Skip to Content

Writers on Writing

When Logic Met Fiction

Tracy O'Neill, Author

Tracy O’Neill


Students of logic and rhetoric will be familiar with the syllogistic formula: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. All wax melts. Icarus’s wings are adhered with wax. Therefore Icarus’s wings will melt as he approaches the sun. But some of the most bruising poignancies of fiction arise when logic is ignored, unseen, unbidden. The neck burns, the pulse thump veers into new time signatures with a simple substitution: that hopeful idiot Icarus has missed the memo on the major premise. Icarus will fall from the sky.

Most people will agree to the following terms: No person is comprehensively logical. You are a person. Therefore, sometimes you are illogical. As such, plot often is simply a function of the character who can’t get down with the major or minor premise, the character who believes that only some people are comprehensively logical or that she is not a person at all. The moment that the syllogism breaks is the moment where the character’s Weltanschauung laughs at the physics of reality and reality raises a middle finger in return.

My wife does not produce a sense of uncanniness, Dr. Leo Liebenstein believes he knows in Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances. This woman, who otherwise wholly resembles my wife produces a sense of the uncanny. Therefore, this woman, who otherwise wholly resembles my wife, is not my wife. The shape of Liebenstein’s thinking is logical, but the premises may not be. He is more willing to believe a simulacrum has divested his wife of her place than that the given, his given, is incorrect. And so a bittersweet picaresque ensues.

We’ve all heard the platitude that writers ought show not tell. When undeclared belief suggests itself in action, character is mobilized to the surface of the narrative. Just as Liebenstein’s diction appears to register the structure of reason and still fails to capture it, so too, does his logical architecture bend beneath the burden of his subjectivity. Liebenstein’s mind may be systematic, but it isn’t logical. He is guided by the feeling of uncanniness, not an objective reality. He is more emotional than he might suspect.

Writers of fiction may also find more nuanced syllogisms to be narrative engines. Some people can be saved, knows the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Misfit and she are people. Perhaps they will be saved. But the flip side is sometimes, there are no heroes. This is one of those times.

When the partitive enters the syllogism, there is not only opportunity for tragedy but also the sublime and everything in between. In The Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill inhabits exactly this space between. Some affairs terminate happiness in marriages. The husband has had an affair. Toward the end, “Sometimes the husband says he is going to look for kindling. But later the wife sees him chain-smoking at the edge of the far field. Sometimes she still thinks about the ex-boyfriend, but she does not hunt for him in the ether.” Their marriage could be one of the marriages in which happiness is ended by infidelity or not.

In the end, Offill suggests something of a hopeful not-quite sublime and not-quite tragic, a life more like ours and less like those of Icaruses and gods. After a long interlude of third-person narration in which the marriage nears shambles, Offill returns to the first person. The husband is once more “you,” the wife, “I,” and together they are the “we” susceptible to the failures of reason and receptive to its occasional rewards.

I’m resistant to providing generalized writing advice, perhaps because it seems like a syllogism waiting to be proven false. But what I can say is this: Sometimes formulas yield unformulaic stories. You know the formula. How will you conclude the syllogism?

About the Author

Tracy O'Neill, Author

Tracy O’Neill

Tracy O’Neill is the author of The Hopeful. In 2015, she was named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize, and was a Narrative Under 30 finalist. In 2012, she was awarded the Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writers Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, LitHub, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Literarian, New World Writing, Narrative, and Guernica. She has published nonfiction in The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Bookforum, Rolling Stone, Grantland, Vice, The Guardian, VQR, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her column ‘Body Language’ appears in Catapult. She currently teaches at the City College of New York and is pursuing a PhD at Columbia University.

More content from this author