June 11, 2015 in Dag

Natural selection in the world of story telling

I think I’ve mentioned before how I have emerged from a scientific background (I even have a science degree to prove it). While my life seems to have come a long way from there, there are times when I still like to apply scientific principles to the things I do. And one of the major things that I do (of course) is writing, so that’s where I’m most likely to try and follow some sort of scientific method.

We all have our heroes, and in the world of science, one of my heroes is Charles Darwin. I can’t think of any scientist at any time who changed the world as much as Darwin did. With his theories of evolution and natural selection, he revolutionised the way we think about the natural world, and our place within it.

When I write, I like to think about how I can apply the ideas introduced by Darwin. Evolution is a fairly obvious one. Just like life on earth, a good story evolves over time, sometimes changing form in ways that I wouldn’t have expected in the beginning. And when I look back on the early drafts, it can feel a little bit like digging up a fossil record, to explore my original ideas and jottings in prehistoric form.

But the aspect of Darwin’s ideas that I find most applicable to my writing is natural selection. You know the idea. Organisms adapt based on the characteristics of their natural environment. For example, if the leaves on the trees in a certain location are high up, animals with long necks will thrive while those with short necks will die out.

This is a lot like how things are with my stories. I always start with lots of ideas. But gradually, those ideas start to get whittled down. Some of them are weak and unable to adapt. Those are the ones that die out quickly. But others are strong, possessing lots of different features. They’re the ones that are likely to evolve into full-blown stories.

Even when I have my story idea and I’m starting to develop it, lots of natural selection occurs. Characters are introduced but don’t last the distance. Scenes may be written and then later discarded. Lots of specific pieces of writing, like dialogue or description, might have seemed like a good idea at the time but never make it into the final completed draft.

And it’s not just me that these story elements need to contend with. Beta readers and editors and proofreaders are all a component of my “writing environment”. By the end of the process, only the truly strong and adaptable will remaining standing.

So, in closing, I’d like to salute the great Charles Darwin and his wonderful ideas. I wouldn’t be the writer I am without him.

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Jim Murdoch June 12, 2015 at 9:48 am

I took General Science for two years—it was compulsory—but as soon as I got to pick my own subjects I dropped the lot. I dropped all foreign languages too which I only slightly regret—two years of French and one of Latin were quite enough and have actually stood me in good stead—but I don’t regret not taking a science. I was in the last year you could get away with that. After that you had to take at least once of the three sciences and a language too I think. I can enjoy programmes about science—I can see why it attracts people—but just not me. I don’t really care why the sky’s blue. It is and we have to cope with it. The same with gravity and the seasons. People, on the other hand, do interest me and they hate following rules or adhering to patterns of behaviour. Which is why psychology is a bit of a bust too because they spend ages and ages defining conditions and then change their minds a few years later. The odd think is that science does still make its way into my books and usually the most advanced stuff. In the book I’m working on just now I happen to comment on the (and I use the term loosely) fact that according to recent studies time doesn’t exist and reality doesn’t exist if you’re not looking at it. I mean, how can you not stick something like that in your book even if you don’t understand it?

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Jonathan Gould June 14, 2015 at 12:51 am

Hi Jim,

Don’t get me started on psychology. Mind you, if I stuck to writing what I did understand, I’d end up with very little to write about.

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Larry February 26, 2016 at 2:43 pm

Hello Guys,

I’ve been doing a lot of research for my new book “The Illusion of Time” and after searching extensively for links back to the article that kicked it all off for me, I found you guys talking about the subject.

Thanks Jim for sharing my link above, although the original article needed some work from when I originally wrote it.

Anyway… Jim, the subject of the article you linked to in your comment I’m building out into a book and I thought you guys might be interested in checking out the material…

Let me know if it’s cool to post you a link here

Regards & thanks


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Jonathan Gould February 26, 2016 at 11:44 pm

Hi Larry. More than happy for you to post a link here.

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Larry March 2, 2016 at 9:47 pm

That’s great Jonathan, thanks! It might not be entirely your bag, but you can let me know what you think anyway.


Many thanks! Larry

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