Butterflies in the Dark
Writers like to talk about writing. We chance upon each other at unlikely places, as if by homing signal.
I recently met a fellow writer queuing to cash a check from Amazon, like I was. We got to talking and, there and then, became friends. We now share ideas and suggestions via email, when meeting at the local bookstore isn’t possible.
Last week I ran into a novelist at the dairy section of a supermarket. 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 how my views on the subject have cured over time.
It was Elmo de Witt, the beloved South African filmmaker, who first suggested to me story structure could be studied, and 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.
“Without an understanding of structure you’re trying to scoop up butterflies in the dark, knowing they are out there, but mostly missing,” he told me. That was way back in the early 90s. Sadly, Elmo passed away in 2011, but I still remember his words clearly.
My initial reaction was unfavourable. I had graduated from university and film school with degrees in English Language and Literature and a Higher Diploma in 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 was, after all, the resident screenwriter of Elmo de Witt Films. How could I admit I didn’t know a thing about Syd Field, and later, Christian Vogler, Michael Hague, John Truby, Linda Seger, and others? 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. Not glibly, but deeply and innocently. Its nuances. Its nooks and crannies. That’s what constitutes integrity.
I began to read the books, and do the exercises, and grow my knowledge. By the time I was ready to reject the framework with impunity I found I didn’t want to. I found my understanding of structure had freed me from the vagaries of plot creation and allowed me to concentrate on the magic of 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 South African filmmaker Elmo de Witt taught me is an appreciation of story structure.
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Image: Marsel Minga