Sunday, November 25, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 3: Misconceptions About Structure

Many writers are dubious about learning structure, but these fears, like most, tend to be based on false assumptions... 

What I Used to Think: Your story is about your hero’s life.
  • What I Now Realize: Your story is about your hero’s problem. Charles Dickens could spin out big sprawling epics in serialized installments, telling the whole life story of a person, or even of an entire era, but our current conception of story tends to be far more focused.  Not only do most great stories these days focus on one person, they focus more specifically on one big problem in that person’s life, and the various ways it manifests itself.  This may also be a societal problem, but we are experiencing the way that this problem affects one person.
What I Used to Think: To begin your story, you should ask yourself, “How does my hero’s day begin?”
  • What I Now Realize: To begin, ask yourself “At what point does my hero’s problem become acute?”  Usually this is a longstanding problem (internal or external) that has only now become undeniable. 
What I Used to Think: After every scene, you should get to the next scene by asking yourself, “What does my hero do next?” 
  • What I Now Realize: It doesn’t matter where the hero goes next.  After every scene, you should ask, “What is the next step in the escalation or resolution of this problem?” Feel free to jump ahead an hour, or a week or a year until the next moment that the problem progresses.
What I Used to Think: Story structure was artificially invented.
What I Used to Think: If your story conforms to classical structure, it will feel overly formulaic.
  • What I Now Realize: That will only happen if you start with an artificial structure and work backwards, but if you start by afflicting your hero with a large problem and work forward from there, you will find yourself re-discovering classical structure from scratch.
What I Used to Think: Structure provides a locked-down, paint-by numbers formula.
  • What I Now Realize: Your structure should not dictate what will happen on which page number, nor should it be used to force your hero to do anything that he or she doesn’t naturally want to do.  Instead, it is there to remind you of what will probably happen next if you want to write a lean, powerful story that is focused on a person’s problem and true to human nature.
What I Used to Think: Because there have been successful stories that don’t conform to classical structure, writers should reject it as outdated. 
  • What I Now Realize: Even the most iconoclastic creators usually begin their careers by creating traditionally-structured works.  Even those rare exceptions, such as Richard Linklater (whose debut Slacker had a brilliantly original structure), those creators maintain their careers by making later works that conform to traditional structure.  Every creator who desires a long-term career, even those who love to break the mold, has to master traditional structure. 
What I Used to Think: Heroes should be happy and content with their lives before an “inciting incident” occurs, and then they should attempt to restore their status quo.
  • What I Now Realize:  Stories should begin not with the arrival of a new problem, but with the arrival of a potential solution to a longstanding problem that has recently become acute. Stories are more compelling when heroes pursue opportunities that will make their lives better, rather than merely attempting to return to the starting point. 
What I Used to Think: Your hero should know before committing what it will take to get to the climax.
  • What I Now Realize: It’s more believable and sympathetic if the hero has a limited perspective, and runs into unexpected conflict which keeps escalating.  The hero should try to solve the entire problem throughout the story, and be constantly surprised that things only get worse as a result until he or she finally figures out the right way.
What I Used to Think: Once committed, the hero can pursue one plan throughout the story.
  • What I Now Realize: If you’re being true to human nature, heroes should try the easy way until this leads to a midpoint disaster, then admit defeat and try to solve the problem the hard way for the rest of the story.  When writers think of the middle of their story as an undifferentiated mass, they are likely to miss this important divide. 
What I Used to Think: All you need to do is subject your hero to a series of social and/or physical threats.
  • What I Now Realize: In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).
What I Used to Think: Heroes should declare a wise overall philosophy on page five that will see them through the whole story.
  • What I Now Realize: If anything, heroes should declare an ill-conceived philosophy early on. Only as a result of their spiritual crisis should they arrive at a better philosophy, which will allow them to finally resolve the problem in the climax.  The makers of Chinatown smartly deleted the scene early on in which the hero gave a wise statement of philosophy (“You gotta be rich to kill somebody!”) so that it would be more powerful when the we saw him learn this later on.  
Now on to scenework...


James Kennedy said...

