(first draft, not edited)
I’m grateful to have stumbled upon Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative this year. Experiments with structure have been part of my writing process for a long time. Some of those experiments have been better received than others, but I always feel successful for having conducted the experiment. Is there only one acceptable result? And that would be what? Popularity? Box office success? Critical acclaim? Respect of peers? Right – we have different benchmarks.
Having read a spectrum of feminist theory and literature since the early ‘90s, the masculine rules of script writing began to concern me in grad school. Was it harder for female artists to succeed in the arts because they had been socialized as women – to be receptive, to listen, to cater to, to accommodate, to not be perceived as too aggressive, too ambitious, too intimidating, etc.? Do female characters have to act “like men” in order to be interesting?
This is a yang paradigm given preference to the yin – you can separate it from sex, from gender.
tender softness is not weak
dark is not bad, is not negative
Balance is a virtue.
No one values the inhale over the exhale – or vice versa – do they?
There is no sigh without first taking in air.
No output without input.
So why is the “masculine” valued over the “feminine,” given more credit, allowed to oppress, suppress, (punish), (doubt), interrupt, deny, judge, restrict, overpower, overrule, override, repress.
It is mostly men who decided what makes a script good or bad and success meant writing according to this collective wisdom. During grad school, I began researching what I would call the “passivity project” for lack of a better word.
It’s not that I wanted to write passive characters – victims who were acted upon instead of taking action. But … shouldn’t the yin weigh as heavily as the yang in all things, including storytellling? Were the nuances of craft being neglected because men are fixated on the form of their own climax?
In Alison’s book, I found confirmation of the questions I had been pondering.
Alison acknowledges the elegance of the wave at the same time she questions the monopoly of the traditional “arc.”
“Its rise and fall traces a motion we know in heartbeats, breaking surf, the sun passing overhead. There’s power in a wave, its sense of beginning, midpoint, and end; no wonder we fall into it in stories. But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life, Why not draw on them, too?
She cites the “Coriolis force” as a pattern of personal preference she’s come to embrace. And I’ve been emboldened to continue my exploration of alternative structures. There remains a risk that as we stray from Aristotelian convention and Freytag’s triangle that our work will be underestimated and misunderstood.
I often refer to my script Pepper Canyon Blues, which I put on the back burner after a certain number of rejections. Spanning two decades in the life of a Scranton tribute band who performs the songs of a legendary ‘60s-’70s (Laurel Canyon-like) band from Manchester that I made up, the play is written in scenes structured like the tracks of a vinyl record album. It was a conscious decision on my part to craft scenes which acted like songs might over the course of an album – an opening number that sets the tone, a love song, a dark or sad song, a comedic number, nostalgia, an abstract, poetic track, a triumphant number, a revealing confession, an encore. Inspired in part, by the time I spent as a journalist who hung out with musicians but wasn’t one of the band, the scenes also question memories, the way we (choose) to remember or talk about key moments.
The feedback I received from a reader at the Austin Film Festival scolded me because he never doubted the band would get back together. Okay… but that wasn’t the point of the play. Who wants to watch the version where the band does not play the reunion concert? It’s not even a spoiler for me to share this. I’m not going to tease you with that shit. Will they or won’t they? Of course they fucking do. There are some moments of doubt, but because they are artists, it’s something they all have to do for whatever their personal reasons are. It is destined.
Was this concept not a worthy experiment? Should I have to explain it? Did I do it wrong? Does a play shaped like an album have to follow the arc, too?
I could go on – believe me, my notes on this are building as I create a workshop lesson on alternative structures.
Writing against the grain on tradition.
There are the alternatives of which Alison writes, and what else …
Russian dolls (written from the inside out?)
carousel, Ferris wheel, fun house
bento box – compartments and divided compartments and sauce cups within them, stacked…
And then do we have to place those scenes in chronological order?
In the first Dyonisia festival with the Jason Miller Playwrights’ Project, we mapped the different rooms of a fictional Scranton boarding house, The Providence Arms, and each participating writer was assigned a room in which their scene would take place.
What else –
solar system: unique planets in orbit around a star.
Send me your ideas! I’d love to hear them and I will credit you, of course. -ag