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 worked 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.

Wednesday Wonders: There’s science to art?

In reviewing an upcoming repost of an article about William Shakespeare, I was reminded of something about my creative process that I’ve seen at least one other writing teacher mention online, but it’s something I’ve been doing since forever, and I think that if writers of fiction adapt it, it will make their lives so much easier.

It’s simple, really. Who writes your novel, play, screenplay, or short story?

If you answered, “I do!” then you’re wrong. First of all this is why a lot of people think that writing is hard or suffer writer’s block. You’re laboring under the notion that you are doing everything.

But here’s the real answer. Who writes your dramatic work? Your characters.

What this means is that your job is to sculpt those characters first. For each of them, figure out their wants and needs, their personalities, they manner of speaking, and so on. Chart this all out — and trust me, it will be more useful than elaborating plotting out your story.

Figure out which characters get along and which ones don’t. Pay attention to their background, age, education, political leanings, and so on.

The only things you need to worry about plot-wise are these: 1) Who is my protagonist? 2) Who is my antagonist? 3) Where to they start? 4) Where do they end.

Sure, you can blop in rough route markers if you have major set pieces you want to happen. But in order to write your story, you begin by setting the scene, dropping in your first speaking characters, and then just standing back, shutting up, and letting them do the talking.

Now, that probably sounds kind of weird and difficult, especially if you’re writing prose and not a script. But it’s the same either way. Plus, in prose, you get the bonus of being able to let your readers know what your character is thinking or feeling at any moment. Hard to do that in a play or screenplay without reflecting it in the dialogue.

For a long time now, before I start writing everything, I create a spreadsheet with rows for each of my characters, and a series of questions I ask about them, which covers things like what do they want right now, what do they want as their major life goal, how do they see themselves, how do others see them, and so on.

One of my favorite parts of this, which I picked up from one of my writing teachers and best friends, Che’Rae Adams, is creating a metaphor to describe your character, because you can go wild with these. Maybe your character is a nervous Chihuahua in a room full of veterinarians, or a bowling ball tossed down a staircase, or your grandmother crashing your bachelor party while the stripper is there, or whatever.

This can be a nice little anchor that brings all the character traits together in a very powerful visual and emotional shorthand.

So, again, got all that? Good. To write a scene, put two characters in that room and let them start talking. All you’re doing is transcribing the conversation. All you need to keep in mind that each of those characters is going to steer things toward what they want or need. You only need to nudge them if they start to veer away from your overall route from beginning to end.

And yes, this is where learning how to do improv is really, really helpful, because what this style of writing essentially is (and it took me decades to realize that I’d always been doing this) is this: You’re doing a long-form improv act, but the entire cast is You.

For those of you who’ve been following my fiction on here via the Saturday Morning Post, either from the first excerpted short story/novella collection The Rocky Road from Walgreens or the later serialized in full novel The Rêves, this was exactly how I created the stories.

I knew where I was starting out. I knew where I was going. But I spent my development time creating the characters instead of the plots.

And, wouldn’t you know it? This is pretty much how TV writing has always worked. Irony alert: I never wanted to go into TV writing because, before the second golden age of streaming, I thought that most of it was crap.

I still think that, but I also see how TV has always focused on character over plot. And this is even true of police procedurals or medical shows or any of that kind of shit. Yeah, there’s a mystery to solve or a disease to cure — but it’s in the context of our (quirky, difficult, independent, etc.) protagonist fighting the system in order to be vindicated.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I guess the only reason it sucks in TV is because it gets repetitive for any particular show. “Oh, look. House is pissed off again.” “Oops. Walter White kind of overreacted. Again.”

Or maybe the problem is that a lot shows start out with characters and Point A, but never nail down the landing at Point Z because it’s a crapshoot over how long the series will run.

Just look at American Gods. It sure seemed like they were going to get another season, so they pulled a big risky season finale and… whoops. The end. Sucks when that happens.

But back to novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. Don’t let all that TV shit discourage you. If you do wind up in TV, make sure to A to Y each season while always having the ultimate Z in mind that you can swap in at a moment’s notice.

And, always, don’t burden yourself with writing the story. That’s your characters’ job, and if you learn to listen, writing will become a breeze instead of a chore. Trust me.

<em><a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dictaphone.jpg”>Arnaud 25 (original image)Pechristener (cropping)</a>, <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0″>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons</em>