Form Follows Function and Other Lessons My Mother Keeps Teaching Me

Form Follows Function and Other Lessons My Mother Keeps Teaching Me

There's something different about growing up with a family of artists.  Whenever I explain my childhood to people, I always start out saying both my parents were artists, and there's an immediate recognition in people's eyes. I can't explain why everyone seems to immediately realize that my childhood was different. Maybe because at some point we all took art history and heard stories of Hemingway, Warhol, and Picasso.

I can assure you my parents were not like the three of them.

For the most part my childhood was fairly traditional. I went to a regular school. We celebrated holidays just like everyone else. Though admittedly my parents wouldn't go the extra mile when it came to decorations. Did my mother sketch a giant star on the side of the house so that my dad could outline it in string lights? Yes. Or my Halloween costumes a little bit over the top, going so far as to convincing my best friend to dress up as day while I dressed up as night, and we performed a solar eclipse during the Halloween costume contest? Yes.  

We also lost that contest.

There were aspects of my childhood that were different if there was any place where artistic skill could be used it was used to the Nth degree. Every vacation came with a museum trip. And by the time I was 12, I decided Warhol was derivative, and my obsession with Picasso was child naivety.

What I didn't realize until I was older is how much my mother's artistic principles influenced my life and my own artistry. As an artist, my mother was a child of the Bauhaus movement. Looking back at her art I can see the ideas of Bauhaus so clearly.

For years I heard the same phrase, form follows function.

I thought that strictly applied to her art, but as I packed up our family home after her death, I realized how much that phrase impacted so much of her life. I could see it in how she laid out her kitchen and how she perfected the perfect triangle for cooking. I could see every part of her desk was a setup meant to be the most conducive form to help her work.  

A few years after she passed, as I was writing a screenplay, I realized the phrase I heard so much in my life, form follows function, had followed me to my chosen artistry.  

We've all seen the Twitter/X arguments about screenplay form and formatting. We all have our opinions on whether or not a slugline should be bold or not, what should be capitalized and what shouldn't, or when a pilot should have act breaks and when it shouldn't. Hell, we've all probably gotten into those arguments and our writers’ groups. We argue because our art form, screenwriting, is different from so many other types of writing.  

In screenwriting, form literally follows function.

At the end of the day, what we're writing doesn't end on the page. It's taken to a director who works with an art department to visualize what we've written. Then actors take the words and interpret them in ways we didn't expect. Then it moves through post and CGI and editors get their hands on something that is no longer the written word but a visual piece of art. Finally, it lands in a movie theater and the projectionist puts their own spin on what started out as a handful of words and the audience interprets that without our involvement.

What we write has to fit all of those parts.

That is the reason behind the form and the formatting we all spend hours arguing over. The information in your bolded or un-bolded slugline has to be there because how does the location scout know what you need. The action description starting every scene has to be there because the actors need to know what scenes they're in, and the set designer needs to know the visuals.

When I was in school, I remember hearing constantly structure being referred to as freedom. That if you worked within the structure, you would find creative freedom, and I agree with that sentiment. However, I don't like it anymore.  

Instead, I like to replace it with form following function.  

As a screenwriter, there's an isolation in what we do. We're not always on the set watching our work become visual. More often than not, we pass on the screenplay and see the finished product with audiences. Because of that, it's easy to forget why we're doing what we're doing. For me, saying form follows function reminds me that I'm just the first step in creating this piece of art, and I have to make sure that, on top of telling a good story, I write a script that everyone that comes after me can we get it to its final visual form.

My mother seemed to know I was going to end up in the film industry far before I did.  She always told the story of how she knew I was meant to be a writer. One weekend I had painted a bunch of grey abstract finger paintings. Once they dried, I promptly asked my mother to transcribe a story to go along with the paintings. I was three and couldn't write, so my mother proceeded to write down the story of a storm.  That's when she knew I would be a writer. A few years later, I felt deeply in love with movies after another weekend when my grandfather and I spent the entire time watching Gene Kelly films.

Realizing that my own artistic philosophy, my own path, came from her has been a comfort and has been the only thing that's brought me back to writing.

*Feature photo by Daria Obymaha (Pexels)

Teresa Warner is a screenwriter based in Austin. She is a graduate of the University of Texas. She writesYA dramedies not tragedies and is a self described OG Emo Kid.
More posts by Teresa Warner.
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