Structure in stories.
Just what is structure and why is it essential to stories? Let me back up a bit first.
Writers love to talk about writing. We chance upon each other at unlikely places, as if by homing signal.
Some time ago, whilst shopping, I ran into a novelist I had a passing acquaintance with. The conversation quickly turned from the merits of cholesterol-reducing margarine to the study of story structure: I believed in it. He didn’t. We parted amicably enough, but the discussion got me thinking about how my view on the subject has matured over time.
It was Elmo de Witt, the beloved South African filmmaker, who almost three decades ago, suggested to me that story structure could be studied, and that one’s work could be improved because of it. I remember him handing me Syd Field’s The Screenwriters Workbook and asking me to read it.
“Elmo de Witt once told me that without an understanding of story structure you’re trying to scoop up butterflies in the dark, knowing they are out there, but mostly missing.“
My initial reaction was negative. I had recently graduated from the London international film school having studied the art and technique of filmmaking. I was young, confident – a bit of a know-it-all. What could any reductive approach to story-telling have to offer me? How could talent, spontaneity, flair, be nurtured through formulas? After all, before there were writing courses there were writers.
But as time went on, and I found myself staring at the blank pages on my desk waiting for inspiration, the volume of Elmo’s words ratcheted up in my head.
I thought deeply about my reticence and I realised that it had less to do with any idealistic rejection of methodology than a fear of how colossal my ignorance on the subject of structure truly was: I had, after all, been recently hired as a resident reader and screenwriter at Elmo de Witt Films. How could I admit I didn’t know much about Syd Field? Rejection of the framework seemed my best defense.
Luckily, my head-in-the-sand attitude didn’t last. I realised in order to reject a piece of advice I first had to understand it.
I began to read the books, and do the exercises, and grow my knowledge. By the time I was ready to reject the framework I found that I didn’t want to. I found that my understanding of structure had freed me from the hit-and-miss aspect of plot creation and allowed me to concentrate more deeply on character, theme, symbol, and story content.
Although my efforts at the time were directed mainly at the screenplay, I have come to recognise the novel, too, with its admittedly freer, more introspective and lengthier flows, benefits from a deeper understanding of story structure.
This realisation has been invaluable to me. It has allowed me to move from one form to another with more ease than I could otherwise have managed.
That, at any rate, has been my experience. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience, too?
One of the most valuable lessons writers can learn is to appreciate, then apply, story structure to their own tales.