Some time back, I conducted a series of workshops on story-telling in Sydney and Brisbane, attended by aspiring writers — a cross-section of folks whose age ranged from late teens to late forties. Some were new to writing. Others had been writing for a while. During the introduction to the Brisbane classes, I mentioned that I’d be spending some time talking about story structure — that without a deep understanding of the functional and structural aspects of a story, one’s writing would be the poorer. This seems to have touched a nerve because someone in the audience objected to this statement. What about the intangible creativity, the ineffable inspiration that comes from the muse? What about the poetry? How can all this talk of turning points, inciting incidents, and mid-points, lead to good writing? Surely great writing comes from wisdom, empathy, and observation?
The simple answer is: of course it does. Certainly, without these qualities all the tinkering and fidgeting with structure is shallow, much like music is shallow without the emotional depth which grants it resonance. But if narrative content, guided by the sorts of qualities mentioned above, provides the raw material, structure provides the shape and the means of delivery. The point is surely that the muse and structure are not mutually exclusive.
As a young writer starting out at Elmo De Witt Films in South Africa in the ’90’s, I remember feeling uncomfortable at Elmo’s suggestion that I read Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, Lagos Egri, and Syd Field on story structure. Surely, Elmo couldn’t have been implying that someone who had spent every free moment since childhood either writing stories or dreaming about them, and had graduated from the London International Film School with distinctions in writing and editing, needed to improve his writing skills? Surely my stories sprung perfectly formed from my brain, like lithe and nimble ninjas, ready to conquer the world? Wouldn’t all this left brain activity merely stifle the magical outpouring of an unfettered and spontaneous mind?
Such, at any rate, was the tenor of my argument against Elmo’s suggestion. Happily, it was an argument I lost thanks to the experienced director’s gentle persistence. Truthfully, I was lucky to have kept my job. Sadly, Elmo passed away in March this year, but his quiet wisdom lives on through the many South African actors, writers, and directors he helped to foster. I see now that my motives had sprung not only from a poor understanding of the many layers enfolded into the craft of writing, but from a deep-seated fear that if there was so much I hadn’t thought about, so much still to learn, I’d be better off denying its validity all together. Yet, if there was ever a definitive moment in which I become a writer, that must have been it.
My intention here isn’t to suggest that my personal journey is more meaningful than any other’s. Clearly, it isn’t. And certainly, there have been many writers who wrote superlative works without ever mentioning inciting incidents, turning-points, and mid-points. But even those great merchants of spontaneity and intuition, the great Romantics — Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth — used verse, rhyme, and rhythm to give form to their poems. Besides, truly great writers are children of the gods with an indelible instinct for such things. I’m a lesser mortal. In an age of evolving social, technological, and scientific complexity, reflected in the equally complex stories we tell, I can ill-afford to ignore the rich vein of literature on the subject of story-structure. That’s my journey. Perhaps it’s yours too.