Narrative Structure workshop with Simon Stephens

Last Saturday saw the first of what we hope to be a regular series of workshops held at Bloomsbury. Our inaugural session, How to Shape a Play: Narrative Structure, got started on a wet morning, as 30 dedicated and rain-soaked writers gathered at Bedford Square to spend the day under the guidance of Simon Stephens.

Much of the morning was spent analysing stories of films and plays we were familiar with. Divided into groups, we had to pick key scenes from our chosen works and see whether there was something elemental that the plots of each of our stories shared. Our group had chosen to discuss Closer by Patrick Marber, Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Alien directed by Ridley Scott and The Lion King (which naturally segued into discussing Hamlet), among others.

As the groups fed back to one another, a story structure seemed to be taking shape. Simon Stephens worked to synthesize these as we discussed and, in the end, we had a fairly solid base:

Something happens to a character that disrupts their reality or their environment that throws them into a new world. They lose all control.

As a reaction to this disruption a person or group of people embark on some sort of quest either physical or emotional to get something that they want.

There is an increasingly difficult series of obstacles they have to get over, which become catastrophic, forcing them to reconsider their journey and risk everything that they have.

They make a new plan. Through determination or the windfall of chance, they either succeed or fail in overcoming the obstacles. They are changed as a result of this.

This was then compared with the story structure described by Young Vic Artistic Director, David Lan, which Simon Stephens recalled as follows:

A character exists in a culture. Something about the culture is causing the character to suffer.

Something happens that makes the character realise that they need to do something or get something to ease that suffering.

They go on a journey, which may or may not be a physical journey, in their attempt to do or get this thing.

On this journey they confront obstacles, which they either succeed or fail in overcoming. In their success or their failure, either they learn something about themselves or they fail to learn something about themselves, but implicit in this is that the audience might learn something about the characters.

There was some debate about the universality about this afterwards; some of the writers suggested they would feel constrained if there was a right way and a wrong way to tell a story, while others noticed how similar our spontaneously generated template was to David Lan’s framework.

Ultimately, Simon suggested that there was a difference between knowing what the rules are and then choosing to follow, ignore or subvert them, and remaining in ignorance in the hope that instinct will guide you through. He spoke about the various stages of learning to drive a car: at first, you are in a state of unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you are doing, and you don’t know the details of what you don’t know. As you take lessons, you enter a state of conscious incompetence – you begin to learn what you need to do in order to drive the car, but you aren’t yet able to put them into practice. Next is the state of conscious competence – you are able to drive, but you are still talking yourself through the mnemonics of driving – “mirror, signal, manoeuvre”, “seatbelt, keys, first gear, handbrake”. Finally comes the stage of unconscious competence; you’ve learned all the rules and practised them so often that they are second nature – now you can just get into the car and drive.

After lunch, enjoyed in bright sunshine that contrasted nicely with the heavy rain of the morning, we got down to analysing how to choose what parts of the story we want to show on stage. There were many considerations on this point, but the main points were to ask yourself: how many scenes are there? Where are they set? And when are they set? Simon suggested that the way to answer these questions was to consider one, fundamental thing: what do you want to do (or say) to your audience? Do you want only to entertain, or only to educate? Do you want to confuse your audience, or challenge them? Answering that question will help you to answer the others.

After analysing many plays’ structures, and a close reading of Far Away by Caryl Churchill, we saw that scene selection is a kind of rhythm. In Far Away, we have an opening and a closing scene that stand alone on their timelines several years before and after a cluster of six scenes in the middle. This insistent rhythm of a long beat, a staccato double triplet, and a final long beat, would keep its audience on watch – in the moment, there is nothing regular about it; it is only on reflection that we can see the symmetry and regularity of the rhythm. This musical way of thinking about scene selection was a revelation for me, and I think for others.

It was a long day, full of little gems and larger epiphanies, but at the end, as the writers chatted and discussed their writing lives over a glass of wine, there was a sense of having been involved in a worthwhile discussion; a community had gathered for a moment to talk about the architecture of the stories that they know best, and had found something surprising and revealing at the heart of all of them.