Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Toward a Fractal Theory of Screenwriting

I've been sitting on my students for the last few weeks to build their toolkits, which are lists of elements that they know about their story. They know what the unity is. That is a tool. They know their conceit (well, they better). Conceit is a tool for solving script problems. They've learned how to define a character through an essential conflict that's locked into the overall plot. They've learned to balance character palettes and all that. They know the basic beats of the 3-act structure. My sense is that the toolkit idea is a little hokey for them -- it's all so simple, in a way. Who needs to break it down so much? Takes the fun out of it, right? Next class is where it all gets complex and fun again. And they'll want the toolkit to get there.

A fractal is a geometric shape that looks the same no matter the scale you view it at. Crystals form in fractal shapes. So do cows, apparently:

And so do stories. Any good screenwriter knows that a strong story looks like itself no matter how you look at it. The overall three-act structure resonates like a crystal. Its structure is replicated in all the smaller beats. Within the beats, the three-act structure plays itself out, and with each vibration on every level, the story becomes more and more significant, whole, and moving. Wow, dude. No really.

There's nothing stoner about this. An experienced screenwriter thinks about this stuff. A good writer builds it in. You start with a good overall structure, and some strong conflict to drive the character. But then you continue, driving down through into the microscopic worlds that blow up into whole universes also known as good scenes.

When we watch a movie, we expect to find those resonances there. There's a tendency to think through them, but you only get so far without keeping the elements that define your script on the tip of your mind. And that's what separates the good stories from the ones you forget. Some need to resonate. Some make us resonate. And some make us want to check our email.

There's a method behind keeping things simple and carefully laid out. There's also a madness. A really joyful, wonderful madness.

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