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Structure | Jim Shooter Storytelling Lecture
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Structure

Let me tell you a little bit about some other structural things that you may need to know. You heard me say, “Introduce your characters” a couple of times. What does that mean? What I mean by that is, whenever you are trying to establish your status quo, Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, you have the same duty as the newspaper reporter–who, what, when, where, why, how. You’ve got to give them a clue about what that status quo is so they can understand how it’s disrupted. That means also understanding who these characters are.

When you bring your character on stage, on the figurative stage, you want to let the reader know enough about this guy so he’s got a handle on him. Now you never stop letting the reader know about the guy. Introducing interesting characters doesn’t just end, you keep doing it. When I say introduce the characters what I mean is give the reader a clue. If you go to any professional performance let’s say, a Broadway play, a movie, watch a TV show, or read a good book, usually the first time you see a character the author takes great pains to give you a handle on that character. If the guy in a Broadway play is a tailor, almost certainly the first time you see him he’ll have a tape, he’ll have pins in his mouth, a pair of pants over his arm, chalk marks on his hands, it will tell you he’s a tailor. Sometimes they won’t. Sometimes there’s a scene where he’s in a tuxedo and he’s going to the opera, but the reason they’re doing that is because they are saving it as a surprise–one of the actor’s costume splits, is there a tailor in the house? I’m a tailor! That’s the kind of thing. You guys watch TV. You see movies all the time. You read books all the time. Start watching movies (good movies) twice–once for fun and once with a note pad in your lap, and the pause button in your hand. Start looking at what the writer did, try to figure out why’d he do that. You’ll find that what I’m saying is true. With any professional piece of work the characters are brought on stage, they’re introduced. You get to know them enough so that you can now understand what they are, who they are, so that when the disruption comes you can see it. You’ll also see writers doing all kinds of tricks, literary devices to get their points across.

Aside: Just to bring it back to where we live: ever read a Barks Uncle Scrooge?  The first time we see Uncle Scrooge, he’s ALWAYS DOING SOMETHING CHEAP OR MISERLY. He continues being avaricious throughout the story, doesn’t he? But the first time we see him, for sure, he’s fishing a nickel out of a sewer grate with some gum on a string or somesuch. Do it well, make it amusing or dramatic and no one notices that you’re introducing the character.

Remember that’s what we’re doing. We’re communicating. If you don’t communicate, what’s the difference if you have a great story? You’ll see professional writers foreshadow things. You’ll see them do parallel construction to make points. You’ll see them do juxtaposition of scenes to try to drive home a point or create contrast. You’ll see them use irony, or contrast, or mood, or imagery. Now I’m not equipped to stand here and have the time to go through all that and try to explain how’s it done, and in truth in a collaborative medium like comics it really is much better for me to get on and to show you the artwork and then you’ll start seeing how some of these things interplay. Go to the library, but use your eyes. Start examining what you’re looking at, the movie you’re looking at, examining it, and finding out what the guy’s doing and why. Try to figure out what was in the writer’s head. You’ll find in Star Wars the first time you see Luke Skywalker, they tell you who he is. And I don’t mean they just say, “Hey, here’s Luke.” They show him doing something that is germane to his character. The same with every other character. As I say they don’t stop, and every once in a while they’ll change up on you, they’ll show you something contrary so that they can reveal later that the guy is a tailor, but basically you should look for that.

I’m going to walk you quickly through a movie called Rocky. I’ll just touch on a few scenes from Rocky that basically will illustrate some of what I’m talking about in terms of building these things into the story. Rocky’s not high art but is impeccably constructed. It’s like level two. It’s a story, it’s a good story because it has a lot of bits in it. I think Stallone did make a stab at trying to say something, but he ain’t no Mark Twain.

What’s the first scene in Rocky? Rocky’s in the ring. He’s not in a tux. He’s not at the opera. He’s in an arena. The guy’s a fighter. The event that happens in the ring is a little taste of what the whole thing is about. In a way you can think of it as a comic book. It’s a splash page. Hi, here’s who I am. Rocky’s in the ring and he’s fighting, and the manager’s screaming at him because he should win this fight but he’s losing. He just doesn’t have the killer instinct. However, when the other guy cheats and then it sort of upsets Rocky’s sense of justice, fair play, and manhood, then he knocks the guy out.

