Part one of this article can be found here. It ended with Lisa asking two questions: If the popular story structure paradigms don’t really lead to successful screenplays, why do so many writers use them? And what’s the alternative? Let’s start with the first question.
FORMULA?… WHO THE HELL YOU CALLING A FORMULA?
I recently saw a posting for a class where the instructor promised to share the nine essential story beats found in all successful screenplays. But the teacher also stated that he didn’t believe in formulas or must-follow rules since they deprive writers of creating truly original and memorable stories. I was curious how he reconciled this with his nine essential story beats, which certainly sounded like a formula to me. So I emailed him and he emailed back that he doesn’t like to call his nine story beats a formula, since formula carries such a bad connotation. And more importantly, since all successful screenplays contain these nine story beats it’s imperative that writers know what they are and use them in their scripts. Hence the reason to take his class.
He’s not alone in this.
None of the books or seminars say they teach formula. Nobody wants to pay for some cookie cutter one-size-fits-all recipe. It’s much better to say you’re teaching universal principles and essential story beats found in all (or at least most) successful scripts.
But if what if this isn’t true? What if there is no magic formula?
And what if far too many writers are needlessly destroying their scripts by following a set of well-marketed but basically bogus rules?
THE FOOD PROPULSION SCENE
The popular books and seminars that teach the nine, fifteen or whatever number of essential story beats all suffer from the fallacy of composition, which states that what is true for the few is not necessarily true for the many.
They present a supposedly universal principle, like scripts need an inciting incident on page 17, or the first act must end on page 25, then show examples of successful movies that do this, ignoring the multitudes of successful movies that do not.
For example, let’s say we were going to offer a story structure seminar. Knowing that a lot of writers struggle with the middle of their scripts, one of the essential beats we’ll teach is what all well structured screenplays do at the midpoint to keep both the momentum and reader interest going. Because this is valuable information. People will be willing to pay for it.
We explain to our audience that all (or almost all) successful screenplays do the exact same thing at the midpoint. Then we hit them with some examples…
We start with The Godfather, which pretty much everyone agrees is one of the best structured films. The midpoint is when Michael guns down Sollozzo and McClusky in an Italian restaurant. McClusky is sitting there enjoying a nice veal supper when Michael throws over the table, sending the food flying, then shoots and kills both men.
Now for a successful romantic comedy. The midpoint of When Harry Met Sally is the deli scene. Sally loudly fakes an orgasm while Harry, surprised by this, drops his corned beef sandwich to his plate. One of the most famous scenes in cinematic history.
What about a smaller character-driven movie. The middle of American Beauty finds the Burnhams having dinner at home when Lester, fed up of being treated like he doesn’t exist, hurls a plate of asparagus against the wall.
Each of these wildly successful movies has a midpoint where food is thrown, or at least dropped. So we can therefore reasonably conclude that such a scene is a universal requirement of any properly structured screenplay and must come at the midpoint as it did in these three examples. Why? Because food represents survival, and so any character willing to hurl it about is thematically demonstrating a fierce determination to achieve his goal even if it means sacrificing his own survival. Very powerful stuff.
The food propulsion scene is what all successful movies do at the midpoint.
So if you want a well-structured script you absolutely must have your protagonist chucking about food-stuffs at the midpoint. And to really drive home the point we’ll tell everybody that whenever we’re handed a script, the first thing we do is flip to the middle to see if food is being propelled, and if not, we know the script is no good.
THE FALLACY OF COMPOSITION
And of course this is ridiculous. Just because a certain kind of scene exists in three successful movies does not mean it exists in all successful movies.
A small handful of examples do not make a universal principle. In the vast majority of successful movies, characters are not flinging food around at the midpoint. In fact, most movies somehow manage to avoid food propulsion throughout.
So how silly would it be to believe you have to have your main character throwing food at the midpoint?
Just as silly as believing you need to have a ‘false down’ scene at the midpoint just because that’s what happened in the 1970’s screwball comedy, What’s Up Doc?
