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.

Friday-free-for-all #54: Polarizing, genius, genes, rights

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the most polarizing question you could ask a group of your friends?

Well, knowing my friends, it would either involve food or some nerdy fandom. So, for example, “Does pineapple belong on pizza?” would start big arguments. So would “DC or Marvel?”

“Star Trek or Star Wars?” “Is Quentin Tarantino overrated?” “Order from Amazon or boycott?” “CVS or RiteAid?”

But I know for a fact, because I choose my friends well, that there’s not a single political question that would polarize us. If I asked, “46 or 45,” I know how all of my friends would answer.

How would you define genius?

To me, genius is the ability to see patterns or mappings in very different things and then synthesize them into new and unique ways of seeing the world. However, please note that this is only a sliver away from also being the definition of madness.

That is, conspiracy theorists can see patterns and mappings, too, and synthesize them into new ways of seeing things. But to spin wildly down that path is to give us things like flat-Earthers and QAnon.

What separates genius then is the ability to either constrain all of the wild conjectures to art and keep them grounded in acknowledged what-if fantasy — and also use that to teach a bigger lesson about the world — or to do all of that synthesis, and then develop the experiments to empirically test the hypotheses that come out of the work.

Somebody like Tony Kushner is a genius because he mooshed together AIDS, Mormonism, Roy Cohn’s internalized homophobia and connection to Ethel Rosenberg, and some pretty intense references to 19th century ideas of each continent having its own patron Archangel, and he walked away with a Pulitzer and a Tony, both well-deserved.

Or… it took Albert Einstein asking a few questions about what was then orthodox theory, and why they didn’t quite seem to fit, at least not if the equations were taken to extremes, and the same thing happened. What could have seemed like total moonbat lunacy was born out as truth once the experiments were done to prove it.

What genetic modification would you most like to have?

Another nice no-brainer, but mine is a trifecta, because you can have that in genetic modifications.

First, the only reason we age is because these things called telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes keep getting shorter and shorter with each new replication, until they’re gone, and then the chromosome itself starts to degrade.

Think of them as those little plastic things on the end of your shoe laces that make it still possible to thread them through the eyes of your shoes, and keep the lace from unravelling. Once they’re gone, that lace is not going to be useful for too much longer.

So… that’s bit one of the formula: A genetic modification that keeps the telomere’s at original baby length forever. This would take care of a lot of degenerative diseases — dementia, arthritis, heart disease, and so on.

Second: Cancer suicide. We already sort of kind of have this in us, and it’s called a sunburn. What cause or skin to turn red and then get all flaky and fall off after an overdose of UV is our genes reacting to the danger and sending out a suicide signal. That is, those skin cells are instructed to die and flake off, lest they go cancerous.

Adapt this to all of the cells in the body, and voila. Part two of the cocktail.

Finally, toss in the ability to regrow almost any lost part. Short of losing something fatal, like your head, or heart, or both lungs at once, give us those salamander powers. Lose a finger or a toe? No problem. It grows back. Lose a tooth? Same thing. Lose hair? Hey, that was probably already covered in modification number one.

And yes, extend it to entire limbs, eyes, ears, patches of skin, whatever. As long as losing it didn’t kill you, it’ll grow back.

So, basically, the formula for almost immortality. But we are going to need it if we’re ever going to explore space outside of our meager solar system.

What rights does every human have? Do those rights change based on age?

This shouldn’t even be a question in the 21st century. The Bill of Rights is a pretty good start, with the exception of the 2nd Amendment, which is really badly worded. Owning any kind of arm is not a right. But protecting one’s self and one’s family from harm is. So perhaps that one should be couched more in terms of the idea that any kind of defensive weapon stays in the home for use of the residents there.

Also: You have the right to practice any religion you want, but you do not have the right in the public arena to treat other people differently because of what you believe.

But there are things that aren’t in the Bill of Rights that should be.

Everyone should have the right to an education from childhood through university, free of charge because we all pay for it. Everyone should have the right to healthcare with minimal costs based on income. Everyone should have the right to receive a universal basic income (UBI) which is calculated as enough to pay for their rent, utilities (which includes internet), food, transportation, plus an extra $600 stipend per month.

People who continue to work and make more than the UBI will still receive the stipend, or they can opt-out and donate it, either to other UBI recipients or the charities of their choice, with a full tax deduction.

Humans have the right to not be murdered by police. Period. This is why Redesign the Police is so damn important, and why “defund” is a bullshit rightwing talking point. We mainly need to reform the system so that when something non-violent happens — i.e. a store clerk automatically assumes a Black man is trying to pass off funny money — we don’t send hyped-up and armed racist white cops. Instead, we send trained social workers, who are far more used to dealing with all kinds of stuff.

Guaranteed, if that had been the case in Minnesota, George Floyd would still be alive today.

Finally, Karens do have the right to be offended. They just don’t have the right to be free of consequences.

Oh yeah… rights obviously do changed based on age — think about driving, voting, and drinking. But, so far, we’ve only set lower limits on things. Around 15 or 16 to drive, 18 to vote, 21 to drink, 25 to run for Congress, and 35 to run for President. Okay, and 50 to join AARP, but nobody is rushing for that one.

The thing we’re missing is upper limits and, honestly, I think that the pace of developments in the last thirty years shows that we need them, too. Hell, the Catholic Church prohibits any Cardinal over 80 from being nominated as the new Pope.

We have five Senators (or 5%) and 11 Congresscritters (or 2.5%) over 80.

And considering that Medicare first kicks in at 65, is it at all unreasonable to say that no one over that age at inauguration can run for office on a Federal level? Sure, let them do it at state, county, city, whatever; just not federally.

Thinking back on my own life, though — 25 and 35 are probably the best minimum limits. So, hey, you want a career as a Federal politician, you’ve got a good 30 to 40 years if you start early, and you’ll exit with a great pension.

Hell, start at local or state level, and you can run for mayor or governor at 18. Or, if your state really didn’t pay attention… run whenever. And 18-year-olds have won elsewhere.

If only OK Boomers started losing…