The best storytelling has a unique quality. Wherever your enter the story from, if you switch on the tv and start watching 20 minutes in, or catch a single scene in isolation, or (heresy!) skip to the end and read the final pages, the story engages your interest. Even if you don’t understand the whole tale, you quickly become lost in the telling.
“Learn the form. Master the form. Break the form.”
Stories that work this way for me include: the novels of Iain Banks, the Sandman comics of Neil Gaiman, the historical tales of Mary Renault, the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Fargo television dramas. Your own list will be unique to you. But the stories we love almost always share this quality.
They are fractal.
Fractals are one of the wonders of mathematics. When you chart certain equations they produce beatiful patterns. And a quality of those patterns is that they have infinite dimensions. You keep zooming in and in and in to a fractal, and find the same patterns repeating again and again and again.
The fractal displays this pattern because it is generated from basic rules. Stories also display repeating patterns because, when expertly made, they reflect the same ideas, themes and events. But because the patterns in story are far more abstract than the visual patterns of a fractal, to see them you have to take a deep dive into the core techniqes of the storytelller.
Structure is bigger than we are.
Creators of all kinds have a love / hate relationship with structure. Some equate structure with formula and reject it. Others see structure as the shortcut to success and let it overwhelm them. The truth, as with most things, is likely somewhere inbetween.
I use this basic principle to measure structure. STRUCTURE IS BIGGER THAN WE ARE. If I set out to make a car, or a cathedral, or an iPhone app, or a novel, or a movie, these things all have a structure. A structure that has been evolved over time, by creators far wiser and more skilled than I.
In martial arts there is a maxim: Learn the form. Master the form. Break the form. Untrained writers often rush to break the form. They see the work of a master, like Ray Bradbury perhaps, who broke the short story form in many marvelous ways, and assume the key to success is the act of breaking. But they ignore the years of hard work Bradbury first put into learning and mastering the form.
Stories seem to exist in a bewildering variety of forms. The 3 Act structure defined by Aristotle is arguably the most widely known. Modern stageplays often adopt a 4 act structure, while Oscar winning movies like The Godfather spread over five acts. Short stories are commonly based on an Epiphany structure. Japanese storytelling uses the beautiful Kishōtenketsu structure. I’m going to stop there, but in my research I’ve documented over 70 story structures, some famous, other entirely lost in time.
But all of these structures share that same single quality.
They are fractal.
Stories within stories.
Here’s another way into the fractal nature of story. All stories are made of stories, and are part of bigger stories. If you pick up an issue of Wonder Woman, or watch the Gal Gadot fronted movie, you’re seeing just one story within that character’s overarching story. If you watch Lawrence of Arabia, and know a little history, you realise you’re watching just one small part of the story of World War One.
As storytellers, we make decisions about the boundaries of the story we’re going to tell. Game of Thrones is the story of one power struggle for Westeros. But it’s the beautiful weaving of the history that came before, and the smaller stories within the grand struggle, that make George R R Martin’s epic so intriguing to so many.
Whether you call them acts, scenes, sequences and beats…
…or parts, chapters, paragraps and sentences…
…or story arcs, issues, pages and frames…
…all stories exist are within other stories, and hold other stories within them.
“To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.”
Can you see an epic tale in every single sentence of your story? Here is one of the single best questions you can ask to raise your storytelling to a higher level. How does this single scene, or chapter, or frame, or sentence, reflect the whole of the story? And how does this trilogy of novels, or 10 hour television series, or epic poem, relate to the smallest story it contains?
It’s by thinking about the fractal shape of story, that we as storytellers create the deep resonances of theme and form, that shatter the soul of the audience. A single word in a single sentence, well choosen, can shift the resonance of an entire novel. The right story structure can alter the meaning of every scene in a film. Learning how is the true art if the storyteller.
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