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Friday, February 13, 2009

Structure: The Rhythm of the Dance

For beginning screenwriters, structure is intimidating and slightly mysterious. To more experienced writers, it is one-hand-tied-behind-the-back easy. I think the same would be true of most screenwriting elements - the learning curve is steep but once you get it, you get it forever and your problem becomes not whether your character HAS an arc or whether your script HAS a theme, or whether your script HAS a structure that works, but whether your premise is totally unique and fresh. And that is something that cannot be taught. That takes instincts and creative chops and an encyclopedic awareness of other movies that have come before yours. It's luck, it's genius, it's the Holy Grail. But I digress.

Beginning screenwriters generally write a script or two that basically has no discernible structure. The story just spoooools out like an errant ball of yarn until you finally find it under the couch, covered in dust. The story just goes and goes and goes til it ends, mercifully. I doubt there's a successful screenwriter alive who has not written that script in the early days. It happens. Then you pick up a book or three and learn where the turning points should be. So then you plug that knowledge in and you have a new problem - your turning points are soft. So your midpoint might be when the couple gets in a fight. Which, you know, in all but a masterfully written piece is probably pretty damn boring.

So you know where the turning points should be, but now you have to learn how to make those plot points BIG enough to escalate your story. That thought used to intimidate me - what do you mean BIG? Like - how big are we talkin'? It feels like one is being asked to write plot points that escalate the story into ridiculousness. No, no, no, get all of that out of your mind. Let's go back to a fundamental understanding of structure for a moment:

Structure is like the bass guitar - it keeps the rhythm. It's the 1-2-3 and a 1-2-3 of your script. And it is best plotted out in your outline first. As in a dance, the rhythm is obvious and yet subtle at the same time. You may not notice it but you feel it. It drives the dance.

So when you're looking at your outline (or your script, but for the sake of efficiency, let's look at the outline - please god, tell me you have one) you're going to ask of it, what's the rhythm here? Is this a fast dance? Or a slow burn? What is the tone relative to the genre? Obviously, in an action script, the rhythm will be fast and furious - which doesn't mean the classic structure is different - but it will FEEL different because the highs will be higher and the lows will be lower. If you're writing a psychological thriller, the rhythm will be slow burn, which will escalate, getting more and more intense as the story unfurls.

Think of a pop song that you really like. Listen to it. Can you hear the rhythm in it? Can you hear how the rhythm shifts, changes and escalates? There's the beginning, there's the chorus, the bridge and the chorus and another verse and a bridge and the chorus - and it's all designed to lead you forward tantalizingly. Because you LOVE the chorus and you can't wait to sing along to that part. Music is all about build.

Use that model when thinking about the structure of your story. Because while a pop song is approximately three minutes long, it's doing the exact same thing as a script. It's about something or someone - it has a premise. It has a theme. It has an introduction and a midpoint and a climax. It tells a story in three minutes flat and does so in such a way that you the listener are pulled along by the rhythm and the melody.

If the structure is the rhythm, the melody is the narrative. Narrative in this usage means the story, yes - the plot itself - but more than that, the WAY the plot is being told. So imagine listening to a song say for children: "The Wheels on the Bus," that's a good one.

The wheels on the bus go round and round, ROUND and round, ROUND and round. The wheels on the bus go round and round, all through the town. The people on the bus go up and down, UP and down, UP and down, the people on the bus go up and down, all through the town. The. Wipers on the bus go swish swish swish. SWISH swish swish. SWISH swish swish. The wipers on the bus go SWISH swish swish, all through the town. The. Baby on the bus goes wah wah wah. WAH wah wah. WAH wah
- are you ready to kill me yet? God I think I just had a really weird flashback of MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE proportions.

The song is repetitious, right? Not really going anywhere. That's right, because this is for preschoolers. There's no build here, there's no mystery - we're just going to basically catalog stuff on a bus. The premise is stuff on a bus. The theme is - that there's stuff on a bus (or for more sophisticated kids: Life is like a bus ride, maaaan!) and the melody is exactly in synch with the lyrics. So there's no tension in this narrative. I plan to send a letter to the ignominious author of this annoying song, claiming long term Tune-Stuck-in-Head issues requiring therapy.

Now let's take another set of lyrics - one you are probably very familiar with. I'm pretty sure 99% of you can summon the music that goes with this song just by reading the lyrics...

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can...


- and you can see how this narrative is told using rhythm, repetition and anticipation. How many of you couldn't help but sing the chorus that follows the last set of lyrics there? I couldn't. It's addictive. I want the song to play out. I need the song to play out. It's a weird imperative.

And that's how I should feel when I read your script or watch your movie. There should be a compelling rhythm to it, a pattern that pulls me forward inevitably, a tension that makes me crave the outcome.

