Updated: Dec 17, 2019
What do fractals have to do with storytelling?
Most storytellers consider their creation to be a chaotic experience but recognize it as successful or whole and finished once the elements of that creation fall into some kind of order. It is known that for a stronger emotional impact it’s better if that ‘order’ is not visible or apparent at first glance, but rather felt like an emotional truth in the subtext. For successful correlation and communication, the patterns that are built into the story should at least resemble that elusive order of the human psyche.
Storytelling structures are like successful architecture: if we are inside a great building, we are going to feel comfortable and enjoy its beautiful design, but once we are outside the building, we will also feel its mightiness.
For the architects’ (storytellers) structures function as just the foundation of their constructions, but if the match between the idea and the plot is perfect, then they speak the language of the ultimate truth, or rather they let in the truth through its patterns, like rays of light that find their unique way through blinds to create the perfect meaning and perfect atmosphere.
The most fascinating notion about the chaos that surrounds us in our lives and in nature is that there is a hidden (or not so hidden) order to it. If we look closer or deeper, we realize that under the illusion of chaos, there is the real beauty in the world that is always hidden in patterns and ultimately, those patterns show us that order actually does exist.
If we would like to find a storytelling model that resembles life and nature the most from the perspective of the main arch, it would not be a circle, but rather a spiral.
Our stories never really end, as our learning never really finishes. As soon as we hit some kind of awareness, the story circle goes one level up and up and up… this learning process continues to infinity. Because of that, it is important to see that the geometry of the main arc of every story is closer to a spiral than it is to a circle, which is a closed system.
Through the whole Intuitive screenwriting wheel system, we mentioned mirrors as the main communication model inside this wheel-spiral. In every stage, every archetype communicates (and characters emotionally evolve) with the help of the opposing archetype. The stages also communicate with their opposing, mirroring stages.
The main arc, acts, scenes and fractals
As you know by breaking down the architecture of a film, we first recognize the main arc, then the acts and within the acts, we have scenes that are built upon a unity of time and space. Within the scenes, we can find some emotional beats that I think are also gathered in some kinds of patterns.
If we imagine a film as an “organism,” the “single cells” of this organism I see as “fractals.”
“A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems.”
I will use term fractal because it suits me and my theory the most, but have in mind that Robert McKee the author of Story, defines the smallest particle of a story, as a ‘beat’ (as in a heartbeat). For him, that one beat is one action/reaction exchange and one scene can have many beats. So, you may have a ‘break up scene’ but the couple might try different approaches or tactics to fulfill their wishes. One might apologize, while the other might attack, one might cry, while the other might lie, one might want to leave, while the other might blame the other.
One emotional pair of ‘action vs. reaction’ will rhythmically be one beat for Robert McKee. And of course, this does work.
But for me, it is also very important to recognize that the smallest story particles, fractals or ‘atoms’ consist of the same material as the whole ‘organism,’ – so we can say, that everything about, around and inside one film belongs to the same DNA pattern.
Having that in mind, I see the Intuitive screenwriting wheel not just as the backbone of a story or as the main arc structure that we have been exploring in-depth, but also as the emotional material with which we can build our scenes.
Let’s see how it works in films, inside the scenes, without drawing any final conclusions yet.
And please don’t think that what I am trying to prove here has anything to do with robbing art of its playfulness and uniqueness. I would actually like to show that stories and films are built into the collective unconscious and as much as we would like to escape this truth, it will serve us more if we bring light to it.
I will use the screenplay of Vertigo, written by Alec Copple and Samuel Taylor, which you are familiar with as I analyzed the whole film in the previous post, step by step. Here I will put two scenes under the microscope: ‘the apartment sequence’ at the beginning of the film, and the final scene, in order to see how action and dialogue (in action) go through emotional shifts and how the archetypes can help us to recognize these shifts in characters. Once again, I’ll use the Ana Lasic story template which you can read more about here.
