Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Deep Structure in the Yukon

I just returned from two days teaching screenwriting and structure in Whitehorse to Yukon-based film makers. Being a very keen group, who kept me on my toes, I found that a lot of my thoughts on structure coalesced for me in having to teach them.

We say this in martial arts, that is, by teaching one learns. And the same thing happened for me regarding structure.

The screenwriters brought short film scripts to the workshop, which I asked them to set aside so they could reinvent them once I took them through my process of understanding dramatic structure. The process consists of asking two questions first: 1. what's a screenplay? and 2. what's a story?

If you have read my blog, you'll know my answer to the first question, but to cut to the chase, I think it best to think of a screenplay as a set of instructions to a cast and crew. The instructions can be artful or mechanical, but they must let the cast and crew know what they must do and say above all.

The answer to the second question is always difficult to obtain. Story seems to be something that we know when we see it, but to actually define it in clear terms eludes most people. (In order to facilitate thinking about story, I ask people if they've seen a good movie lately and then what it's about. Once we analyze what all the movies have in common, it becomes apparent that they each have CHARACTERS struggling to perform an ACTION to achieve a GOAL against some kind of ADVERSARY/OBSTACLE. And that's the screenwriter's e=mc squared. The simple template that reveals the universe. Character/Action/Goal/Adversary. But just because it's simple, doesn't mean it's easy.

What this also becomes is a pitch in the form of a headline. "Ambitious insurance agent allows his apartment to be used by philandering bosses to get ahead only to fall in love with the mistress of his boss." Character--ambitious insurance agent. Action--allows his apartment to be used by philandering bosses. Goal--to get ahead/success. Adversary--boss' mistress. And that's the pitch for Billy Wilder and i.A.L. Diamond's classic "The Apartment."

While it may feel uncreative, being able to distill your story into these stark elements enables you to become creative as you progress from this to a beat sheet, an outline and ultimately a draft. Your story template will keep you honest if you stay true to it. It doesn't stop you from being creative, but it does prevent you from letting the story get away from you. Or it may mean that you need to redraft your template once you know more about your story through writing it. Either way, it is a fantastic tool, in my view, and I believe most of the writers in the Yukon who came to my workshop eventually agreed.

Here's a picture of the gang above. Good luck to them all!

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