Saturday, February 17, 2007


I’ve been thinking about this thing called structure. Three acts, a clear protagonist, an antagonist we can actually see - human, a clear arc/change in the main character, etc.

I’ve read tons of books, attended classes, but I continue to struggle with this thing called structure. It’s not that I don’t get it. A few of my scripts follow many of the conventions just fine.

However, there are a few of the stories I tell that have me fighting with the structure I find in most books, classes, and universities.

With these stories, I find myself forcing my stories and characters to obey these “tried and true” methods. It’s during these times that I find myself washing clothes, cleaning house, chipping ice off of my huge, circular driveway armed only with a garden tool (don’t ask). Anything to avoid trying to make my square story and its characters fit into the round peg of structure that’s been passed down from the beginning of storytelling.

Ah-ha! Maybe that’s it. Maybe there are other forms of storytelling when it comes to movies? As a former H.S. English teacher, I know this exists in literature. Though many of the creation and myth stories were extremely similar, the way in which they were told represented the individual culture, life and experience of the storyteller.

Why are stories told the way they are? Under what circumstances were certain stories historically told? Was it out of pure entertainment because there was nothing else around to do? Was it a way to gather the entire family/clan/tribe together after a particular harsh winter/harvest/war?

What was the goal of these stories? Were there certain cultures that only told a story as a way to entertain - share happy times with one another?

Or were there cultures that used stories as a way to teach and inform - passing down rules that govern their behavior (sounds familiar?)?

I can’t help thinking about my own culture when it comes to me telling stories involving African-Americans, especially those populated in inner-cities.

It’s only been recently that I’ve come to look back at my storytelling origins. I wish I could trace it back to Africa - and some day, I’ll set out to do just that. But as I spent most of my college years devouring slave narratives and slave history, I realize that I am very much influenced by this important period in my ancestral history.

Slaves had what we today might equivocate to myths. Most were in the forms of spiritual songs. Songs that carried messages deeper than the simple words strung together in harmony. These songs had hidden and crucial messages. Personification was perfected. A bird or animal might represent a slave recently killed. A river or mythical land might hold the plans for escape and the route in which to take.

One of the things that many of the songs contained was the notion of getting to a better life in the hereafter. Death was not seen as an ending, but a blessing - a new beginning. I could assume that most preferred death to the life of slavery they now lived - no matter how good the SLAVE MASTER.

So, what’s my point?

If death is not seen as bad thing, what does that do to a story? Does it have a ripple effect on all the other story elements?

But what about other little things, like character structure? What about the flaw or misbehavior in the protagonist? Well, looking back at slave narratives and spirituals, some might say that the main character were without flaw - as if they were do-gooders. What many miss is that the flaw of these main characters were the fact they were born - more specifically, they were born black and there was nothing they could do to change that.

This leads me to what I have come to call the theme of overcoming. It’s not a change. After all, there is nothing one can do about their “flaw" - ask Michael Jackson.

So, if there is no way to change, what structure does your arc follow? But, most importantly, what is your fight/goal/purpose?

To get those around you who can, to either change or acknowledge/see the plight of your life.

I’ve been studying - and continue to - two films that are starting to shed the light on a possible structure inherent in many black films that goes against the traditional Hollywood Structure.

The first film is Boyz in the Hood. When I try to apply traditional structure to this film, my mind spins and spins and spins.

First, who is the main character? That’s easy: Trey. Okay, I’m right there - maybe. Why is Trey the main character? What is his flaw, his goal; what must he change? Easy, right? His goal is to escape the hood, right? Is it? What will that solve - because Trey seems like this individualistic guy, right? He only cares about himself, he’s a loner? And, better yet, Trey’s in the hood because he selected to be there and he can just get up and leave whenever he wants to?

Or maybe, just maybe, like those spirituals, the hood is not isolated. Okay, we already knew that. So doesn’t that change his goal of wanting to get out of the hood? If the hood is not the hood and it represents society (as Furious eloquently points out during his speech on economics and re-gentrification to the neighborhood fellas), then how can he escape that? How did the slaves do it? Death...


I know I’m going around in circles. I’m still closely studying this movie. With complex characters like Ricky, Doughboy and Furious, who seem to have their own separate and equally compelling story lines, it’s a structure I recognize, that feels good - but always gets me the most notes and criticism. One main character, one clear, human antagonist and one story with a B or possible C story that does NOT have secondary characters being elevated to the equal of the main character.

Why the hell not? I’ know I’m not the only one who writes this way and that have received criticism after criticism, forcing us to conform to the tried and true method of structuring a Hollywood movie. I remember discussing screenwriting with a few other black writers and we found an interesting universal criticism offered to us - why so many damn characters?

It’s our way of telling a story, and believe me, there’s a history in that. This is by no means paint-by-numbers. And not all black writers write alike, but take a look at many black films and see how their structures differ. Open a newspaper and read the review for a new, black film coming out. What sounds interesting about the criticism?

By the way, the other movie I’m taking a closer look at is Do the Right Thing. Who the hell is the main character there? Mookie? He changes? Right. Or does he want someone else to change - to ”WAKE UP“?

Okay, all of this might very well be BULLSHIT. Or just another way for me to justify why I can’t seem to get my story to fit the tried and true story structure I’ve been taught by the many experts and the hundreds of Academy Awarded films.

Or maybe there is something more to culture and structure.

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