Another great post, but you use a bit of terminology here that's been sticking in my craw ever since you first used it -- the idea that the heroes try to solve their problem "the easy way" until it leads to a midpoint disaster. I don't object to the larger point, but I think this could be better named. Because there are many examples in which the hero is by no means doing it "the easy way" leading up to the midpoint disaster. Basically, "the easy way" is not a big enough term for what I think you mean. And I think someone following your method too closely might misunderstand "the easy way" and have their only commit to the laziest ways of accomplishing their goal up to that point, which would be story disaster. I think a better term would be "the traditional way" or "the expected way" or "what worked until now" or "the way in which a significant change of heart is not even on the table yet" or (this is inelegantly stated, but) "the trajectory that the momentum of the story has carried them until now, when they must make a new kind of decision." For instance, in SKYFALL James Bond uses all the traditional James-Bond-like ways to get the Javier Bardem villain -- visiting casinos, bedding the ladies, some gunplay, even going to the enemy's hidden lair on an island, using his various gadgets, capturing the villain and putting him in jail -- the first half of the movie is essentially an ENTIRE "traditional" Bond movie writ small. But the screenwriters realize that this "traditional way" is not enough for us anymore, which leads to the reversal where Javier Bardem breaks out of jail and Bond must dig deep and stretch himself (and the idea of what can happen in a Bond film) further (going on the road with M, holing up in his childhood home for a siege). Which is all a roundabout way of saying that what James Bond did for the first half of the movie wasn't necessarily "easy" for him. He got shot, went through grueling tests and workouts, took risks and suffered, etc. It wasn't easy, but it was traditional, expected, by-the-book, and impelled by the momentum of outside forces, not coming from James Bond himself. Similarly in STAR WARS, everything that happens up to Ben Kenobi dying (which I guess is the midpoint) isn't Luke doing things "the easy way" either. Nor is Indy doing things the easy way up to the part where he uncovers, and loses, the Ark of the Covenant. I see that a new attitude and a new way of thinking and a new kind of suffering are necessary for the hero after the midpoint (and of course things are going to get harder, not easier) -- but I just think it's misleading to call it "the easy way" up to that point. I don't know what you'd use as a new term, but something with the meaning like, "The hero uses his familiar tools until they break, whereupon he is forced to invent/acquire/discover new tools (inside himself?)"

James Kennedy said...

I promise next time I'll use paragraph breaks.

j.s. said...

I don't know, but from my perspective, SKYFALL is a terrible example of what you're talking about and a primo illustration of Matt's injunctions against "all part of the villain's plan" story conceits. It's not so much that Bond does it "the easy way" for the first 60-80 odd minutes but that he does everything just so that the bad guy can make it seem like the hero's back is to the wall. Whereupon the hero decides that the here-to-fore formidable foe will be best defeated by an army of three (including two seniors/rank amateurs) with barely enough guns between them, no plan to speak of and sheer gumption to fall back on. SPOILER: When that's not enough and Bond gets M killed there's no sense that it's even his fault (which it pretty much is entirely).

Yet I agree that what comes after "the easy way" (however you name it) is hard won knowledge/skills gained through suffering. But I remain unconvinced that "the easy way" is a misnomer. For each individual hero "the easy way" is absolutely relative, custom fit, uniquely imagined. While you have a point that no protagonist has it strictly "easy"at any given moment in any story (heck that's _why_ it's story worthy), what comes after the midpoint should make everything that we've seen before seem easy by contrast.

j.s. said...

"What I Now Realize: Your structure should not dictate what will happen on which page number." Matt, I'd like to see a hot link somewhere in this section to your review of Jule Selbo's book, as this feels directly related to her key insight.

j.s. said...

If there's anything to add to that paragraph from Selbo it would be something like: Most stories go through the same steps, even if some stories/some genres don't spend the same amount of screen-time in each step.

James Kennedy said...

J.S. -- Hmm. I think your threshold for plausibility would be tough for many classic movies to clear. Maybe I misunderstand what you're getting at, but when you seem to dismiss the climax of SKYFALL as "the hero decides that the here-to-fore formidable foe will be best defeated by an army of three (including two seniors/rank amateurs) with barely enough guns between them, no plan to speak of and sheer gumption to fall back on" -- aren't these the long odds and desperate tactics most action-fantasies come down to for the climax? One rogue archeologist and his girlfriend against all the Nazis; a half-dozen misfits escape the Death Star and manage to blow it up; a couple hobbits somehow manage to sneak behind massively defended enemy lines and destroy the very magic ring Sauron is hunting for. I'd argue the James Bond movies have more in common with Indiana Jones than "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" or even the Bourne movies. They're fantastical fairy tales, even with a gritty reboot, and I loved SKYFALL all the way through *as a Bond movie* (even though, when it turned out that everything was all according to the bad guy's plan, I did groan to myself a little, and noted in the back of my head, "Matt would hate this.")

Just to be clear, I'm not arguing for lowering the standards, just keeping in mind the kind of movie it is, with its own set of rules and expectations.

