The Debate: Structure vs. Voice

The Debate: Structure vs. Voice

Steam often rises from our Pipeline staff Slack with gently heated discussions about the craft and business of writing. When Spike Scarberry threw down the gauntlet, insisting structure was more important than voice, Karin Partin Wells raised her hand to battle in a public debate for Symposium.

Before you declare your own decision—hear them out. Minds have known to be changed.

We present opening arguments.

Mr. Spike Scarberry takes the mic ...

There is no denying that both voice and structure are important ingredients in the making of a great screenplay. But that’s not the core question at hand here. This article is asking which of these things is MORE important, and to that, the answer is clear:

Structure is absolutely the more important element of narrative storytelling. And my reasoning is this: you can have a good script without great voice, but you cannot have a good script without great structure.

If you think back to 3rd grade math class, this is similar to that rule about how “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.” I would be willing to bet you that at the heart of it, every great screenplay has an easily identified structure—one that hits on all the metrics necessary to tell an effective story. But not all great screenplays are written by people with a compelling voice, because frankly, there are very few writers alive who can claim to have such a powerful way with words.

I’d like to turn your attention to Exhibit A of my argument, which is a screenplay I read just a few weeks ago (yes, obviously none of you read this specific work, but bear with me for a second). It was about a lonely guy who discovered that his favorite celebrity lived in the same town that he did. He started following her around on errands, stalking her at home, breaking in when she wasn’t there, etc. Eventually, this all came to a head in the third act.

Now, this writer did not have a great voice. They didn’t possess a masterful hold of the English language, they weren’t a fantastic wordsmith, and failed to vary their sentence structure. The voice was decidedly lacking.

But the story still worked. Refer back to the brief summary I posted above. You can see the framework of a narrative there. The fundamental basics of what each act is supposed to do was present in the read (the first act set the stage, the second developed the characters and increased the tension, and the third delivered a satisfying ending to the reader). The script had good structure. Did I enjoy the read from beginning to end? No. But that’s not the point. Even without voice, you can still have a workable story.

Take for example an entirely different script … one that is written by a fabulous writer, but completely lacks narrative fundamentals. Yes, the wordsmithing is brilliant. Yes, the sentences flow spectacularly. Yes, the imagery is phenomenal and the writing completely unique and stylized. In my career, I have read many writers like this … but if they do not have the ability to create tension in a scene, and to build up a narrative that the reader can follow along with and understand from page to page, then you don’t have a screenplay.

What you have is a bunch of scenes that don’t make any sense.

I would love to quote a specific example of such a read, but I can’t. Literally. You know why? Because if I tried, it would come out like gibberish. You’d be sitting here going, “What the hell are you talking about, Spike? What you’re saying isn’t tracking.”

All of the great writing in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t take that ability and funnel it into a cohesive plot! Period. Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200. End of story.  

In fact, I challenge each and every one of you to go out there and find the shooting drafts of basically any movie produced in the last twenty years. What you’ll likely find is that every ounce of the writer’s voice has been stripped away. All that’s left is the structure of the narrative!

Because the writer’s voice only impacts one person: the reader. The audience never sees it.

It is ultimately unimportant to the finished product that Hollywood makes. It’s unseen by the actual movie. To me, this proves my point: you don’t need a strong voice to craft a workable script. But you can’t have a great script without strong structure. It is fundamentally more important to the process.

I respect my opponent’s opinion in this debate. I really do. But for now, the defense rests.

Karin Partin Wells puts on her gloves ...

Voice equates to personal style, taste, character choices, and themes a writer brings to the story. It can be challenging to define, and even harder to teach, because how can you label essence?

But I’m going to try, because we have the same regurgitated structure without it.

Take a look at two of the recent Marvel franchise action-sequence styles. In Shang-Chi, the rhythm stands out from the very first fight sequence on the bus. Even the bus honking follows along with the music. Nothing disrupts the flow. This synchronicity contrasts the violent dissonance we are used to in action. This movement becomes thematic to the story, where this secret world in the forest is one with the universe around them, and that’s how they win. This oneness throughout the film stands out as so clear that even my six-year-old noticed the fighting was like dancing.

Yet, if you watch the first action sequence in Hawkeye, when she takes Ronin’s cloak, extreme noise, lights flashing, and grunts from the main character overwhelm us as if we’re in a bomb shelter. We can’t escape the war attacking us on all sides. This vision becomes the voice of the series, even though this has the same executive producer and Marvel World as Shang-Chi.

The simplest way to deliver your voice is through formatting, and writers often push back on this, saying they’ll fix it later (they won’t) or that these choices are all left up to the director. And while that is somewhat true, the pacing of your action significantly affects the final product. If your actions are isolated and staccato as in Ash Vs. Evil Dead’s pilot (do yourself a favor and read this as an example of exceptional action writing), then your fight sequences will have that same quickness.

