The Importance of Being Structured

A couple of weeks ago, I groused and grumbled about an advertisement for a writing class that had promised to help the writer take the rewrite out of the process. Apparently, this particular company is under the belief that writing is about the end product – the script – instead of the process.

This same organization, under the guise of a persona, has also placed a blog out in the ethers, encouraging the screenwriter to dream their story; that too much importance is placed upon structure.

It’s nice to see them serve struggling, desperate and frustrated scribes a steaming pile of bullshit. With whipped cream on top.

Note – I must concede that  the above mentioned organization-posing-as-a-blogger has since re-blogged on the subject, and in a mind boggling act of wordsmith acrobatics has simultaneously retracted – and defended – the original post. Oy vey, Maria. – HRH

The article labeled writers who build their stories structurally as “mechanics.” I, for one, object to the usage of mechanic in a derogatory sense. Anyone who thinks that mechanics are slackers and hackers has a sadly limited understanding of quantum physics, string theory and mechanical engineering. I have little use for marginalization; I appreciate it about as much as the residents of District 9 appreciate being called prawns.

The article began: “First, clear your mind of any thoughts about characters, plot, theme, and genre. Avoid any consideration of character arc, hero’s journey, acts, scenes, sequences, beats, messages, premises, settings, atmosphere, and formulas. In short – don’t give structure a second thought.”

Prior to this ill-given advice, was this: “We have all seen movies and read novels that feel like “paint by numbers” creations. Sure, they hit all the marks and cover all the expected relationships, but they seem stilted, uninspired, contrived, and lifeless. The authors of such pedestrian fare are Story Mechanics. A Story Mechanic is a writer who constructs a story as if it were a machine. Starting with a blueprint, the writer gathers the necessary dramatic components, assembles the gears and pulleys, tightens all the structural nuts and bolts, and then tries to make the story interesting with a fancy paint job.”

No, that’s not a Story Mechanic, milady. That’s a lazy writer.

Structure is a necessity. I repeat, structure is a necessity.

A story is like an architectural building, with the structure being the foundation, the supporting walls and the beams. The dialogue, characters and action – these are the elements where the artistry come to play – adding layers of color, hand-crafting the finishing touches. Without solid structure, these elements are simply creating a façade, and one that could be toppled by the flapping wings of an Amazonian butterfly.

Writing is a craft. Writing is also an art. Let us look to other artists, those who broke the mold, and how classic structure played into their works:

Miles Davis studied classical European music at Julliard. Although he did not complete the program, he often said that that training contributed to the theoretical background, which he would rely greatly upon in later years. Before breaking the wall of musical structure with jazz (a highly structured form), he knew he must master the principles of notes.

Mark Rothko studied the German and Russian expressionists; Picasso spent years perfecting the colorings and shadings of the Old Masters, before shattering traditional structure with cubism.

Isadora Duncan studied classical ballet before becoming the muse of modern dance.

Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler … all studied the works of Konstantin Stanislavsky before branching off and creating their own systems of principles as applied to the craft of acting.

To state that structure is over-rated or of secondary or little importance is not just naïve, it is reckless and terrible advice. Structure is not an impediment to the writing process – structure is the foundation of your story. Even better – structure is liberating. Good, solid structure frees you to focus on character, on dialogue, on writing pointed, breathless lines of action. Structure sets you free, free to breathe life into the world that you have created, and the characters that people it. Free to write with great emotional resonance, to write stories with social impact, with words flowing like the vibrato-laden notes of the Lady Tennant Stradivarius.

Of course, it can feel mechanical when you are a structural newbie. Not unlike the rote learning of notes on a piano, or the painstaking repetition exercises – “I’m tired.” “You’re tired?” “I’m tired.” “You’re tired?” – of the actor-in-training, mastering structure takes time and work. It’s called a learning curve.

What every good scribe realizes, is that there is the Aha! moment when, in the practice of their craft, structure becomes organic. Each beat drops down in perfect, classic placement without the writer consciously realizing it. Catalyst/Inciting Incident – pg 12 – 15. Break into Two? Pg 25. Midpoint? Oh, look, the sequence begins on 55. And so on and so on and so on, to those magical last words, FADE OUT.

Completion is an added benefit of structure. Try to get past midpoint without it. All you have to do is practice. Write. Rinse. Repeat.

Writing is work, hard work. Building a story, applying the principles of engineering and design, is work. Hard work. Encouraging others to just “dream” up their stories, using astrological charts, tarot cards and other huggy measures might make one feel all mystical floaty, but I would really be interested in seeing one produced screenplay that was created using such nonsense. Just one. And no, your mother cannot have produced it.

A final note – solid structure weathers the stresses of development hell. A story with a solid foundation can be an impenetrable fortress, the walls of which even the likes of Larry Levy cannot tumble down.

Now, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

What I’m readingOutliers, by Malcom Gladwell. Make your 10,000 hours happen. Build your foundation. Build it well.

What I’m watching: My Netflix queue is loaded and prepared to deliver The Life Before Her Eyes.

A Royal Shout Out: To my nephew, Sam. Nepotism reigns supreme. Sam, a National Merit Finalist, decided to leave high school early, and enter into the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College in January for his undergrad studies. Way to go, Sam!

About princessscribe

Screenwriter. Creator of things. I love tacos. "Midlife on Fire" Volumes 1 & 2 now available at
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3 Responses to The Importance of Being Structured

  1. Points lost for not calling the site out more fully, and pointing directly at it, however, I do understand the nature of the web is that if you linked to it, it would get more relevance, and be moved up in the various search engines….


  2. Michael Kerr says:

    Mainly agree w/ structural comparisons… however writing is mainly rewriting. Tearing it down, rebuilding, then ripping it apart again. Though that does occur w/ big houses in Beverly Hills inhabited by bored rich people. Writing is rewriting.


  3. Yes, I’ve ranted on rewrites several times: It’s Not a Script (Parts 1 and 2). Part 3 will come after I finish this next rewrite.


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