I still think there must be a better way to put it than "the easy way." Although I agree it the way must indeed be "easy" compared to what comes along later, that word "easy" sets off a whole bunch of bad, pejorative, misleading associations in my head.

"The hero tries to apply what worked for him in the past"? "The hero tries to solve his problem the way he thinks best, rather than how the problem demands"?

"Easy way" connotes that the hero is mistaken to do it that way. That if the hero had seen earlier what the real situation was, he would've gone the "hard" way earlier on, and saved himself a lot of trouble in the long run. But using my previous examples, I don't see what Luke or Indy would've done different -- more difficult, but more effective -- before the midpoint. I think the term "easy way" applies for *some* stories but not all; again, I'd prefer a more capacious term.

Matt Bird said...

Luke in the first half: rely on my mentor, dismiss the force as too hard, have fun, rescue the princess without them ever knowing we're there. Second half: direct confrontation, no fun, use force.

Indy in the first half: dismiss religious mumbo jumbo, steal the ark out from under the Nazi's nose and they'll never know I'm there, romance the girl, have fun. Second half: direct confrontation with Nazis, have no fun, grapple with the serious nature of the mumbo jumbo.

"The easy way" still works for me.

I don't like "The hero tries to apply what worked for him in the past" because it's often the opposite: the hero is trying something new and crazy, which seems easy at first: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Risky Business, Paper Moon, Silence of the Lambs, hundreds of others...

The lesson of Skyfall was "If you're hiding from a psychopath on a vast moor in the middle of a pitch-black night, maybe you shouldn't use a flashlight, you moron."

James Kennedy said...

This seems to rely on a selective misreading of what actually happens in those movies in order to make your point. And now we've compounded one overly-precise-yet-inaccurate term, "the easy way," with another, "having fun." Luke isn't having fun when he's nearly killed by sandpeople, finds the charred skeletons of his foster parents, scrambles to find his way out of the trash compactor... It's panic, sadness, fear, but not "having fun." (indeed the first time he really woo-hoos is the space battle after escaping the Death Star.) And it's not as though Luke kept getting put in positions where he should've and could've used the force; the reason he doesn't use it isn't because it's too hard, and indeed Ben doesn't expect him to. Similarly, what Indy does for the first half may be fun for the audience, but it's not fun for him--he's beat up, he drowns his sorrows in booze when he thinks Marisn is dead, he's petulant, obsessed etc. But he's not "having fun," nor is there any case made that he could or should proceed differently had he known the ark really had mystical power.

Anonymous said...

Rather than 'the easy way,' how about: 'The hero pursues his goal in a manner that is intrinsically linked to his longterm problem.'

Indy: Intellectual rogue unwilling to put himself emotionally or spiritually on the line.

Luke: Naive farm boy who has no concept of the scope or depth of responsibility that his actions will entail.

Bond: Supremely arrogant lone wolf who is largely indifferent to his own trail of destruction.

What seems useful about this definition is that the relation between character and plot is explicit, within the framework you have already established. (But I could be wrong.)

Great series, Matt. Thank you!

James Kennedy said...

Yes, what Nixon said. He's putting it much more elegantly and pithily than what I was fumbling to say.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to defend Matt for not having a hotlink to Jule Selbo's book. The idea that structure *should* demand that something happen specifically on a certain page is hogwash -- it implies that all scripts move at the same pace, and we know that action and dialogue just don't do that. Comparing Jaques Tati to the Bourne series is just silly, making any thought connecting any particular scene to a particular page just idiotic.

I've never read Selbo, but if she thinks that disconnecting a phase from a page number is a killer insight, then that's just sad.

Matt Bird said...

Sorry, I did in fact put in the Selbo link. I am promiscuous with my linking.

Anonymous said...

I guess if you're going to post to your discussion of her, I can give you a pass. (Said with chagrin.)

And, it is good that you emphasize linking and credit over other things, since plagiarism is too easy on the net.

JD Paradise said...

Ninja @ 11:40. FWIW, I like that.

Joanne Macg said...

Great article!
I agree with the James Kennedy take that the protag's approach in the first half is more her usual approach, the one that has worked until now (and, as Nixon points out, contributes to his longterm problem), rather than the easy way. Though maybe it is easier to try what we've always done before, than to move out our comfort zones.

I'm not sure I agree with your ordering of the social, physical, spiritual threats. I think they can occur in a different order. For example, I've written books where the spiritual revelation and growth comes before the last physical threat and is what allows the character to face death, armed with new spiritual/character resolve. Your thoughts?