Sunday, February 15, 2009

I'll be teaching a workshop on story structure in a couple of weeks...

...something which always fills me with trepidation, as like a lot of writers, I enjoy typing up dialogue, and bits where things explode, or fall over, but find all that other stuff about 'acts' and 'beats' and all that just a bit too much like, you know... actual work.

Not that structure isn't important to storytelling in the mediums of film and television, because of course it is, desperately. But every time I think I've grasped the basic of, say, how the whole three act thing works, it slips away from me once more, and I'm left thinking 'okay, there's a beginning, and a middle, and... what's the other one again?'

My defence against this sort of thing instantly disqualifying me from holding any sort of teaching role in the matter is that at least I know where the students are coming from when they stare at blankly and mutter things like 'But can't you just have a story without conflict, where everyone gets on?' and 'hey, your hair looks great today'. Sometimes I get a massive cob on about structure, with dark suspicions during the night that the whole concept is just a way to keep script editors in work, and that one day all writers will throw their copies of 'Story' out the window, write whatever they feel like, and British telly will be great again.

It won't, of course, as without proper structure, a story can only wobble along for so long without its legs falling off, albeit in potentially quite an entertaining way (and even though to be completely honest, part of me thinks 'Hmm, you never hear anyone say "Cor, that thing that was on telly last night, the characters in it didn't behave like real people, the stuff they said was totally unbelievable, the direction was flat, and the music was incredibly annoying, but my god it was well-structured!", do you?').

And yet, although I do sometimes think structure is a teensy tiny bit overrated, particularly in British telly, often at the expense of fun stuff like dialogue, and character, I do have to admit it is important. I need really good script editors, probably more so than most writers, because you can only coast on charm for so long. Script editors are there to help you/prolong the viewer's agony, by gently pointing out which holes you're about to dig yourself further in to. The bad ones will hand you a road map, and point to a number of X's they've marked on the road. The really good ones will point in a new direction so subtly you barely even notice it, then saunter off, whistling and letting you think you did all the work.

Anyway, clearly this post has no structure at all, but that's fine, because I'm still recovering from houmous-based food-poisoning. So I'll just point you in the direction of a top ace new scriptwriting blog I have found, by Antz writer Todd Allcott, in which he regularly talks about story structure, and doesn't ever make you feel like an idiot. He also, in this post, uses a kids' picture book to explain, in ways more elegant and eloquent than I could ever manage, the three act structure. It's a lovely story, involving an owl and a glow-worm, so go and read it even if you don't care about all the technical stuff.

And I asked Todd if I could use his post in my workshop (giving him full credit), and he said yes, making Todd not only a fine writer of animated movies, but also, to boot, a gent.


Rebecca said...

You might also enjoy

Although the writer, John Rogers, has been so busy lately with his new series that he's gotten a couple of colleagues to contribute, it's still an interesting place to visit. And the archives - especially the posts about the new series - are well worth reading.

If this link works, you can find some here:

The new show, Leverage, is also worth checking out. A few episodes are available on the TNT website:

A lot more are on Yidio:

And speaking of beats, you probably know about Blake Snyder and "Save the Cat". Just in case you don't happen to be aware of him and/or his blog, though, you can look here:

Just a couple of things I hope you will find at least a little entertaining. :)

james henry said...

Coo, thanks! I know (and like a lot) Kung Fu monkey, but the others are all new to me, will check them out asap.

jill said...

Yeah - I was going to mention KFM also (and figured you were already a fan, but just in case....). I'm finding Waid's explanations of the graphic novel creative/editorial process fascinating, myself.

Oli said...

How does one even get food poisoning from Hummus? I've warned you off putting raw pork into the mix, but do you listen?

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