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MEET THE READER: Formulaic Thinking

Ray Morton discusses the unfortunate side effect of books preaching screenplay formula being that if one utilized formulaic thinking, they would automatically produce a terrific script.

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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Formulaic Thinking...

There’s a lot of screenwriting education out there – hundreds (if not thousands) of books, classes, software packages, podcasts, and so on.

Formulaic Thinking

It wasn’t always that way. From the beginning of cinema until the late 1970s, there were less than a dozen books published on screenwriting and just a handful of classes, mostly at the top five film schools. That all changed in 1979 with the publication of Syd Field’s landmark book, Screenplay. Field’s big innovation was to take the essential concepts of dramatic storytelling and explain them in purely cinematic terms. Prior to Field, most books and classes simply regurgitated the basic rules of playwriting and left the reader/student to bridge the gap from stage to screen. Field’s other great innovation was to present a viable working blueprint of filmic structure in the form of his famous screenplay paradigm – a wonderful model that gave writers, producers, development execs, and studio folks a tangible way of thinking about and working with stories and screenplays.

Field’s book was a tremendous success, one he expanded into workbooks, seminars, and online resources. This success kicked off a boom in screenwriting education – an explosion of books and classes and other resources. It also inspired many other folks to set themselves up as screenwriting “gurus” and devise their own paradigms that they could exploit in similar fashion. These exemplars were basically the same as Field’s (they had to be, since the precepts of dramatic writing don’t change), but often with some unique (and sometimes ridiculous) bells and whistles added so that the gurus could differentiate their programs from Field’s in the marketplace. All these approaches were promoted in essentially the same way – by promising (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly) that if you followed a particular guru’s particular paradigm, you could craft a screenplay that was guaranteed to be both creatively and financially successful.

The unfortunate side effect of this flood of templates and overly optimistic marketing was the development of the belief that successful screenwriting can be reduced to a formula – that if you did certain things in certain ways, you would automatically produce a terrific script that would sell for big bucks. There were lots of people out there willing to swallow this notion – aspiring screenwriters eager for success; anxious producers and studio execs looking for ways to ensure that a script (and therefore film made from it) would work; and so on. And this has led to some very difficult issues in the world of modern screenwriting – to aspiring screenwriters who slavishly follow these paradigms, which in turn has resulted in some extremely stiff and lifeless spec scripts floating around out there; and to producers and studio execs who think that these paradigms are the only ways scripts can be structured and written; who insist that screenwriters (even highly experienced and often Oscar-winning veterans) follow them to the letter; and who reject any scripts in which cats are not saved in the exact manner he gurus dictate. The unfortunate result of all this is the dreary sameness that afflicts most studio product these days.

The problem of course, is that screenwriting cannot be reduced to a formula. Instead, think of it as a recipe. Formulas must be followed exactly to produce the desired results, but recipes have much more leeway. The recipe for a particular dish may require the use of certain specific ingredients, but every chef uses his personal taste and creativity to combine, cook, and present those ingredients in ways that are singular to him. As a result, no two dishes ever look and taste exactly the same. This is true for cooking and it should also be true for screenwriting.

The ingredients of a screenplay are as follows:

Drama: The core elements of dramatic writing were identified by Aristotle over two thousand years ago in ancient Greece. These elements include a primary section introducing plot, characters (specifically a protagonist and an antagonist) and theme; a turn of events that propels these established elements in an unexpected direction; a middle section featuring a conflict between the protagonist and antagonist that leads to a crisis; a third section in which the crisis is dealt with in a way that leads to a climax; a resolution demonstrating a significant change in the character of the protagonist; and finally an epilogue. Over the next several millennia, generations of succeeding dramatists refined and formalized these concepts into the traditional three-act structure, which was adopted by early screenwriters as the format for telling screen stories and remains the standard a hundred years later. Some writers grouse about these precepts (especially the three-act structure) and complain that they are too restrictive (and, yes, formulaic), but in my opinion it is these writers’ creative vision that is too restricted. The wonderful thing about the core elements of drama is how amazingly flexible they are – they can be adapted into any genre; they can be used to tell stories that are intimate and those that are epic; they can be employed in a strictly linear fashion or twisted in any number of non-linear directions and still be effective. The only thing that is not flexible is that a narrative must contain all of these elements in some combination or else it will not be drama.

