My Mission for 2014: Writing is Structure

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I’m interested in writing, and specifically the writing of narratives. I’ve always harboured a desire, if not the will or confidence, to write stories – scripts, sketches, that kind of thing. And, in the realm of technology, I’ve long been interested in structure. It’s often said that structure can be bad – too restrictive, too cookie-cutter. That’s not the kind of structure I’m interested in.

Things like Mythology Engine, Storybox and the Stories Ontology were attempts to convey the kind of thing I am interested in – but they, too, can be interpreted as trying to dissect narratives, and thus ultimately destroy them. In contrast, I guess what I’ve been trying to investigate is the structure which informs the creation of narratives, as well as the analysis, with the latter being only so that the narratives can be discussed, shared, and in turn, inspire new narratives. So my interest is more in conveying meaning, where possible – telling stories to the machines, as I’ve noted elsewhere. But also in using structure as a guide, as an inspiration.

Many times when I’ve tried to start writing a story, I’ve struggled. At first, the fear grips you that it’s down to two things – you can’t write, and you don’t have any good ideas. The first fear can, after a while, be dismissed, especially with the adage that is prevalent in technology as well as writing – just make/write something, a terrible first draft, just so you’ve got somewhere to start from.

The second fear, of no ideas, is a harder one to shake. Primarily because, in a lot of the writing I’ve read on writing, it concentrates literally on the process of writing, of scrawling on paper or typing on a computer. Giving yourself time to write, setting a target of a certain number of words a day, even in terms of writing prompts, little sentences designed to spark your mind.

But I’ve never really found this helpful either. What is helpful, I’ve found, is structure. Again, not as a ‘this is how you must write your story’, but as inspiration – ‘try this way of structuring your story, and see where that takes you’. Robert McKee’s book, Story, is a step in the right direction, but it felt a little too focused solely on screenwriting, and was a tad too opinionated and didactic for me. I got about a third of the way through the book, and, feeling it wasn’t for me, gave up, falling back again on the thought that you just had to sit in front of a blank screen, perhaps with a writing prompt, and see what happens.

Then, two things happened – David Varela’s tweet – ‘Writing is structure’, provided a spark of light, for me. For so long, I’d been under the impression that structure was always viewed with suspicion by writers, for the ‘cookie-cutter’ reasons above. But this gave me confidence.

And then, I read FilmCritHulk’s Screenwriting 101. I found it incredibly inspirational, broad-minded and enlightening. It doesn’t really talk about the process of writing as I’ve mentioned above (the ‘just sit down and write’), nor the slightly worn phrase ‘writing is rewriting’ (the latter, which may indeed be true, doesn’t help, in terms of a narrative, if you’re trying to work out how to start).

What it does, is help you focus on the inspiration for narrative and character, and suggests several structural approaches for both analysing and creating. Things like the five-act structure, character trees, snowflakes, ‘therefore and but’, and so on. Seriously, read the book. Again, it doesn’t insist that you write every story in these ways, but it gives you frameworks, approaches – things you can try, which will help you structure a narrative, before you get to the stage of literally writing the dialogue and so on.

That, that is what I’m interested in. And I want to know more. Firstly, because ever since reading the book, whenever I watch a film or TV show, I’m consciously looking out for five-act structures and so on. But secondly, because I want to build something. You see, as far as I’m aware, all the tools out there for writers are either ones that are very general purpose ‘idea collection’ tools (mind-maps, post-it notes etc), or purposely script-writing ones (things like Final Draft, or Adobe Story). But I’m not sure there’s anything in between. Something which takes the structures and frameworks and leads you through them, or helps you create narratives using them, or even just helps you analyse existing narratives through that lens. So that’s what I want to build.

To that end, this year, I want to learn and understand as much as possible about the structure, craft and process of writing narratives. I’m not as interested, as I say, in things like ‘how do you find time to write’ or ‘do you just sit down at your computer, type, look over it, and type again’. I want to find out more about the different ways you can structure a narrative – what are they, how often are they used, where are they helpful, how might they be combined.

I want to speak to as many writers as possible about this. If you’re interested, get in touch (I already have a short list of folk I’d like to talk to, so expect emails, but get in touch anyway!). If you don’t really use structure, that’s absolutely fine – I’m not trying to force everyone to use it – I just want to provide something for those who do use it, or are interested in it. Similarly, if there are tools which already do this – I’m interested in terms of research, but I’m still going to build something, if only for my own learning – please don’t bring me down 😉

I’m thinking this could result in a series of blog posts, or perhaps even a podcast series, of interviews with writers – and then ultimately a tool, based on all that knowledge.

Let’s see where this takes me.

P. S. Things that also helped inspire me to write this – John Yorke’s Into the Woods, Matt Locke’s Don’t get bigger, get weirder, and Kim Plowright’s Guiding Principles.

P. P. S. Oh, and I guess I should write a blog post about the slightly-different new job at some point, too..

P. P. P. S. Also worth clarifying – I’m not looking to build something whereby machines auto-generate stories. Whilst that may be an avenue worth exploring, I’m not interested in taking authorship out of the hands of humans. This is about giving more tools to humans to create stories, and, perhaps, to widen the audience of those stories to include machines as well.

3 thoughts on “My Mission for 2014: Writing is Structure

  1. mike atherton

    I totally recommend John Truby’s ‘The Anatomy of Story’ – a great guide to understanding how energy and motivations are transferred through a narrative progression. Not only screenplay focused either.

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