Unlocking Your Creativity with Structure and Tools
Guest post by PageCraft co-founder Carlo Cavagna
Structure gives you the freedom to be creative.
That’s the central message of Bomani Jones’s excellent TED Talk, “The Freedom of Structure,” required viewing in our Concept to Pages workshop. According to Jones (an accomplished American sports journalist, broadcaster, and content creator), he failed at numerous pursuits trying to do things in his own way, before he finally accepted that established techniques could help him unlock his unique voice, reach people, and achieve success. “If you do what you’re supposed to do, from there you can pretty much get away with doing whatever it is that you want to do,” he says.
That’s why in Concept to Pages, we work with writers to create a foundation and an architecture for their stories, before diving into pages. What is the story you want to tell? Who is your central character? What motivates them? What change will they undergo? Do your characters drive the story with their organic, believable choices? Is there narrative tension, and does it increase as the story progresses? Does the ending prove your central point? These are some of the questions we pose. Instead of diving immediately into pages, we teach tools to answer these questions and create a workable structure for a script.
But wait! Structure equals formula, you might be thinking. Won’t that stifle my creativity? I don’t want a predictable, clichéd story. I want to be wildly original!
It’s true: formulaic content usually follows timeworn structures. But here’s the thing: brilliant content does, too. If you diagram enough movies or television seasons and episodes, you find that most have similar story architectures. Even content that seems worlds away from a Hollywood template, like last year’s languid (and excellent) foreign-language Oscar-winner Drive My Car, follows a recognizable structure identifiable in hindsight even if not immediately apparent during viewing. When you see an ambitious film that does not work, something crucial is usually missing, like positive and negative stakes, or a midpoint, or a strong motivator for the protagonist. Other times, something is out of balance, like a strong external story coupled with a weak emotional story…or the reverse.
Why do stories that work follow recognizable patterns? No one is really sure. What we do know is that most people are hardwired to understand and respond to stories told in a certain way, going back to ancient times, as documented by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Bomani Jones observes, “Most of the time, where everybody’s been doing something forever, chances are there’s a reason why they’ve been doing those things forever.” Whether it’s a huge film like Black Panther or a small independent like Nomadland, virtually all stories feature certain fundamental elements. If you understand what those elements are, you have a better chance at telling a story people will remember. With experience, you can start to play with your story structure, knowing what narrative need each element serves, so that if you remove a certain element, you can address that need in other ways.
At PageCraft, we teach tools, not rules. These tools are designed to produce audience investment, narrative tension, and emotional catharsis. Without those things, few people will care how brilliant your TV series is, or even stick with it until the end. But, if you apply our tools to create nuanced and believable characters, to design organic story arcs, to generate narrative momentum, to write dynamic scenes, and ultimately, to give your audience a reason to care, you can pretty much do whatever you want to do after that.
It’s been said that great writing disappears. The goal is to create a strong structure for your story, but then to make the audience forget that it’s there. At PageCraft, we often use the analogy of a building. Every building must have load-bearing walls. Put them in the right place, design them to support enough weight, and your building will stand. Whether it looks like the Taj Majal, the Sydney Opera House, or a communist-era housing block is up to you—your originality and your unique voice. If your building is original, impressive, or beautiful enough, no one—apart from us screenwriting coaches—will be talking about where you put your load-bearing walls.