The writing process is an incredibly mind-opening, frustrating, enlightening endeavour. Developing a story to the point where you have that perfect piece can be a gruelling task. Stephen King describes the process of writing as similar to an archaeologist, digging around and slowly removing all the sand that buried the gem you’ve been looking for. At the end of the screenwriting process, you should be like Tarantino, who wants his screenplay to be so perfected that he almost doesn’t want to make them into films. After all, all those insane hours have only been spent to produce a document that, in turn, will be torn apart by the director.
What does this have to do with fractal structures, you say? What even is a fractal structure, anyway?
Fractal structures are everywhere
Nature has a strange ability to calm us down. As a linguistics professor once said to me “Nature is really good for nerves”. The thing that nature and storytelling have in common is that they follow patterns. For instance in nature, you’ll find seasons, which are more or less unchangeable (climate change pending). In storytelling, you’ll find patterns too: they can be five acts, three acts, eight sequences… they’re patterns that our jargon names “story structure”.
One pattern that nature provides us with is called fractals. It is essentially a phenomenon whereby an object’s structure will be the exact same at every scale you look at it. The structure will be identically replicated from one level to the next until the object ends -or until infinity.
This phenomenon can be observed in Saturn’s rings, tree leaves, blood vessels, and a certain type of broccoli. It can also be observed in snowflakes, which gives a whole other level to everyone calling millennials snowflakes.
What screenwriting is all about
Writing, whether for the screen or any other medium, is all about conflict. Conflict is the essence of drama. Any piece is about one major conflict, which is resolved at the end of the film, season or play. This breaks down into sequences and scenes. These are micro-conflicts themselves that feed into each other and move the main arc forward.
It is no different now than it was when Aristotle first wrote about drama in his Poetics. A story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. French New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard posited that they didn’t have to be in that order. David Mamet added that this was why French films were boring. (Profanity of the quote is excluded.)
The beginning is what sets the story in motion. The end is what resolves the story. The middle is the progression through action between this two points. It doesn’t matter if you approach your script through script or sequence. Each one has to be broken down into a beginning, a middle, and an end that push the story forward, through action.
Replicating your screenwriting unit
For this story structure hack to work, you need a very clear main conflict for your story. “X has to do Y otherwise Z happens.” One may be tempted create a more elaborate conflict, and you’d be right on some level. You want to give a breath to your story, and not leave it to operate on a narrow path.
That comes by ensuring that the conflict is concisely defined. Once you have it, you can do a lot with it, and produce as many variations on this theme from one scene to the other. If you consider your basic unit of beginning-middle-end as it relates to your main conflict, you can replicate it in an infinity of ways. That unit will be different depending on which characters are in the scene, and what point you are at in the story. This will enable you to give a different colour to each scene. And a good director will know how to harness that tonal variety.
The pitfall of going for variety is, of course, that there be too much variety. So how do you ensure that you stay on track? Well, that comes through the theme.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! argues that statement of theme should come on page 5 of your screenplay. You’ve spent the first four pages introducing your lead, perhaps a supporting character, and the world we’re going to spend 90 to 120 minutes in. These pages say “this is what we’re going to talk about”. Stating your theme, usually in a line of dialogue, is when you say “this is what we’re really going to talk about”.
Having a theme is what can make a film take flight. Finding your theme means that you’re painting on a broader canvas. It means that you want your film to gain deeper resonance with your audience.
A great example of this practice is, believe it or not, Legally Blonde. Very early on in the film, a saleswoman tries to trick Elle Woods into buying an old dress for the price of a new one. She snaps back: “If you’re trying to sell it to me at full price, you picked the wrong girl.” This scene, like all the others in the film, and like the film in its entirety, is about the main character being taken for a fool because she seems like she can be reduced to the “dumb blonde” stereotype, and her proving them what she’s really made of.
So try it. What are you really writing about?