The Perfect 10

Thursday 5 February 2009, 12:39

Paul Ashton Paul Ashton

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Slightly later than planned, but here's instalment 7:


Whole books have been written about this, so it feels foolhardy to try to tackle it in one blog. But I'm going to keep it focused and simple. In other words: story is structure. They are inextricably linked. A great story cannot be separated out from the manner in which it is told, structured, shaped - constructed. Every choice you make about where a scene goes, what goes before it, what follows it, why it's important for your characters, is structure.

For your script to hit the mark straight away, you need to begin the story in the right place. This is much easier said than done. Because in order to begin in the right place, you need to be clear and sure about what your story is, who is driving it forward, where it is going, and what tone you intend to set from the off. Far too many scripts waste precious time setting up the story and world, glimpsing characters, waiting for the story to start, and this poor structuring is normally a signal that the writer hasn't confidently decided what they are doing and where they are going. It's ok to be undecided in your first, exploratory draft - but not in the one you send out for consideration.

Beginning in the right place is about knowing where you are going. And your story must be going somewhere. There must be an imperative to keep reading, to keep watching/listening. There should be an end point. Many aspiring writers feel hemmed in by this - but many successful writers will often know their ending and know what they are working towards. It's this ultimate direction that can give you the momentum to get there.

How you get there will determine how effective and original your story is. The key thing, however you choose to get from A to Z, is that there is a dynamic, significant, dramatic purpose for each act, sequence, story beat, scene and moment along the way. If it isn't there for a compelling reason, then it doesn't need to be there - and will only hold the story back if you don't cut it. You need to be focused, precise and meaningful in how you select which elements will tell your story. This is the essence of successful structuring. Whether it's a guns blazing action movie or a quiet, subtly drawn character drama, each scene must be there for the right reason for your story.

And again, understanding what the right reason is, comes back down to knowing your story, knowing what it is and what effect you want it to have. Memento is the story of a man who can't form new memories and appears to be chasing an elusive past that haunts him; the complex interplay between linear and non-linear narrative strands which at a crucial point meet is the perfect structure to contain, effect and express this story. Billy Elliott is the story of a boy who dares to be who he desperately wants to be in the face of opposition from his family, his background/class, the world around him, and himself; a straightforward, linear, classic hero's journey narrative is exactly the best way to bring that story to life.

The better you understand and the clearer you are about the tone, the genre and the kind of story you are telling, the more naturally will the structure present itself. Because story is structure.

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    Comment number 1.

    I once heard someone criticise Memento because they'd watched it re-edited into linear, chronological order and found it dull. They concluded that it was a boring story only saved by a gimmicky structure and it was therefore a pretentious film that everyone should shut up about. They apparently didn't notice that the story has a twist *at the beginning*.

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    Comment number 2.

    I keep forgetting to watch Memento.


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    Comment number 3.

    Would you mind telling this to some of your (the beeb's) own writers then, please. There is much rubbish irrevelant to the objectives of the story within many shows aired that I've seen in the past few years. But, unfortunately, what is even worse to watch is well structured shows that just look forced and false, as most soaps do. Eastenders is a great example of how rubbishy unrealistic situations are being forced through just to set up or continue storylines or even to pad out shows. Structure is important but it cannot be more important than authentic, entertaining situations and dialogues to place in those structures...can it?

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    Comment number 4.

    Agreed. A lot of Beeb stuff lately is over-stylised pap.

    Anyway, how about Slumdog Millionaire? That's all about the structure. It's annoyingly simple, really, yet wonderfully effective. [Although I don't think it's as good as everyone makes out, and don't think it should win Best Picture.]
    It will almost certainly get Beaufoy an Oscar though.

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    Comment number 5.

    A vocal path.

    You live
    near a vocal
    path, and always
    a young bird
    returns in your
    head like a
    beautiful song
    in the light
    of a white dream...

    Francesco Sinibaldi


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