The Strange Attractor

A while back I did an article about “That Thing That Makes Your Story Unique“, and this article is going to be similar, only it plays off of a quotation of Brandon Sanderson. (if you haven’t noticed, I’ve been watching a lot of his lectures lately, and you should too.) This article is going to be focusing on a selling point rather than making your story unique (although I will briefly address that).

For context, I was watching a few of Brandon Sanderson’s 2020 lectures to a Sci-fi/Fantasy Creative writing class (Really? You can go to school and study Sci-fi? That’s a Fantasy! Okay, that was really bad…) and I came across his idea of a “Strange Attractor”. (I cut to the part you need to watch in the video below so you didn’t have to, though I fully recommend watching the whole video.)

Now, this is not necessarily a copyright-infringement crossover mess. In fact, it probably won’t be: all you’re doing is something that readers will make readers think, “Well, that’s weird/unconventional/new/different, but I like it.” It can even be your selling point at times.

If you think about it, a lot of what we invent to put in a story is a strange attractor. Take popular video games like Diablo and Doom: they play off of themes of spiritual warfare found in the Bible, only it’s in a high fantasy setting with lots of magic-y and horror elements. Or you’re a space marine with cool weapons.

It’s Mission Impossible, but you’re stealing thoughts through dreams (Inception). It’s Groundhog day, but with aliens (Not quite, but that’s basically Edge of Tomorrow). A high fantasy/steampunk world, but people freak out when you use magic (Final Fantasy VI). Heck, this goes all the way back to basic stuff like H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (a war, but with antagonists from other worlds).

Many, many people have employed the idea of a “strange attractor”. The properly so-called “gimmick” of your story is something you can return to time and time again and leverage to excite the reader into believing that they’re reading something new and original (when they are in one sense, but at the same time are not in another).

To be honest, not many people really set out to create a common fantasy (or any other genre). Otherwise it would be Lord of the Rings fanfiction. Anyone who’s serious about their story had probably thought of a gimmick to make their story that much different than anyone else’s, whether or not you were thinking about the “strange attractor”.

Advice on this topic is broadly conceived and even more broadly given, as it’s really easy to make something strange. Question is, is it familiar enough to be relatable yet foreign enough to be entertaining? If the answer to one or both of those is no, then you might have to do some balancing to achieve the perfect attractor factor. (I’m a poet and I didn’t know it!)

The two elements of the strange attractor are thus: familiarity and originality. The reader can easily identify that “Oh, this looks like that other story!” but at the same time, they must admit that “Ah, but there’s one huge difference: it’s set in space.” If you can capture that element, the reader will believe you’ve created something original.

Of course, I know some cynical people (I’m looking at you, dad) who just laugh in scorn: “Ha! That’s just Lord of the Rings with time travelers! How pathetic!” Pay no attention to these people. Just remember that there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and every story borrows from other stories and reality. Your story will be just as original as Tolkien’s (unless you’re obviously stealing)

On a final note: pairing a certain kind of plot (Hero’s Journey, Heist, Rags to Riches) with an unusual Genre (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Spy) is a pretty standard way to create an attraction. For instance: we’ve seen a heist in a spy movie, but what about a heist in a fantasy setting? (Mistborn is the classic example of this)

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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