THE CURSE OF STRUCTURE

by colinptucker

The novel and the screenplay: thinking on.

The Guardian recently produced a supplement which depressed the shit out of me. How To Write A Novel In Thirty Days. Which turned out to be rubbish; it was in reality How To Structure A Novel In Thirty Days. That’s what really depressed me. It followed the path well trodden in the film world by writers such as Sid Field whose basic tenet is the same; don’t actually write anything until your structure is in place. The glorious process of discovery is banned; the intellect takes over from the heart, instinct is kicked out in favour of logic. This structure-first approach may work if you want to write bottom-feeding disease-of-the-week tv movies but for anything half-way decent? In my many many years as a screenwriting tutor I’ve slowly refined my thinking, simplifying it, reducing it to a core of thought which runs like this:

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CREDO

I believe:

1. Every script is unique, and the discovery of what it is that makes it unique is essential if the writer is to achieve something of value.

2. Work on the script must proceed from the inside to the surface. The audience perceives the surface but is moved, unknowingly, by the buried life of the film.

3. Structure is simply a way of formalising the unique quality of a script in a manner satisfying for an audience.

4. Every film has a structure that is particular to it, and that needs to be discovered. Films may proceed through rigid formality. They may proceed through haphazard accidents. They make contain both. There is no pre-ordained structure into which films must be fitted.

5. The first draft is the antenna of the film; it senses and locates the basic humanity that lies inside the project. What is this film about? What is it saying? What is unique about it?

6. Humanity, life – a good film needs little more than this as its basis.

7. Structure is the means by which the essence of the film is delivered to best advantage. It is a technical consideration and as such should come late in the process.

8. The process of script development is therefore not one of imposition but rather one of exploration and discovery and, finally, finally, of enhancement through the contemplation of structure.

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Is it not the same for the novel?

My brief experience tells me that it is.  An example:

My central character, Douglas, goes to interview an elderly artist.  He rings the bell – brrrring-brrrring – and as I wrote this I thought: the artist shouldn’t answer. Someone else should. So I wrote, in Douglas’ voice, from his perspective:

Midget presents herself.

I’ve no idea why I wrote this. But a character was suddenly there, five foot tall, tubby, dyed pink hair, sharp-witted – and within a few more pages Douglas has fallen for her completely and she has become central to the story.

And she emerged not through an intellectual, logical process dictated by structural demands but purely instinctively, on the spur of the moment, without any rational thought whatsoever.

Midget presents herself.

Three words, unanticipated, inexplicable, essential.

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