Thinking in Fractals

A fractal is a mathematical pattern that appears as a tiny building block, but when put together, forms a much larger but identical building block to create a beautiful image. With a fractal, the tiniest portions are just smaller versions of the whole image. Movies work the same way.

Divide a screenplay into four parts like this:

  • Act I — Introduce hero and the problem
  • Act IIa — Show the hero progressing towards a goal
  • Act IIb — Show the hero running into obstacles
  • Act III — Show the hero achieving or failing to achieve the goal

Now look at this from a story point of view like in “Star Wars”:

  • Act I — Luke wants to get off his planet and live an adventurous life
  • Act IIa — Luke leaves his planet on his way to an adventure
  • Act IIb — Luke gets captured by the Death Star
  • Act III — Luke destroys the Death Star

Now let’s look at Act III of “Star Wars” to see this same fractal-like pattern appearing again:

  • Act I — Luke wants to help the rebels defeat the approaching Death Star
  • Act IIa — The rebel fighters attack and prove too nimble for the Death Star’s laser cannons to shoot down
  • Act IIb — TIE fighters come out to shoot down the rebel fighters
  • Act III — Luke destroys the Death Star

Now go deeper into the final scene and you see this same four-part story structure appearing once more like a fractal:

  • Act I — Luke the last chance to stop the Death Star before it blows up the rebel base
  • Act IIa — Luke gets into the trench with his two escorts
  • Act IIb — Death Vader kills one escort and cripples another one
  • Act III — Hans saves Luke and Luke destroys the Death Star

Whether you’re focusing on your story, an Act, or a scene, the same four-part story structure still applies. At the scene level, the four-part story structure holds the audience’s interest. In an Act level, the four-part story structure keeps the story moving. At the story level, the four-part story structure tells a complete story from start to finish.

Notice that bad movies have scenes that are boring or irrelevant while good movies have scenes that absolutely must be there to tell a complete story. If you watch the DVD of cut scenes from popular movies, you can see that these cut scenes don’t add to the story and often duplicate or distract from the story. Ideally, you want to write a story where every scene must be included to tell a complete story. Anything that doesn’t help the story must be cut. Anything that duplicates information must be cut.

Think of every scene, every Act, and every story in four parts. By doing this, you’ll see the underlying structure that tells a good story no matter what it’s length might be.

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