The Zettelkasten Method for Fiction I – Knowledge is Knowledge

Quite frequently, the question how to make the Zettelkasten Method work for fiction arises. The simple answer is: There is no need to modify the Zettelkasten Method because it only provides the overarching architecture for your notes and their connections. If your sources are fictional or non-fictional is just a question of the content your notes hold.

To demonstrate this claim, I will show you ways to process a quote from the great movie The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Please forgive me for not providing the exact bibliographical data since I read the book in German. All quotes are taken from Goodreads.1

The Quotes

Read the quotes carefully: There are some that are not like the other. Can you guess which?

Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.

He had long ago learned that society imposes insults that must be borne, comforted by the knowledge that in this world there comes a time when the most humble of men, if he keeps his eyes open, can take his revenge on the most powerful. It was this knowledge that prevented the Don from losing the humility all his friends admired in him.

There are things that have to be done and you do them and you never talk about them. You don’t try to justify them. They can’t be justified. You just do them. Then you forget it.

Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold.

A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.

The lawyer with the briefcase can steal more money than the man with the gun.

The other Dons in the room applauded and rose to shake hands with everybody in sight and to congratulate Don Corleone and Don Tattaglia on their new friendship. It was not perhaps the warmest friendship in the world, they would not send each other Christmas gift greetings, but they would not murder each other. That was friendship enough in this world, all that was needed.

We are all honorable men here, we do not have to give each other assurances as if we were lawyers.

I don’t trust society to protect us, I have no intention of placing my fate in the hands of men whose only qualification is that they managed to con a block of people to vote for them.

I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

You cannot say ‘no’ to the people you love, not often. That’s the secret. And then when you do, it has to sound like a ‘yes’. Or you have to make them say ‘no.’ You have to take time and trouble.

Many young men started down a false path to their true destiny. Time and fortune usually set them aright.

A man who is not a father to his children can never be a real man.

Take your time and don’t continue reading until you have your hypothesis. I’ll process one of the quotes in the meantime.

A Thoroughly Processed Quote

Disclaimer: The following is the pure processing, not the implementation into the Zettelkasten. The corresponding sample notes can be found in the sample note archive on GitHub. The emboldened sentences are comments on what I am doing next.

A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.

First: A reformulation in my own words.

To become a real man, a man must be complete. You cannot have something missing. Being there for the family is an essential part of a man’s life. So, if a man is not spending time with his family the issue is not just that he withholds quality time from its family. He violates his own honor.

Second: Establishing the truth of the claim embedded in the quote.

Paternal investment in offspring is a unique human trait compared to the other primates. Paternal investment is tightly linked to paternal certainty. For women, there is not doubt that their children are really theirs. For men, there is the issue of uncertainty. The rationality of their believe of being the biological father of children depends on various factors. It is more rational to trust in being the biological father in a monogamous marriage while living in a small village and being part of a culture that highly values fidelity, than in a casual relationship (“friends with benefits”) with no cultural ties to the woman.

This paternal uncertainty is not only a source of stress. The degree of paternal certainty can be seen as the result of the man’s capability to create a world in which it is rational to spend time with his family.

Coming from a more virtue based point of view, one can argue that spending time with one’s family separates a human male from primates. Spending time with the family is one aspect by which we human improved on our ancestors. So, if you don’t spend time with your family as a man, you don’t rise above the level of an ape. It makes you primitive if done by choice.

Third: Establishing the relevance of the claim if it is true.

Spending time with one’s own family is part of the Conditio Humana. As people, we are not strictly separated from animals. Quite the contrary: Being human is not a biological trait you inherit with your genes, but a behavioral confirmation that needs to be acted out consciously in our daily lives. This makes solving the issue of paternal uncertainty and creating a life in which it is both rational and emotional right to spend time with one’s family one of the duties of a man’s codex.

The world is never our own world. We are born into the world to die. The world doesn’t exist for us not for us since we are the present, and the present is the point in time that is eternally being-born and dying simultaneously. The past is eternally dead. The future is the only thing that is truly alive. This is the true meaning of the saying “The world belongs to our children”. If we make spending time with our family part of our codex of being a man, we embody at least in part these words of wisdom. Therefore, we men should teach our sons the importance of spending time with family since they are the future dads who inherit this duty.

