Colin Tucker

London-based novelist, writer and screenwriting coach

Month: March, 2013

THE IRRELEVANCE OF STRUCTURE

I was in Munich earlier this year, for the day job – teaching screenwriting at the Film School. In the past I used to prepare, plan, anticipate in great detail, but as things have evolved over the years I’ve become less and less rigorous, less and less pre-planned. To be truthful, I don’t plan at all, I simply acquaint myself with the material, and start a conversation. And for three hours the student and I talk, mostly about the script but not exclusively. One thing I do try to do, though, is to downplay the various banalities that go with screenplay theory, turning points, three-act structure, story arcs, all the dull, prescriptive, restrictive gubbins that gets regurgitated by the dogma-peddlers and, I believe, gets in the way of, becomes a substitute for, creativity. However I invariably find myself giving way and resorting to it, largely because It seems that this sort of theorising acts as a security blanket for the students. They feel naked without it.

An example. One student got worried because, as a result of our conversation a weakness in his script became apparent, a sequence which took the story on a detour – but it was a weakness with an obvious solution. Lose it, I said, you’re way too long anyway, so lose it, all of it, it’s a sequence which you’ve identified as redundant so why keep it?

He was aghast. It’s my mid-point, he said, I planned it that way, how can I lose my mid-point? Because it’s an arbitrary stupidity, I didn’t say, a piece of theory invented to shore up the importance of the expert, with no organic truth to it at all. Just tell the story, lose the boring bits, be truthful to your characters and let mid-points and other such imbecilic clutter go hang. In the end all I said was: because you don’t need it. He’s thinking on.

The word that sits behind all this neediness, the word which encompasses all of it, is of course ‘structure’. For me, this is a word that opens the door to sloganised thinking. It’s a weasel word, one of those that may be practical in origin but when imported into the world of theory start to turn slippery. The structure of a building, yes, but the structure of a screenplay, a novel? The meaning doesn’t reduce to a neat, comprehensible package but on examination begins to expand, to become baggy. It’s the end-product of a combination of other factors, inseparable from character, theme, place, point of view. It can’t be isolated, as the word used on its own might imply. And because it lacks a specific, narrow, precise function it’s useless. It may have validity as a critical tool, but when we turn to the business of creative writing it is entirely irrelevant. Get rd of it.

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MAPS V SATNAV

I’ve always loved maps. As a child I was entranced first of all by the business of unfolding them, opening them up, entering into the parallel world that they revealed. I knew that they had a function, to give direction, to relate space to space, but this wasn’t the initial attraction. For me as a child maps were stories, as yet unformed, but crying out to come alive. I began to draw maps of imaginary places, usually islands,and these islands had towns and villages, designated by little square blocks of habitation, accessed by red roads and blue rivers and situated on hatched seaboards. They were at first unpeopled, at least not with individuals; they were sufficiently alive not to need specific human beings. They had gazetteers, though, and tables of population statistics. Hotels and garages were important, too, because of their prominence in one of my favourite books: the AA handbook. Looking back, I think that the underlying function of these maps and their support material was to situate me in a mental understanding of the physical world. That achieved, I could introduce the human element.

Much later when I began to write I came to see the map as a valuable step in the process of creation. Once the physical world was in place I could move on to the organisation of the emotional world. Or was it the threat of potential chaos in the emotional world that needed rooting in the simple clarity of the map? Maps were, are, the basis from which stories sprung. They help me to shape the world, help to put me in control; they are a step in the business of interrogating my material. They offer choices and guide my decision-making. With a shaping device, a map, I can begin to organise my thoughts, to find my story’s place in the universe.

Satnavs do not offer this. Their functionality is essentially reductive. They give instructions and by doing so – if we obey – take over from us our need to choose. The jokey stories of satnavs taking hapless drivers hundreds of miles in the wrong direction may be seen as comments on the gullibility of the individuals themselves but they are also significant in that they flag up the destructive potential of technology. More importantly this abdication of responsibility robs us of the satisfaction to be got from addressing the map, unfolding it, interpretng it – and choosing.

Satnavs reduce, maps expand.