I was planning to include this part yesterday in my talk about structure and the deviation therefrom but I discovered it did not fit the overall, well… structure of yesterday’s post. It’s ironical the way that works – an example of what I am talking about showing up in the writing like that. I guess I can’t help myself. I am a generically “Structure” kind of a guy. Sometimes to a head-scratching degree.
Watch me in a restaurant. I have given the server my credit card and my wallet sits on the table, a reminder to return the card to my wallet when I get it back. But here’s the weird (an embarrassing because it’s me) part.
I am incapable of allowing that wallet to sit in a diagonal angle to my body – it has to sit “squarely” in front of me. That is simply the “right” way a wallet on a table is supposed to sit. It’s at an angle, any angle and it’s like, “I gotta fix that.”
I have tried… deliberately tried… leaving my wallet sitting crazily askew on the table, thinking, “What’s the big deal?” I have no idea. But I know it is a big deal, because after a startlingly brief, pressure-filled interval, I find it impossible not to “square” that old wallet of mine up.
That’s structure. Knowing… or at least believing unalterably… that there is a “right” way of things, triggering an overpowering compulsion to make “wrong” right. Otherwise it’s like… “What? You want me to leave it that way?”
People like me, I think, are attracted to sitcom writing for that very reason. Being of limited duration, the sitcom genre is first and foremost about structure.
Writing half-hour comedies requires you to hew insistently to the superhighway of the episode’s main (and sometimes secondary) storyline. There is not a second for extraneous side trips or humorous digressions. (I know Seinfeld deviated from that format, but theirs was a series about nothing, so they could. Even Seinfeld eventually developed a structure they then habitually adhered to. The more “nothing” they inserted – a conversation concerning the strategic placement of the second-to-the-top button on a man’s shirt, a talk about how often you should trim your toenails, or whether a day can actually feel like a Tuesday – the more they were following their own established template.)
The thing is…
Wait. Continuing hammering home the point…
You need structure… says the man who cannot leave his wallet angled on a table for five seconds without “losing it” so where exactly is his credibility. Still really, you do. Without structure, you’d be flying off everywhichway. No sense of where you are going. No sense of what you are trying to do.
A work without structure… well, have you ever seen a four year-old’s crayoning? It’s a mess. A mess that goes on the refrigerator door, but come on. Delicate feelings aside, it’s chaos.
KRAMER: (SCARILY UNHINGED) “Take it away! I can’t look at it!”
Structure brings requisite order to that chaos: Selective editing, choice of words, modulation of emphasis. (Among other things. I do not teach this for a living. You want the whole story? Sign up at a school.)
Under the oppressive time pressure of sitcom writing, structure avoids the necessity of “reinventing the wheel” on a weekly basis. Though they may radically differ, especially the off-network programming, every show has its own way of handling things, offering variations on that imaginative template in their subsequent episodes. But there is always a blueprint to follow.
You need order. You cannot say that too often… although I possibly have. I mean, it’s not the Army – SOLDIER: “I don’t know, I just felt like marching in circles today.” DRILL SERGEANT: “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” But reliability is important. To the writer as well as the audience. REGULAR VIEWER: “Why is The Good Wife wearing a clown suit in the court room?” THE GOOD WIFE SHOW RUNNER: “We thought we would try something different.” REGULAR VIEWER: “Dress that woman correctly or we are not watching anymore!”
Here’s the Bottom Line: If there is no “right” way of doing something, how would you know when you are doing it wrong?
Still, it is important not to wear out your welcome. Continually doing things the same way breeds thudding familiarity, earning you a ticket on the Express Train to Passé. The “well told story” notwithstanding, something eventually’s got to give.
The question is, where exactly do you draw the line? You know you have to change your approach. But to what degree, and what exactly would that look like?
Examples of breaking the mold versus adhering to the tried-and-true abound everywhere. Consider the current presidential candidates. Trump: Barely coherent (somebody called it “Drunken Wedding Toast Mode”) but difficult to ignore. Hillary: Could not be more orderly. Could not be more “What else is on?”
Forget who you’re gonna vote for. Be honest.
Who puts on the better show?
Structure is comfortably reliable. But “off the cuff”, skillfully executed, can be mesmerizing.
My mode of piano playing shoots for metronomical accuracy. I play the notes on the page. I watch my hand placement on the keyboard, my overuse of the foot pedal. When I’m finished my teacher explains what I got right and what I still need to work on, his assessments based on the collective belief that there is “a right way of playing the piano.”
My step-son-in-law Tim sits down at the piano, and what comes out is original, energetic, unfamiliar-sounding…
… and I cannot take my ears off of it. The word “liberating” comes to mind. It’s like he is playing an entirely different instrument. In a style that is uniquely – and compellingly – his own.
Now don’t expect a guy who needs his wallet to be straight to champion “Throw out the rules.” But put me down for loosening things up. You need a version of that in every endeavor. Christianity loosened up Judaism.
“What’s the big deal about pork?”
That worked out for them. Notice, however, that they did not toss the Old Testament into the trash bin. They appended their new stuff onto the end of it.
Whoa. How did I get here?
Maybe I’m more flexible than I think.