Archives for January 2012

My Rule for Standing Ovations

Q: What does a standing ovation mean in Vancouver?
A: The show’s over.

Sometimes it can feel like that, anyway. And, to be fair, it’s not just Vancouver; North America is standing-O crazy. Studio audiences leap to their feet when talk-show hosts arrive on-stage, for God’s sake. To far too great an extent, standing ovations have become the norm; I’m sure that, to some people, staying in their seat to applaud would feel mean.

I’ve got a rule for standing ovations: I’ll stand up if a show has positively changed my life.

This past week, I stood up for Kim Collier’s production of Red at the Playhouse. That show reminded me of the importance of simple, visceral openness to art, and of the importance of honouring one’s capacity for profound aesthetic experience. For me at least, it’s way too easy to get caught up in survival and to forget about the ecstasy of presence.

I’m not kidding myself; I know that Red isn’t a perfect script. In some ways, it sucks up to its audience. I’m thinking of the scene in which Rothko and his assistant paint a base layer onto a canvas, for instance. In this production—as per the stage directions—they do so with opera blaring and in a frenzy. On opening night, the audience burst into applause at the end. But for what? They just painted a base coat. It’s a mundane task. In my reading at least, the playwright presents a ridiculously crude reduction of the artistic process and, eager to be in on an act of creativity, the audience buys into it.

But who cares, really? The play opened me up. And my primary response is gratitude.

A Tool not a Rule

The three-act structure is a useful tool. It can help you to structure your story in the early stages of writing, and it’s a great lens through which to examine a draft.

That said, not every successful story is going to fall neatly into the three-act structure. “Ride the Cyclone”, a terrific script from Victoria’s Jacob Richmond is completely episodic. In lesser hands, this could have resulted in a flat attempt at entertainment, but Mr. Richmond’s episodes—and the music that accompanies them—are all so surprising that “Ride the Cyclone” is knockin’ ’em dead everywhere it plays.

And, even when stories contain all of the steps of the three-act structure, they’re not always in the same order. The Ordinary World, for instance, might be outlined after the protagonist has already received the Call to Adventure. That’s what happens in one of my favourite kids’ stories, “Never Be Afraid!”, which is part of Paul Yee’s story collection, Teach Me to Fly, Skyfighter!

In Yee’s tale, the shy John Chin has already received the Call to Adventure, which is to become a martial artist before the story reveals John’s Ordinary World, with his strict father and sympathetic mother.

So use the three-act structure as a tool, but don’t be bound by it.

Short-Story Structure

Authors sometimes ask me about the structure of short stories. In my experience, this can vary wildly.

Some short stories may include elements of the three-act structure that’s the underpinning of many novels and screenplays—a Call to Adventure, a Refusal of the Call, and so on—but many short stories are perfectly satisfying without these steps.

For me, the bottom line is that, in a short story, something changes and it matters.

Even when I say, “something changes,” that’s kind of negotiable. The hero may try to effect a change and fail. Even then, of course, there is a change of sorts: defeat.

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