Friday, March 7, 2008

Conceit and Structure

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I've had a couple ideas tumbling around in my head, but nothing ready for the blog. Then there's work and teaching and... writing for myself. It's been a busy few months, and it feels amazing to have a moment or two to work out some new material and reread some old stuff.

My students have been getting a real handle on conceit recently -- realizing that it's got to be a simple thing: a unique strategy for unity in your work; a strategy that brings 'thingness' to your story. There are a million ways to define a strategy. There are a million paths to conceit. You might have to try most of them before you really find the 'thingness' in your story. But once you have that, you have better answers than you ever imagined to your story problems.

Conceit, once achieved, knocks your writing, and your thinking about writing, up to the next level. It's more than a good idea. It's a good idea that's been fully developed. A reader sees it on page one. They miss it if it's not there. An experienced reader (or producer or filmmaker..) knows that conceit is what sells a piece. You can think of studio readers as armies of prospectors sifting through rivers of scripts, looking for a speck of gold -- a well-developed, marketable conceit.

But enough about them. This industry stuff gets boring quick.

What I want to talk about today is conceit and structure. Structure is obviously important to a script. Structure is key in any storytelling -- visual or written. There are many, many individuals who claim to know the keys to structure. For the most part, I think they are reiterating the same basic structure that's worked for the first 10,000 years of human development... with a few added bells, whistles, and purely academic distinctions.

Most screenwriting teachers, myself included, will harp endlessly on drilling your conceit down into your structure. For the vast majority of cases, it can only help you to model your conceit across the the beats of the expected structure. And it's true. If you reinforce your conceit at every turn, with every major conflict, you're solving audience reception problems before they even arise.

But conceit can also function as a kind of anti-structure, and it's worthwhile at least to model and brainstorm through those possibilities as well. Why?

Because conceit is a more or less direct connection between you and your audience. It can pull you along through and past all kinds of plot issues. Take The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Does that plot make sense? No. No, it does not. Do you care? No. You're being entertained consistently with the conceit. (Or some of us are.)

Another place that conceit can really come to the fore is music videos. Narrative structure is of more limited use in a music video, because the visual story is just supporting the music. Quite frequently there's one strong, simple, central idea that drives a music video. That's the conceit. If it's good, you remember the video. If it's not thought out, or is a cliche, then you don't.

The band Sigur Ros, in my opinion, does a fairly remarkable job with this. People either adore them or despise them -- I'll leave that to you. But consider watching videos for Hoppipolla, Saeglopur, Glosoli, and Svefn-g-Englar. For some reason Hoppipola always brings tears to my eyes. Not sure why. I guess it's the old people playing in the graveyard. All these videos are available on youtube, and you deserve a treat for reading this far into my post. Just watch them full screen.

In each, you have a remarkably clear, developed conceit. The viewer can name it quickly and clearly. And it's very carefully worked into the structure. And it's very carefully used where structure doesn't apply.

Sigur Ros recently produced a concert film, and did a call for submissions for fans to submit videos. It's fascinating to see what amateur filmmakers did with the band's basic conceit. Some get it. Some don't. Some add something more. I learned a lot. Check that out this youtube search.

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