I’ve recently become convinced that, whatever structuring system you use — be it Robert McKee or Syd Field or Blake Snyder/Save The Cat or Chris Vogler or Story Wheel or etc — the patterns all repeat themselves, inside themselves.. The story pattern happens over and over, WITHIN THE LARGER PATTERN; in many of our popular …
" /> Jason Holborn | Cybercarnet/Weblog - PATTERNS: Go Fractal

PATTERNS: Go Fractal

I’ve recently become convinced that, whatever structuring system you use — be it Robert McKee or Syd Field or Blake Snyder/Save The Cat or Chris Vogler or Story Wheel or etc — the patterns all repeat themselves, inside themselves.. The story pattern happens over and over, WITHIN THE LARGER PATTERN; in many of our popular movie stories, I think/suggest it happens four times. The pattern is a fractal which repeats to form a larger, intact version of its small-scale form. In the “classic Hollywood movie structure”, there are four Cycles or Wheels within the Larger, Identically Shaped Cycle/Wheel.

That is to say, the story pattern is a fractal. Smaller fractals combine to form a larger, identically-shaped fractal.

If the structure is a wheel (say, the Story Wheel…), it’s made up of smaller identical wheels, INSIDE the big wheel.

In really plainspeak:
ACT ONE contains – ACT ONE Act One, ACT ONE Act Two, ACT ONE Act Three, and,
ACT TWO contains – ACT TWO Act One, ACT TWO Act Two, ACT Two Act Three, while,
ACT THREE contains ACT THREE Act One, ACT THREE Act Two, and ACT THREE Act Two.

Using the Save The Cat terminologies/labels, I suggest that the same pattern happens in popular movies four times, in four passages called SETUP, FUN AND GAMES, BAD GUYS CLOSE IN (what many writing gurus call “BELLY OF THE BEAST” or etc), and FINALE.
Or, SETUP, Act Break, FUN AND GAMES, Act Break (MidPoint), BELLY OF THE BEAST, Act Break, FINALE, Climax.

Still using SAVE THE CAT terms, here’s how Blake Snyder breaks down stories (you can use your own!):

Opening Image
Theme Stated
Break Into 2
Fun and Games
Bad Guys Close In
Dark Night of the Soul
Break Into 3
Closing Image

So, the four times this pattern repeats make up, I guess, “Act 1”, “Act 2A”, “Act 2B”, “Act 3” (using the Save The Cat terms).

Here’s an example:



Opening Image – Gothic statues outside New York Public Library (This is also the Opening Image of the Entire Overall Pattern)
Theme Stated – people can debate this forever; it’s pointless. Pick your own — I’ll toss out, “Back off man, I’m a scientist”, but whatever. (Yes, “Back off man, I’m a scientist” is also a Theme Stated candidate for the Entire Overall Pattern)
Set-Up – Venkman’s a horny academic of questionable ethics; Ray’s an enthusiastic adult-child with an autistic thirst for the mechanics and logic of the paranormal; Spengler is Mr. Spock.
Catalyst – Ray and Spengler hear a librarian in downtown Manhattan saw an actual ghost.
Debate – Ray drags Venkman down. “I’m right in the MIDDLE OF SOMETHING Ray!”, “You’ve never even seen an actual ghost.” “Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?” (ie. he’s just killing time and goofing around, “debating”).
Break Into 2 – They see an actual paranormal manifestation of a human’s soul: a real, true Ghost. It’s a whole New World of Act Two now; ghosts are real.
Fun and Games – They banter over the ghost and decide to confront. It TERRIFIES them! Venkman laughs at the scientists, calling them out. Ray’s over the moon with excitement.
Mid-Point: But… It wasn’t an entirely wasteful day; Egon took readings that can change the world — he has glimpsed how to catch and contain indefinitely ghosts. Peter rewards Egon. Ray is visibly happy to witness this moment!
Bad Guys Close In: What?!? They’re being kicked out of the university — at the hour of their greatest triumph!?!
Dark Night of the Soul: The big, deep, painful reflection on Life and Meaning and Truth…. It’s when Peter and Ray get drunk on the university campus and Venkman lays out his challenge: “To go into business for ourselves.” The GRAVITY and RISK of the situation hits Ray visibly. This is a weighty moment that I always noticed, even as a kid. Peter and Ray are STONE COLD SOBER even as they pass booze back and forth; the thought of going into business is a Harsh Lifeline dangling into their Abyss.
Break Into 3: They get financing, gambling everything on Ray’s parents’ legacy.
Finale: They get signage and start tests and get a car and secretary.
Closing Image: They open their own business; Venkman hangs the sign up overhead; The End.