EXAMPLE 1: The scene from the first half of the movie uses the first half of the wheel stages in their order.
INT. AN APARTMENT ON RUSSIAN HILL - (LATE AFTERNOON)
It is fresh, light, and simple, and crowded with books, phonograph records, pictures. The most striking feature of the apartment is the view: The rising hills of San Francisco framed by a large picture window. To one side of the window is the owner of the apartment, MAJORIE WOOD, called MIDGE, at a commercial drawing table concentrating with professional intensity on a drawing of a slim, a elongated woman with few features and fewer clothes. A brassiere sits on a table at Midge's elbow, and she studies it as she draws. Midge Wood is about thirty-seven, attractive, straight-forward, well-but-simply-dressed; she wears glasses but does not whip them an and off as they do in the movies. The music comes from a
gramophone. The other occupant of the room is Scottie. He sits in a big chair, with his feet stretched out on an ottoman and his head far back. There is a drink on a table nearby.
He rouses himself to reach for it, and in doing so knocks over his walking stick that has been propped against the chair. He reaches out to catch it, and in the quickness of trying to keep it from falling, he wrenches his body around.
Warrior →Fool (The exposition of a wound — ego) BATTLEFIELD
Pain caused by the wrong identity vs. all possible identities.
(Paying little attention)
I thought you said no more aches and pains?
It's this darned corset. It binds.
He retrieves the stick.
No three-way stretch? How very un-chic.
Well, you know those police department
doctors: no sense of style.
Creator →Orphan (A ray of hope) HEART’S DESIRE
Hero’s heart vs. non-authentic relationships.
Tomorrow... the corset comes off.
And this thing goes out the window.
(He waves the stick)
I shall be a free man. I shall wiggle
my behind... free and unconfined.
He raises his eyebrows with a surprised and gratified smile. Midge looks over at him with a grimace.
Midge, do you suppose many men wear
More than you think.
How do you know? Personal experience?
And what happens after tomorrow?
What do you mean?
Explorer →Magician (The hero decides to go on a quest) A BETTER LIFE IS POSSIBLE
Wrong belief vs. new vision.
What are you going to do? Now that
you've quit the police force?
You sound so disapproving, Midge.
No, it's your life. But you were the
bright young lawyer who decided he
was going to be chief of police some
I had to quit, Midge.
I wake up at night seeing him fall
from the roof... and try to reach
out for him.
It wasn't your fault.
I know. Everybody tells me.
Johnny, the doctors explained --
I know. I have Acrophobia. What a
disease. A fear of heights. And what
a moment to find out I had it.
Well, you've got it. And there's no
losing it. And there's no one to
blame. So why quit?
And sit behind a desk? Chairborne?
It's where you belong.
(With a grin)
Not with my Acrophobia, Midge. If I
dropped a pencil on the floor and
bent down to pick it up, it could be
She considers him for a moment, then goes back to her work. By now he is up and wandering about with the help of the stick.
(Finally, as she works)
Well?... what'll you do?
Nothing for a while. You forget, I'm
a man of independent means. Or fairly
Mmm. Why don't you go away for a
To forget? Don't be so motherly,
Midge. I'm not going to crack up.
Have you had any dizzy spells this
I'm having one now.
She looks up sharply with quick apprehension.
From that music.
She goes and turns off the gramophone. Scottie has wandered over to the drawing table.
What's this do-hickey here?
He turns the brassiere over with his stick
It's a brassiere. You know about
those things. You're a big boy, now.
I've never run across one like that.
It's brand new. Revolutionary uplift.
No shoulder straps, no back straps,
but does everything a brassiere should
do. It works on the principle of the
An aircraft engineer down the
peninsula designed it. He worked it
out in his spare time.
What a pleasant hobby.
He wanders back to the chair and watches her work for a long moment. Then:
Lover →Caregiver (Wish storyline) LOVE INTRODUCED
Love triggers fear (overprotectiveness).
How's your love life, Midge?
That's following a train of thought.