So yes, structure is technical - as is music. It's math. But its job is create a feeling in your reader - an imperative, a rhythm, an addiction to what will happen next. Study up on your plot points, and which pages they should fall on - but don't forget that your story is a musical composition with a pattern that builds upon itself, growing and growing so that the reader is compelled to follow along, with that very basic human need for completion making it impossible not to sing along with you. With a sense that what happens next HAD to happen next.

She's got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything
Was as fresh as the bright blue sky


Whoah oh oh oh...how does the rest go? We can't resist. We want to sing along. And that's how your script should be. I hear the opening riffs to "Sweet Child O Mine" and instantly I go oooooh I love this song. I can't wait to hear it. I can't wait for the build. Maybe you hate that song. Whatever, man. Think of a song you love. Think of the first few seconds of a new song you hear on the radio that you are instantly drawn to. You turn it up. You gotta hear it. That's the first couple of pages of your script, my friends. That's exactly how it works.

Structure may sound boring or confining or technical but it's actually quite sexy in its functionality - it is the rhythm that imbues the experience of reading your script with that delicious feeling of - can't - get - enoughness. I want to go with you. I need to go with you. I HAVE to see where this story is going. It's math, it's music, it's storytelling.


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8 comments:

TC JAKOBSEN said...

Wow - right up my alley.

This is exactly the stuff I tell writers I either teach or consult.

The music, the math, the structure.

Forget that you are a writer, you are more like a composer.

TC JAKOBSEN said...

Just read it again. Sorry to be so enthusing and spamming your comments, but it really rocks.

It's just that I haven't seen anybody else make such a direct comparison to the composition of music.

For me this understanding of the composition of drama also includes the tonality of the two fundamental genres of drama - comedy and tragedy.

This is for me a major key. The one that unlocks the mystery and takes you into the zone.

Julie Gray said...

TC - no, enthuse all you want! It just - came to me, man! No, I am a huge music freak. Have you read This Your Brain on Music? Something happens when the right notes are hit. It's chemical. And the same is true for writing - something just HAPPENS when it's done well. Learning to write scripts is like learning to read music - you get it - you study, you practice, but the ability to take that information and compose music, that's just magic. There's just no other word for it.

Julie Gray said...

Hey MM - glad I can be of service. LOVE a shout out as always :)

Belzecue said...

Repetition -- we love it as kids. We NEED it as kids. Repetition of faces, places, events, activities. It's how we, as kids growing into the world, keep a sense of comfort, routine, stability. A sense that when I wake up tomorrow, things will not be drastically different, so today I don't need to worry and I can happily play with my action figures without a care in the world.

And kids use repetition to gauge how things are changing: this is how it was yesterday; this is how it is today; what has changed? Is the change good or bad for me?

This continues through life, of course. But it's most important as a child, when you have little control over your surroundings and destiny, and you aren't concerned with such trivialities as the future.

So... right from birth we are hardwired (wetwired) to monitor for patterns, compare for changes, and evaluate the effects of those changes.

As an audience, that's what we're doing, too. We take what we're given at the beginning of the story, we look at what we're given at the end of the story, and we compare the two and figure out what has changed.

A blatant story framing device illustrating this is mirroring your opening and closing scenes.But in the closing scene, the Protag's response is slightly or entirely different. We recognise the repetition of the scene, and we recognise the variation. Something is different -- hopefully it's the Protagonist.

Plot points, beats, turning points, pinches, etc etc -- all signify the same thing: these are the signposts in your story that mark a point of change. We, the audience, use those signposts to figure out what has changed, what it means for the characters, and what it means for us (the audience).

No structure, no signposts, no clear story progress, no script sale, no Porsche Carrera GT, no meeting your significant other at the post-screening party, no children, no life, no future, no bitter divorce, no whiskey left in the bottle, no bullet in the chamber, no pills left in the bathroom cabinet, no one to stop you as you stand swaying on the roof edge of your expensive Brentwood apartment building, no way to survive the 150-feet drop to the pavement below. No way except... another draft of your screenplay with a focus on structure?

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, how do you fare at kareoke? I wanna sing a duet with you. Something musical -- is that doable? Do you own a pair of steel toed shoes? (A necessary evil should we ever dance)

VERY wity post. This is the kind of stuff you should post more often.

YES, structure is sexy -- but so are you!

Happy Valentines Day,

- Smiley Face
(E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA)

Désirée said...

Well said! Structure is so important.

A Who said...

...working on it. You make it sound so easy. Great post. Great analogy for me to hold in my head as I keep on, keeping on.

Thank you.

(Happy Valentine's Day, btw).

p.s. "Entertaining Question" post was very helpful, too. I suspect it will all start gelling after my tenth script. That's the hope!