Building a Mystery: Taxonomies for Creativity

April 25th, 2008 | Category: Essays

In a 2005 Daniel Robert Epstein interview, Pi director Darren Aronofsky likened writing to making a tapestry: “I’ll take different threads from different ideas and weave a carpet of cool ideas together.” In the same interview, he described the way those ideas hang together in his films, saying, “every story has its own film grammar so you have to sort of figure out what the story is about and then figure out what each scene is about and then that tells you where to put the camera.”

This idea stuck in my head after reading that. Now, when watching a movie or reading a book, I often find myself trying to break down the constituent parts. Also, when writing or creating, I will often attempt to establish a loose taxonomy of the elements involved in the project, a list of the salient aspects of the story.

Here are a few examples:

Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) contains the following concepts:

  • High school
  • Pookah legend
  • Time-travel
  • Literature
  • Psychosis
  • Superhero ideology

Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999) contains these:

  • Samarai philosophy
  • Mafia culture
  • Pigeons
  • Cartoons
  • Bears
  • Hip-hop

And Aronofsky’s own Pi (1998) contains these:

  • Chaos theory
  • Stock market
  • Go
  • Migraines
  • Kabbalah
  • Computer technology

There is a limit — a rule of the grammar, if you will — of the number of elements that the average story can carry. Applying a similar constraint to design, my friend and colleague Justin Kistner calls them “complexity thresholds,” and I think that’s a perfect name for what I’m describing. There’s a point at which too many elements cause one story (or one “page,” in the design scenario) to fall apart, a line across which something else (e.g., another page, a sequel, etc.) is needed. This limit is qualitative to be sure, but it’s not hard to tell when it’s been exceeded. There are exceptions as a matter of course (think Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling Magnolia or Pynchon’s almost intractable Gravity’s Rainbow).

Though this might ultimately be an aesthetic idea, and this could be considered the outer limits of it, scientists such as Richard Feynman, Bucky Fuller, and Albert Einstein have often spoken of the “beauty” of the right solution to a problem. Once quoth Fuller, “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” And Einstein professed, “The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.”

Calling the idea “beauty” is a bit oversimplified and not helpful, but one can see where a working theory can only contain a certain number of elements (i.e., constructs or concepts) before it becomes operationally unmanageable. And while building a theory and weaving a narrative are very different enterprises, one can see parallels in the amount of elements each will carry. It’s less like the chronological restrictions we place on certain activities (e.g., you must be 18 to vote, 21 to drink, etc.) and more like having enough cream and sugar in your coffee. It’s a difference like the one between hair and fur.

I find that The Wu-Tang Manual is a perfect case study of how to build a modern mythology. One cannot deny the mystique surrounding The Wu-Tang Clan, and this book spells out the elements involved in creating that mystique (without rendering it obsolete). Often when creating my own taxonomies, I will refer to The Wu-Tang Manual to get a semblance of whether or not my project possesses the proper amount of parsimony, complexity, balance, etc. The RZA’s is not a flawless system, but it is a damn solid exemplar.

I started doing these lists as a writing exercise — one I haven’t seen in any of the writing books. If you have any ideas or exercises to add to this one, please let me know below.

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