Friday, September 11, 2015

Structure's Dirty Secret

"Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra."
I recently read Corey Mandell's Indiewire article, Why Story Structure Formulas Don't Work. It made some good points. For as liberated as we writers like to think we are (our playground is the imagination, after all), many of us adhere to structure as if it's a life preserver in a tempest. At the other end are those filmmakers who actively seek to jettison structure completely and tell their story their way with their rules.

So who's right?

First off, structure isn't anything new. It's thousands of years old. We can go back to Aristotle's beginning-middle-end thesis but why stop there? Structure was formally recorded in myth, but it started with the birth of humanity. In a nutshell, structure is meant to remind us of the challenges we face while being human. As such, good structure will be the framework of a story about learning to be better humans. Enter Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, Laura Shamas, and other such modern mythologists who prove time and time again that every story is a coming of age story. We all start in an ordinary world and seek to perform the extraordinary in the special world, someplace else.

Structure adherents (and I am among them) like Blake Snyder and the schools of thought at Hollins and UCLA point to the importance of inciting incidents, act breaks, midpoints, high points, low points, and resolutions. If you look at a history of commercially and critically successful films based on the Hollywood model, you'll note that they all share these in common.

But what about that page 10 inciting incident? It's on page 13. Is that okay? What if my act break is on page 28? Or 31? Or 25? I even know an agent who, when you send in your one-sheet, requires you to also include a Blake Snyder beat sheet, filled out to show how your film fits into Blake Snyder's mold.

Ugh.

There's a reason why your script may not fit into Blake Snyder's mold or anyone else's. It's because it's your specific script with your specific characters. While Snyder (and any other structure fan) might have some solid ideas on script construction, I'm here to tell you to stop fretting about structure the way you have been. Don't lose it completely, of course. All humans have skeletons and all cars have wheels and an engine, after all. What I'm saying is that you need to stop thinking about structure as a mold for you to fill: structure is a series of actions that your character creates by virtue of being themselves.

In a graduate school class, I was told that the inciting incident is on page 10. Blake Snyder puts it at page 12. Mandell's article mentions a writer who insists it be on page 17. But if we redefine "structure" into the phrase, "plot-advancing character action," then it'll fall into place much easier.

Too much time is spent building up events or circumstances ("they have to experience an inciting incident by such-and-such page") and not enough on who the character is and not only what but why they do what they do. The inciting incident must happen. A page number is far less relevant to determining the when as what the character wants to do at that specific moment. For some characters, a page 10 such moment is appropriate. For others, perhaps a page 17. The structure should not dictate when a character does something: the character is in charge, and it's up to him/her to show you when he/she is ready. It's therefore the character's actions that create the structure. Never the other way around.

If you're telling a story and you seek commercial and critical attention, you need an inciting incident. You need a midpoint. You need a low point. That's myth. That's struggle. That's conflict. That's humanity. But when do these events occur? Some people face their sorest trial when they're in their teens. Some in their 20s. Some in their 30s. Some in their 80s. The point is that sometime in your life, it's inevitable that you will face your greatest battle. Structure doesn't exist to tell you when these events happen. In your script, your inciting incident might happen on page nine. Or 10. Or 12. Or 17. Or 20. The point is that it must happen at the moment that your character demands for it to happen. Structure exists to tell you that these events do happen and that it's up to your character to create the structure based on their own actions.

Hate structure? Want to break it? Go for it. But learn it first. Know thy enemy so that your victory will be all the more effective, satisfying, and complete.

Write on.

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Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

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