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the perils of vivisection
I've discovered that it's unsettling to roll all the innards of one's writing process out on a whiteboard for six people to contemplate. I've explained aspects of it often enough without even breaking a sweat, but when it came time set the whole thing out clinically in black and white for fellow artists, I turned out to be pretty nervous about it. I didn't think I would be. Some part of me must still fear, even after all the years spent developing my narrative ideas, that pulling aside this particular curtain will reveal me to be a shrivelled old man with a smoke machine.

I suppose it's a sort of dissection anxiety. Maybe after seeing it clearly from the inside, my writing will feel less alive in some way. But there is nothing for it now but to let it all hang out. It's required of me, by our approach to the Toronto Film Challenge.

the pulse
A lot of time was spent at Wednesday night's film challenge meeting justifying why my narrative structure of question and answer is a good way to look at storytelling, and why I think it's something we can use to our advantage. It's a little bit too detailed an argument for me to reproduce here, but what I will post is a rundown of the narrative symbols or 'glyphs' we'll be using, along with examples and notation as reminders to all of you who were there. And it will hopefully serve to reduce the 'symbol shock' effect on dry run day for those of you weren't there.

These are the basic glyphs in a single narrative pulse of question and answer.

ANGLEA strong central question has been raised.
HOOKA new question has been hinted at or alluded to, leaving two questions in place (represented by the two corners): a strong dominant question and a fainter, fledging question.
BULLETWith the interest earned by having set up more than one question in our minds, the story now has the luxury to indulge for a time in pure characterisation, or philosophy, or imagery, without losing the audience. Not necessarily a question or an answer, but whatever is used to occupy the space in between.
FLAGThe strong central question has now been answered, closing or 'flagging' off that corner, leaving only one open corner, or question, remaining.

the questions
Okay. All of this stuff about narrative questions kind of begs the question, of what is a narrative question? I went into this in some depth in the meeting, but here I will only provide a set of examples as a guide.

Onscreen actionOur main questionOur secondary questions
Two actors point their guns offscreen.What are they aiming at?What made it necessary to pull their pistols? (And who are they even to have pistols?)
A man adjusts an obviously fake beard after knocking at a door.Why does he need to be in disguise?What's his relationship to whoever lives there? (And what will they make of the beard?)
A character obsesses privately over every word said by a friend in ordinary conversation.Why is there such unusual interest attached to this friend?When will that interest be revealed? (And how will the friend react?)

The point of giving such widely varied examples is to demonstrate that looking at narrative in terms of question and answer does not impose any particular type of dialogue or genre, nor does it dictate any level of broadness or subtlety.
the structure
The idea of the full narrative structure is to capture the audience by not allowing them ever to think that they have quite all the information they feel they want to know, and to achieve this in a formal way through the abstraction of symbols. So in each of the above examples, the narrative structure would continue by answering one of the questions (probably the main question), but leaving the secondary questions open for a while—at least until we've found some candidates to replace them.

What you end up with is a writing plan with a lot of structure but without any content. That is exactly the opposite of the usual problem with improvisation, which is why I think (and hope) that my narrative structure and improvisational acting might fit like hand in glove. The result should go something like this (I've separated the symbols horizontally to give each question its own column, which may help):

Step#  QA   QB   QC   QD      Writing Task
1. Raise QUESTION A.
3. Write freestyle.
4. Answer QUESTION A.
5. Raise/repeat QUESTION B.
7. Write freestyle.
8. Answer QUESTION B.
9. Raise/repeat QUESTION C.
10. Hint QUESTION D.
11. Write freestyle.
12. Answer QUESTION C.
13. Raise/repeat QUESTION D.
14. Hint QUESTION E.
15. Write freestyle.
16. Answer QUESTION D.

Looking at it now it seems really complicated, but once you realise that it's just the same four-symbol sequence repeated four times in a row to make sixteen (and rotated 90 degrees with every change of question to help us distinguish them).

The reason that I have separated them into three groups instead of four is that thinking of the structure as four 'stanzas' or 'acts' each ending in an answered question is a little bit like attack of the robo-writer or something. Staggering the breaks so that you think of it as three separate movements lends each of the three its own unique character ... you can imagine that the camera fades to black between the stanzas if it helps you.

So that's it, those are the keys to the kingdom, as far as my writing goes, in short form anyway. I hope it doesn't suck anyone's enjoyment out of my writing. I have been writing this way for over a decade now. At the beginning I used the structure for short narrative poems. Then I moved on to short stories. Check out this previous post for examples of each. Lately I have been applying it a lot more rigorously to the writing of scripts, some of which are already posted on this site. I direct you specifically to The Citizen as a good example of strong central questions.

Also, here's the first stanza of something I wrote this morning that I really want to finish. It's the best beginning I've had in a while. (Perhaps inspired by last night's talk?) I didn't have time to complete it because I had to write this post, but I do think that it's a particularly clear example of how you can toy with the structure if you treat it as a set of opportunities rather than a straitjacket. Also it represents exactly the amount of story I want to achieve with everybody on the dry run day as an exercise.

And with that I'll bring this interminable post to a close. I hope that this helps everyone understand what we are trying to achieve, and if you have any questions or concerns about it, posting them at the bottom of this page instead of in an email would be particularly useful in this case, since I'm quite sure that other people share your concerns and it will save me having to answer them multiple times. As always, though, email and/or phone calls are fine and I'll respond promptly.
the rogue
I'd like for us to come up with a genre. I don't think this is going to stifle the creative aspects of this film but instead help create the kind of film we want. Should this film feel like a nice safe walk in the park? Or is it meant to feel like a rollercoaster? Should our improvs lean towards suspense or comedy? we could spend a lot of time improving without even establishing this. Of course it could come out naturally, organically, but if everyone starts on the same page we create a mutual atmosphere that becomes more and more contagious.

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