An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas

Next week I will post something that acknowledges a certain kind of value — extremely limited in my view — in studying these screenplay formulas.

I bring up Campbell because the other day, I posted this question: Why are there so many Protagonist orphans? It spawned a wide-ranging conversation, ultimately leading to Joseph Campbell. At some point in the thread of comments, TripDreamer posted this:

Killer Films producer David Kaplan made a comment on twitter denouncing [Joseph] Campbell. I asked him why and he told me that 90% of the scripts he reads follow the same formula and this, he insinuated, made them flat and, well, formulaic. These books can only give you so much guidance, it’s up to us to inject soul, heart, voice, and identity into a story.

I thanked TripDreamer for posting that, even though it pained me to read it. Not that I doubt Kaplan’s assessment as I’ve read far too many scripts of the ilk he describes as well. However to come to a situation where someone would associate the words “formulaic” and “flat” with Joseph Campbell seems to me… well, almost blasphemous.

I’ve gotten emails from several writers a bit frantic in tone, so let me make this clear: There is a difference between formula and structure. When William Goldman famously says, “Screenplays are structure,” at a fundamental level, that is true. The ultimate end point for a screenplay is the production of a movie and because of certain limitations and conventions common to movies, the structure of a script is intimately tied to the actual nuts and bolts process of making a film.

So let me be clear: I am not saying structure is bad. On the contrary, story structure is critical to the success of a screenplay.

The problem is equating formula with structure.

First off, as discussed, there is no one single formula to craft a screenplay’s structure. Stories are organic. Formulas are not. So the very premise that this screenwriting guru or that can make some claim as to the universality of their formula is false on the face of it. There are endless possibilities for stories and story structure.

Second, from what I’ve seen in the countless scripts I’ve read from writers who have been influenced by screenplay formulas, clearly their focus in the writing has been with Plot, as if Plot is the sum of story structure. It is not. A screenplay’s universe has two dimensions: The External World, what I call the Plotline, the domain of Action and Dialogue, and the Internal World, what I call the Themeline, the domain of Intention and Subtext. The former is where we see and hear the story’s Physical Journey. The latter is where we interpret and intuit the story’s Psychological Journey. Without the Internal World, a story is essentially without any meaning or emotional resonance. Therefore if the preponderance of focus in a screenplay formula is on the makeup of the External World, that is only serving one part of the story’s structure. Story structure properly understood involves both domains: External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, whatever story structure you end up with, one of the major points of emphasis in my teaching is how you get there. This goes back to outside-in writing, as noted here, versus inside-out writing. I believe you are much more likely to find an authentic story structure, not a formulaic one, through the inside-out approach, starting with characters, immersing yourself in their lives, engaging in an active, dynamic process in which both the Plotline and Themeline emerge.

So when I call into question screenplay formula, please understand, this is not the same thing as story structure. In a sense, screenplays are structure, but that structure involves both Plotline and Themeline… and it’s critical how you go about crafting that structure.

Outside-In / Formula = No!
Inside-Out / Characters = Yes!

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