In Pattern Series one, we’ve already been thru Life and Death and Risk and Up and Down and Extinction and Survival/Revival.

It’s a little movie, all on it’s own. A cute little sketch about oddball ghost scientists who work hard and lose everything and leave academia to believe in themselves, and seek new fortune from the world; The End.

If the last shot was a slow dolly out and a fade to black, cutting Venkman’s parking protest to Ray, and keeping Ray’s, “I found a car,” that’s a fine ending for a short film. I’d watch it.

It could be the outline for a short Disney ghosthunters cartoon installment with Mickey and Donald and Goofy in their ambulance chasing ghosts.


Opening Image: Again, one could debate when exactly this happens, or what it is. I suggest it’s the Very End or Closing Image of Pattern Series 1: i.e. The Opening Image is of New Yorkers opening up a new business.

Venkman is the Leader; he instructs workers on installing the sign, debating whether it’s visible enough, as Ray drives up with the new car. This often happens in structure; an ending beat is also an opening beat, overlapped in a chain link.
Theme Stated: This is debatable. How about, “We’re ready to believe you.”
Set-Up: They get a secretary and phoneline and make a commercial advertisement, and putter around on getting things running.
Catalyst: As it happens, a lovely lady in the city encounters a paranormal phenomenon in her home, and Venkman immediately falls for her.
Debate: “She’s telling the truth. Or she thinks she is.” “Why would I make this up?”
BUT ALSO, MAINLY: The lovely lady sizes up Venkman and sends him packing; she wants nothing to do with him.
BUT ALSO, MAINLY: “Why did we open up this business????? We have $3 left and we’re seeing nothing but failure. Is there a future in this???? Were we stupid?? Did we make a mistake? Did we lose the gamble???? Is this all there is to Life?”
Break Into 2: As it happens, a downtown Manhattan hotel decides to hell with it, and they call in the Ghostbusters. Welcome to the New World of Act Two: Business.
Fun and Games: They race and drill, they suit up, they debut the car and logo and race off.
They run around the hotel shooting stuff up.
Oh and also, they’ve never even tested this equipment. Har har (BUT, crucially, carrying on the Debate: what are we even in business for?)
MidPoint: They capture and contain the Ghost; it works!
Good Bad Guys Close In: Wild success overtakes them. But they work hard the money.
Dark Night of the Soul: I don’t know! I think it’s off-screen; obviously, Venkman does serious reflecting and thinking before the next scene —
Break Into 3: Venkman finagles a new opportunity to speak with the lovely lady client, tracking her down at work and interrupting a friendly social chat with a Handsome Man.
Finale: Venkman establishes himself as a dedicated professional; boy, has he brought news of her case!
Venkman further exerts himself to be vulnerable and to profess respect for Dana.
Closing Image: Venkman and Dana have a rapprochement, and this pleases Venkman enormously; he has grown successfully, and earned her respect back. THIS IS THE MID-POINT TO THE ENTIRE OVERALL PATTERN; i.e., we’re halfway thru, and two Pattern cycles in.

