It was my Australian friend’s birthday yesterday so I downed scripts and headed off for the afternoon to indulge in some tourist traps. We went to London Bridge, walked along the river to the Tate Modern where we giggled at the pretentious art but then found ourselves staring at a 10 foot blue square murmuring: “There’s something to it all right…” Then we took a ‘flight’ on the London Eye before resigning to the comfort of a pub and a good old traditional English curry.
All of this culture and sightseeing was the perfect antidote to my script reading hell this week. My mind was stuck in a rut of lazy words and flicking pages so getting out and about dusted the cobwebs off, and invigorated my brain with some potential ideas. Screenwriting guru Jurgen Wolff has some interesting techniques about brainstorming and avoiding writer’s block which basically comes down to ‘feeding your brain’ with news, culture, images, music, whatever. A stroll along the Thames Path followed by the free galleries in the Tate Modern certainly inspired me to a few thoughts that might lead to something, who knows.
But I digress. William Goldman, legendary writer, is famous for his Hollywood quote: “Nobody knows anything” but he’s got a far more pertinent quote that is not often referred to: “Story is structure”. He’s a big advocate of structure and he claims that it’s much more complex and challenging than just a three-act paradigm. For him, it’s a constant evaluation of figuring out what happens next in your narrative. It’s prioritising and arranging the order of events so that the story is told in its most expressive, communicative and, for the audience, appreciative form. In America, structure is taken very seriously and most aspiring writers have a firm grasp on what is required and demanded of them in their spec screenplays. Here in the UK however, it’s a term that is often treated like a hot potato, just like genre or any other kind of contentious screenplay analysis.
I worked with a writer/director recently who wouldn’t accept any structural terms or advice. He simply just wouldn’t have it. He believed storytelling to be a much more instinctive and elegant affair from which his script didn’t have to hit any pre-appointed ‘act breaks’ or follow any of Hollywood’s accepted formulas. In some ways, he was right - storytelling is not about joining the dots - but he was missing the point. Screenwriting, and any writing really, is both art and craft. It’s the artistic creativity of the writer and his ideas but expressed through craft and structure so that the readers/audience fully understand and appreciate the story. Screenwriting is the only medium where structure is so hotly disputed. It’s perfectly accepted in theatre, radio and literature but for some reason, people who want to write for the screen seem to take it as lofty visual expression that requires no such structural techniques.
And to that I say: phooey. I’m with William Goldman on this one. Structure is everything. No matter what term or language you want to use, you cannot deny that it exists and that it is essential to the expression of basic storytelling. But to be more specific to Rob’s comment (below), the three-act structure is becoming more accepted and understood as the screenwriting training market continues to grow. Which is only a good thing, obviously, but it would help if people looked beyond the paradigm as established by Syd Field, (which by the way is an excellent start to learning about all that structure offers). Script editors and execs usually have a good grasp on structure but I read a lot of development notes where people always say ‘the structure needs to be tighter’ which is as useful as saying ‘the script needs to improve’. It’s too vague and generic and doesn’t say anything about the complex and emotional state of the characters and story that need to be addressed. That’s where the real structural issues usually lurk.
I think Rob what you’re referring to is the Hollywood formula movie of the three-act structure and the predictable and padded way that the stories unfold. Expressions such as ‘the film had no third act’ usually refer to the fact that the story had nowhere to go, nowhere to develop the characters or story to a satisfying resolution, so it just had a car chase or routine murder instead. The ‘bolted on’ bit isn’t to do with structure per se but more to do with ‘one more twist in the tale’ so that the story doesn’t end on a predictable note, but alas, these ‘twists’ have become predictable in themselves. The structure issue is a fascinating one though, or at least it is to me (personally, I think it’s the strongest part of my writing), and it’s sure to come up in more posts and discussions…