A fractal is a complex and infinite pattern that repeats itself over and over. According to fractalfoundation.org, fractal patterns surround us, in nature. Trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, all fractals. A screenplay is a fractal or can be written as one. From Scriptwrangler.blogspot.com: “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.” And screenwriter John August in an interview: “No matter the script, though, you’re trying to make sure every moment can stand in for the whole movie. It needs to be fractal in a way. And yet, each of those moments has to be advancing the plot, too.”
At UCLA, one of our assignments was to watch a movie every week and write a detailed breakdown of its scenes, observing the acts, midpoint, low point, resolution etc. The ambit was wide. We could watch movies in any language, from any country or period. I watched some foreign films, some mainstream Hollywood and some modern Hindi films. It was interesting to me that many of the last do follow the three act structure—in recent times, Lootera, Queen, NH10 come to mind— but there is the additional question of the Intermission, which doesn’t exist here in LA but is expected in India. The 15-minute break is a time and space for rejuvenating yourself before you return to sort of “tackle” the next half of the movie. In a culture where three-hour movies are common, each half needs tackling, some kind of will power. Indian movie halls understand this. They provide a feast to help you do it. In LA, even the fancy Arclight in Hollywood serves hotdogs, ice-cream, popcorn (one flavor), assorted candy. I visited Mumbai’s PVR cinemas in Lokhandwala every week after Amaya was born. Postpartum and exhausted, I’d sink into a plush seat and feed myself. There were hotdogs, rolls, crepes, ice-cream, popcorn (several flavors), nachos, chaat, and some other items I forget. The food was almost as important as the film.
The Intermission means that Hindi movies need to provide a turning point exactly halfway through the movie which is pretty major—so that people will come back to their seats.
Structure doesn’t need to be predictable. And it is not of course “formula”, which is something many women mix in 3 or 4 ounces of water and hold to their baby’s mouths when they’re tired, milk-less or generally done with breastfeeding. I remember Patience Agbabi reading at the University of Kent sometime in the winter of 2010. Somebody in the audience asked her about her choice to write in rhyme. She said—and I’m paraphrasing—a poem could be such an amorphous thing, that the rules of formal verse helped you find / give form to thoughts..
According to Screenplayunlimited.com: “What’s so liberating about the 3-act structure is that when it’s used as it should be -which is in a dramatic rather than a logistical way – you can use it to structure not only the whole script but also each part.” Structure allows you a space to play, defines playground walls so you won’t run out in the road and get hit by a car while you’re doing it. The problem is sometimes the walls are as terrifying as the cars.
The most useful thing structure did was to keep us hopeful writers going. Writing the second act may be like “driving through Kansas” but when you’re just ten pages from the ‘turning point’ of page 60, there is hope. As we sat in libraries, Starbucks, artisanal coffee shops, parks and in my case, an Ikea futon, we needed that hope.
The chances of a screenplay being produced is minuscule, we were told repeatedly. At best, it will be a calling card, a ‘sample’ so you can get jobs writing / rewriting other people’s screenplays. At worst, you will spend the next thirty years sitting in Starbucks, next to the homeless guy who spends all night outside the ATM at the corner of Sunset and Vine.
The hope then is not of fame, prosperity or untold greatness. It’s mostly about finishing the damn thing. At that point, structure provides the next step. You focus on that one step, the next loop in the fractal. You see it over and over again, in your dreams. You escape the bigger picture, the panic and the futility. You make it. Eventually.
Crochet is all about structure because you’re imposing patterns on yarn. Diana Taimina does something called hyperbolic crochet which looks like this.
From crochetcoralreef.org: “For hundreds of years mathematicians tried to show that anything like hyperbolic space was impossible, until finally, in the nineteenth century, they accepted the “existence” of this aberrant geometry. Still many believed it wasn’t possible to model the structure materially. They were thus surprised to learn in 1997 that Dr. Daina Taimina had done just that using the traditional art of crochet.”
And here is something beautiful: these folks have created an interactive map of science which demonstrates how all the different fields of science relate to each other. You’ll need to click on the image link and scroll down a bit to see the interactive version.