An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 3): They diminish the craft of screenwriting

“The most important person in the motion picture process is the writer… and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from ever realizing it.”

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

Ever since the beginning of the studio system era back in the 1930s, writers have had a tough slog gaining much in the way of respect in Hollywood. Movies have always been star vehicles, so actors have always had power. With the ascension of the auteur theory in the 50s, directors moved to the forefront, too, and we are reminded of their power status every time we see “A Film By” credit going to one of them, even if they didn’t write a single word of the script. Studio executives have the power of the green light, ultimately determining whether a movie gets made or not. There are many powerful producers as well based on their networking, track records and financial connections.

As for writers? We get hired, we get fired. We rewrite a script on assignment, we get rewritten. By and large, the press, while fawning over actors and directors, do an amazing and consistent job of overlooking the writer’s contribution to movie projects.

This is ironic because none other than Hollywood’s first great movie producer Irving Thalberg, who was directly involved in the production of 90 movies during his career, was quoted as saying this:

“The most important person in the motion picture process is the writer… and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from ever realizing it.”

Why important? Because it is the writer who takes ideas and puts them into script form. Without a script to shoot, it is next to impossible to make a movie, at least one with any quality to it.

And what factors in a writer’s arsenal can result in a great script? Talent. Experience. Voice. Knowledge. And perhaps most important of all… Creativity.

At a fundamental level, Creativity is our calling card. Thus writers, individually and collectively, must do everything we can to protect this piece of conventional wisdom: We are creative.

Hollywood needs stories to survive. We, as writers, create those stories. That is the ultimate foundation of whatever power writers have.

Now consider this dialogue from the 1992 movie The Players, screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel, directed by Robert Altman. In this scene, new studio executive Larry Levy, arrogant and opinionated, posits the following:

Larry: I’m just saying there’s time and money to be saved… if we came up with these stories on our own.
- Where are these stories coming from?
Larry: Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. The newspaper. Pick any story.
- ‘Immigrants protest budget cuts in literacy program.’
Larry: Human spirit overcoming human adversity. Sounds like Horatio Alger in the barrio. Put Jimmy Smits in it and you’ve got a sexy Stand and Deliver. Next. Come on.
- This isn’t my field.
Larry: It doesn’t matter. Give it a shot. You can’t lose here.
- How about ‘Mud slide kills in slums of Chili’?
Larry: That’s good. Triumph over tragedy. Sounds like a John Boorman picture. Slap a happy ending on it, the script will write itself.

Peter Gallagher as Larry Levy in The Player

The script will write itself. The suits would love to believe this, even though they know it’s not true because that would make their lives a lot easier, not having to deal with pesky writers and their ideas, vision, tempers and mood swings, not to mention sometimes what they write works… and sometimes it doesn’t.

So along come the screenwriting gurus with their tsunami of screenplay formulas.

What do you think the impact of those systems and paradigms have on the perception of the screenwriting craft in Hollywood? Would it elevate what we do in the eyes of others? Or diminish it?

Cue playback: The script will write itself.

It’s not just the books, webinars, weekend seminars, and DVDs, it’s story structure software, literally creating the impression that all someone needs to do is answer a series of questions, plug in information, and there you have it: Story structure in a nutshell.

To my knowledge, the software angle is not a particularly new thing as I’m aware of one program that has been around since 1994, but others have emerged to tap into the growing number of consumers wanting to explore screenwriting. Over time, the aggregation of all this formulaic detritus, I fear, has contributed to the devaluation of screenwriters in Hollywood. Not a primary reason perhaps, but one factor, helping to reinforce the idea that writing a script should be easy, anyone can write a script, and buttress this attitude…

The script will write itself.

This cuts straight at the writer’s power base: Creativity. Worse, some of these formulas appear to have bubbled up into and through Hollywood development circles, the result of which is to make the job of writing a script on assignment, already a challenge, that much more difficult.

That is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

For Part 1 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: They are selling you a lie” — go here.

For Part 2 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: Formula leads to formulaic writing” — go here.

I welcome your comments and thoughts.

And for the record on Saturday, I will do a post in which I make an argument on how screenplay formulas do have a place in a writer’s life, albeit a very, very limited one.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I’m including my update from Part 2 drawing a distinction between formula and structure.

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 above, 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!