An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 1): They are selling you a lie

“Instead of thinking about Story as a sort of paint-by-numbers formula, we are best served by starting here: Characters.”

When I first broke into the business in 1987, there were just a handful of books about screenwriting. Now it’s become this “thing.” You can’t walk into a Barnes & Noble in some remote outpost like Minot, North Dakota and avoid slamming into a whole section of titles related to The Craft. Or more often than not selling The Fantasy. You know… this!

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There is a burgeoning cottage industry of ‘screenwriting gurus’ selling what some call The Hope Machine. The Hollywood mansion. Tesla Roadster. Movie premieres. Write a script… strike it rich!

How to get there? If you’ve spent any amount of time clicking through the online screenwriting universe, you doubtless have seen ads with messages like these:

The secret to a million dollar spec script! How to write a screenplay that agents will want and studios will buy! Your bulletproof path to screenwriting success!

What many of these folks are selling — and that is their bottom line, to get you to buy their product — is a screenplay formula. To convince you they have some unique insight into screenplay structure that can somehow magically translate into a script Hollywood would feel compelled to acquire.

The assumption is that there is some right way to write a script. Their way.

I am here to tell you this: They are selling you a lie.

The truth? There is no ‘right’ way to write a script. Every story is different. Every writer is different.

Worse, the increased presence of these progenitors of screenplay formulas is having a negative effect, both with individual writers as they strive to learn the ins and outs of screenwriting, and the perception and practice of the craft of screenwriting in Hollywood.

As a screenwriter, teacher, and blogger, I intersect with hundreds of aspiring writers every year, and they convey to me two general complaints over and over again.

The first: Confusion. They have bought this book or that DVD, attended this weekend seminar or that webinar, dutifully devouring the wisdom of multiple screenwriting gurus, each with their own formula. And where the writer ends up is profoundly perplexed about how to write because the result is a confusing muddle of beat sheets, paradigms, sequences, and language systems.

The second: Critiqued. They have used the formula of this guru or that, and written one or more screenplays, but after getting them reviewed by pro script readers or entered into screenplay competitions, the response has been tepid. Maybe the screenplay formula they relied upon helped them craft a plot that falls into what is generally perceived to be a conventional narrative structure, but there is no life or unique voice to the story.

And that right there is the main problem: There can be no such thing as a bulletproof ‘screenplay formula’ because a good story feels organic. There is a vitality and life to it, unfolding in the moment scene to scene with surprising twists and turns.

One more thing: Many of these books derive from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, but the fact is the entertainment business has changed. Radically! The advent of streaming services, CGI technology, and digital distribution platforms is having an impact on the way movie and TV writers approach the craft, even narrative itself.

With the emergence of limited and anthology series, creators are more apt to call what they do as a ‘long movie’ rather than a season of television programming. There has been a shift toward more complex story worlds with multiple time-frames a la Sharp Objects and Westworld, parallel story realms like Counterpart, multi-linear narratives like Mudbound and The Leftovers.

With Quibi, a new mobile video platform on the horizon which will feature notables including Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro and Antoine Fuqua and producer Jason Blum creating “quick bites of content,” what we think as being standard blocks of time in which to tell visual stories, e.g., half-hour, one-hour, two-hours may be going the way of the dodo bird.

Instead of thinking about Story as a sort of paint-by-numbers formula, I argue we are best served by starting here: Characters.

After all it’s their story, their story universe. They have been living it 24/7/365. Nobody knows who they are better than them. Furthermore they want us to tell their story. The story’s structure will emerge naturally by immersing ourselves in the lives of our characters, the arc of their personal destinies manifesting itself in the form of scenes and plot points.

In my view, strong character work is the single biggest antidote to the stultifying effects of formula-based writing. However characters are unpredictable and, therefore, harder to package into a marketable commodity. The people who sell the idea of ‘screenplay formula’ seem to prefer trafficking in widgets.

This beat goes here. That beat goes there.

Much easier to sell.

Hell, there are outfits around who promote story structure software.

Think about that.

Story. Structure. Software.

As if we can reduce Story to binary code.

Friends, this is a slippery slope that for most writers leads nowhere but to the expenditure of lots of money, a fundamentally shallow approach to screenwriting, and a slush pile of rejected scripts.

So this week, a series examining the very idea of ‘screenplay formula’ and why it is such a harmful concept.

Bottom line: Learn conventional wisdom. Understand generally accepted principles. But please, do yourself a big favor: Reject screenplay formulas.

They are not helping you nor the overall state of the screenwriting craft.

Tomorrow: Formulas lead to formulaic writing.

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