William Goldman has famously written, “Screenplays are structure.” That is true in a tangible sense because at some point, a script becomes a blueprint for the production of a movie. And in a very real way, everything hangs on the structure of the narrative — how one scene flows to the next, how the beginning is shaped, how the middle is crafted, how the ending plays out, even the designations of scenes — Exterior, Interior, Day, Night — shape the nature of a film coming to life.
So Goldman’s assertion is true.
It is also problematic.
Somewhere along the line, screenplay structure started to become routinized. In part, this is because a certain segment of the screenwriting ‘guru’ caste generated some takes on what that structure is supposed to look like, each with their own system where this key plot point ought to land between these pages and that major plot point needs to hit between those pages, a script needs X amount of acts, sequences, beats, etc.
Over time, structure was reduced to paradigm. Paradigm transmogrified into formula. And that contributed to perhaps the most common complaint among those in the Hollywood movie development arena foraging through mounds of submissions: formulaic scripts.
As screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen, Punchline) has said, “If you go in with formula, you come out with formula.”
This approach may have worked in the 80s and into the 90s with Hollywood churning out one high concept movie after another, but the inherent problem with a formula is it eventually wears out its welcome. Why? Because if the audience knows a formula well enough, they can anticipate precisely where a movie is heading, and that eviscerates almost any possibility for genuine entertainment.
Little wonder that contemporary audiences, their minds cluttered with tropes, memes and patterns, are looking for something different. By and large happy endings still, but how the story gets from FADE IN to FADE OUT, that needs to be a rocking ride of twists and turns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
And right there is the key. Did you catch it? The one word that is a writer’s salvation when it comes to formula.
Cary Grant reading a script along with a friend
A story roils with potential to go anywhere and do anything. Its characters are active sentient beings who live in the moment and can make any of a myriad of choices.
If you create multidimensional characters, conflicted, confused, driven, uncertain, and all the rest, they will resist formula because they are living, dynamic entities who can surprise us.
And when a story plays against type and expectations, that’s when a writer is on the path toward a great screenplay.
Again from David Seltzer: “The whole thrill of being a writer is to do a prototype every time out. And you can do it, something that nobody ever wrote before.”
A prototype every time out. In other words, meet the story on its terms, allow it to breathe, enable it to go where it needs to go, not cram it into some sort of predetermined formula.
I understand this desire to reduce the mysteries of a story to something manageable, a nice little system to speed our way through the writing process, an approach we can duplicate time after time to ensure we churn out scripts in an efficient and timely manner.
But efficiency and timeliness — and most of all formula — do not sell a script. Rather a distinctive concept, compelling characters, and a narrative that moves in unforeseen and unexpected ways, those are key to crafting a marketable script.
So as you wander through the noisy spectrum of people pitching you this or that screenplay paradigm or methodology, be sure to remember this one essential fact:
Screenplays are stories… not formulas.