Is structural theory a necessary evil in storytelling? In his article “All Stories Are the Same” for The Atlantic, John Yorke notes that a great number popular stories share a common structure or arc. Yorke teases examples of this very phenomenon from ancient and recent great works in many disciplines, asking how artists can play against archetype and win critic and audience alike.
Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro is a staunch advocate of freeing audiences from structure. As Yorke describes him and others whose are biased to resist structural norms:
“Del Toro echoes the thoughts of many writers and filmmakers; there’s an ingrained belief for many that the study of structure is, implicitly, a betrayal of their genius; it’s where mediocrities seek a substitute muse. Such study can only end in one way. David Hare puts it well: ‘The audience is bored. It can predict the exhausted UCLA film-school formulae—acts, arcs, and personal journeys—from the moment that they start cranking. It’s angry and insulted by being offered so much Jung-for-Beginners, courtesy of Joseph Campbell. All great work is now outside genre.’”
As an audience, we tire of the reuse of familiar structures to house the narrative, whatever the storytelling medium. We want to be surprised, even if we’re engaged in the retelling of old stories, as in the case of the incredible popularity of film sequels and sagas. Deviating from the audience’s expectations is the basis for virtuosity.
Yorke quotes describes the way artists can value formal conventions without being formulaic.
“… As the creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin, puts it: ‘The real rules are the rules of drama, the rules that Aristotle talks about. The fake TV rules are the rules that dumb TV execs will tell you; “You can’t do this, you’ve got to do—you need three of these and five of those.” Those things are silly.’ Sorkin expresses what all great artists know—that they need to have an understanding of craft. Every form of artistic composition, like any language, has a grammar, and that grammar, that structure, is not just a construct—it’s the most beautiful and intricate expression of the workings of the human mind.”
It’s a timeless message for artists that arises often: it pays to learn the language of one’s chosen medium, inhale its essence from the masters, and emulate great minds that successfully deviate from form.