Create the structure before the details

Often we can begin to write detailed plans for a new idea before we have developed a working structure to house them.

Now, don’t get me wrong; details are good. They are often the inspiration for a whole idea. For example, we might design a whole house because we want to use a particular type of solar panel.

These kinds of details are gold. They can shape the whole vision. But too often we begin to work in detail on our ideas when we do not have a vision, or even feel inspired. Then the idea can go off track. And if you work constantly on detail without attending to structure, your project will end up vague, unfocused and meaningless.

Structure gives meaning. It makes the user feel comfortable and safe, and therefore more able to appreciate the details. The details are actually the easy bit. The hardest part is finding a structure that works well. Think of it like a house: first you build the structure, then you decorate.

So how can you develop a successful structure for your project? Well, the director Grotowski said the artist should be “a good thief”. So look around at what others are doing and copy the best ideas. Structures can often be recycled without seeming ripped-off. Most of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, were based on existing stories and characters. Before Shakespeare even wrote a line of verse, he had the structure of a well-known story to guide him. So seek out similar structures through research, and copy the models.

What if your structure seems unique? What if you have no model to copy? Well, collaboration during the early stages of development can help you find this structure. Speak to a colleague or peer whose opinion you trust. Sketch out your ideas so far. Describe the framework. See what they like, and focus on. Then find another colleague and repeat. Then another. In fact, run your ideas past anyone who’ll listen. And make sure you listen well to their responses.

Chances are, if a lot if people agree that an idea will work, it will work. And if a lot of people think an idea is a problem, it probably is a problem. Keith Johnstone, the improvisation guru, created a game in which the actors stop and ask the audience “What happens next?” Guess what? The audience are always right. The majority always pick a next step that makes the story more fun, that puts the characters into the most trouble.

Take the advice of peers and mentors. Use feedback to develop your structure.

Once the structure is there, you can sketch in the details. But if you spend at least 20% of your planning time developing a solid structure, chances are your project will succeed, and the details will take care of themselves.

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