If you aren’t sure what a fractal is, look at the pretty picture. There are these large swirly doodads in it, and if you look at one of them closely, you’ll notice it’s made up of smaller swirly doodads. And those smaller swirly doodads are made of even smaller swirly doodads. It’s a recursive pattern or structure where the whole and the parts are identical except for their size.
The Basic Structure of a Story
To be a fractal, there has to be a structure that repeats. Otherwise we would just have the snowflake method, which is a recursive way of creating plots – but without reusing a shape at each step. A story’s structure, at a very basic level, is only three essential pieces:
- Opening: this is not just any beginning, but one that provides a hook to the audience. This hook can be a problem, a question, or anything else that feels incomplete. The audience could watch as a rock is tossed high into the air, disappearing into the clouds. There is now a story that’s unresolved – and the audience will continue with the story to see it finished.
- Climax: this is a dramatic turning point. How dramatic varies from story to story, but something important happens at this moment. The rock that’s flying up into the air slows, and begins its descent. This critical change leads to the resolution of the story, and provides thrilling entertainment to the audience.
- Closing: this is an ending that provides a resolution for the hook in the opening. Either the problems are solved and the questions answered, or any hope that they will be solved or answered is taken away. Once the rock is tossed into the air, the structure can only be completed when it lands again. This closing exists to provide the reader with a sense of satisfaction.
How This Structure Repeats
This basic structure can appear at any size, from a paragraph all the way up to an entire series. The only difference is in the level of detail. Stories can’t be magnified indefinitely, so the three-part structure will become more complex when it grows larger, and less complex when it shrinks.
At the bigger sizes, such as a whole movie or book, we can see more peaks and valleys as the protagonist first refuses and then commits to changing, or undergoes a crisis before the climax. Down at the scene level, there’s only room for the basic three step structure. A single paragraph could have just an opening and closing, with the climax enveloped by one or the other.
But any story that’s bigger than a short short has enough detail for at least a second level of structure. The first level usually encompasses the entire story, while the second level is each scene. However, the size of each level is flexible – the smaller units could be two or three scenes each, instead of one. What’s important is that there are smaller structures inside a bigger one; this hierarchy helps the audience stay happy and engaged.
The Fractal in Action: Harry Potter
If you’re not with me yet, don’t worry. I’ll show you how the fractal works by outlining it in the Harry Potter series. Joanne Rowling uses story structure masterfully. At some points I can find five levels to her fractal.
- The Series: The largest structure is her series of seven books. It opens with the introduction of a baby that somehow defeated a dark and powerful wizard. We wonder how the baby did it, what happened to the dark wizard, and whether he will return and take over the world. Slowly this information is pieced together, and the series climaxes when the baby, now a young man, fights off the dark wizard and kills him. We know the dark wizard can never threaten the world again.
- The Book: In The Sorcerer’s Stone, a mysterious evil is threatening to steal a powerful artifact. We wonder who it is and whether that person will succeed. It climaxes when the hero gains possession of the artifact and fights to protect it from the enemy. He destroys the enemy established specifically for this book, but not the one created in the series hook.
- The Chapter: Chapter Eleven of The Sorcerer’s Stone opens with Harry worrying about his first Quidditch match. We wonder how it will go, and if he will come out of it uninjured. The climax of the chapter is when Harry desperately hangs onto his out-of-control broom. It resolves when the game is finished and they report the hex that was put on the broom to Hagrid.
- The Scene: In a scene in Chapter Eleven, Harry is in the Griffindor common room. He is fretting over the game and wants to recover a book Professor Snape confiscated to distract himself. The scene climaxes when Snape shouts at him, telling him to leave. It resolves when he returns and tells his friends what happened.
- The Paragraph: This paragraph follows the structure too:
Harry felt restless. He wanted Quidditch Through the Ages back, to take his mind off his nerves about tomorrow. Why should he be afraid of Snape? Getting up, he told Ron and Hermione he was going to ask Snape if he could have it.
The opening sentence declares a problem – Harry’s restlessness. One of the questions it invokes is what Harry will do about his restlessness, and the last sentence resolves that for us.
Why You Should Write in Fractals
Fractal structure isn’t just a matter of coincidence; it serves some important functions. Imagine if Joanne Rowling had made the Harry Potter series completely episodic, neglecting the outermost structure. Without the big opening hook, fans who read the first book wouldn’t have a compelling reason to continue the series. If on the other hand, the series plot was all there was, they wouldn’t get a dose of satisfaction at the end of each book. As the series continued, they could become increasingly frustrated with the lack of resolution – just like the fans of a popular series that is showing on HBO right now. And if Rowling neglected too many climaxes, opening hook or not, fans could get bored and abandon the series.
This doesn’t mean episodic or purely overarching stories don’t have their uses. What it means is that you don’t need to end your chapters on a cliffhanger to keep your audience engaged; just remind them of the larger story they’re reading. It also means you don’t have to resolve every plot strand at the end of each book in a series; you can keep them happy with a smaller closing. Structuring your stories this way means that your audience is more likely to enjoy and finish your series, books, chapters, and scenes.
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