RAMBLIN MAN POST: Reflecting on story structure and screenwriting courses.

May 23, 2012 — Leave a comment

When you begin to learn about screenwriting, you will hear the word “structure” thrown around a lot. You will either accept it and try to learn from the screenwriting gurus and dissect the crap out of existing movies. The whole reverse engineering deal.

Or you’ll refuse the whole notion of it and try to rebel against it. You’ll probably believe that you’ll tell original stories, better than the cliche crap that following these formulaic structuring can create.

I believe that the good writer has many qualities.

(I say “good” for now because once you’re “great”, you’re just a smooth jungle cat on the prowl.)

Two qualities to highlight. The first is the ability to intuitively structure your story. The second is that you’re good at writing or maybe a better way to put this is that you have some creative ways to tell stories.

Let’s contrast this with the impression I got from my screenwriting course I took over a year ago and probably many other classes that have a screenwriting guru hanging about. These courses focus on structure.

Can we all agree with this?

Nice.

My recent revelation through the Internet and email conversations have led to an important point to remember:

Perfect structure DOES NOT EQUAL a good story.

Take a moment to let that soak in. If you’re already bathed in it, then that’s incredible. If not, congratulations. You are enlightened.

The thing is, you can have a perfectly structured story about a cat getting stuck in a tree. Or a guy changing a flat tire. The only problem is that they’re stiff, dull and boring.

In retrospect, my own experience in the screenwriting classes were all focus on the structure. The tools, the breakdowns and the how to do this and that. But there was a lack of cultivating the story: in-class writing sessions, assigned readings of screenplays, and watching/discussing movies.

Earlier I said that a good writer can intuitively structure their stories. This is because when you’re writing, you’re not following a set of instructions. You’re expressing through writing. It’s a thing in the moment. It’s art.

Shakespeare didn’t decide to write in five acts. He just wrote. Only later people decided to break it down for an easier time to perform and analyze. Correct me if I’m wrong because I’m drawing this from memory. The again, who cares if I’m wrong! Shakespeare is a master, genius and a badass. An artist at that level does not have a story paradigm handy dandy and dangling in front of his writing space. (If he did… then I have a series of f-bombs to drop while crying uncontrollably.)

Novels are more flexible for structure. It’s not as strict and you can get away with lots of other things. But in general, a whole different animal with different behaviors.

For screenplays, you’re limited to 90 to 100 or so pages. When I first started out on this journey, I compared screenwriting to writing sonnets. There’s the art part. And then there’s the craft part. (There’s also other things like, telling the story through sight and sound effectively compared to other mediums).

It’s like the whole deal with the left brain and right brain. You can argue which one is “better”, but you need both. You need the symmetry. The balance.

So the real question now is, if structure is important after all, what’s the beef against screenwriting classes/screenwriting gurus.

I have nothing against what they want to sell — I mean, teach you. It’s the presentation and often times, the misdirection of what they’re selling — dammit, I mean — telling you.

If you honestly don’t know how to structure a story, not born gifted, and/or need that motivating environment with like-minded people… then yes, I say go for it. Take what you find useful and drop the excess weight. There will be ups and downs but I am a believer that a single shining gem of knowledge outweighs the negatives.

What about the fear of being formulaic? I think that’s related to how some are tempted to write certain things on certain pages without any thought of character motivation. Again, you can get structure down but is the story plausible? Perhaps not.

Structure, to me, involves a balanced interplay between the character and their situation. Think, social psychology.

I won’t dive into structure in detail. There are others who can express this material better than I can. The latest thing I was reading that deserves a lot of credit to this post is a bunch of tutorial articles by Dan Harmon. Yes, that guy who got fired off his own show. That’s the one. But what he has to say about structure is beautiful and he explains it in the nature of the universe, society, and etc. 

What I will say is there are movies out there where you can guess the ending in the first 10 minutes because they’re perfectly structured. It’s just that they lack creative ways to tell the story so it ends up being predictable. 

Again, screenwriting classes are useful if you feel you need it but I didn’t say that it’s the only place you can learn this stuff.

What’s our favorite mantra again?

READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. 

Repeat!

READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. WATCH A LOT —

Good? Got it? Nice!

Remember: It’s like trying to be fluent in a new language. You got to expose yourself to it. And you got to practice in that form… for screenwriters, it means writing in the screenplay format. For filmmakers, this means actually making movies. But that’s a different topic for another post.

OK, I’m done.

Cheers.

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