This mini-movie is about New Yorkers opening a ghost business; the CEO offends a pretty, dynamic client he lusts for. It’s a tough world and a tough go of it, but they really pull it off and become successful, and the CEO makes things up with the client, and becomes a newer, better person. Their first client no longer hates them. The CEO is high on life; The End.

It could also easily be an installment with Mickey and Donald and Goofy, featuring Minnie Mouse seeing a ghost in her fridge and rebuffing Mickey, only to be won over again by The End.

Note: No real serious Bad Guys other than “long hours, slime, stench, work” (tho Venkman’s failure with Dana, while off-screen, is obviously, tho unseen, a serious issue to him despite the Good Guys of success, fame, and fortune).


In this mini-movie, the Set-Up is of New Yorker ghosthunters who can barely keep up with booming business. It’s the darkest mini-movie in the Entire Overall Pattern. It’s also about Private Citizen Entrepreneurs versus the Regulatory State.

I believe in my theory of Repeating Fractal Patterns, however, of course, analyzing previously-made movies is not writing, and however stimulating it may be, it is of course just assigning labels (which other people have created) to produced movies and pinning the tail on the donkey. When I read some people’s ideas of what the Catalyst is in THE DARK KNIGHT, I think they are crazy. Really, we’re just stabbing in the dark and trying to identify dramatic beats, using other people’s jargon.

However much I believe in my theory of Repeating Fractal Patterns, I admit that in this third pattern sequence, I may have some of this off. This third pattern took me the longest to identify; maybe I still could adjust and fine-tune it.

It’s the darkest mini-movie and I also believe it is an INVERTED NEGATIVE PATTERN. The False Victory of the Midpoint is a False Defeat, and it all culminates in True Defeat, not True Victory.

And this, the INVERTED NEGATIVE PATTERN within the OVERALL ENTIRE POSITIVE PATTERN, is the crucial part of the entire exercise. The interior fractals are not all positive.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PARAGRAPH IN THIS INCREDIBLY OVERLONG ESSAY. The fractal patterns are a mix of Positive and Negative Patterns, whether the overall entire pattern is Positive or Negative.

Opening Image: the Opening Image is of the BAD GUY CLOSING IN: Walter Peck from the EPA crosses the street and enters a New York business storefront. It is the Ghostbusters.
Theme Stated: I’ll suggest, “Frankly quite a lot of us are concerned about what you’re doing here.”
Set-Up: These poor ghostcatchers moan and groan with pain and fatigue; they work their asses off and don’t sleep and can’t keep it together; that’s why they hire new help. That’s also why the EPA has noticed them…
Catalyst: The leader of the ghostcatchers is VENKMAN, in a little office off the garage. He tangles with the EPA and then threatens the EPA and bets that his dick is biggest.
Debate: The psychic energy in this city is like a Twinky snack the size of a yacht. Whoa! Does that sound like a pending showdown with the EPA…?
Set-Up Finishes: We learn that a beautiful woman named Dana has a dinner date with Venkman, on the same night as her neighbor Louis is hosting a tax clinic buffet shindig down the hall.
Break Into 2: Zuul possesses Dana. New World of Act 2: Demonic possession of a client. Someone has to save her!!!!!!!
Fun & Games: Vinz Clortho possesses Louis Tully. Dana’s was terrifying horror; this one is (DARKLY) comical.
Mid-Point: Venkman discovers Dana/Zuul. – ***FALSE DEFEAT***
Bad Guys Close In: Dana is gone; there is only Zuul.
Louis/Vinz Clortho roams New York searching for Zuul.
Egon and Venkman piece together “Keymaster” and “Gatekeeper”; it would be bad to let them meet.
Dark Night of the Soul: I suggest, “Because the dead HAVE been rising from the grave,” on the bridge, which, incidentally, is, (I believe), ALSO THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL OF THE ENTIRE OVERALL PATTERN.
Break Into 3: The EPA breaks in with the state’s Police and Engineers.
Finale: Janine tries to stave off the government agents.
Spengler tries to negotiate and caution the government agents.
Spengler bodily tries to block the government agents from causing a paranormal catastrophe.
Venkman arrives and tries to negotiate.
Climax: But they lose: the government agents turn down the equipment, and cause a terrible, apocalyptic explosion. ***TOTAL DEFEAT***. Here the ***FALSE DEFEAT*** of the inverted Negative Pattern has now become the ***REAL, TOTAL DEFEAT*** of the Negative Pattern’s Climax.
Closing Image: The Ghostbusters are cruelly arrested by the Regulatory State, who have interfered and caused destruction, and blame the private citizens for the State’s error.
(Also, notice that the Girl In Distress is now left abandoned, with no one to save her.)

