Friday, September 24, 2010

You don't know what you don't know

"Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects
."  ~Will Rogers

In my life I have known many artists who dismiss the idea of structure when it comes to art – and with stories in particular. It doesn’t feel organic for them to work with a plan or to impose a form on their art. They believe that their art will lose emotional power. This is a mistake.

I was once invited to see the one-woman show of an actress I know. She’s a really good actress, smart, funny, quick, talented, and skilled. She gave me tickets to her show and said that following the show there would be a Q&A. I went to the show along with two guests. 

Before the show began the theater was packed and abuzz with anticipation. This actress has quite a local following and people expected to be thoroughly entertained. 

They were not disappointed. The show was funny and engaging and after a spectacular crescendo the lights came up to thunderous applause.

People took this time to grab fresh air and others to smoke in front of the theater.

My friends and I talked about how much we liked the show and debated whether to stay for the Q&A. I thought that I should because she did give me free tickets. So we stayed. But many people did not. I would say more than half of the audience left.

We sat back down expecting the Q&A, but the lights dimmed and, much to our surprise, there was a second part to the show.

When that ended the Q&A did follow. During the Q & A my friend, the actress, commented on the audience that had left at the intermission. She said something to the effect of, “Some people get what I do and some people just don’t get it.” 

This is not an unusual reaction for artist who work strictly from the gut. The “They don’t get me” defense. There are times when that can be true, but mostly it’s the artist who doesn’t “get it,” not the audience.

Thousands of years of conditioning have taught us the natural shape of a story and if you don’t understand that this is so, you may not be clear on just what you are communicating to your audience.

People will often tell me that a film is well structured, but that it is too long. I don’t believe that there is any such thing as too long. Some of the longest films I have ever seen are short films. 

But when a story is aimless and meanders people have no idea of its shape and become uneasy. How many times have you felt like a film was going to end only to have it continue for another 20, 30, or 60 minutes? Each minute past the time when you thought the film was over is a minute too long. It’s poor structure.

If you understand structure you can use people’s expectations to your advantage. I’m not talking about breaking rules so much as bending them.

If you look at James Cameron’s film Aliens, he makes use of audience expectations to create a false ending. There is a fiery climax followed by what appears to be a wrap-up. But we soon find out that this story is not quite done.

Why did this work when my friend’s false climax did not? It’s because the story did not truly resolve. The heroine, Ripley, must do battle with the monster of the story. She must conquer her fear by confronting it in the form of this alien.

At the beginning of the story Ripley is haunted by nightmares of aliens and after this final battle she is free of these dreams. The end.

What my friend failed to realize is that she communicated to us that her show was over. Her show came to a conclusion of an idea culminating with a climax. She told us it was over. But because she did not understand what she had done, she could only blame the viewers.

Understanding the basics of story structure would have helped her keep her audience, and it will help you keep yours.


Tara Maya said...


Your previous post on the importance of theme has stayed with me a long time. Your posts are right on target.

How can you find out if you're doing this? Most beta readers aren't really able to articulate such a subtle but devastating problem, and I think that's why artists assume they just didn't "get it."

Brian McD said...

Thanks for your kind comments about my blog. I’m glad that my posts help you.

In reply to your question, as I understand what you are asking, you can never be exactly sure what’s being communicated through your art, but you can make an educated guess. And this is the key “educated”.

I have known, and many arguments and discussions over the years with artist who choose not to study what communicates. In fact, many dismiss art that communicates as pedestrian and so choose to ignore it rather than study it.

One of the things that I used to do as a teenager was got to a movie several times and after I had seen enough for my own enjoyment and education I would watch and listen to the audience to see how they were reacting and what they reacted too. When were they bored? When were they tense? What made them laugh? Were responses consistent from one audience to the next? I really studied these things.

I read what classic directors and writers said about communication. I read A LOT about what they said. I even found old interviews in old books and magazines. I wanted to know whatever they had to teach me.

But I didn’t just take their word for what they said. I mean I was a kid and so I assumed these people knew more than me, but I also put what they said to the test. I would look for the principles talked about by these masters when I was watching films and television to see these principles at work – to see if they did work.

I did this for years and years. I cannot even calculate the hours I put into trying to understand what kinds of information audiences need to understand an idea.

If I write a scene in a screenplay I can probably point to at least two or three examples in classic cinema or literature where they principles is known to have worked.

Many artists (not all) I have known have not focused on this particular thing. This is not necessarily bad. What is bad is not knowing that you have not focused on it, if you have not, and so dismissing it as unimportant. And I have seen a lot of that in my life.

As for readers of your work, listen to how they feel about the work, not what they think is wrong. They don’t have the tools to diagnose the disease only its symptoms.

Quentin Lebegue said...

Great post again, thank you very much ! Your blog totally rules, I know I said that before but it's true.

Anyway, I keep checking every two or three days to see if there is something about your next book, The Golden Theme, but I didn't find anything yet. When will this jewel come out ? I CAN'T WAIIIIT !

Again, thank you for inspiring all of us to tell better stories !

Jett said...

"There are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns."

I'm paraphrasing and while Donald Rumsfeld took a lot of flack for saying it, I find it's fairly accurate and applicable for a lot of situations.

I used to write "from the gut" and while it felt a little constraining at the beginning I find I'm telling much better stories once I tried to learn what I didn't know I didn't know. :)

Brian McD said...

Quentin, thanks for the kind words. The Golden Theme should be out in the next two weeks or so. We have had some problems that have now been taken care of.

I'm proud of it and hope that people like it as much as they do the first book.

Thanks for asking,

-- Brian

Brian McD said...


I wrote about the very thing you are talking about in another post:

Just in case you haven't read it.

-- Brian