How to structure your writing

You see it mostly in the film industry, rarely in TV, sort of onstage, and well-hidden in novels: An obsession over getting a story’s structure “right.” But what is the right structure, anyway?

Certain people who shall remain nameless have made way too much money presuming to teach the “right” way to structure a story, particularly screenplays, but the truth is that there is no magic formula to structuring a script. Sadly, in the film business, you have to make a screenplay look like it follows whatever flavor-of-the-month structure is preferred by the accountants running the show — they don’t know how to read scripts otherwise — but it really is a lot of obsession over a problem that isn’t as difficult as it should be.

There’s a term that comes out of the world of architecture but which really applies to any art: “Form follows function.” That is, if you’re building a bakery, you shouldn’t design it like it’s a library and vice versa. Otherwise, you’ll just wind up with a bad bakery (or a loathsome library).

Likewise, the overall structure of the piece you’re writing should reflect the story you’re writing, and you can see examples of this everywhere. “A Beautiful Mind,” for example, told the story of a man whose schizophrenia began to develop in college and it told that story from his point of view — it wasn’t obvious that he actually had mental issues until well into the movie.

Pulp Fiction” takes inspiration from its title to structure the story, which is more episodic and novelistic — and also rattles the old rule that movies had to follow a strict three-act format.

You see this even more strongly onstage. For example, the musical “Chicago” was designed to mimic a vaudeville show of the era — the 1920s — a convention that was sort of kept and sort of not in the film version. Film and TV, by necessity, almost always have to be more literal than other formats, although there are those rare films, like 2003’s “Dogville,” a Lars von Trier movie in which the “set” is just a schematic diagram of the town it’s set in on the floor of an empty soundstage.

Of course, films like that don’t often find wide audiences.

But to meander back to the subject at hand, structure really works like this, and it’s work like this for as long as people have been telling stories: There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.

That’s it. Oh, except that each of those has its own beginning, middle, and end, so you eventually wind up with three sets of three.

  1. Beginning: This is the part in which we find out who the characters are, where the thing is happening, and an idea of what the situation or conflict will be — what is the event that makes the story happen?
  2. Middle: This is where the main story happens, with all the stuff set up in the beginning developing and complicating itself and the conflict building until we hit the climax at the end of the middle — the point where it looks like things couldn’t get any worse or more complicated. Or can they?
  3. End: This is where everything plays out and is resolved. If the story is a comedy, then the protagonist gets what they were after. If it’s a tragedy, then they don’t. Note that these are the strict, classical definitions of the two — meaning that yes, technically “The Martian” was a comedy and won its Golden Globe in the right category.

Now, here’s the fun part: Arranging things this way absolutely does not mean that you have to tell your story in strict chronological fashion. “Pulp Fiction” jumps all over the place but still progresses forward dramatically. “Memento” goes in one direction and out the other. “Run Lola Run” tells its story three times. “Merrily We Roll Along” is still backwards.

In all good art, the structure is not temporal. It’s emotional. Think of how different “Citizen Kane” would be if you found out what “Rosebud” meant in the first scene instead of the last — and yet it’s entirely possible that the revealing moment (in “real life”) may have actually happened much closer to what we saw as the beginning of the story rather than near the end.

So when you set out to tell your story, first find the form to follow your function, then pick two points: What’s the beginning, and what’s the ending? Next, figure out what complications and conflicts happen in the middle. Now subdivide your beginning, middle, and ending into their own beginnings, middles, and endings, and fill up those nine little boxes.

There’s your structure. Now build the thing to look like the form you came up with originally. Don’t worry that much about things like page count or what exactly happens when. If you can explain what happens in your story when and why, then you’ve already got the pitch that will make it look like your script tastes like the structure flavor-of-the-month — and if you’re writing for theatre, you’re going to be much less limited in that regard to begin with.

Don’t be afraid of structure. Embrace it and make it your own.

Language is a virus

Languages are living, breathing things that can affect the way you perceive the world — but the language you’re reading right now is probably one of the most resilient in existence.

The title of this post comes from a famous quote by William S. Burroughs, although he was more focused on the malignant and destructive aspect of words. I’d update it to “Language is viral,” although saying “update” is deceptive. Although the term really only seems to have entered mass consciousness within the last couple of years, it’s actually old enough to vote, having entered the lexicon in 1999 in its modern sense.

The reason that a language will affect the way you perceive the world is because we, as humans, don’t have any other way to think. So what we are able to express is limited by the way our language can express it.

Paul Anthony Jones has a fascinating article at Mental Floss detailing some languages that lack certain features we take for granted, although two of them stand out as examples of how linguistic features can actually be unlimiting

One is in an aboriginal language that, except for describing handedness, does not use words for relative position. That is, instead of saying “the book is on your left,” or “the door is behind you,” they will say things in terms of cardinal direction: “The book is to the west,” and “The door is to the south.”

Not surprisingly, the end result of this is that speakers of the language have a built-in compass. They always know which direction is where because they have to in order to communicate.

