Monday Motivation: The science and mathematics of story telling
I am not qualified in any sense to make the following statement:
Mathematical models in the field of physics and cosmology bear a truly remarkable resemblance to the reality they purport to mirror and explain. Why, for instance, should the gravitational force between two objects be inversely proportional to the square of the distance that separates their centres?
Mathematics, seemingly so removed from the real world of things and forces, can yet be used to mimic those things and forces and describe the relationship between them.
Well, I find that remarkable – probably precisely because I don’t understand why there should be this correspondence between the real world and the mathematical world.
The correspondence between the fictional world and the real world, as much as it continues to fascinate and intrigue me, makes much more sense. One of these parallels is the relationship between the three-act structure of story, and the three-act structure of life.
It all begins with the fundamental sense that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end; a starter, a main course, and a pudding; childhood, adulthood and old age…
We begin by anticipating an experience; we have the experience; finally we reflect on the experience or savour its consequences.
And so with story. In Act 1, we establish the measure of both the character of our protagonist, and the problem he faces. In Act 2, we explore his struggle to solve the problem. In Act 3, we savour the resolution of the problem.
What is just as interesting as the three-act structure of the story, is the three act structure of the scenes that make up the larger story. Each is a tiny story which mimics in miniature the larger one.
And it follows the same pattern for the same reason. (The laws of physics, after all, apply in the same way wherever we are in the universe.) There are beginnings, middles and ends.
A child is playing with a ball in the garden (in life as in fiction) and kicks the ball through the neighbour’s window – that’s the start. The neighbour round the corner of his house watering his garden, demands to know who the culprit is. The child lies and is not believed. That’s the middle. The neighbour turns his hose on the child. That’s the end.
It’s true that in life trees fall unseen in distant forests. Their falling has no dramatic significance. There are no consequences – except to the birds that had nested in it, and the termites and the fungae that will feast on it. But in the human world, actions have consequences and where there are chains of events linked causally, there are stories.
They present themselves in three acts, just as precisely as the moon swings in its eliptical orbit about the earth, and the earth about the sun, following the arcs described in their equations by Newton and, even more accurately, Einstein.
Stories are not the subject of science and mathematics, I know – but there is something about them that is as satisfyingly predictable as E = mc2.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: How to find, or make, that room of your own‘
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Cape Town Creative Saturday: 5 October