Combinatorial Play

Damon Knight, in Creating Short Fiction, says that a single idea does not make a short story. Two ideas do. That might sound simple enough to be practically useless, but it resonated for me. A second idea can shake loose a single idea, provide perspective, allow for a different sort of exploration and interplay. Maybe that’s why prompts involving unrelated words are so popular.

I wonder if the process is similar to Einstein’s idea of combinatorial play, which (besides its mathematical meanings) seems to imply putting two disparate things together and looking for new meanings. When I Google the term, lots of “think-better” sites come up, as well as the book, Understanding Italo Calvino. Are any of the other princesses familiar with this concept? Able to shed more light on it?


About Loranne Brown

Loranne Brown, MFA: Journalist and novelist (The Handless Maiden, Doubleday Canada 1998) teaches Professional Writing at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC. Blog: Twitter: @MFAGals @LoranneBrown View all posts by Loranne Brown

One response to “Combinatorial Play

  • Heather

    How well put, Nanc. I agree with these thoughts, and I think this is one of the ways in which we humans create meaning because it allows folks to infuse their own points of reference on both ends of the disparate items and in the middle ground have their own poignancy. Taking what we know and combining it with what we don't. As I think on it, metaphors, whether in language or directly, seem a type of combinatorial play–finding meaning from the comparison of two unlike nouns. I'm also reminded of a passage from Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House. It's in his essay titled "Counterpointed Characterization," and he says, "Plot often develops out of the tensions between characters, and in order to get that tension, a writer sometimes has to be a bit of a matchmaker, creating characters who counterpoint one another in ways that are fit for gossip." I think these are starting points, however, from which the art of writing is applied.

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