A spooky little thing I noticed about our unconscious need for structure

I go on about structure a lot, particularly in screenwriting, but also in my prose fiction. I teach screenwriting classes at Worcester University and Birmingham City University, both at undergraduate and masters level, and with each intake I find myself giving students my take on the basics of 3-Act Structure as defined by screenwriting guru Syd Field (hear us chat about it in my podcast), or the mythological paradigm of the Hero’s Journey, from Campbell via Vogler.

A lot of people in writing circles reject these easy paradigms as ‘formulaic’ and insist that great stories are much more complex than the simple 3-Act structure, and if you want to write great stories, whether in film or as novels, you’d be better off ignoring these structures and going with your gut instinct.

I actually like that point of view.

I’m a firm believer in the ‘vomit draft’. Sketch a vague outline of your story, know pretty much where you think it’s going, then start writing like crazy and don’t stop to think about it until it’s finished and it’s gone somewhere you never expected.

Only then, I think, is it useful to look at structure and see how something like the Hero’s Journey, or Syd Field, or  The Sequence Approach might help in solving some of the story problems and helping with the bits that don’t work.

So I’m not there in every class yelling ‘You vill all use zese plot points in zis exakt order or you vill be shot!’

But I’ve seen how telling students about these structural patterns and how they can use them as tools if they want to gives them an a-ha! moment. And it was great to be told by a novelist who took my screenwriting class that my guide to screenwriting structure had given her a breakthrough with the novel she was writing and allowed her to finish it successfully.

I think those patterns are there in all stories and not only that, but the human brain has an innate need to seek out those patterns and respond to them.

So that’s how I teach this stuff: here are the structural paradigms that you can see; you might recognise them in almost every film you’ve seen or book you’ve read; if your story doesn’t feel right it might be because you’re missing one of these elements; if it already feels right don’t take out a tool and ruin it.

I think we create those structural patterns even when we think we’re composing something randomly…

which brings me to the spooky little thing  I noticed about our unconscious need for structure…

A month or so back, I put together a backdrop of my book covers for my Twitter page. It was pretty simple. I dropped eight of my covers into a 2×4 grid and tiled it across the page. This is the grid below.

I did it quickly and didn’t think about it much. It is composed of works by three different designers: Pete Bradbury designed six of the covers, Ian Dodds the Lovers in Paris book at the bottom, and the Budapest Breakfast Club was done by me.

If I had one design concern in laying them out, it was to avoid the sepia/yellowy covers being next to each other, so I broke them up with the ones that tended to the blue end of the colour scale. That was it, really. Fairly random.

It was only yesterday that I noticed a much more interesting and entirely unconscious structural patterning at work. Can you see it?

Look closely at what is similar about each pair of images.

The first pair: each cover features a teenage girl’s face to the left foreground, with a male figure on the right background. Strange eh? And totally accidental.

What about the next pair? Not much similarity there… except both covers feature my girlfriend Lorna acting as model. In fact they’re the only covers on which she features, and I’ve placed them side by side.

Next pair. The two books whose only prominent feature is a building: Wembley Stadium for one, the Great Church in Debrecen for the other.

And finally, there’s nothing similar there is there? Well, how about each book cover features four human figures: two large, two small.

I may well be pushing it slightly with that last one, but I think the patterns are startling when you look at them.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that the structure you create unconsciously is probably going to be the right one and it might take you a while to see the pattern in it, but knowing a little about the structural patterns you might unconsciously create will help you a lot.

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