Some days ago, I found myself fiddling with a bunch of scenes that were heading nowhere. These scenes came after the midpoint of my script; they followed a culmination point (the characters experienced a major triumph) and should lead to a deflation point (the characters would mess up badly and sabotage their own gains). So I had a few scenes that seemed to fit in that part of the script, but were somehow failing to establish a bridge between points A and B. I had this thought: here I am, perpetually rearranging a bunch of squares when I should be drawing a line. I should get rid of the squares and draw a line.
The number of metaphors you can use to assess the writing process is endless. Mountain climbing, mining, sailing, juggling, dreaming… I’ve read, and appreciated, a large number of images meant to help us understand, tame, befriend, the task of writing. They provide insight and metaphorical tools. With those squares and lines popping in my head, I decided to see if I could find some wisdom in Geometry.
Soon enough, after briefly considering circles, squares and triangles, which are no good for thinking stories (because they’re flat and closed), I ended up with spirals and fractals.
Spirals are great. They start small and grow larger, layer after layer, revolving around one central point. They don’t go back to the initial point, but their movement always bears a connection to it. This point, in a story, is the idea – what we are saying, boiled down to one sentence or so. On a previous post, I reflected on this – on how this idea is elusive and, rather than a starting point, is a finish line. Contradiction? Yes and no. The thing is, we don’t draw our spiral only once – we keep drawing it until we get it right, seemingly simple and harmonious and eternal. John Gardner: “The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees. Discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act” (in The Art of Fiction, 1984).
Trying to tackle fractals on Wikipedia, I quickly got lost surfing through Chaos Theory and other nerdy stuff. I’ll simply retain, for the purpose of this blog post, that fractals are complex patterns that show the same details at different scales. If we zoom into a fractal, we find the same pattern, deeper and deeper. I do believe that a good story works the same way. Each scene in a good movie actually contains the whole movie, in a simplified, stripped and flipped way. Like the scene from One flew over the cuckoo’s nest that I analyzed in this post. Or the final scene from the lovely Frances Ha that I saw a few days ago: Frances writes her name on a piece of paper, for the purposes of labeling the mailbox of her new apartment. But the piece of paper is too big for the slot in the mailbox. So she disposes of part of her family name (Halladay) and becomes Frances Ha. This scene reflects so perfectly what the movie is about – this girl that is brimming with generosity and appetite for life, a bit too free, too large, to fit in the world, and who learns, without losing her spark, her lightness, how to carve a path for herself, how to let go of some things, how to find her balance.
Interestingly (but I dare not go into detail because the mathematical complexity is prohibitive for me), one way of creating fractals is through a (partially) random, iterative process. Writing is much like this.
So, voilà – geometry. I’m now gonna twist those squares into something else. Maybe ovals 🙂