Writing 344: Theme Part 2: Fractals

Let me tell you about fractals.

Fractals are a writer’s best friend, and our first stop on this little ride called theme. A fractal is a rose by many names, and sometimes it may even literally be a rose, but for me, they are the DNA of writing.

Let’s look at a literal fractal for a second, because they are super pretty.

Image result for fractal

Now, the definition of a fractal is (according to Google):

“a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.”

For the less mathematically inclined among us – present company included – that’s pretty dense. So let’s break it down.

Basically, a fractal is anything that resembles itself at all levels, but may not be the same exact shape. So in the above image, all of those pretty drawings are the same, but only statistically.

For the purposes of writing, let’s change “Statistically” to metaphorically, and get this show on the road.

When writing Fractals – especially thematic fractals – you are writing something that appears in the same basic configuration from the tiniest line of dialogue, to the largest set-piece. One of the most famous fractals is Freitag’s Triangle, or your good ol’ horrid buddy: Three Act Structure.

But that’s still a little dry and technical, so let’s use a practical example: The mothahfuckin’ Wire. The Wire is the epitome of fractal narrative, which is why I would argue that it’s the best TV show ever, and plenty of pretentious people agree with me. The streets as portrayed by David Simon, and the Docks and Government and Education and Media is such a powerfully told story because of its use of Fractal narrative.

Less take a look.

The very beginning of the pilot episode could easily be called an overture. But let’s call it a fractal of the series to come. Please watch the whole scene (intro song included) below, before going further. If you’re a wire douche, you can continue.

Now this scene does not look like the rest of the series literally: it features two characters talking at a crime-scene. But it sets up the theme of the entire series metaphorically: the game is rigged, but you gotta play because “it’s america man”.

The Game is the primary motif throughout the series and manifests in different ways. It refers to the drug game, which dominates the locale of west baltimore; but it also refers equally to the police department; the stevedores union; City and State Government; Public School; and, finally, the Baltimore Sun.

In the scene, Royal Irish A-Hole Jimmy McNulty talked to a nameless stranger about “Snot Boogie” a boy nicknamed for his shit-luck one day out in the cold, who gets murdered by someone for doing his usual thing stealing from a craps game.

McNulty tries to piece together what happened, and concludes that “Snot-Boogie” always had the choice to just not rob a craps game. But his companion tells him that that’s irrelevant, because it’s america.

Throughout the scene we’re being given a thematic overview of the series to come: a character will come upon a good – if morally problematic idea – and will decide that the promise of a better life is worth more than the shit they’re in. It’ll go well, and they’ll start to involve more people. But then it will attract the wrong kind of attention. In their attempts to stop the attention from gathering, they doom themselves like tragic characters against the unstoppable grinding machine of institutional bureaucracy, and get crushed to feed it. Destroyed for taking a chance, when they knew they were fucked. Then life continues without anyone taking notice.

Because that is the plot of each season (and, incidentally Freytag’s triangle), the fact that each season is a self-contained story, part of a larger story doesn’t matter: it’s easy to follow. You just have to pay attention.

But that opening scene never tells you that directly. It is the motion of the narrative that lets you in on the secret. It’s practically subliminal. That’s the thing about fractals, when done right: They’re not obvious.

If you watched the Wire without knowing that that you would see the above plot be the A-Plot for every season – and practically every character – you would still be able to follow and enjoy it. Knowing that it operates as a series of shapes that aren’t the same, but similar expanding outward infinitely only enhances the ease with which you can watch it.

And if that weren’t enough, you have the theme song: “Way Down in the Hole” which is about not being tempted by Satan, if you want to be saved. Although Simon is openly against obvious musical cues, this one is ironic in the context of the show: When you follow the devil in The Wire, what you want will often happen, but you’ll be fucked anyway. It is a metaphorical reinforcement of the entire theme of the show.

From the Fractal, you can glean the theme: Fate, Tautology, and Chains. Or even Self-Destruction. The fractal in this case is so large, it can be applied universally, and create a rich tapestry of potential themes.

Now, if you’ve never seen The Wire, the above will make no sense to you. First off, shame on you, go watch The Wire. But you can do the above with just about any show.

So, your homework assignment, before we continue this conversation: Find a TV show, Musical, Movie, Book, or any other piece of narrative art you really love, and tell me what the fractal of that show is. 

To make this easy, phrase your fractal as the sequence of events that occurs at all levels of the story: from scene to the entire damn story. What is the sequence of events that is followed similarly at all levels, but never identically.

Leave a comment on this article, and we’ll continue our discussion of theme, next time.

I can’t wait to hear what you got.

2 thoughts on “Writing 344: Theme Part 2: Fractals”

    1. Hey Mark,

      That’s a good start! But it’s not quite there yet. What you’ve identified is more general than the fractal I’m referring to. What you’re referring to would be general narrative structures.

      A fractal is a little more specific, and it covers a more strict sequence of events of thematic question.

      Take Mistborn: What if the savior of the world failed?

      That question can be applied to every character in the series: Kelsier, Vin, Sazed, Tindwyl, Elend; the story is about the failures of leader figures and gods and the conflict stems from the concept of the Failure of those figures.

      So the theme is: failure, more or less. But it could also be faith, or spirit, or perserverance.

      So try that again. But this time, think about a specific question in relation to Sanderson. Can be for his whole body of work, or just one. Think about how that question (or statement) can be applied to every situation in one of his books, then reply to this comment, and we’ll move from there.

      Thanks for reading!


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