Aren't you ever going to get married?
You know there's only one man in the
world for me, Johnny-O.
Yeah, I'm a brute. We were engaged
once though, weren't we?
Three whole weeks.
Sage →Destroyer (Healing is possible) REASONS BEHIND SUFFERING
Healing provokes self-destructiveness.
Ah, sweet college days. But you're
the one who blew it. I'm still
available. Available Ferguson. Say,
Midge, do you remember a guy at
college named Gavin Elster?
Gavin? Gavin Elster? You'd think I'd
I got a call from him today. Funny.
He dropped out of sight during the
war, and I'd heard he'd gone East. I
guess he's back.
(he fishes out a slip
It's a Mission number.
That's Skid Row... isn't it?
He's probably on the bum and wants
to touch you for the price of a drink.
Well, I'm on the bum; I'll buy him a
couple of drinks and tell him my
troubles. But not tonight. If you
won't drink with me, I'll drink alone,
(He rises to go)
Sorry, old man. Work.
Midge, what did you mean, there's no
My... the acrophobia.
I asked my doctor. He said only
another emotional shock could do it,
and probably wouldn't. And you're
not going to go diving off another
rooftop to find out.
I think I can lick it.
I've got a theory. Look. If I can
get used to heights just a little at
a time... progressively see?
Ruler →Innocent (On the top of the false mountain) WISH FULFILLED
Controlling the outside world vs. the soul’s real purpose.
He has been looking about eagerly, sees a low footstool,
drags it to the center of the room as he speaks.
Here, I'll show you what I mean.
We'll start with this.
What do you want me to start with --
the Golden Gate Bridge?
He has stepped up on the footstool and stands there proudly looking up and down.
Now. I look up, I look down. I look
up, I look down. Nothing to it.
Stop kidding. Wait a minute.
She dashes to the kitchen, returns quickly with a small aluminum household ladder.
Ah, that's my girl! Here?
He steps on the first step.
Step number two.
He gets up on the second step and goes through the routine.
I look up, I look down. I look up, I
look down. I'm going to go right out
and buy me a nice, tall stepladder.
Here we go.
He gets on the top step.
This is a cinch. I look up, I look
down. I look up --
And at this moment he makes the mistake of turning and looking out through the picture window.
FROM SCOTTIE'S VIEWPOINT
We see the depth down to the street below the window. The whole picture begins to weave.
INT. MIDGE'S APARTMENT - (LATE AFTERNOON) - CLOSEUP of Scottie -- expression of nausea.
FROM SCOTTIE'S VIEW POINT - LONG SHOT
The weaving view changes to the original scene where the ground receded in a rush and the body of the policeman fell into space.
INT. MIDGE'S APARTMENT - (LATE AFTERNOON) - MEDIUM CLOS SHOT
Scottie's face distorted with agony -- his eyes close and he begins to slump. CAMERA PULLS BACK SLIGHTLY as Midge now comes into shot, putting up her hands to him to hold him, and his weight is on her and his head is slumped, and the joke is over.
(Muttering, his face
tight, his eyes shut)
Oh, damn it! Damn it, damn it --
EXAMPLE 2: The scene from the second half of the movie uses the second half of the wheel stages (in their order).
EXT. SAN JUAN BAUTISTA - (NIGHT)
Fool →Warrior (Need storyline) DOUBLE IDENTITY — FOOL AND GAMES UPSIDE DOWN (INSIDE OUT)
Right (new) and wrong (old) identity meet, the hero is fooled by fools.
Scottie comes around the car and opens Judy's door.
Scottie, why are we here?
I told you. I have to go back into
the past. Once more. For the last
But why? Why here?
Madeleine died here.
He holds out his hand. She shrinks, frightened.
No, I don't want to go. I want to
I need you.
I can't do it alone. I need you, to
be Madeleine for a while. Then, when
it's done, we'll both be free.
He draws her out of the car.