Even more fascinating is the language of the Matsés people of South America, which has what you could call evidentiary grammar. That is, the verb tenses indicate exactly how you know what you’re saying — as an eyewitness, something you heard secondhand, something you’re just guessing at, and so on. And the result of that one is that speakers of this language are always absolutely honest about their motives.

That almost makes English seem quaint, doesn’t it? But here’s the special feature of English that a lot of other languages lack: It’s pretty close to unbreakable. That’s kind of ironic, considering that we have the term “broken English” in our language, but you really have to work at it if you want to say something in English that is completely unintelligible. One of the most famous recent examples of English that did break is “Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?”

This is probably untranslatable, but if you think you know what it means, leave me a comment below. Ironically, this statement has actually taken on its own meaning since it first appeared eight years ago, and is now generally understood to mean, “What you said just made no sense.”

And so the language evolves.

I tend to be a purist when it comes to grammar. However, I also love neologisms, and just how adaptable English is. I have no problems with the verbing of nouns — which I just did in that sentence. This isn’t unique to English, either. In Spanish, it’s quite common for one word with slight variations of ending to be a verb, noun, adjective, or adverb.

Don’t forget, too, that the most infamous word in English, which starts with “F,” can actually be any part of speech with the sole exception of a conjunction, but it works very well in tmesis. You can thank me later for that new word!

Side note, here’s another new word I just learned: gallimaufry. I’m not sure whether it was the inspiration for the name Gallifrey from Doctor Who,” but it means a hodgepodge or confused medley.

But back to the point. Here is a good collection of beautifully broken English. And as mangled as these are, chances are good that if you’re a native speaker of English, you can figure out exactly what the writers intended in most of them.

Of course, English is a playground for neologisms, or newly-coined words. It’s how Shakespeare created the modern language in the first place, and it would behoove you to google a list of words he created — oh, look! Google, a modern neologism! And it’s still happening. Check out this list of fourteen words that didn’t exist nearly twenty-five years ago.

Don’t forget Lewis Carroll, who invented the concept of portmanteau words, which, like a real portmanteau, which is a suitcase that opens into two equal parts, are two words stuck together, and which still exist to this day. Ever heard of “Bennifer?” Welp that’s a portmanteau.

You’re welcome. And if you want to really go down the rabbit-hole (another Carrollian expression!) here’s a whole list of portmanteau words.

If you want to write, get creative. You can stretch English a lot without breaking it, and some of the best and most inventive expressions are made up on the spot. Try your hand at it, and share your best below!

The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles

In the middle of 2016, I almost died. By the middle of 2017, I had turned my life around, lost over a hundred pounds, and rediscovered happiness — and I want to tell you how I did it.

While my main job is providing my writing and editing services in order to make your business and communications stand out above the rest, I do have my own story to tell, and the title of this post is the title of the book I’m working on.

Here’s the thumbnail version. In August, 2016, I weighed 278 pounds, I wound up in the hospital when my heart failed, and my cardiologist told me flat out, “You are going to die if you don’t make some changes.”

Well, I made those changes, and a bit over a year later, I weigh 167 pounds, my blood pressure is in the low-normal range, and I’ve been told that I have the resting heart rate of an 18-year-old athlete. My heart also made a full recovery., and I managed to kick a decades-long smoking habit cold turkey with absolutely no desire to go back to it.

When that same cardiologist started asking me for diet tips, I knew I was doing something right — and I knew that it was time to share my how-to story with the world. It wasn’t easy to do what I did, and I’ve been told that it was also theoretically impossible at my age, but losing over a hundred pounds and a full twelve inches off my waist size says otherwise.

The only downside was that I had to replace my wardrobe three times because I kept getting too damn skinny for my pants. Yeah, first world problems, I know!

The thing is, if you have the desire, you can do it too, and make a radical transformation that will make you healthier, happier, and more self-confident. Not only did I transform myself physically, but I went from being a shy introvert to a complete extrovert — and became pretty athletic and energetic in the bargain.

Basically, it was like hitting a “reboot” button and going back to my late 20s all over again.

So that’s what I’m working on for myself and I’ll be sharing it with you soon. Trust me: If I could do what I did, then anybody can. Watch this space for updates on the book’s progress, coming soon!

Read the book’s prologue.

The importance of being multilingual

If your first language is English, congratulations — you learned one of the more difficult languages as a kid. What’s stopping you from learning another as an adult?

One of the things I strive for in my dramatic writing is verisimilitude, and this often involves writing dialogue in other languages in order to be authentic. Now, in the process of developing my works, I do a lot of readings in order to hear the pieces and get feedback, so there’s one thing that I’ve learned about a lot of Americans.

Y’all totally suck when it comes to anything that isn’t English, and, as a total languaphile, this absolutely mystifies me — and yet I’ve watched actors’ eyes glaze over and their tongues tangle into knots at the merest hint of words not in the language Shakespeare created.