(BTW for a movie which defines, ahem, 1984, this insanely awesomely movie which I adore worships Ronald Reagan’s fear of government and suggests that private citizens have the right to bear nuclear arms; the green environmental snobs are nefarious forces which torment and persecute, even imprisoning, the free, enterprising heroes who just want to make cash off the tragedy of the commons by, er, stealing and imprisoning people’s human souls. It doesn’t get any more 1984 than GHOSTBUSTERS, the greatest movie about capitalism ever made!!).

This dark Third Pattern Cycle would make an ideal Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and Porky Pig ghosthunters cartoon, if they imported Mickey Mouse’s ghosthunter ambulance into Looney Tunes.


This mini-movie opens on heretic ghost scientists who are unjustly imprisoned for the state’s actions.

Again, I think this is a smaller story that would also make an ideal Mickey Donald Goofy Ghostbusters Disney cartoon… see what you think.

Opening Image: The Ghostbusters in jail. Many movies open on people killing time in jail.
Theme Stated: Whatever. However, what about, “Your honor, I’ve only been here a few months, but I have seen shit that would turn you white.” They’re newcomers to NYC but they have what it takes.
Set-Up: They are commercial, deadbeat ghost catchers in jail, underdogs.
Catalyst: The leader’s friends reveal that his girlfriend is living in a haunted condo tower containing a terrible portal to another world!
Debate: They’re dragged before the Mayor (the “King”, “Power”, “State”, etc), to TALK, or, that is, to DEBATE. The entire city is under a reign of paranormal terror!
They’re in trouble, blamed by the EPA.
Venkman, the leader of the group, negotiates their release.
Break Into 2: The Mayor accepts and releases them, into the New World of Act 2: Freedom, and support from the State (army and fire and police escort)
Fun & Games: Army and National Guard and Police/Fire escort the free Ghostbusters to a chanting crowd of fans who cower in terror until their heroes appear to give them hope.
Ghostly terror swallows them into the Earth! But they survive!!!
They see the Girlfriend transformed into a Demon Animal!
A God arrives on Earth!
They banter with it, confront it.
They survive an attack from it!
Mid-Point: “This chick is toast”. They defeat Gozer!!!!! Hurray!! They have the tools, they have the talent!
Bad Guys Close In: “Ray, this looks extraordinarily bad.” Gozer is only just warming up.
Gozer prepares to appear for real.
Dark Night of the Soul: “Oh shit Ray, what did you do?” The Gravity and Risk of the situation sinks in. Total annihilation awaits.
Break Into 3: Egon postulates a terribly risky plan; Venkman makes his choice for his woman and the world, and leads his friends into battle with the dragon.
Finale: the Ghostbusters say their good-byes and prepare their equipment, as Gozer climbs towards them.
They disperse and spark up and make their final attack.
It is successful; the King’s hope in them was justified. And the Girl is returned to Human form.
Closing Image: Venkman and Dana kiss/the Green Ghost is still on the loose. (THIS IS THE CLOSING IMAGE OF THE ENTIRE OVERALL PATTERN)

This is a mini-movie about jailed scientists (with an imperiled Damsel Girlfriend), who cut a deal to have a shot at working their way out of trouble, face great odds, losses and victories, and win (and rescue the Girl).