Another great way to show your voice is through the character’s personality. I teach an exercise that asks writers to use the same structure to help writers define their voice. The outcome will widely vary, even though the movements' beginning goal and ending are the same.

If you'd like to try it with a fellow writer, here it is: Your character must want love at the start of the first movement. Your character can be lovely, or they can be an asshole. Either way, make love difficult for them to achieve along the way, but they get a date at the end of this first road they go down.

Writers can all follow this exact structure: they tried all the typical ways to get a date—dating apps, bars, you let your Mom set you up, and guess what? Mom got you a date.

And then, in the next movement, what are the ways your character’s personality can mess up the date? If they’re lovely, are they too shy? If they’re an asshole, how do they push someone away? And is this an action? A rom-com? A horror? Is your horror funny, like Sam Raimi, or is there zero levity like IT? I love Stephen King, but geez, can we get at least one laugh in the first chapter? I think the producers figured this need out to have one small break, and that’s why they brought on Bill Hader for IT: Chapter Two. He’s an example of how an actor brings their voice to the project ... he can’t help but be funny.

At the end of this second movement, you must make your character give up love forever. This date went so poorly that they swear off love. And they must do something tangible that proves they are finished trying for love. I’d have them join a nunnery, but what’s your version? Or every writer can make them join a nunnery! Because even if we all write this structure, it will still be different because of who we are and what our voice brings.

And then, in the next movement, they go down the road of being firmly single, with an active goal to stay single, and then, of course, in the end, they meet someone. Who do they meet? How do they meet them? Make it entirely difficult for them to be single. For me, the end of this movement means my character has some serious sparks with Ruby Rose or Idris Elba, who happens to be the gardener in the nunnery.

And then what do they do and/or want? You can veer off into all the roads they take, and the tactics to overcome the obstacles, so they can have a successful relationship in the end. Shang-Chi gave us a love story without ever having sparks fly. We get invested in this friendship between Shaun and Katy, and that ability to walk this secondary storyline is this writer’s particular voice.

Writers often follow the goal to find connection in their stories—it’s human nature. In Killing Eve, she’s a serial killer, and yet this goal isn’t romantic either; it’s about finding someone who understands you. So, if you’re writing something to pass the Bechdel test, this same exercise can be used, but bringing this wish to the exercise shows us who you are. Everyone will present a distinct voice to this same structure, that’s also human nature. We all are so varied, but, of course, we often want and need the same basic things.

I agree that without structure we can’t stay connected to the character. We need to know what they want to care about the story. That’s a given.

But I don't believe writers typically get their TV shows and films made if they don't have an original voice. Or when they do, they end up on the How Did This Get Made? podcast.

A writer's voice comes from being vulnerable, having the guts to show us why they are different. Characters, themes, action, dialogue, and even the colors in a film or TV come from personal choice. The more peculiar the better! Writers can learn structure—mentors can teach how to take characters down a specific road to pursue their goals. But if a writer has no voice, no divergence from the norm, one cannot teach them how to be interesting.

Unfortunately, a story without voice is just flat-out boring.

Insert drumroll for the big, live debate ...

The spirited debate sparked rebuttals.

Spike rolls up his sleeves ...

Karin made several very good points in our virtual debate. But I also want to rebut a few things she said in her written arguments, mostly stemming from her last paragraph:

1) “I don’t believe writers typically get their TV shows or films made if they don’t have an original voice.”

While I certainly think it is harder to get something made if you don’t have a unique style or something new to say, I can think of plenty of times where it has happened. You even alluded to it in our showdown! The structure for And Then There Were None, has been utilized over and over and over again in screenwriting history. There are TONS of these types of movies out there! Are you arguing that all of them have an original voice or style to them?

The answer is clearly no.

Obviously, there are films that people consider to be the “best version” of this narrative (you can look at Identity as a prime example), but there are plenty of others that got produced without having a unique take on the idea.

But they only got produced because the story was fundamentally sound. An audience could follow along with it. The narrative made sense and kept the reader’s attention, even if it was a bit bland.

And again, I’ll turn back to my main example from the debate video: Avatar. The highest grossing film of all time is basically just Pocahontas! Yes, you could argue that there’s voice galore in the visual effects of that film, but again, this gets into the “whose voice are we talking about argument?” The writing voice in that film is basically nil … it’s a very “seen it before” story.

And yet, it grossed almost two billion dollars and spawned a franchise. Need I say more?

2.) Writers can learn structure—they can’t learn how to be interesting/have voice.

