An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas
Christopher Hampton: “I don’t believe in rules for writing screenplays. What that gives you is formula, and the result will be formulaic.”
Last week, I posted this 5 part series:
It sparked quite a bit of discussion. Good. At a time when Hollywood movie studios seem to be stuck in a creative rut, the last thing aspiring and professional screenwriters need to be doing is to perpetuate approaches that by and large engender formulaic writing.
I’d like to wrap up my presentation on the subject by making three last points.
* As a tag to the series, I posted this:
Next week I will post something that acknowledges a certain kind of value — extremely limited in my view — in studying these screenplay formulas.
What is that value? If a person wants to explore their creativity by learning how to write screenplays and they are a novice to the craft, discovering there is such a thing as story structure is a critical piece of knowledge. There are certain conventions specific to movies as well as narrative dynamics common to Story more generally which a writer ought to know.
In that regard, of all the screenwriting books, I am comfortable steering people to two: “Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting” by Syd Field and “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler: Field’s book because it is the first of the contemporary screenwriting books, and it covers key ideas like three-act structure and plot points; Vogler’s book because it does a good job in exploring Joseph Campbell’s theory of The Hero’s Journey and its potential relevance to screenwriting and storytelling. Both books can help to open the eyes of a neophyte screenwriter to the fact that screenplays do have a structure and much of our work in developing, crafting and writing a script focuses on that dimension of the process.
But even here I have to add a caveat, hence, the narrow limit to the value of these tomes. The idea promoted in Field’s book that key plot points have to happen at certain page counts (e.g., Act One end between P. 25–27, Act Two end between P. 85–90) is precisely the type of rigid thinking and outside-in writing [see below] that is a slippery slope to formulaic stories. Likewise the twelve stages of The Hero’s Journey as detailed in Vogler’s book are often viewed as a normative sequential paradigm, not that Vogler asserts this, rather it’s something readers assume which has resulted in this:
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.
And that seems to be where the rubber hits the road with a lot of these screenwriting books, seminars, and software systems promoting screenplay formulas: We end up with a ceaseless cesspool of formulaic crap carving its way into and ultimately out of Hollywood movie and TV development circles.
* In the series last week, I provided an update in Part 2, making what is a critical distinction between formula and structure. I then posted it with Parts 3–5, and include it here to drive home this point so there is no confusion on this point:
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!
* Finally apart from a handful of professional screenwriters I know personally or have read about who acknowledge having been influenced by the likes of Robert McKee or “The Writer’s Journey,” most writers who go on record about the subject of screenwriting gurus and screenplay formulas reject them entirely. To wit:
Andrew Stanton is one of the founding members of Pixar whose writing credits include Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and Wall-e.
Steven E. de Souza’s writing credits include the paradigm for action-comedy buddy movies 48 Hrs. and the touchstone for all action movies Die Hard.
Justin Marks is writing the upcoming Disney movie The Jungle Book as well as Top Gun 2. His tweet featured above is part of a Twitter rant Justin did yesterday that went at rigid formulaic thinking with regard to script page count.
So if by and large, pro writers take umbrage at most how-to screenwriting books with their screenplay formulas, what does that tell you?
Every story is different. Ever writer is different. If you have studied some screenwriting guru and used what they promote to achieve success in Hollywood or elsewhere, good for you. Go with God! But if you are receiving critiques that specifically take aim at the formulaic, flat and uninspired nature of your writing, or you have read so many of these how-to books that you have been left dazed and confused, baffled by their conflicting language systems, theories and structural paradigms, not knowing what to do and how to approach the craft, I would recommend jettisoning all that stuff, and get to know your story’s characters. Immerse yourself in their world and their lives. Find your story’s structure through your process of engaging them.