That’s Rocky. In the first 20 minutes of Rocky, what happens? You meet the manager and you understand what his deal is. You meet Rocky and see that he’s a failed leg breaker for the mob because that’s the only way he can make a living. He’s too soft hearted to go and break anybody’s thumb but that’s the only job he can get. The mobster who uses him is always disappointed because Rocky’s failed to break the guy’s leg. You meet the girl in the pet shop. You meet her brother. You see the kids in the street. You see that Rocky lives in a poor neighborhood. You see the gym, it’s a grungy place–a little tiny place where old guys with cigars come to watch pugs fight. You see the locker room. You see that if a fighter is on his way out they get their stuff put in a bag. Rocky has a locker. Okay so we see all that and it’s Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey.

Fine, I understand this guy. He’s an aging pug. Why am I here? Why am I watching? About 20 minutes into this movie something happens–an opportunity in fact. The aging pug is given a shot at the champ. That’s not a problem. That’s not a conflict. That’s an opportunity. Go into the ring, get hit in the head, fall down, collect a million dollars, go home. I’d do it. That is the element that disrupts the status quo. If it wasn’t for that, we’d just kind of watch Rocky get older I suppose and eventually drink himself to death or something. But anyway he gets a shot at the champ.

All that stuff that they showed in the first 20 minutes then comes into play. All of a sudden his relationship changes with the manager, his relationship changes with the pet shop girl, because he’s not just a pug anymore, he’s a contender. His relationship changes with the future brother-in-law. His relationship changes with the mobster. He’s not just a failed leg breaker. He’s a contender. The mobster gives him money, “Here you need some money to train.” Takes the cigarette out of his mouth and says, “You’re in training. You’re the Italian stallion, man. You’re our hope.” A lot of stuff changes. You meet the champ, you see Rocky’s interaction with the champ. Watch Rocky sometime. Rent Rocky, I don’t care if you’ve seen it. Watch it with a note pad in your lap. Try to pick apart every scene and figure out why it’s there. It will be incredibly instructional in terms of how to get points across. For instance, parallel construction–the first time you see Rocky jogging to try to get in shape, he runs to the top of the stairs, he’s exhausted. Later, while the getting stronger theme is being played, he runs to the top of those same stairs and he feels great. So what Stallone has done is, he said “see he couldn’t before, but he can now.” He didn’t have him run to the top of a different hill because then you wouldn’t know. It has to be the same hill–parallel construction.

Everything that was introduced in the first 20 minutes of that movie is used. Now, I happen to know that Rocky goes to the library on Saturdays and reads Dr. Seuss books. You didn’t know that, did you? It’s not in the movie. Why? It’s not relevant so they cut it out. All right, I’m kidding, I made that up, but you see my point. Everything there is used.

Nothing unnecessary is in there. Even the kids on the street become important.

There’s another instance of parallel construction. Rocky’s in a bar, sees the champ on TV and the champ looks great. He’s surrounded by reporters, and he’s walking through an airport and a reporter says, “Champ you got any words for the children of America?” The champ says, “Yes, stay in school. Become doctors and lawyers. Don’t be a fighter like me. It’s much too tough.” Rocky in the bar is moved. It’s like little Jimmy watching Stan Lee. It was wow! So Rocky goes out, remember those kids out in the street? Well, he takes this one little girl and he says you shouldn’t be hanging around on the street. He drags her home and he’s giving her a lecture. He’s trying to do what the champ did. He’s trying to give a message to the children of America. He takes her home and she turns and says, “Rocky…” He says, “What kid?” and she gives him the finger. Parallel construction. The champ does it and gets respect. Rocky does it and he gets disrespect. It sends you a message. It’s there for a reason. He’s making a point.

Every scene you do should be there for a reason, it has to make a point, or get rid of it. It doesn’t matter how clever you think it is. If it isn’t relevant, lose it. You’ll use it in the next story.