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WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Formula vs. Structure - Part 3

Stewart Farquhar's concession to selected formats does not mean all writers need to write in the restrictive style of this happens on this page to be a success. Success as a writer depends on your own creativity.

Stewart Farquhar's concession to selected formats does not mean all writers need to write in the restrictive style of this happens on this page to be a success. Success as a writer depends on your own creativity.

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Stewart Farquhar's concession to selected formats does not mean all writers need to write in the restrictive style of this happens on this page to be a success. Success as a writer depends on your own creativity.

Just as everyone has that essential part of the human anatomy, everyone (including me) has an opinion. So, how does this relate to this series of articles about Formula vs. Structure?

First, an opinion is akin to a belief. Just because a person believes something, and subsequently expresses an opinion based on that belief, it does not make either of them (opinion or belief) valid. I could believe that Boston is on the west coast of the United States and express that belief to my friends and acquaintances. That, in and of itself, does not make it so. However, this does not stop me from proselytizing. I can share my belief and opinion to other novices or like-minded people. I can even create a club and give lectures and sell pamphlets, books, or seminars to promote my belief. All that’s just fine. Just don’t hire me as an airline pilot and expect to arrive in Boston in the foreseeable future.

This is the unfortunate state of affairs in the current studio driven / sponsored film market. They operate on the belief that the public is naïve, gullible and ill-informed. Unfortunately, sometimes it appears they are correct. They postulate and assume that a gullible public will buy into the same story over and over again. The studios trust that this same public will not see that they have been fooled into believing that their next story, character or location is something original and exciting. Lamentably what the Studios do is no more than the modern equivalent of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Hey, don’t knock it. The public’s short attention span buys my Lattes and Beemers. Good Title?

“In the great city where he lived, life was always gay. Every day many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two swindlers. They let it be known they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”

“"Those would be just the clothes for me," thought the Emperor. "If I wore them, I would be able to discover which men in my empire are unfit for their posts. And I could tell the wise men from the fools. Yes, I certainly must get some of the stuff woven for me right away." He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once.”

What does this story excerpt have to do with Formula vs. Structure in a Screenplay, Novel or TV show? As I concede in my previous article, certain writing styles require a set formula to fit either a time slot or a style. My concession to selected formats does not mean all writers need to write in the restrictive style of this happens on this page to be a success. Success as a writer depends on your own creativity.

Those that promote the next new and wonderful story concept, writing formula or sure-fire software program tell you, the writing public, that you are unfit to become a successful writer in today’s market unless you provide them a bucketful of money and follow their formulaic method de jour.


The only formula a new or experienced writer needs is a passion for the subject with a love of the tale. As this commitment permeates all your pages the material comes alive in the mind of the reader.

“Okay, I’ve got it,” you say. “How in the name of Oscar, Pulitzer, Nobel or Emmy do I get my foot in the door.” This is your next question. Correct?

It’s simple but not easy. Write freehand (no computer) until your fingers and brain ache. Read, no devour novels, scripts and essays that have stood the test of time and become entertainment classics.

Look at the life and activity around you. Take notes and compile short stories that drive your ambition and satiate your passion. If you need help you can use the three-act concept but move quickly to a sequence structure and then into a free form that engages the reader.

Lectures and books by Kurt Vonnegut (Shape of Stories) will introduce you to the variety of story-telling methods that are sadly missing from or ignored by many of the highly promoted pundits of story today.

You may recall, in my series of articles about Aristotle (who did NOT advocate a three-act structure), I showed that he defined a story as either two parts, desis and lusis (the matabasis is a point of transition NOT a part) in Greek tragedy, or he posited that a play is 13 acts.

As James Bonnet, former member of The Writers Guild of America Board of Directors says in his Article What's Wrong with the Three Act Structure?, “it makes much more sense when you’re creating a story to be thinking in terms of the natural structure of the problem which has two main parts: the action that created it and the action that will resolve it.”

Consider this select list of high budget films that followed the three-act structure and were audience and financial flops. They failed to provide a return on investment for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was an emphasis on formula vs. story.

None of the scripts in this list were original concepts. That each of them presented an unbelievable recycled and formulaic story with a less than original set of characters didn’t help. They were artistic and box office failures, even if each hit all the “beats” with the prerequisite number of “acts”.





LOSS (Mil) #

RT Score



Doctor Doolittle






The Alamo






Around the World in 80 Days






Conan the Barbarian






Green Lantern


















Blade Runner 2040






King Arthur






Robin Hood




Budget is an estimate.

Loss is an estimate adjusted to January 2, 2019 (see note 2 here)

RT Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score

# Estimated Loss Adjusted for inflation

* Complete list of box office bombs and details are available here

** Does NOT include revenue from ancillary sources which can help a low box office movie break even.

Although it is true that a film can fail for a variety of reasons, following the formulaic three-act structure is no more a guarantee of success than accurately writing in Shakespeare’s Iambic Pentameter is for poetry. Blindly following a trite formula is not the way to write. Why? Think about it. What’s missing?

Be aware that the “current trend” is away from formulaic linear storytelling. That does not mean that the linear style is dead. What it does indicate is that there is more openness on the part of studios and financiers to a nonlinear style of storytelling from screenwriters and novelists.

Word of caution, it does no good to follow “trends”. By the time you master the latest one, that “trend” has moved on.

Novelists have always had a multitude of alternate story format options available to them. Be a 30 page “novelist for a day” and write your story. You can then adapt this STORY to a screenplay format rather than attempt to do both at the same time. When a writer just writes a story without an outline or format, some pantser style writers, among others, refer to this as “throwing up on the page”.

I’m sure if you have followed this series of articles on Why Spec Scripts Fail, you see a common theme that appears in each. If you are lost let me help. The best format is the one the tells your story in the most captivating way without adherence to any formulaic presentation or invasion into another craft person’s responsibilities.

You have a choice. Do you want to be known as a storyteller or a story hack?

You must first learn how to create an original story world, that is populated with dynamic characters a reader wants to spend time with, root for, empathize with, then commiserate or celebrate with. You must create an emotional connection with your audience no matter what medium you write for.

As I said above, my private clients write, then publish a 30-page short story that explores each of their main character’s journey in their story world. If you can present a clear, concise and believable story world within this limitation you will have no trouble expanding it to either a script or novel length. The advantage to this approach is that, as the published scribe, you own both the characters and the story.

As you write, recall the formula and structure definitions presented in Formula vs. Structure - Part 1.

Write your story first and worry about structure later. A good story routs good format every time.

In a future article we will explore some of the new and old script and novel structures plus ways to use them in your work.

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

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