Yet, that’s what one of the popular formula books teaches. And I have seen many a script destroyed because the writer forced such a moment into the midpoint because it was “required” for a well-structured screenplay.
This same book mandates that the second act must launch on page 25 with “something big happening”. It’s quite adamant about this. The second act can’t start on page 28 or page 30. It must happen on page 25 with “something really big happening”. The author states that when he’s handed a script, he turns to page 25 to see if something really big is happening in order to see if the writer knows what he/she is doing.
But what would have happened if he had been handed the scripts for the movies we just discussed?
Page 25 of The Godfather is a nice quiet character scene where Michael and Kay are out Christmas shopping. Nothing big happens. In fact, very little of anything happens.
Page 25 of When Harry Met Sally is Sally on a plane ordering a drink in her endearingly anal way. No big event second act launch. Just another nice character moment.
Page 25 of American Beauty is Angela explaining to Jane how she likes to have men drool over her and how someday she’ll be a famous model that men will want to have sex with. Another character scene.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Every story is unique. At least any story worth giving a damn about. Yet how many writers will read that book and tragically march off the ‘I must have something really big happening on page 25 or I’m doomed’ cliff?
But please don’t take my word for any of this.
Get a bunch of the greatest scripts ever written. You might want to use the AFI list of the 100 greatest movies. Or the WGA list of the 101 best screenplays. Add some of your all-time favorites to the mix.
You also might want to include scripts that unknowns have used to launch A-list careers. Scripts that literally changed people’s lives, such as The Hurt Locker, The Wrestler, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Thelma and Louise, Lethal Weapon, Rocky and such.
Read these scripts and you’ll see there’s something unmistakably original and unique about each of them. Now look to see how many of the so-called universal rules and paradigms the scripts follow. Or more importantly, don’t follow.
What you find might surprise you.
A WELL-TRAVELLED PATH TO FAILURE
I was recently on a story structure panel discussing how every story is different and there are no magic formulas. One of the audience members came up to me afterward and said I really hope you’re wrong.
He told me how he used to write screenplays that always fell apart in the middle. He told me he has a whole drawer of 50 page half-scripts that couldn’t go the distance. Then he bought a book with the 15 essential story beats, and by following this road map, he was able to finish a whole script. He told me that without these story beats he’d be lost.
That’s the upside of formula. If you follow it, you will get a completed script.
So what’s the downside?
It may not be a very compelling script.
Over the years I have brought in agents, managers and producers to speak to my UCLA classes, and they all pretty much say the same thing. They can spot a script written to one of the popular structure formulas a mile away, and these scripts almost never succeed. Writers who use these road maps almost always run into the following problems:
Their scripts read a lot like all the other scripts following the same rules and formulas and so probably have little or no chance to stand out.
Their scripts are predictable since the reader knows what specific plot points are going to happen on what specific page.
Their scripts are populated by less-than-compelling characters that feel like puppets forced to say and do things in order to serve pre-ordained plot points.
Even worse, writers following these formulas tend to destroy what’s original and unique-and hence interesting-about their scripts by forcing them to conform to a set of one-size-fits-all, paint-by-the-numbers rules masquerading as universal principles.
SO, WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
None of this is to suggest that structure doesn’t matter. Because of course it matters. Structure absolutely matters.
But structure is not formula.
That’s the real tragedy here. Too many writers think they’re learning structure when in fact they are simply being sold a bunch of rules that hold no real value.
In order to have a chance at launching and sustaining a career, writers need to know how to create flexible non-formulaic structure that can support and enhance, instead of destroy, what is unique and original about their stories, characters and writing.
How can this be done?
I would suggest two steps:
Step one is to throw away any book or class/seminar notes detailing the nine or fifteen or whatever number of essential story beats, universal principles or narrative building blocks found in all (or most) successful movies.
I’ll give you step two in Part Three…
Posted in Corey’s Blog | August 10, 2010