Hard disagree.

It is absolutely, unequivocally much more difficult for writers to learn how to have a great voice. But it can be done. I know because I’ve done it personally.

What makes this so challenging is that it requires Herculean effort on the part of the scribe. They have to read. A lot. In fact, saying “a lot” is not enough. They need to be a freaking vacuum cleaner—sucking up all the other voices around them.

I adamantly believe that if someone spends five years reading as many books/scripts/whatever medium they want to write in as they can, they will start to develop their own way of writing. They’ll start realizing, “Wow, this person’s writing is boring, I don’t want to sound like them.” And alternatively, they may also go, “Wow, this person’s voice is AWESOME! Let me incorporate some of what they’re doing into my work!"

And slowly … very slowly … with practice and continual effort … I believe a voice will emerge. I didn’t have the same writing voice that I do today, ten years ago. I developed it over years and years and years of reading horrible writing. I was determined not to bore people when I started typing on the keyboard. I developed my own writing voice.

Of course, it’s all on the writer to do so. And that’s hard work. And most people shy away from hard work. I will never claim that it’s not hard work …

But my original point still stands: voice, without structure, is just an amalgamation of scenes that don’t make sense. It’s not entertaining. And if the writing isn’t entertaining, the reader will put it down.

Structure beats voice.

Both are important. But only one can reign supreme.

I rest my case.

Karin lowers her Miley Cyrus theme song ...

Yes, I agree that structure is key to keeping a viewer interested in the story. I nearly laid down my battle-ax/wrecking ball because it is true that we must know what the character wants. But I believe Spike and I are stuck in a chicken-and-the-egg loop about which came first.

Voice comes first. I firmly believe you can't create structure unless you have something to say, a story burning to be told, which is voice. The structure unfolds, following the characters' choices that serve a theme, and that's also voice. The structure you develop comes from your inner voice, the message within. Voice is how you make story choices, edits, and new drafts. Without voice, structure will fizzle out, because the message is unclear.

A couple of things I'd like to rebut—

1) Spike brought up Avatar as the best example of something without a clear voice, that's repeating a known structure. But I would argue that while James Cameron borrowed the story structure from Pocahontas, the themes of taking care of the environment and the people who live there, with anti-war sentiment throughout, is well developed throughout, as its original voice. He used this generic structure to spoon-feed the themes to the masses about how we need to take care of the environment and the people within. Something so known and so comfortable became the platform for his themes.

2.) I watched The Fountain again since we spoke, and, interestingly, you discussed its lack of structure as the reason the film doesn't work. Darron Aronofsky himself says, "The film is like a Rubik's cube—you can solve it in several different ways, but ultimately there's only one solution in the end." As we finish watching, it’s excruciatingly sad because he's floating away into the dying star, cursed with eternal life because of his goal to save his wife. All three of these timelines are the same person, in a structure that tries to describe time, in a story that takes thousands of years. Yes, it did poorly in the box office, but it later found a home with a cult following because of its voice.

Yes, it can be confusing as the film disregards conventional structure, with merging scenes that throw us because the timelines are happening simultaneously—time is a circle. But there is a structure there because it does follow the wants; it's just something that we have to pay attention to a little bit harder.

That voice, that pain of trying to save his wife, is translated to the metaphor of an eternity. Darren Aronofsky's structure often goes up and down in circular storytelling, from high to low over and over again, win to lose to win to lose, etc. We know his voice so well that we know it'll end down, with characters that fail, leaving us feeling sad and overwhelmed.

Even if you don't understand the structure of The Fountain, you innately know to feel the loss. If you're a moviegoer that wants to watch a film about loss, perhaps even knowing you want to cry, you'll tune into his films. It's this voice that hooks you and makes you a fan.

I'm just going to post a link to Spike's article about the best script he ever read, the one which brought some to say that I won the debate, at the moment where I'd swear a look of conceding passed across Spike's eyes. He admitted that it was the voice that made him love this script.

Because voice is the reason Spike loved this script and called it "the best script he ever read," I would say that means voice wins overall.

Of course, we both win because you need structure and voice.

High-five, Spike. Do we both get a participation trophy or what? It should be a very expensive golden egg/chicken trophy. If you can’t find that specifically, in a pinch, I’m sure Spike and I would both be happy with a Fabergé egg.

*Feature image by fran_kie (Adobe)

Spike is a veteran of the Hollywood development landscape, having worked for an agency, a prod co, and a TV network. He enjoys long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and dynamic storytelling.
More posts by Spike Scarberry.
Karin is a screenwriter and a development exec at Script Pipeline and the JK Studio. She writes horror, party films and TV.
More posts by Karin Partin Wells.
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