Fourth: Thinking about the usefulness as if this claim was true and a tool. Or: Establishing the usefulness of the embedded guideline.

Men need a code to live by. With no code, with no honor, men become weak and eventually succumb to the temptations of the expedient and lower vices. To make honor depend on whether we spend time with our family puts pressure on men that’s necessary to prevent them from becoming weak. It saves men from living as if they are not the already-dying present. It saves them from the hazards – for their selves and their family – of self-centeredness.

Fifth: Establishing a relationship of the embedded guideline to the concept of simpleness. Here specifically: How to let the guideline manifest in your life with simple means.

To spend time with family can be very simple. Incorporate rules and rituals that facilitate spending time with them: Train with them, eat together, have regular family events. Short: Make it a habit.

To increase the quality, make sure that you are conscious of what you aim for when you spend time with your family. It is about making the lives of your family better and knitting your ties a bit closer. So, if you eat with your family, it is not the time and place to unload frustrations with just because they can’t avoid you like they can the rest of the day.

Sixth: Establishing the relationship of the quote to the concept of beauty – the layer that is the most difficult to uncover layer of knowledge.

If you imagine spending time with your family, you will always be able to find beauty. Even if spending time with them looks like a Chevy Chase or Adam Sandler movie, there is the hidden beauty of a father being with his family and making it part of his priority. The sight of an invested father fills us with similar joy like like looking at a beautiful painting. It might be less in-your-face, but the beautiful character trait shines through if you open your heart to it.

Commentary: Keep in mind that writing is thinking. These are my actual thoughts and besides the occasional typo I didn’t change anything to give you an idea how the real processing of the quote can look like. And should look like if you ask me.

The Quotes That Are Not Like the Others

There are three quotes that are not like the others:

[1] The other Dons in the room applauded and rose to shake hands with everybody in sight and to congratulate Don Corleone and Don Tattaglia on their new friendship. It was not perhaps the warmest friendship in the world, they would not send each other Christmas gift greetings, but they would not murder each other. That was friendship enough in this world, all that was needed.

[2] We are all honorable men here, we do not have to give each other assurances as if we were lawyers.

[3] I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Compared to the rest of the quotes, these quotes are not straightforward claims on how the world is or how to act in it. The meaning in these quotes is more hidden. All the other quotes are straight-forward.

So let me ask this rhetorical question: Why should you treat those claims on the nature of the world any different than claims that you read in non-fiction literature?

The answer is: There is no reason to treat them any different, because the source does not dictate the nature of the type of knowledge we are confronted with.

If I’d tell that the quote I processed was by an important Roman or Greek philosopher, you might assume that I am using the Zettelkasten Method for philosophy. If I’d tell that the quote was pulled from the Bible, you might assume I was using the Zettelkasten Method for theology. But instead I used the quote above to demonstrate you how to use your Zettelkasten to process fiction.

The genre or medium of your source material does not matter for the application and applicability of the Zettelkasten Method. The Zettelkasten Method is a way of dealing with knowledge.2 It is not important if you stalk a stranger in the alley while he mumbles profound wisdom which you then recorded with your numbphone. It is not important if your source is a podcast, a book, a philosopher, a theologist, or a dead character in Game of Thrones. Knowledge is knowledge.

First Conclusion: Do Not Care About the Source

If you process fiction, don’t be distracted by the type of book you are reading. Focus on the material at hand. The correct way to deal with it is to ignore the type of source and concentrate on the type of knowledge at hand.

If you want to process knowledge be aware of the different species of knowledge you can encounter. Reading is searching for these species. But in fictional texts, there is value besides knowledge, especially when you are a fiction writer yourself. So in the next installment of this series, we will see what else we can look for in fiction.

Do you want me to assist you with using the Zettelkasten Method? I offer 1-on-1 coaching.

Christian’s Comment: When I read the drafts for this article, I was astonished how thoroughly Sascha processed that one quote. I believe I can change quite a bit in my attitude towards fiction when I’m looking at this – especially since I hardly process quotes from fiction. If you (like I did) feel you don’t know where and how to start, I’m certain that the upcoming parts will be a great help. I know what’s coming, of course :)

  1. Some quotes might be from the book. I have no way to tell from the Goodreads data. 

  2. This includes information since transforming information into knowledge is part of knowledge work.