those hidden I-beams
I’m amazed when I hear of writers who say they don’t draw up a structural framework before plunging into writing a first draft. More power to them, but I don’t know how they do it. And I privately wonder how many hundreds (or thousands)of pages of exploration they have staggered through to come up with their workable draft. I believe (as do most folks working in this business of writing plays and screenplays)that drawing up a set of plans or charting out a road map before the actual writing begins is a much more beneficial, efficient and practical approach and I can think of no better way to get a grasp of the importance of this than to look at the process involved in constructing a large building…
Imagine you’re walking along a downtown street in a big city and come across a construction site for an office tower. There’s a viewing window in the ten-foot-high construction fence and you stop to take a look. Inside you discover they’re relatively early in the process of putting up the building. The enormous deep hole is dug, the footings have been poured, and from them steel girders rise several stories. A huge crane is lifting more of the I-beams onto the structure. The construction site is strewn with piles of building materials–reinforcing rods, plastic plumbing pipes, electrical conduit, and so on. Cement trucks rumble in and out. Workmen in hardhats are riveting, pounding, operating equipment, looking at plans.
Whenever I look over a scene like this, I’m always fascinated by how something this big, this complicated, can be constructed with such precision, one bolt at a time. To me it seems overwhelming, an impossible task. But the buildings get built and when they’re finished we look at polished stone and tinted glass gracefully rising above us. All the inner workings and support structures are hidden from view; out of sight, out of mind. We’re presented with an impressive facade that we may either like or despise, but it doesn’t occur to us to ask what’s holding this enormous edifice up or keeping it from collapsing. We walk inside without a thought to our safety. It’s expected that the recessed lighting will stay on and the toilets will flush, not to mention that the ceiling will stay put and the floor will not give way.
What allows buildings to be constructed successfully, of course, is that they’re first carefully and painstakingly designed and planned. People labor for weeks, months, and sometimes years over the drawings as they evolve. Engineers figure out the loads and the stress limits on materials. Architects incorporate structural requirements into their designs and draw up specifications. Eventually a finished set of plans emerges and bids are sought. The prevailing contractor charts the building process in every detail, locating all materials and signing on subcontractors. Only then does shovel hit soil.
Writing a play or screenplay must go through an analogous process. It’s too complicated and multi-layered a project to attempt without careful planning and the drawing up of a structural blueprint. In fact, I would venture to say that plays and screenplays, of all forms of fiction, are the most dependent on structural design for their ultimate success. Writing good dialogue and creating wonderful characters are essential, but a playwright or screenwriter without a sound working grasp of dramatic structure is destined to failure.
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