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Everything has structure or it has nothing

Anyone who has ever worked in the creative industries, most specifically theatre, film or television, gains some understanding of the importance of ‘structure’ in presenting the fruits of their labours to the public audience in an entertaining fashion.

Novels, plays and television pieces don’t just ‘happen’.

Yes, after you’ve hatched the idea – whether it comes to you in a flash whilst travelling on the Tube, or after blissful contemplation during a long weekend walking in the Lake District, or even after a relaxed soak in the bath – there’s usually a mountain of sheer, intense slog involved to make it work. That’s why I regard acts such as creative writing, producing, directing and acting as, first and foremost, crafts – rather than arts.

It sounds fatuous, but there has to be a beginning, middle and end.

You have to introduce the characters and setting, in order to give your audience a chance to get a ‘handle’ on proceedings. Who are these characters? Why are we supposed to be interested in them? Which is the good guy, which the bad? What it is about what they’re up to that is going to ‘draw us in’, so that we begin to want to know what happens next?

Plainly, there has to be a problem – a drama, a conflict, a dilemma – that leads to a climax and a resolution of some sort. You cannot have a theatre show or a movie that ends going downhill and just petering out. You want your audience departing thinking ‘Wow!’, not a deflated ‘Oh … was that it?’, as they filter out into the cold night air for their journey home.

And so on … you get my drift …

That’s where the structure comes in.

For example, on ITV kids’ programming in the 1990s, a fifteen minute transmission slot required a show of exactly eleven minutes’ duration – so that they could fit in four minutes’ worth of advertising breaks around it. There was no point in going to the commissioning editor and saying “You know what? The story in next week’s episode needs eleven minutes 30 seconds to reach its natural conclusion, so that’s what we’re delivering …” because it would fall upon deaf ears.

It was a fifteen minute slot and the programme was going to run for eleven … period.

So, as a producer, you either went away and somehow edited or re-worked your episode to come in at eleven minutes – or you risked the broadcaster ‘cutting’ the show off after eleven minutes anyway, to go to its next ad break, leaving your wonderful, funny, oh so creative, story hanging in the air.

A few years ago, I tried to write a film script. Quite early on, the producer concerned recommended a famous ‘How To’ book by an American scriptwriter that had almost become an industry standard textbook.

It was something of a revelation. I’m sure I’m not giving any industry secrets away, but it demonstrated that, in Hollywood terms, a page of a script equated roughly to a minute of on-screen time. Ergo, you had roughly 90 pages in which to construct your story, from beginning to end.

Talk about a Noddy Guide!

scriptsThe book showed how all movies have a common structure. An opening (1 to 2 pages). Setting up the scene of the story (10 pages). Around page 12, something happens to turn this world upside down … and so on, through all 90 pages. It was all so simple, so regimented, that – as a first-timer – my immediate reaction was to be greatly disheartened.

My creative idea of flowing genius was about to be reduced to a robotic drudge about as exciting as a drive to the station on a daily commute. But gradually, and not without a struggle, I tuned in to the scheme.

At a very basic level, if you think about it, there is almost more creative genius required to somehow bring the action to the next required staging post in the ‘structure’ as there was in having your original ‘Eureka!’ moment about the project in your bath.

I remember one telling paragraph, in which the ‘How To’ author demonstrated just how important a movie script structure was. At page 25 (I think it was), something absolutely catastrophic always has to happen, something that completely changes the stakes that the hero is playing for.

For example, if he is a football player, it isn’t just that he misses an important goal chance, or his team loses a game. More likely, it is perhaps something like he is the object of a vicious tackle which breaks his leg in several places. It’s not just a period on the sidelines recovering his fitness that is now the issue, it’s that his very career may be in jeopardy.

The author underlined the vital important of sticking to the set structure of a movie script.

He explained that Hollywood receives so many scripts per week that, often, the first thing a producer will seek to do is disqualify some – as many as possible – on the slightest excuse, e.g. they are not laid out in the ‘standard’ industry format, poor spelling in the covering notes, the fact the originators do not have a Hollywood track record … you name it. No more than about one in every 3,000 scripts get taken on, let alone eventually made, so you have to whittle them down somehow.

In naked commercial business – and there is none more cut-throat than Hollywood – the game is not about taking risks, but about avoiding them.

Against this background, how slim is the chance of a newcomer breaking in?

It is common practice, as part of the ‘selection process’, for a producer – faced with a brand new script from an unknown – to turn straight away to page 25, to see what the ‘catastrophe’ is going to be. And, if page 25 of the script doesn’t have one, he then chucks the whole kit and caboodle straight in the bin.


Because, if a new scriptwriter hasn’t given the industry the respect it deserves – in this case, hasn’t bothered to find out that the movie industry’s standard movie structure demands a catastrophe on page 25 – he plainly hasn’t done his homework – so why should he (the producer) treat him or her with kid gloves?

All fascinating stuff.

I was reminded of it today, when reading this excellent article by Mark Lawson on the effect of advertisements upon television drama which appears on the website of  THE GUARDIAN

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About Bernadette Angell

After cutting her journalistic teeth in Boston USA, Bernadette met and married an Englishman, whom she followed back to London. Two decades and three children later, they divorced. She now occupies herself as a freelance writer (credits include television soaps and radio plays) and occasional amateur gardener. More Posts