You want to know a secret? If you grew up with English as your first language, you’re kind of blessed, because it is harder than hell to learn as a second language. For one thing, our spelling and pronunciations make absolutely no sense at all.

Now, from what I’ve gleaned as a lover of languages, Asian, Semitic, and Cyrillic languages might be harder to learn than English, but not by much. But if you want to go from English to any Romance language or any Scandinavian language or any Germanic language, come on — you’re playing with the same family.

Para casi cinco años, he sido aprendido español de nuevo, y ahora soy bastante fluido. Si me dejas en un país hispanohablante, podría sobrevivir sin problema. Todavía no puedo escribir en un nivel profesional, sino puedo comunicar y también tengo amigos en todos partes del mundo por mi conocimiento de un idioma extraño. ¿Quién supo?

Translation: For about five years, I have been learning Spanish again, and now I am fairly fluent. If you left me in a Spanish speaking country, I would be able to survive with no problems. I’m still not able to write on a professional level, but rather I can communicate and also have friends all over the world because of my knowledge of a foreign language. Who knew?

Anyway, here’s my challenge. Pick a language you think you might like. Maybe it’s a country you’ve always wanted to go to, or you have a favorite director who’s from there, or you have ancestry there, whatever. Now, go learn it. There are places like Duolingo that can help you, and a simple google search will also give you tons of resources no matter what language it is. Don’t be afraid, because remember this: You learned one of the harder languages in the world when you were a little kid. Surely you can learn something easier as an adult, right?

Bonus points: You will set yourself apart, you will be able to impress people of the gender you prefer, and you will make your fellow Americans look less cultured.

I love this irony: Out of all of the world’s languages, English is probably the one that has borrowed the most from others, and yet English speakers are notoriously monolingual. Well, let’s change that, okay? Broaden your horizons, improve yourself, and remember: ¡Sí, tú puedes!

Yes, you can!

Training

As the rail transit system in Los Angeles continues to expand and improve, it provides more and more options for getting around this sprawl of a city without a car.

I find hopping on the subway, riding to a random destination, and then just walking around a couple of miles exploring to be ridiculously relaxing and strangely liberating. Once I’ve gone down the escalators and through the turnstiles, I’m suddenly not bound to where I parked anymore. I also get a much more intimate view of the city by walking through it instead of blasting past it in my private urban pod. Not to mention that it’s a great way to exercise.

The city is full of people, too, and one of the things I love most about LA is that when I get on the train I know that it’s going to be full of people who are as diverse as humanity itself is on the entire planet. Pick any random subway car at rush hour, and you can probably find people on it with backgrounds from six continents (sorry, no penguins!), and at least half a dozen whose first language isn’t English. I also see people of all ages, and lots of families traveling together.

What have I never seen on an LA Metro subway? A fight. Now, that may just be because I’m not a regular commuter so I haven’t had enough exposure, but people on LA subways seem remarkably polite to each other. Well, except for the dipshits who have their headphone volume so loud they might as well be carrying a boombox, but at least most of them actually seem to have musical taste, and it’s their ears, not mine.

I’m not sure why I find the experience so relaxing, though, considering that it consists of long stretches of sitting (or standing) on a moving vehicle interspersed with some heavy-duty pedestrian activity. Today, for example, if Google Maps is accurate, I did about three miles. And, since I always seem to forget to bring my headphones, I’m not distracting myself with music. I just distract myself by annoying all of you by over-posting about my experiences to social media!

Okay. I suppose the real reason it’s so relaxing is that it helps to quiet down the circus in my head — and as those unfortunate enough to have gotten into close proximity with that party know, it’s not just the Big Top in there. It’s all Three Rings, the whole goddamn Midway, and a ridiculous Sideshow thrown in for fun. But no clowns. No clowns. I hate clowns!

What I do love are trains and treks and discovering things about my own hometown that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t taken the time to look. Today, a friend of mine pointed out in response to one of my photos (Hi, Charlie!) that we Angelenos don’t realize how lucky we are to live in a place that people actually save up and pay a lot of money to visit. Now, I’ve worked in or on the edges of The Industry for my entire adult life, so I know how little Hollywood actually has to do with the entertainment business. But you don’t see hordes of tourists in Burbank (well, except at Warner Bros.) for a reason. And for all its cheesy wonder, Hollywood Boulevard is kind of interesting if you just take it for what it is: as fake as the teeth and tits on most actors, male or female, but still nice to look at.

Incidentally, I’m 99.9% sure that I was conceived one summer day in an apartment building half a block north of that boulevard and right next to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’m that sure because I’m also sure that my parents weren’t that adventurous, so it wasn’t in the theater or in the back of a Ford or something.

I think. Which just reminds me that if I had ever had kids, at least one of them would probably have been conceived in a car. Except, oh, right… can’t conceive with that combination. At least not without making the news.

But I do digress. Wherever you live, take a moment to discover your town — native or adopted — like you’re a tourist. You might be surprised at what you see.