Gnarly Plotting


(Rudy Rucker is a guestblogger. His latest novel, Hylozoic, describes a postsingular world in which everything is alive.)

I love gnarly shapes and processes—gnarly in the sense of being not too orderly and not too random, right on the living border. Moving water is amazing stuff, and cranking your camera's shutter speed up high lets you freeze it. And your foot, every now and then you look at it and—how strange. Really, we're as oddly shaped as any fabulous jungle plant or deep ocean crustacean.

A few years ago, I gave a talk called "Seek the Gnarl" where I talked about how gnarliness relates to the way a writer creates the plot for a novel.

I used to maintain that it was better not to plot my novels in advance. I'd defend the practice of not having a precise outline by speaking in terms of the gnarl. A characteristic feature of any complex process is that you can't look at what's going on today and immediately deduce what will be happening in a few weeks. It's necessary to have the world run step-by-step through the intervening ticks of time. Gnarly processes are unpredictable; they don't allow for short-cuts. In other words, the last chapter of a novel with a gnarly plot is, even in principle, unpredictable from the contents of the first chapter. You have to write the whole novel in order to discover what happens in the last chapter.

This said, I've learned to at least try to write an outline to try and lessen the pain of writing. But even with an outline, I can't be quite sure about the twists and turns my story will take. How precise, after all, is an outline? If, as William Burroughs used to say, a novel is but a map of a territory, an outline is but a map of a map. In the end, only the novel itself is the perfect outline of the novel. Only the territory itself can be the perfect map.


I took this photo on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley the other day. I like the contrast between the digital numbers labeling the billboard, and the gnarly tatters of the peeling paper. The numbers are the outline, the (actually quite elegant) shapes of the paper are the novel.

I'm not saying a novel should be a random mess. I'm saying that it's nice if the story has the organic and unpredictable feel of some living thing that's grown or of some natural shape that's arisen over time. The characters and tropes and social situations bounce off each other like eddies in a turbulent wakes, like vines twisting around each other in a jungle, like the plates of a skull.


Online version of Rudy's talk, "Seek the Gnarl".