I think that this is true in other stories, too.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, for example. “Act One”, which closes with, “You just got yourself a new goddamned partner”, is the SET-UP or First Pattern Cycle.
The Entire Overall Pattern’s second cycle (“FUN AND GAMES”) opens with a new Set-Up; Indiana and Marion, who are partners in this Second Cycle “mini-movie”. If you watched it as a mini-movie, it’s about partners on the look for the Ark.
It ends with them succeeding in getting it, too, after Fun and Games Midpoint, Fun and Games Bad Guys Close in, Fun and Games Dark Night of the Soul, Fun and Games Break Into 3.
The Third Cycle, Bad Guys Close In, has this set-up: Dr. Jones has just found the long lost Ark of the Covenant of the Hebrews!!!, when his arch-rival Belloq appears and steals it. THIS IS A REPEAT OF THE VERY FIRST SET-UP. Belloq leaves Dr. Jones and his Woman to Death. It climaxes with Dr. Jones getting the Ark back all to himself.
The Fourth Pattern cycle, FINALE, has this set-up:
Archeologist Dr. Jones and his partner Marion Ravenwood are on their way home to America aboard an oceanliner, having successfully found the long lost Ark, down in the cargo hold, after in their latest adventure, and, by the way, have some friction in the Romance Department, when suddenly —
Catalyst: The Nazis locate and board the boat, seizing the Ark and Marion.
Debate: Will Dr. Jones tolerate this??? Will the SS succeed? Indy follows them… to –
Break Into 2: the New World of Act Two is the Nazi Island Base.
Fun and Games: Indy infiltrates, prank-pwns a Nazi — oh but his uniform is too small! He comically subdues a new, taller Nazi.
Indy secures a bazooka.
Midpoint: Indy agrees to not destroy the Ark.
Bad Guys Close In: Indy and Marion are tied up together.
Dark Night of the Soul: Indy realizes the fearful truth: “Marion, close your eyes.”
Break Into 3: The French Nazi archeologist opens the Ark, an act there is no going back from.
Finale: Supernatural forces destroy the Nazis.
Closing Image: Indy and Marion — those globe-trotting partners from SET UP #4, the over-exerted tourist-archeologists just on their innocent, over-worked way back home on the oceanliner over the Atlantic when we first “met” them back at the “beginning”, share a gruff but tender moment on federal stairs in Washington (remember the Romantic Friction in “Set-Up” twenty minutes ago), and the Ark is in a Gov’t Warehouse; The End.

Many other movies are the same.

The Pattern that so many people see in so many stories and movies and plays is a fractal pattern, which makes itself up out of smaller versions of itself. Like Voltron!

I noticed this when struggling to complete a decent con artist story with a small production company; the part that they just weren’t liking or buying was what Blake Snyder in SAVE THE CAT would call, “Fun and Games”.

I toyed and brainstormed, and I finally got it when I wrote out the entire SAVE THE CAT structure headings and then created the Fun and Games Sequence with its very own Opening Image, Theme Stated, Set-Up, Debate, Catalyst, Break Into 2, B-Story (which I ignored in the above examples), Fun & Games, Mid-Point, Bad Guys Close In, Dark Night of the Soul, Break Into 3, Finale, Climax, Closing Image.

It worked! Overnight, I had a bunch of scenes that the production company wanted cut back for length, but which pleased them enormously.

Now, I only did that purely for the Fun and Games sequence, not the “Second Cycle: Fun and Games” quarter-movie that I used above. It was for the Fun & Games sequence only, not including other Save The Cat sequences.

However, that suggests to me that I could easily sit thru GHOSTBUSTERS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or THE GRADUATE and find six or ten or three (or two) versions of the Snyder/SAVE THE CAT pattern.

And that only reinforces what I think; the entire pattern is made of smaller patterns, hooked together to make the greater, entire pattern whole.