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Fractals and Structure

Something that not only interests me about writing, but also serves as a helpful tool, is the idea of writing structure is a fractal. Fractals are actually (from what I understand) pretty complicated, but the way I'll be using the term is simple: a fractal is a structure which looks the same at every level of magnification.
A Sierpinski triangle, for example.
So what do I mean by saying writing structure is a fractal? I'm referring, of course, to our old friend the three-act structure. I know I've railed on it a little in the past, but that's more to do with how it's been used, rather than what it is.
 
The idea itself is fine: every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Duh. Where it gets interesting is that every part of the story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, too. Again, that might seem a little obvious, but it just keeps going forever.

So take the original Star Wars trilogy. The highest three acts are the three movies themselves. It begins with A New Hope, Empire is the middle, and Return of the Jedi is the end. So our structure looks like this:

Star Wars

Act 1: A New Hope

Act 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Act 3: Return of the Jedi


But then, each of those has a beginning, a middle, and an end, too. Looking at A New Hope, the beginning has Luke discovering and then embarking on his quest to save a princess, the middle has him being trapped on the Death Star and rescuing Leia, and then the end has him blowing up the Death Star and saving the Rebellion.

Star Wars

Act 1: A New Hope

Act 1.1: A Call for Help

Act 1.2: Rescuing the Princess

Act 1.3: Saving the Rebellion

Act 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Act 3: Return of the Jedi


The middle of A New Hope also has a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the beginning of the middle, Luke and Obi-Wan escape Mos Eisley and make their trip to Alderaan, only to find it blown up. In the middle of the middle, they're trapped aboard the Death Star, and enact a rescue operation to not only get themselves off the space station, but to take the princess with them. And at the end of the middle, they fight their way to the Millennium Falcon, only able to escape because Obi-Wan sacrifices himself.

Star Wars

Act 1: A New Hope

Act 1.1: A Call for Help

Act 1.2: Rescuing the Princess

Act 1.2.1: Escaping Mos Eisley

Act 1.2.2: Trapped on the Death Star

Act 1.2.3: Escaping the Death Star

Act 1.3: Saving the Rebellion

Act 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Act 3: Return of the Jedi


We can go deeper! The end of the middle of A New Hope also has a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the beginning, Luke and company, after narrowly avoiding death by trash compactor, head back to their ship to make their escape. In the middle, Luke and company bump into a group of Stormtroopers and get into a fight. And at the end, Obi-Wan serves as a distraction for everyone else to escape, though they have to fight off some enemy ships before they really get away.

Star Wars

Act 1: A New Hope

Act 1.1: A Call for Help

Act 1.2: Rescuing the Princess

Act 1.2.1: Escaping Mos Eisley

Act 1.2.2: Trapped on the Death Star

Act 1.2.3: Escaping the Death Star

Act 1.2.3.1: Escaping the Trashmasher

Act 1.2.3.2: Fighting Back to the Ship

Act 1.2.3.3: Escaping at a Cost

Act 1.3: Saving the Rebellion

Act 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Act 3: Return of the Jedi


I'm not finished yet! The middle of the end of the middle of A New Hope has its own beginning, middle, and end. At the beginning, the group stumbles across a squad of Stormtroopers, which Han chases by himself. In the middle, the Stormtroopers start fighting back, chasing Han and everyone else, and separating Luke and Leia from Han and Chewbacca. In the end, everyone manages to shake their pursuers and regroup outside the hanger.

Star Wars

Act 1: A New Hope

Act 1.1: A Call for Help

Act 1.2: Rescuing the Princess

Act 1.2.1: Escaping Mos Eisley

Act 1.2.2: Trapped on the Death Star

Act 1.2.3: Escaping the Death Star

Act 1.2.3.1: Escaping the Trashmasher

Act 1.2.3.2: Fighting Back to the Ship

Act 1.2.3.2.1: Bumping into Stormtroopers
Act 1.2.3.2.2: Chased and Separated
Act 1.2.3.2.3: Evading the Pursuers

Act 1.2.3.3: Escaping at a Cost

Act 1.3: Saving the Rebellion

Act 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Act 3: Return of the Jedi


I'm still only getting started! The beginning of the middle of the end of the middle of the beginning of the... you know what? Maybe I will stop. But I could keep going. Every scene of the movie has a beginning, middle, and end. Even individual lines of dialogue have beginnings, middles, and ends. 

The smaller you get, the more the different acts overlap, and it can be difficult to tell them apart - for example, you might divide A New Hope up differently than I did (though that might also be because it's been a long time since I've watched it, and probably got some parts wrong). And that's fine! The important thing is that you're aware of the basic structure underlying everything. Because if you are, it can help you with everything from fixing flat dialogue to outlining an entire series of movies.

 - Teddy