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Susan Kim

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The Fiction of Nonfiction TV

Posted: 01/27/11 10:40 PM ET

Is plot dead?

I had a recent argument with a playwriting student who thought it was. It wasn't just plot that was dead. She told me that the whole concept of character-driven narrative structure in dramatic writing, the so-called "well-made story", was out-of-date, bourgeois and boring.

Actually, to say we were "arguing" is putting it strongly; I teach in a low-residency MFA program, and so our discussion was not only quite civil, it was quaintly epistolary, conducted via letters over several weeks. What's more, this student is no kid. She's also smart as a whip and has worked as a theater professional around the world. She's mulled about this kind of thing for years. And so I gave serious thought to what she had to say. In the end, I still disagreed.

By the end of the semester, we may not have seen things eye-to-eye. But she taught me a lot about postmodern theatre and I read a bunch of plays I hadn't read before, many of which I thought were terrific. I also like to hope I convinced her, even a little, of the continuing power of that ancient (I would actually say hardwired) form, the well-told story. Most important, because I had to defend my position, the exchange made me think hard about something I've spent years taking for granted: the importance of that strange thing we call narrative structure.

Every writer I know who belongs to the Writers Guild of America, East -- screenwriters, TV writers, news writers -- depends on structure. It's our go-to weapon, our primary tool of choice: kind of like our t-square/hammer/calculator/Singer sewing machine, all rolled into one. Without a solid structure, a story, any story, slowly collapses in on itself like an improvised Lego suspension bridge. I'd go so far as to paraphrase Thomas Edison and say that good writing is 1% inspiration and 99% structure. Sure, dialogue is important; but like everything, it serves the story. And story is basically all about structure.

Structure, of course, isn't some kind of rigid code, a one-size-fits-all Iron Maiden into which one must cram one's genius. Good writers are constantly tinkering with structure, which arises from specific characters, their situation, their wants, and their problems. Good story structure, after all, can be anything: it can be loopy and deconstructed; it can turn chronology inside out, shatter the fourth wall, break reality, and be as full of surprises, misdirections, and dead ends as a moonlit neighborhood in Venice, the kind you chase a murderous dwarf through because you're convinced it's a kid in a red raincoat. So what makes structure good? As has been said of music, if it sounds good, it is good. If the structure makes organic sense with the story that's being told, if it drives the action... then it's good. If you're riveted to your chair, if you keep your hand off the clicker, if the ending resonates so much that you're still talking about it weeks later... then whoever the writer is, she or he has earned that paycheck.

Recently, some fellow members of the Writers Guild and I were talking with a room full of producer/writers who work in nonfiction TV (i.e. "reality" shows like The First 48, Steven Seagal: Lawman, Four Weddings), mostly for cable. One producer/writer was talking about a show she works on, which features a medical pathologist who performs autopsies. A colleague of mine said she was a fan of the show and that she was always delighted there was a surprise ending, a twist at the end she hadn't expected. The producer/writer gave a wry smile and said, "Yeah... because we put it there."

Of course, it's something we all knew intellectually... and yet there it was, a visceral reminder in a specific example. The producer/writers of nonfiction TV are masters of story structure, the same as the rest of us; and they deserve to join our ranks and get a union contract.