In Defense of Structure

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Imagine listening to two pieces of music, both very similar but with one major difference. The first piece is the glorious final movement from Beethoven’s 9thSymphony. The second, a random re-ordering of all the same notes, played by all the same musicians, on all of the same instruments, and with each note lasting exactly as long as it did in the non-random version of the 9th. It’s obvious that while the random version of Beethoven’s 9thmight offer occasional moments of musical interest, as a whole it would be an unsatisfying experience.

The question we must ask is why should your brain prefer one version over the other? This isn’t a glib question. If two musical works are composed of the same notes and durations but in two different orderings, why does the brain hear one as “music” and the other as “noise?”

The answer is structure. Your brain hears the notes of the 9th Symphony as arranged by Beethoven, and because it has a structure that the brain’s “wiring” is genetically able to decode, the brain responds to and accepts what it just heard as the satisfying experience known as hearing music. Even someone who doesn’t like classical music (or hip-hop or new age or disco) would rather listen to a type of music they don’t have an affinity for than listen to a discordant, structure-less collection of notes.

Okay, maybe not disco.

Another way of saying this is that the brain is “hard-wired” to recognize and respond favorably to musical structure. It comes as part of the package deal we call “being human.” Now, if we can accept this idea — that the brain is hard-wired to detect and respond to musical structure — is it possible that the brain is also hard-wired to recognize story structure?

I posed this question to Dr. Barry Bank. Dr. Bank is one of them big-brain types. A former honcho at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, Dr. Bank is currently working on an early diagnostic tool to detect Alzheimer’s Disease. The wiring of the brain is his area of expertise, and the short version of his answer to my question — is the brain hard-wired to recognize good story structure? — is an unqualified “yes.” The brain is on a never-ending mission to take the data that comes its way through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch and assemble that data into understandable experiences. When it does it with sounds at different frequencies it’s called “music.” When it does it with plot points and dramatic beats, it’s called “story.”

Joseph Campbell, in his defining work THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, noticed that people from different cultures spanning the earth, cultures that had no contact with each other, told very similar stories in very similar ways. Campbell made popular the theory that there is something in the human condition that creates similar stories independent of culture or conditioning. Science has now stepped in to help clarify Joseph Campbell’s observation. The human brain looks for and responds to a similar meaningful story structure because that’s what it was born to do.

Armed with this information you can now see the power of developing a definable, repeatable system for breaking down movies. What if you were to take the top films of all time (”top” being defined as those films whose stories found the widest possible audience), distill those films down to their common shared elements and codify it all into a system? You’d have a pretty solid jumping off point for telling your stories. And don’t worry that your scripts are going to come out feeling formulaic. What makes AMERICAN BEAUTY, STAR WARS, THE SIXTH SENSE, and LIAR LIAR different from each other is not that their structures are different (which they aren’t) but how creative each writer was within the same structure.

It will be your creativity that will make your characters leap off the page. Your creativity will make your settings unique and your dialog soar. Apply it to the nuts and bolts of structure, however, and your creativity might just kill your script in the cradle by rendering the structure unrecognizable to the human brain.

There is plenty of room for creativity when writing. Just don’t monkey around with structure. Structure is mechanical. A tool. It is a waste of your time and energy to re-invent structure every time you sit down to write. And as the great William Goldman says in his classic book ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, “Screenplays are structure.”

–Jeffrey Alan Schechter

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