I talked about structure a few posts back, and my difficulties with it, especially when writing instrumental music or novels.
Listening to the radio this morning, I was struck by a comment made a Villa Lobos, the Brazilian composer. The person discussing the composer’s life and music said that there was a lack of technique in some areas of his writing because he was basically self-taught. This meant that some of his music is good structurally and tends, when not so passionately written that it takes off by itself, to rely on repeated chordal riffs or an improvisatory approach. (Would you believe my Spellchecker didn’t recognise, chordal, riffs or improvisatory – obviously the new hard drive has lost the dictionary of words peculiar to me.)
There’s nothing wrong with an improvisatory approach: jazz musicians use it all the time, though they often have a basic framework of a particular song to improvise over. And repeated chord progressions, of course, are a staple of all music. The interesting thing is that Villa Lobos’ music has survived, in spite of his lack of technique in the structure department.
So maybe there’s hope for me.
I see there's a good deal of discussion on the Net about four-act structure; in fact, there's a good deal of discussion about everything to do with writing on the Net - it's one of the perennial topics.
What amuses me is that there are more people out there teaching how to write than actually writing, I suspect. Or rather, there are any number of teachers who don't appear to have actually done that much in practical, actual work. I dread to bring in the old saying, them what can, do, them what can't, teach, but I suspect it applies enormously to the writing scene. After all, wannabe writers will read everything they can lay their hands on to improve their writing. And some of these so-called top writers are happy to make loads of money out of books on 'how to write' than little money on books they've actually written.
Here's Blake Snyder in conversation with Therese Walsh: So I found tons and tons of things in categorizing and putting these stories in different genres that were amazing. I was watching a lot of monster movies—I call them Monster in the House movies—and I suddenly go, “Wow, the same character in every one of these stories.” I call him the half-man. This is someone who’s had an interaction with the monster before and come away damaged, and they all die on page 75! And so when I was going through this I watched The Ring, and Brian Cox plays that half-man character (Richard Morgan), and he dies on page 75. When I saw I that I said, “Oh, it’s Robert Shaw (Quint) in Jaws, it’s Ian Holm (Ash) in Alien.” And there’s a purpose for it, there’s a reason for it, and if your story doesn’t have it, it’s less satisfying.
Up until the moment Snyder says, 'if your story doesn't have it, it's less satisfying', he's making sense, but at that point he's telling us that the only way for your story to work is to copy what everyone else has done in movies that have worked. Just because those particular movies have worked, I think, doesn't mean that a pile of movies that have someone killed on page 75 (and what is page 75 anyway - surely he isn't serious about making the same thing happen always at the same point?) will also work.
The illusion in Hollywood is that just because something worked once, twice, thrice before, it will work until all energy is drained out of the idea. Nope, it won't. Believe it or not, the customers actually like original stuff; they like to see stories where the unexpected happens. Of course, they like to see stories where, with relief, the hero beats the baddie, the girl gets the boy. But if the getting to that point is always the same, then it quickly becomes tedious.
Great writing will always transcend genres, plots, categories.
Snyder goes on to talk about Michael Clayton not making as much money as it should have, because the publicists didn't get the 'primal' in the story. Mr Snyder has the film Michael Clayton categorised, of course (as Institulionalised), with 'patterns all over it'. But as he then goes on to say, it didn't quite do what he expected; one of the characters should have gone this way, and they didn't. It didn't follow his formula.
Precisely. Great movies, writing, music are all about not following the formula, or about using the formula for your own ends.
Too many of these gurus want to turn everything into something that everyone can sit down and do. It just doesn't work like that.