12/09/2013 05:11 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Bad Math: Rationalization in Fiction

A lot of us literary folk will insist time to time that we are not math people. Nowhere is this clearer than in a concept that I like to call 2 + 2 = 5.

What is 2 + 2 = 5? Let me explain.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to edit a fantastic young adult novel. But this novel had a problem as it approached its climax. The main characters, a team of gifted child inventors, were about to attempt the rescue of their teacher from a very dangerous villain. To reach her, they enlisted the help of one of the children's uncles. The uncle drove them where they needed to go. The children insisted that they had to do this alone.

And the uncle left.

There I had to protest. This was not plausible. I could believe the children's decision, if they didn't want to put anyone else in harm's way. But a grown man, a caring relative, leaving children behind in an isolated place to confront a dangerous man all on their own? That I could not believe. It defied logic. And it had to change.

When I received the next draft from the author, what had changed was not the event itself, but the rationale. The children made arguments -- several arguments -- as to why the uncle must leave. Their invention, now in the uncle's possession, would be in danger if he intervened. His presence might draw too much attention to them. The danger wasn't even certain anyway; there was no reason for him to stick around.

The uncle left. And the problem remained -- because no amount of explanation changed the fact that the uncle, in this situation, would never leave the children on their own.

I call this 2 + 2 = 5: a writer's tendency to insist upon something that isn't true. In reality, two plus two does not equal five. Two plus two will never equal five. And rather than fix the equation -- change the five to a four, or one of the twos to a three -- this author was writing paragraph after paragraph trying to explain why two plus two really does equal five.

The author of this novel is extremely gifted -- brilliant, even. But this is a trap many writers fall into time to time, and it's plain to see why it happens. When we live with ideas for a long time, we become attached to them -- so attached to them, in fact, that we forget that, as writers, we control our own worlds. We can move the pieces around. Our equation does not need to include two twos and a five.

In this case, the author had a very clear climax in mind: the children on their own, rescuing their teacher from the villain. She had a very clear idea in her mind of how the children got where they had to go: a ride from the uncle. And she was trying so hard to explain how one can lead to the other, not realizing that the far better solution was for the children to get where they had to go some other way.

In other words: Forget about the uncle. If he doesn't drive the children anywhere, if he doesn't even know they have somewhere to go, he doesn't have to make a decision he would never ever make. The solution was not improving the argument, but changing the circumstances -- a two, in this case, into a three.

This happens all the time. I've done it. I've spent hours, days, and even weeks trying to figure out and rationalize the logic of my story, only to realize that I had entirely forgotten that I am the author. The established events of my story are not set in stone. The hero doesn't have to wake up hours away from the bomb. The sister doesn't have to tag along with her brother. I don't need to drive myself crazy trying to justify something that simply doesn't have to be true--and, often, never can be.

Like 2 + 2 = 5.

What it comes down to is rationalization -- that natural and human need to justify that which in fact does not make sense. As authors, either we forget that change is possible, or else we determine that providing a new explanation is easier than writing a new scene. A problem sure seems simpler to resolve if it's only a problem on this page and not a problem that begins twenty pages earlier. It's surely better to prove that two and two equal five rather than dive deeper into your manuscript and rework the math.

Except -- it's not better. It's impossible, no matter how talented and eloquent you might be. And deep down, you will know it. And your readers will know it. Because plot points may not be set in stone, and circumstances can change, but logic, often, is a constant, and math is immutable. If that scene feels wrong no matter how many times you rework and revise it, then there's a pretty good chance you're trying to rationalize away something you know is true:

Two plus two does not equal five.

But -- that author I worked with changed her story, and what she came up with worked far better than what she'd originally imagined. In fact, what she came up with was fantastic. And you can accomplish the same thing.

You just need to find the right equation.