Structure: Elephant In The Room (2)

You’ve got to bear with me here. Computer networks are designed according to topologies: notions of the layout of the computers on the network in relation to one another.

by Lee A. Matthias

Confrontation: On The Levels

Networks are said to have topologies which are both physical and logical.

Yet computers are connected by wires and components which channel the wires in occasionally deceptive or unexpected ways.

The physical corresponds to the layout as it looks, while the logical is the layout as it functions on the wire.

Some of the ancient Greeks thought
the brain functions like a catapult.
At present, obviously, the metaphor is the digital computer.
-John R. Searle

A network can look like a ring, but function like a star, for example, where a managing source point on the ring interacts (to and from) with each of the other managed “end-points” on the ring. If one were to draw it, the source (or central) point would be, not as it is, on the ring itself, but as it seems to work, in the center, with “to” and “from” lines to each point surrounding it, like a star.

In essence:

  • The physical is important and necessary due to the environment in which the network must function, the what and how of it.
  • The logical is the topology which matters for the reason it exists at all, the why of it.

The physical is concerned with the carrying of the data or meaning, and the logical, is concerned with what is carried, that “meaning” to which we refer.

The parallel of computer network topologies to screenplay story structure is startling

  • A level to “carry,” the physical network: in story structure, the physical story events, or plot
  • A level for that which is carried, the data: in story structure, what the story means

It is effectively a multi-dimensional model, with the hardware effectively living in the 1st and 2nd dimensions, and the software living in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th (time) dimensions. One can adequately describe the hardware portion of the network, how it works, in only two dimensions. But to understand why it works, one must add two more dimensions: depth, to separate it from the second dimension—for quantity of data or meaning; and time, to extend the first three dimensions and allow for changing or evolving data or meaning.

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.
-Pablo Picasso

Other analogies work equally well. Fashion, for example: Story can wear a jumpsuit (no act/1 act), slacks and a shirt (2 act), a three-piece suit (3 act), or, like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, a free-form, layered/accessoried look (4 – 9 act and beyond), but, deep down inside, it still needs to be a single, unified, transforming story. Even super-models can be complex. But skeletons all look pretty much the same, after the clothes and the skin are removed; just as do the three acts: set-up, confrontation, and resolution. However, inside the bones, the DNA, the individuality, the meaning, tells a different story, and each skeleton is unique.

Stories are not just endless series of connected events in infinite variety, amounting, nonetheless, to a mere chronicle of how things happened. They need to matter. Therefore, they must also be about why things happened. A story may unfold in the arctic with the Inuit, in an igloo; it may arise in South Africa, in a kraal; it may transpire in Buckingham Palace, itself. Or it may happen in all three. It may tell the tale of My Dinner With André, in what might be seen as a single act, or it may tell the story of Four Weddings and a Funeral (which some schizoid analyses have trouble reconciling whether there are three or five acts). And yet, still, in both of the examples above, one can also uncover a meaning structure composed of three discrete parts (or acts).

So these two parallel descriptions, these two structures, both valid, both encompassing the whole, can only co-exist if on separate planes. This is the multi-level model, and it (and only it) can account for the length and breadth of story in all its “infinite variety.”

(Previously: Set-Up – Blind Man’s Bluff

Next week: “Resolution: Whose Story Is It?)

-Lee A. Matthias

I am a writer with one published novel, a nonfiction book on the way, and several screenplays written and in development. During and after college, I worked as a theater projectionist and manager, in public relations, and as a literary agent selling to publishers and producers. I currently work as a computer network administrator in government. I’m married and the father of two daughters.
Creative Commons License photo “elephant” credit: David Blackwell

2 thoughts on “Structure: Elephant In The Room (2)”

  1. Hey Lee

    You had me laughing at myself by the end of your article. I had it all mapped out what I was going to say to you re:film structure. WHY is everyone so afraid of the concept…. AND THEN, you compared it to a computer network – and I FREAKED. I always tell my students at our job as storytellers is to get our audience to look their fear right in the face via the protagonists trials. My big fear is computers, which I love but don’t understand the voodoo of how they work. Now I see my students probably feel much the same about film structure! Love movies – don’t understand the voodoo of how they work!

    Cheers for a great peice! – Jana/


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