Genre: Just about ever screenplay falls into one genre or another (romantic comedy, thriller, horror, action, biopic, sports, buddy movie, topical drama, etc.). Every genre comes with specific elements and tropes that must be addressed (for example, every romantic comedy must include a cute meet; every mystery must include a scene in which the detective explains whodunit; and so on). Genre scripts must include these elements and tropes in order to satisfy readers and viewers (including potential buyers) who are expecting these elements and tropes and will be disappointed if they are not included in some fashion. Still, this does not mean screenwriters have to employ these items in rote, predictable fashion – they are also free to twist or subvert them in some clever or original ways.

A Cinematic Approach to Storytelling: Movies are a visual/audio medium, which means that film stories can be told using only images and sounds. Detailed written explorations of characters, settings, and emotions of the type usually found in novels and short stories are useless in cinematic writing. This means that in screenwriting, all aspects of storytelling must be externalized. In a novel, you can write at length about what a character is thinking or feeling on the inside, but in screenwriting you must devise an visual/audio equivalent – an image, a piece of behavior, or a line of dialogue – to express these thoughts or feelings or else they will not be communicated to the audience. Dialogue is the primary storytelling engine in a stage play, but it is a lesser engine (behind imagery and action) in a screenplay. Stage plays are usually divided into a small number of relatively long scenes, whereas screenplays are usually divided into a large number of relatively short scenes. Screenplays also employ a number of devices that are unique to the cinema: shots (to provide perspective and emphasis); cross cutting and inter-cutting (to create contrast, tension, and suspense); visual time transitions (cuts, fades, dissolves); montage; and narration.

Best Practices: there are ways of doing things both creatively and technically in screenwriting that tend to be effective and ways of doing things that tend not to be. These are the notions – ways of structuring a story, developing characters, delivering exposition, crafting dialogue, formatting action on a page, and so on—that I explore frequently in this column and upon which there is great (although not necessarily unanimous) agreement among those who write and work with screenplays. These concepts – often erroneously referred to as “rules” but that are really just guidelines – have proven to be effective, so it behooves anyone writing a screenplay to take them into account when crafting their scripts in order to maximize the effectiveness of their work and to minimize any problems. However, this does not mean these guidelines need to be adhered to slavishly – while I have read many scripts that have ignored these guidelines and crashed and burned, I’ve also read several that took a different approach and soared spectacularly. The difference lies in intentionality and purpose – if a screenwriter fully understands a specific guideline and why it is considered a best practice and still opts not to adhere to it for a clear and purposeful creative reason, then he/she stands a good chance of succeeding with the deviation. If however, a screenwriter opts not to adhere to a guideline out of ignorance or lack of understanding or just to be trendy or different, then there’s an excellent chance he/she will not succeed. In these matters, it’s best to remember the old adage: you have to know the rules before you can break them.

Screenplay Formatting and Terminology: Script formatting and terminology are standardized across the industry so that screenplays can be easily read and understood by the people who will hopefully buy, develop, and produce them. Therefore, it is important for screenwriters to learn and employ these standardized approaches. Still, minor deviations aren’t fatal as long as the script is still clearly communicating its intentions. Therefore, all those aspiring screenwriters out there who are wracked by anxiety because they’re not sure they properly capitalized their slugs or that they’ve left too much (or not enough) white space on the page or that their speeches contain four lines of dialogue instead of three can just relax and just get on with telling their stories.

Screenwriting should never be a formulaic endeavor. Yes, you must include all of the required ingredients in your screenplay, but you must use your own individual creativity, inventiveness, and point of view to mix those ingredients in ways that will produce something fresh, original, and wholly unique.


Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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