I’ve written before about my feeble attempt at rebelliousness when I first started at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2014. In fact, even referring to it as such gives the whole thing more credit than it deserves.
The reason for it, as is the reason for most petulant behaviour, was insecurity. At the time I started at VCA I’d been writing for a few years, since early high school, and I had learned a lot of bad habits that I mistook for being my ‘process’. Learning concepts of structure and theme, of midpoints and reversals, harshly illuminated potential shortcomings in my own writing to the extent that I adopted the perspective that to subscribe to any theory about the ‘rules’ of storytelling was to be a hack who wrote by numbers. Writing, I believed, should a natural process stemming from the emotional truth of the author, something that unfolds organically without being hampered by concern over arbitrary rules dictated by screenwriting gurus.
The thing is, that philosophy is partly right. I’ve read that many stories that faithfully follow every rule taught at a place like VCA and yet they don’t work in the slightest because there’s no soul to them, nothing that the writer was aching to say. They’re technical exercises, not stories. But to assume that personal truth is enough to make a story work is limiting. My belief now is that the ‘rules’ are helpful tools to make your story as strong and engaging as possible, but in and of themselves not enough.
It’s funny how time and perspective has shone a light on truths I was too pigheaded to accept back then. At VCA I used to smugly cite Richard Linklater’s almost entirely conversational Before Trilogy as an example of films that didn’t follow traditional structure, ergo I shouldn’t have to either. After all, they were just people talking, right?
Well, if you think that I suggest watching this video, which beautifully articulates how wrong I now know I was. The Before films work because, apart from being heartfelt emotional powerhouses, they meticulously employ structure to ensure that they are always moving, even when they seem to just be meandering conversation. Seeing that video for the first time, my immediate response upon finishing it was to announce (maybe sounding a little choked up) ‘God I love that film’. Because revealing just how perfectly it follows the ‘rules’ to me has helped shine a light on why it works as damn well as it does. On why it’s such an incredible example of the craft of storytelling. Understanding its mechanics has made me like it more, not write it off as a by-the-numbers technical exercise.
Recently I’ve been really enjoying the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast, in which Zach Braff and Donald Faison re-watch every episode of Scrubs and reminisce on the making of a TV show that was maybe the first I ever truly loved. Before each new podcast I watch the episode they’re discussing, and it’s funny how my perspective has now changed on a show I thought I knew intimately. Years of studying story means that the curtain is lifted a bit. I recognise the reversals, the turning points, the moments that hit with precision every beat VCA tried to teach me was necessary. And like Before Sunset, it makes me like Scrubs more. Because I recognise how structure provides the framework to convey the sort of emotional truths that always made it work just a little bit better than your average goofy sitcom. The things that made me love it so dearly when I was a teenager.
One thing that always stuck with me from VCA was a tutor telling us that for every ‘rule’ of storytelling, we would be able to point to five classics that break it. This, to me, is because the ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. To paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re more like guidelines. Helpful, worth knowing, but not essential. Even when employed to perfection, they should be almost invisible, employed quietly to keep your story moving but never drawing attention to the ways in which they’re being used (like in Before Sunset).
So I guess my perspective has changed but not completely. When I see the mechanics of storytelling done well, I appreciate the craftmanship in a way I never could have before VCA. Not much gives me as big of a thrill as when I can recognise just how well a writer has manipulated me, using techniques that I recognise. But when all is said and done? I couldn’t give a shit about the rules.
Years ago I got into an argument with a deeply stupid person who tried to tell me Breaking Bad was an objectively terrible TV show, not because they didn’t enjoy it or it wasn’t to their taste but because some episodes didn’t have A, B and C stories – a classic tenet of broadcast television. Which, like, what? Who cares? If the story is engaging the story is engaging. Not following the rules doesn’t preclude something from being good, just like following the rules to a T isn’t a default defence from being bad.
Personally, since my education I don’t write all that differently from the way I always did. I let the story reveal itself to me and when I feel ready I put it on paper. Sometimes, accidentally, I’ll find it fits classic three act structure perfectly. Other times it doesn’t. If that’s the case, I consider whether I would be better served going about things more traditionally, but I certainly don’t write the story off as a failure. I make a judgement call on whether or not I think it works, based on advice and feedback from people I trust, and often I’ll employ some of what we learned at VCA to help tidy up the parts that aren’t working.
Don’t get me wrong; I credit my time at VCA with providing foundations that I absolutely needed to hone my understanding of story. But most of what I know comes from experience. And in my experience, most audience members couldn’t care less if your midpoint is in the right place or if your inciting incident and first act turning point have the right proximity from each other. They care if your story is good. How you ensure that happens, ultimately, is up to you.
Writing words about writing words.