THE IRRELEVANCE OF STRUCTURE

by colinptucker

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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