What screenwriters can learn from sub-atomic physics and the birth of the universe.
As a literary and dramatic form, feature screenplays have relied on using traditional Aristotelean dramaturgy as the basis for constructing and structuring the content of the screenplay. Three-act structure and the adaptation of folk-tale morphology have been the primary areas for research into screenplay structuring, with a small number of key texts dominating the debates. The use of Mythic structure as a guide to constructing screenplays has been especially popular in the last twenty years following on from the work of Christopher Vogler.(1993)
I wrote recently on the issues surrounding Vogler’s work – see Everyone Loves Chris - and the problems associated with using structural devices to design the movement of the story. Mythic structure assumes a certain level of fixed character and uses actions as the basis of story construction. It does this because motifs, persons and objects can change from story to story, so the only constant, the framework in which to pour the variable elements, is based on plot actions.
The main theories of screenwriting have their basis in drama and literary theory and most commonly address the structuring of the screenplay. Syd Field (1979) took the classical three act structure from Arsistotle’s Poetics (335BC) and used it as the basis of his ‘Paradigm’ theory of screenplay structure.
Vogler used Campbell’s concept of the Monomyth (1949) as the basis for his theory of The Hero’s Journey – a structuring system based on the mythic structures expounded by Russian Formalism.
Both Cambell and Vogler drew inspiration from Vladimir Propp (1968 translation), who extended the Russian Formalist approach to the study of narrative structure. In the Formalist approach, sentence structures were broken down into analyzable elements, or morphemes, and Propp used this method by analogy to analyze Russian fairy tales. By breaking down a large number of Russian folk tales into their smallest narrative units, or narratemes, Propp was able to arrive at a typology of narrative structures.
Robert McKee has been critical of the overtly structuralist approaches of theories such as those proposed by Vogler and instead, proposes a set of guiding principles, still based on classical three-act structure, but including the importance of character design to the movement of plot and story.
All these wonderful books and ideas come out of traditional literary theories and have gone round and round in the heads of critics and writers for years now. I’m beginning to wonder whether we need to find something a bit different – something that will take us out of the literary malaise – and I think I may have found it.
Lets look past literary and dramatic theory and turn to the sciences instead – in particular, cosmology and theoretical physics. Now this might not be the most obvious place to look when you’re sitting at your desk trying to get for inspiration for your story, but bear with me.
First off, a little context.
About 13.75 billion years ago the universe came into being through the explosion of a singularity in a cataclysmic act commonly referred to as the Big Bang. After its initial expansion, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow energy to be converted into various subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. While protons and neutrons combined to form the first atomic nuclei only a few minutes after the Big Bang, it would take thousands of years more for electrons to combine with them and create electrically neutral atoms. The first element produced was hydrogen, along with traces of helium and lithium. Giant clouds of these primordial elements gradually coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies, and the heavier elements were synthesized either within stars or during supernovae.
So, the whole process of creating stars and planets and people started with the simplest subatomic particles coming together in the early stages of the universe in what are called fundamental interactions.
In physics, fundamental interactions are the ways that the simplest particles in the universe interact with one another. An interaction is fundamental when it cannot be described in terms of other interactions.
In the conceptual model of fundamental interactions, matter consists of Fermions which carry properties called charges and spin. These Fermions either attract or repel each other by exchanging Bosons. The exchange of Bosons always carries energy and momentum between the Fermions, thereby changing their speed and direction. The exchange may also transport a charge between the Fermions, changing the charges of the Fermions in the process.
Stay with me.
In the Big Bang, these fundamental interactions occurred between the primary elements to create everything we know. It is how these most basic of elements came together, interacted and changed that created the history of the universe and everything in it. We really are children of the stars.
Profound stuff. But does this sound familiar? Just go back and look at that last paragraph again.
As a writer what do you do to create a story? You start with a basic concept, perhaps a character, or a genre, a location or theme and build from there.
A script or story is like the beginning of the universe. It all starts with a big bang – page one – then expands. The primary elements that existed in those first few pages fundamentally interact to form new more complex elements, to drive the plot forward, to create the universe of the story. This is in essence what occurs in a script. The initial set-up develops as the characters act according to their design.
The best and most reliable story design always comes out of the interaction of these primary elements – ie not creating something entirely new halfway through the second act without setting it up. Avoiding the Deus ex Machina, the God from the Machine.
These primary elements – our story Fermions if you like – can be characters, locations, situations, objects. Obviously the most important Fermions are your characters. They must be designed well. You must know them as a person because when they interact with other Fermions, they have to act true to their nature, true to their original charge and spin.
All that is required now for the story, our universe, to evolve, is to factor in a chronology and action then is created.
These interactions are governed by the design of the characters and situations – the primary elements – and play out over the time frame of the story
So, at the start of the story, on page one, we have a singularity that explodes in a big bang. Over the next few pages we see that there are a set of primary elements in existence. These will be the people, the location, the setting of the story. These are our Fermions, the basic building blocks of matter – or in our case – the script. Fermions carry charge and spin – principally for us this is the design of the characters, the particulars of the location and setting.
The design of the characters is perhaps the most important element of our Character Fermion. Great characters will always give you the best and most dramatic interactions and hence the best story.
Now remember that when Fermions interact they exchange Bosons and this exchange always carries energy and momentum between the Fermions, thereby changing their speed and direction. They may also change the charge of the Fermions in the process.
Think of Bosons as dialogue and action. If one Fermion punches another Fermion in the face then we certainly have an exchange of energy and both will be changed by that interaction!
So our characters, when they interact, will change, always, it’s the first law of script physics, and this change can set them onto a different path, maybe then interacting with other, unexpected Fermions.
Sound familiar? It is what many commentators call the Character Arc. This arc comes out of the interaction of the primary elements impacting on the Character Fermion.
So what’s the point of all this?
It’s all about how you think about the structuring and creation of your script and story.
All too often structure is the starting point – stop worrying about the ‘Entrance to the Innermost Cave’, or that your Midpoint is on page 49 when it should be on page 50, and start thinking about how your characters interact.
Great screenplays always have this fundamental interaction of primary elements at their core. Go and watch Chinatown or Paths of Glory or Twelve Angry Men and you’ll see what I mean. The series of interactions that take place are always governed by the laws of story physics – time, character and primary elements.
Stop thinking about actions in your script and start thinking about interactions. Stuff happens in your story because of the interaction of your primary elements. Something happens, because of that something else happens, that then leads onto something else. A series of interactions giving rise to chronology of events. Cause and effect.
Remember the equation – story is a function of the relationship of primary elements over time.
Keep in mind when creating your story, that nothing happens without first creating the primary elements that can then interact and exchange energy. That exchange always creates change, movement and further interactions. Your Character Fermion is key to all this. It is their interaction with each other and the other primary elements that, over the timeframe of the script, creates the story.
In screenwriting, nothing happens without a reason and nothing should happen by chance. Albert Einstein once said, “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the Universe.” There is no such thing as chance only a set of variables giving rise to a particular outcome. A die lands on a certain number not by chance but because of the physical forces applied to it combined with the consequent interaction with its environment – again, sound familiar?
Use Primary Element Interaction to design your story and then your script will expand and grow and develop intelligent life all of its own.