Simon Stephenson: Finding the right form


17 July 2020
Are you struggling to find the right way of telling your story? Screenwriter and novelist Simon Stephenson describes how form follows function in his writing
Simon Stephenson: Finding the right form Images

My grandfather was an architect who loved to repeat to me his beloved maxim, ‘Form follows function’.  From an early age, words – not buildings – were my own passion, but perhaps it was inevitable that I would grow up to be unusually interested in the various structures to which they can be weaved. My first book was a memoir, my new one is a novel, and I mostly earn my living as a screenwriter. (Poetry lovers can rest easy: their discipline is safe from my attentions, at least for the meantime.)

The term ‘Form follows function’ was coined by the architect Louis Sullivan in an 1896 essay about the design of skyscrapers. His thesis held that a building’s exterior design should reflect its interior purpose and that the best design was inevitably organic and minimalist. Perhaps not incidentally, Sullivan considered poetry the highest of art forms, and sought to incorporate its lessons of brevity in to his craft.  

As writers, I think we can reciprocally learn from Louis Sullivan, particularly in regard to the forms we chose for our writing. Just as Sullivan believed that each building had its most natural form that it was the architect’s job to simply uncover, my own opinion is that each story we feel the impulse to tell will have its own natural vehicle. By limiting ourselves to one particular form or genre, we risk denying our story its strongest chance to speak.  

My first book, Let Not The Waves Of The Sea, was a memoir about the loss of my brother, another architect, in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. From this distance it seems inevitable that I would have written about it, but for a long time I tried very hard to avoid doing so. The events had been incredibly painful, and writing about them seemed like it might prolong or exacerbate that pain for myself and others.

Before the tsunami, I had been making good progress as a television screenwriter and when I eventually returned to work, the consensus seemed clear: if I could just write a pilot of a comedy-drama similar to my samples, I’d have a real chance at the major series commission I’d long been working towards. I tried – how I tried – but every single idea I came up with inevitably centred around disaster, grief or death, and often all three. When a sympathetic producer offered me a best-selling feelgood novel to adapt, I still found a way to make it all about death.  

Eventually, primarily as a kind of creative exorcism, I began to write prose about the loss of my brother. I had no intent of it ever becoming a book, let alone a published one, but once I began writing I found I could not stop. With hindsight, the only possible function of my writing at that time would have been to tell this story, and it of course therefore followed that its natural form was not television comedy-drama but memoir. The shift worked: Let Not The Waves Of the Sea was serialized on Radio 4 and won Best First Book at the Scottish Book Awards.

But I then immediately made the exact same mistake again: I decided that the next thing I wrote would be a novel. Novels, I told myself – not television screenplays – were what real writers wrote. I sentenced myself to solitary confinement in the British Library reading room until it was finished.

But I could not finish it. In fact, I could barely start it. The words simply would not come in the way they had with my memoir. I began and abandoned a half dozen novels. My television money began to run out and I moved in to a friend’s spare room to cut costs. Still, I was determined to write a novel. That was what real writers did, and I even had an award on my shelf that confirmed I was a real writer.  

Eventually, the friend I had moved in with – who, in an echo not lost on me, was another architect – took me for coffee one Saturday morning and gently interrogated me on my progress on this much-vaunted novel. He had, he said, seen me struggling, coming home each day a little more weary and defeated than the last. He mentioned how it all seemed such a different life from when the screenwriting had been going well, and then he gently made his pitch: wasn’t it possible that one of the novels I was working on might work better as a screenplay?

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I told him it would not, and explained to him what as an architect and not a writer he couldn’t possibly understand: real writers wrote novels. But as I lay in bed that night, I realized that the ‘novel’ I was currently working on was a two-handed road-trip that builds over the course of a week to a dramatic crescendo. If form does indeed follows function, the thing I was writing was not a novel. It was, undoubtedly, a screenplay.

Once again, I switched disciplines, and once again the words came pouring out. A year later that screenplay momentarily became the hot script in Los Angeles and earned me a deal to write a TV pilot that I moved out here for. I had not written a novel, but it no longer mattered to me in the same way. Real writers, I had started to understand, let their story lead the way.  

I spent a few years as a screenwriter for hire before I had another book-sized idea, but when it came I immediately recognized it for what it was: a big story, told in a voice, from the perspective of a unique character. It was a novel. When the screenwriting assignment I was then working on finished, I did not chase another one but instead sat down to write my novel.

This time, the catch was smaller and I discovered it almost immediately. My novel was about an android who wants to be a screenwriter, but how could I convey the act of screenwriting in prose? Perhaps, writing a few sections of the book in screenplay format would allow me both to show the evolution of my character’s craft, and flip the reader’s POV at important moments? It would be a structurally unorthodox approach, but my hero Truman Capote had done something similar in Conversational Portraits, and it had worked well for him. It was only later that I remembered that Frank Lloyd Wright – who had been Louis Sullivan’s apprentice – had evolved his maestro’s mantra a step further to become ‘Form and function are one’.  

I would like to think Set My Heart To Five has lived up to Frank Lloyd Wright’s exhortation in a way that would please all the architects I have known. Yet whether ‘form follows function’, or ‘form and function are one’, it seems only fair to give the last word to Louis Sullivan, who said this in his famed essay:

It is my belief that it is the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution.   

To which I only add – and do so humbly, as someone who has made this mistake many times and no doubt will do so again –  the age-old advice, that if ever you find yourself struggling with a story, pause and listen to what it is trying to tell you about itself. Perhaps it is indeed a novel, but maybe it is a screenplay, a memoir, a stage play or a long-form magazine article.  But it knows what it is and, deep down, you likely do too.    

Set My Heart To Five by Simon Stephenson is published by 4th Estate.