A brief anecdote to kick us off this week…
When I was (probably) about 12 years old, I had a Hebrew school music teacher who taught us a traditional Jewish prayer/song. Really, she taught us many songs, but I’m thinking of one in particular, which oddly enough, I can’t recall.
The actual song isn’t important. What is especially relevant is my teacher’s claim that the song in question could be fit to any melody. Anything whatsoever, from Beethoven’s Fifth to the main theme from Star Wars (or for that matter, “The Imperial March” as well, I tried both). I recall having a lot of fun stretching the Hebrew words to any piece of music I could fathom – at the time that encompassed a lot of Broadway show tunes… a story for another time perhaps.
Ever the cynic though, I started to flip through my Hebrew school song book, and thought, “Well, why couldn’t you do this with any of these songs?” And of course, you could just as easily take any one of those songs and break up the rhythm and phrasing to fit whatever melody you wanted. To this day, I can find no conceivable reason why my teacher would have singled out the song she did, but as far as I could tell at the time, it had nothing to do with the actual design or word structure. There was nothing unique about either.
As we would have had to do with any other song, we broke down the phrasing of the words to fit the melody of the music. It always took massaging, and even the more natural melodic fits were a bit awkward to sing.
The lesson to be learned here is that square pegs will eventually fit round holes if you hit the peg hard enough, or more tailored to our purposes, a preconceived structure can be imposed on a story retroactively if you decide rationalize every story point to death.
I’m sending mixed messages, I know. Structuring a screenplay is a very tricky thing – unlike the novel, it’s always incomplete. Because a script is always written as a blueprint to be followed, we inherit a great many rules & guidelines so (hopefully) the many collaborators can follow along see clearly the movie the writer we had in our heads.
A script that does not conform to these basic rules & guidelines will stick out, for better or worse. People become alarmed when they can’t find the normal signposts. And then, you find yourself on the defensive, looking back and trying to find evidence to support a Three Act Structure, because hey, you wrote something that could be commercial (or so you think), and why can’t people swallow what’s new and different and interesting in your writing?
I am of course, not writing about “you,” but, choosing as always to write what I know, I am writing about me. I struggle with conforming to structure, not because I am some sort of narrative maverick whose writing can’t be tied to anything so rigid and limiting, but because hey, if you haven’t yet noticed, my writing occasionally lacks focus. I choose to follow whims, veer off into tangents and (frequently) overuse the parenthetical or hyphenated asides.
When it comes time for revisions, I revert to my days as a bullshit artist – my sophomore English teacher always marked up my essays with “U.A.,” meaning “unsupported assertion,” which taught me to either source my work better or to cover my tracks with something oblique enough to sound convincing. In short, I rationalize what I have written, and find the points I can claim as signs of Acts or turning points or plot beats, etc.
My ideas tend to skew to the left of quirk. I like to keep things weird. At the same time though, I recognize screenwriting as a craft. This past weekend, I caught up with Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Loren Bouchard (TV’s Home Movies, Bob’s Burgers). Bouchard – a TV showrunner, writer and cartoonist – identified himself not as an artist, but a craftsman. He explained an artist as someone in a constant dialogue with the self, measuring progress as always relative to one’s previous work. A crafts-person (trying to be PC folks) creates, but as an entertainer, seeks the response of an audience and includes audience reaction into the process creation.
A screenplay, if it’s ever to be anything more than a .pdf file on your hard drive, must make some sort of concession to the reader or audience.
Concessions don’t have to be compromises of integrity, although frequently, they turn out that way. The conundrum is how to keep what’s interesting or characteristic about our style of writing while keeping in step with the established mores of our craft.
It’s time for the second lesson. Those of us who have read and written even a little of work intended for the screen should be (and probably are) aware of the 15-page rule. At page 15, the screenplay must arrive at the inciting incident.
For the longest time, the idea of Page 15 was one of those rules & guidelines I openly despised. In fact, when writing a feature length script, I have often deliberately eschewed placing my inciting incident at Page 15. And, in the process, have often deliberately cut off my nose to spite my face.
This past week, my brother (and sometimes co-writer) finally caught up with Kenneth Longergan’s Margaret, a magnificent and fascinating film that, despite its troubled production history, emerges mostly intact from a 168-page script.
In discussing the film, I argued that it was truly unlike any other script I had ever read. The scope grows so far beyond its main character (whose name, incidentally, is not the Margaret of the title), to encompass an entire city in mourning (for itself?). It breaks many of the established rules & guidelines of screenwriting, or at least that’s how I saw it.
As my brother was quick to point out, the overall template — let’s say coming-of-age melodrama to be horribly reductive — and a lot of Margaret’s main storylines are quite conventional. They’re presented on a much wider, generous canvas allowing for the sort of nuanced observation rarely scene in that type of film. But that’s what great about the film (and script) – it takes something we’re too familiar and comfortable with, and breathes life back into the characters.
How does Lonergan make all this work? He begins in intense focus and, lo and behold, strictly observes the law of Page 15. Nearly to the exact page/minute. Margaret — for all about the film/script that is different and true and raw and, unfortunately, defiantly un-commercial — hinges on its Page 15 Inciting Incident. Without the exact placement and timing of said Incident (which is, in spoiler-free terms, very much an Incident), nothing that follows would land properly.
Could you fit Margaret into the popular Three Act structure? Probably, but of course, the fit would be both unnatural and largely irrelevant. The narrative unfolds in a far more haphazard fashion, as life does. Characters drop in and out. The focus is less linear than it is orbital: As the world revolves around the protagonist, the various elements fade from sight until they come back around later.
As an audience member, I trusted Lonergan to take me where I needed to go, and whether I cared to admit it back when I first saw the film, he bought that good will upfront. Right at Page 15.
Especially across 149 minutes of film (Margaret’s theatrical running time), a little bit of discipline goes a long way.