly can produce reader disorientation: which setting I am in, which characters or ideas are being discussed, what assumptions I should use as I read, etc. In effect, in any scene, the author must keep most aspects of the context fixed, whether they are geographical, spatial, temporal, social, or conceptual.
Readers may arrive at the same unit of text by different routes. This requires the author to reinforce the context of the unit at its beginning, so every reader quickly gets a clear sense of where and when the events of the unit are happening, who is present, whose point of view is current, and why this unit matters. There are many ways to do these things with skill and craft, but they are essential in a fractal text more than in a traditional, linear, printed book. The author of a printed story can rely on the context of one preceding text; the author of a fractal text cannot.
Ending a unit also presents unique challenges. A reader finishing a unit may go to any subsequent unit urged by the author. What will make the reader want to select the next unit to read? In a book, the end of one scene leads to the start of only one other on the next physical page, so the author’s closure of the unit drives the reader in that one direction. In a fractal text, the end of one unit offers more than one possible destination, so the author’s closure of the unit must energize the reader’s attention sufficiently to make all the possible destinations attractive.
A simple way to do this is to heighten the emotional tension of a unit with an ‘upturn’ at the close, as is done in television screenwriting to frame a commercial break. The television upturn is designed to help the viewer’s attention and interest survive the temporary disruption of the story. The use of the upturn in a fractal text helps the reader’s attention and interest bridge the to the reader’s chosen scene. Creating such effects is a skill well-known to screenwriters.
The length of a unit is limited by the author’s sense of how much a reader can assimilate and retain without the pause that marks a unit transition. The author must determine the size and content of the scene first, along with other attributes such as point of view, locale, and any context information useful to the purpose. Once these determinations are made, the author must then connect the current unit with predecessors and successors for various sequences of reading.
One good way for an author to start the process is to define all the likely threads of units for different groups of readers. Some readers might follow one thread, others a different one, depending on each reader’s choices at the start. This requires the author to plan out the possibilities for each group of readers.
In a printed book, there is usually a major theme that takes priority, so the author begins by developing the sequence of units addressing that theme. As development continues, the author weighs the relative value of each unit in that sequence, and moves less-essential and more-expository units out of the main sequence into sidebars, appendices, or notes, at the same time inserting new units that emerge as needed for the main sequence.
Sometimes two or more themes emerge as having similar importance, so the author weaves them together by alternating units, chapters, or section in a work among the important themes. The reader can sense the alternations and respond by reading them all sequentially, by reading first one theme’s units and then another’s, or by any other scheme that maintains for that reader the desired stream of comprehension of the work as a whole.
This sort of thematic weaving constitutes a form of fractal writing, even though it is familiar in many works of literature long before the advent of digital texts. The present work illustrates some of the many fractal aspects of writing and reading.
Bahá’í Models for Fractal Texts
One who respects the Writings of the Manifestations of God might feel that they should not show flaws or weaknesses of form. This is especially true of those Writings which are asserted by their Authors as issuing directly from God. The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh assert the dominating role of their Writings, not only in the abrogation and establishment of religious law, but also in their redefinition of the written form itself. Referring to grammatical alterations originating from Manifestations of God, the Báb observes:
“… It is so that people will be certain that the author of these passages did not come to them by borrowing verses and scholarly knowledge. Rather, by the light of God his breast was dilated with the divine sciences. … On account of this, every person of certitude realizes that the basis of creating verbal expressions is the decree of God, not the invention of those who are not of the people of the Bayán [the followers of the Báb].”
Bahá’u’lláh makes the point crystal-clear:
“O leaders of religion! Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you, for the Book itself is the unerring Balance established amongst men. In this most perfect Balance whatsoever the peoples and kindreds of the earth possess must be weighed, while the measure of its weight should be tested according to its own standard, did ye but know it.”
Many who read the Qur’án and the Writings of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh find hard to understand the ways in which these works present apparently-disjointed transitions from topic to topic, or offer puzzling inclusions that seem to bear no significance to the reader. Whole volumes have been written, for example, in efforts to comprehend the meanings of the solitary letters that open certain of the verses of the Qur’án of Muhammad.
Some readers and scholars have commented on the way in which the content of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas – the Most Holy Book of Bahá’u’lláh containing His laws and ordinances for His Dispensation – seems to not follow some expected or commonplace order and grouping in its sequence of reading. Rather than attempt a detailed analysis and study of this perception, it seems much more fitting to view the order and grouping of the content of this sacred text as definitive in and of itself. In other words, we would do better to weigh our expected and commonplace orders and groupings of subject matter in light of the standard and the examples put forth by the Manifestation of God, not the other way around.
Contrast, paradox, and metaphor pervade the Kitáb-i-Aqdas in ways that illuminate meaning itself. The shifts and leaps from topic to topic, metaphor to metaphor, paradox to paradox, work within a definitive, stable framework of language that is lyrical, evocative, rhythmic, and potently harmonious. The combination can grip the reader of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas in a fascination and wonder that will not let go. If one wanted a model for fractal writing, no further search would be required.