24 August 2009

The Importance of Being Structured

Princess Scribe arose this morning to her usual routine – a glorious sunrise, bunnies fetching her slippers, little birdies draping a bathrobe round HRH’s shoulders, and a long-lashed doe presenting her with her ritual cup of green tea. All was right in the world, as Princess sat down to review the morning’s offerings before taking on DISTRICT 9 as a new blog subject.

However, the world is an uncertain place, and Princess found herself, mouth open in dismay, reading the following blog, “Be a StoryWeaver - NOT a Story Mechanic!”

An entire blog devoted to the argument that too much importance is placed upon structure.

While Princess is not inclined to argue with the theories of others, she found herself unable to not address the points raised and suggestions given in this most offending blog. (HRH must concede that the above mentioned blogger has since re-blogged on the subject, and in a mind boggling act of wordsmith acrobatics has simultaneously retracted - and defended - her original post. Oy vey, Maria). Princess also objects to the term "Mechanic" used in a derogatory sense, as HRH's step-princelet is himself a mechanic - with an advanced degree in engineering from a prestigious public university, partially funded by the Carnegie Foundation. Anyone who thinks that mechanics are slackers and hackers has a sadly limited understanding of quantum physics, string theory and mechanical engineering. HRH also has little use for marginalization. She appreciates it about as much as the residents of District 9 appreciate being called prawns.

Imagine her dismay at this sentence: “First, clear your mind of any thoughts about characters, plot, theme, and genre. Avoid any consideration of character arc, hero's journey, acts, scenes, sequences, beats, messages, premises, settings, atmosphere, and formulas. In short - don't give structure a second thought.”

Prior to this ill-given advice, this statement reared its ugly head: “We have all seen movies and read novels that feel like "paint by numbers" creations. Sure, they hit all the marks and cover all the expected relationships, but they seem stilted, uninspired, contrived, and lifeless. The authors of such pedestrian fare are Story Mechanics. A Story Mechanic is a writer who constructs a story as if it were a machine. Starting with a blueprint, the writer gathers the necessary dramatic components, assembles the gears and pulleys, tightens all the structural nuts and bolts, and then tries to make the story interesting with a fancy paint job.”

No, that’s not a Story Mechanic, milady. That’s a lazy writer.

Structure is a necessity. HRH repeats, structure is a necessity.

A story is like an architectural building, with the structure being the foundation, the supporting walls and the beams. The dialogue, characters and action – these are the elements where the artistry come to play – adding layers of color, hand crafting the finishing touches. Without solid structure, these elements are simply creating a façade, and one that could be toppled by the flapping wings of an Amazonian butterfly.

Writing is a craft; it is also an art. Let us look to other artists, those who broke the mold, and how classic structure played into their works:

• Miles Davis studied classical European music at Julliard. Although he did not complete the program, he often said that that training contributed to the theoretical background, which he would rely greatly upon in later years. Before breaking the wall of musical structure with jazz (a highly structured form), he knew he must master the principles of notes.

• Mark Rothko studied the German and Russian expressionists; Picasso spent years perfecting the colorings and shadings of the Old Masters, before shattering traditional structure with his cubist forms.

• Isadora Duncan studied classical ballet before becoming the muse of modern dance.

• Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler … all studied the works of Konstantin Stanislavsky before branching off and creating their own systems of principles as applied to the craft of acting.

To state that structure is over-rated or of secondary or little importance is not just naïve, it is reckless, and terrible advice. Structure is not an impediment to the writing process – structure is the foundation of your story. Even better – structure is liberating. Good, solid structure frees you to focus on character, on dialogue, on writing pointed, breathless lines of action. Structure sets you free, free to breathe life into the world that you have created, and the characters that people it. Free to write with great emotional resonance, to write stories with social impact, with words flowing like the vibrato-laden notes of the Lady Tennant Stradivarius.

Of course, it can feel mechanical when you are a structural newbie. Not unlike the rote learning of notes on a piano, or the painstaking repetition exercises“I’m tired.” “You’re tired?” “I’m tired.” “You’re tired?” – of the actor-in-training, mastering structure takes time and work.

What every good scribe realizes, is that there is the Aha! moment in the practice of their craft in which structure becomes organic. Princess now writes stories, much to her delight, in which each beat drops down in perfect, classic placement without her even realizing it. Catalyst/Inciting Incident – pg 12 – 15. Break into Two? Pg 25. Midpoint? Oh, look, the sequence begins on 55. And so on and so on and so on.

She also finishes them. Completion is an added benefit of structure.

All it takes is practice - a great deal of it.

A secondary note – solid structure weathers the stresses of development hell. A story with a solid foundation can be an impenetrable fortress, the walls of which even the likes of Larry Levy cannot tumble down.

~ The Princess Scribe

TODAY’S ASSIGNMENT – Run, do not walk, far from anyone who suggests that structure is of little importance. Recommended readOutliers, by Malcom Gladwell; Save the Cat! and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder. Make your 10,000 hours happen. Build your foundation. Build it well.


mikeymoviemadness said...

A) Inspired and wonderfully educational post.

B) Structure IS freeing. Emotionally, I think newbies feel the polar opposite. But structure is necessary in ALL art. Exactly so. Every art form has it - you simply do no see it (which, ideally, is the goal, yes?).

C) You effortlessly inserted Lady Tennant Stradivarius into your post. I'm speechless...and tickled pink.


jim said...

....got any twin sisters living in Honolulu?????? I'm not right all the time but I do know everything just half of it is wrong.

Structure is for writers as learning consequences is for children.

Anonymous said...

Yee ha! You are sooooo right. Once you know how, you can forget about it. Picasso could draw like a sonofabitch.

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