So am I, But it has to be done. I
have to tell you about Madeleine,
He closes the car door and leads her slightly away, and they stop and look across the green toward the Livery Stable.
He points to the Livery Stable, bathed in moonlight.
...We stood there and I kissed her
for the last time. And she said, "If
lose me, you'll know that I loved
(Going right on)
-- and wanted to go on loving you."
And I said, "I won't lose you."
But I did.
He turns slowly, and Judy with him, and he looks up. Her eyes follow his.
FROM THEIR ANGLE
The high church tower in the moonlight.
She turned and ran... into the
SCOTTIE AND JUDY
He puts his arm around her protectively but firmly, and begins to impel her gently to the church.
EXT. CHURCH, SAN JUAN BAUTISTA - (MOONLIGHT)
SHOOTING from the door. Scottie impels Judy to the door.
...And when I followed her, it was
The CAMERA PULLS AROUND as his tree hand goes to try the
I don't want to go in there!
Scottie pushes the door open.
He pushes her into the church with gentle firmness.
INT. CHURCH, SAN JUAN BAUTISTA - (NIGHT)
The darkness is relieved by shafts of moonlight. Scottie impels Judy toward the foot of the tower.
I couldn't find her. Then I heard
her footsteps on the stairs, she was
running up the tower.
INT. CHURCH TOWER - (NIGHT)
It is lit by shafts of moonlight through the slit window. Scottie comes into the area holding Judy. He looks up.
FROM SCOTTIE'S ANGLE:
the open stairway spiraling upward.
She ran up those stairs... and through
the door at the top of the tower,
and locked it behind her. Then she
BACK TO SCOTTIE AND JUDY
He is still staring up. Judy is rigid with fright and the memory of that moment.
And I couldn't follow her.
(He closes his eyes
in the agony of
God knows I tried.
(He glances down)
One doesn't often get a second chance.
I want to stop being haunted. You're
my second chances, Judy.
(A frightened whisper)
Take me away...
You look like Madeleine, now. Go up
Go up the stairs, Judy.
(Pushing her to the
She starts up slowly, unwillingly. Scottie follows behind her, fighting to keep the impending vertigo under control, trying to keep his eyes fixed on her back to avoid looking up into space. They move up in silence, and in shadow, their faces occasionally lit by the shafts of moonlight that stream through the open arches of the tower. Judy's eyes are wide and staring; her face and body are stiff with the struggle to keep from breaking under the strain of remembering the last time she went up these stairs. And Scottie fights his way up behind her. Judy slows down and comes to a halt at the landing that Scottie barely reached the last time, at the moment of death. She leans her back against the wall for support. Scottie struggles up and comes to a halt near her.
Orphan →Creator (Loneliness) PROBLEMS IN (CRISS-CROSS) RELATIONSHIPS
Fairness between relationships and the hero’s heart, freedom. Cheating.
PAUSE, as he gathers himself for the last assault.
This was as far as I could get. But
you went on. Remember?
She stiffens and stares at him.
The necklace, Madeleine. That was
the slip. I remembered the necklace.
A moment, then suddenly she ducks and tries to run past him, down the stairs. He grabs her wrist and holds on.
We're going up the tower, Madeleine.
No! Let me go!
We're going up the tower.
You can't. You're afraid!
I'm going to. It's my second chance.
He starts to drag her up the stairs and she fights it, close
But you knew, that day, that I
wouldn't be able to follow you didn't
you. Who was at the top when you got
there? Elster? With his wife?
And she was the one who died. Not
you. The real wife. You were the
copy, you were the counterfeit. Was
she dead or alive when you got there?
Dead. He'd broken her neck.
Took no chances, did he? And when
you got there, he pushed her off the
tower, was that it? But you were the
one who screamed. Why did you scream?
I wanted to stop it, I ran up to
stop it --
Why? Since you'd tricked me so well
up to then?!! You played his wife so
well, Judy! He made you over, didn't
he? Just as I've done. But better!
Not just the hair and the clothes!