Saturday, June 30, 2007

When Structure Gets in the Way

Before I wrote scripts, I studied Russian language and literature. Four years in college, then five more years in grad school. While I'm grateful for that education, it's also the kind of thing you can take years to get out from under. You can't read a book without analyzing it to within an inch of its life. You can't write a thing without seeing the critical structure. It crippled me as a writer, and it took all the joy out of reading.

I spoke Russian very well. One reason was that I loved the 'puzzle' aspect of it. Nouns and adjectives have six possible endings for both singular and plural. Verbs have two 'aspects' that are completely alien to an English speaker. Each word is marked for its role in the sentence, which allows you to jumble the word order, placing a noun on one end of the sentence and its modifier at the other. The complexity was completely addictive to me. One day I was chatting with a Russian friend when he used a dative case of a present active participle of a reflexive imperfective verb. I suddenly woke up: He can't be computing all this in his head. Of course he isn't. The structure helps me speak, but he's not thinking about it any more than I stop and think "hmmm... I need to form the direct object of the third-person pronoun" before I say 'him'.

I felt pretty stupid for ever making that assumption even while I had trouble shaking it. But it was only then that I really started to think in Russian. I needed to learn about present active participles. And then I needed to forget about them.

Same goes for story. Listen to a kid tell you about a movie. Listen to a kid tell you about her day. The three-act structure is in there. Listen to yourself as you tell stories. The three-act structure is there. Sometimes structure helps, and sometimes it makes things a lot clearer. If you've been nailing down your structure and it's not working for you know, try writing your story out free-style. If you're writing yourself in circles, maybe it's time to sit down with a really rigorous structure and force yourself to make some decisions. Lots of screenplay consultants will push one or the other. I think it completely depends on the circumstances.

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