Taking Off the Training Wheels

Happy Holidays! It’s December and soon we’ll be starting a new year. This is the time of year where we’re all making New Year’s Resolutions. This very blog site and the Screenwriting Workshop on it was created out of my only New Year’s Resolution at the start of 2012. Although I had been writing screenplays for nearly 25 years (finished my first screenplay at 15 years old) I hadn’t studied the screenwriting at all. To me screenwriting was no more than just a hobby. I didn’t know what to do with the screenplay after I had finished it, but I had big dreams. So a couple of years ago I started reading everything I could about writing a screenplay. I was a beginner with 25 years experience. I read books, blogs, magazines and screenplays. I studied them all. I read that using a formula is good and then I read that using a formula was bad. Everyone had a different opinion.

Just like any research project I had to review all of the information and come up with my own opinion on the usage of a formula. As the Nine Pillars of Story show, I believe using a formula is required. A formula is required to make sure you include all of the ingredients when starting a new screenplay. Screenplays are often rejected because a key element of the story is missing and if the author had started with a formula, the missing element would have been identified early in the process. If you watch any decent Hollywood movie, you should be able spot parts of the formula. Last night I read a blog post where the author opposed the use formulas. While I respect her opinion, I must disagree with it. If you don’t have much experience in baking a cake then your going to need a formula. Have you ever ate a cake where the chef missed an ingredient? Then you know, it wasn’t a very good cake. Build a house without a blueprint? It would never happen.

Do you remember when you learned how to ride a bike? I do. I had a pair of training wheels on a bike for a while as I learned about balance, braking and the rules of the road. A beginning screenwriter can look at the formula as a set of training wheels. As you learn about your project, the formula helps you focus on the details needed to make a great screenplay. The formula will help you organize your thoughts and get them on paper. The author of the blog I read last night identified herself as a reader who was tired of reading formula screenplays with stereotypical characters. I can see how that would become annoying day in and day out. But that tells me the screenwriter didn’t bother to bury the formula during the rewrites. There comes a point where the training wheels come off and the author completes a final rewrite of their screenplay that focuses on the characters and story rather than the formula.

How do you bury the formula? By the time the author is on their third rewrite it is safe to say that they should know their story very well. They understand their story’s conflicts, obstacles and resolution and should be able to rewrite the screenplay without the help of the formula. The structure flows from the writing because the author has written the screenplay at least twice before. Where the First Plot Point might have stocked out like a sore thumb in the first and second draft, in the third or fourth draft the author allows the writing fill in the blanks that where still missing in the earlier drafts. To convince a character to willing do something outside their comfort zone can be difficult but a good screenplay must provide a smooth and logical reason. The formula gave you the logical reason, it is during the rewrite where you are to make it smooth and realistic. In Fred Claus, Fred needed $50,000 from his brother Santa. Of course Santa coud have sent Willie down with the money, but the screenwriter needed to get Fred to the North Pole, something Fred refused to do. To solve it, the screenwriter had Santa tell Fred that he had to come to the North Pole to get it. The plot point happens when Fred agrees to come to the workshop to get the money. It’s a smooth scene leading into the second act. Remember, your writing a scene where the Hero is willing agreeing to do something he normally wouldn’t do.

Use the formula presented in my workshop like a pair of training wheels. The formula will help you gather your thoughts and organize your story into the correct, successful structure without missing any parts. Use it to get the first and second drafts written and then, when your comfortable with your story, cast off the formula and write your third draft based on the story’s requirements rather than the formula’s. Writing the first and second drafts of the story are done using the story notes, and Story Cards (the formula) but the third and any additional drafts are written without referring to this original material. The reason is that by the time your story is on the third (and further) draft, the story has further developed beyond the cards. Your story will take on a life of it’s own and that’s when the scenes smooth themselves out and the formula you used originally to get to the third draft starts to become buried within the story.

Before sending your screenplay to an agent or production company you need to make sure your formula is buried. Get to a third or even a fourth draft before sending it out. Sending out a first or second draft is just asking for trouble. Just like training wheels, there’s a point where the formula has done it’s job and you have to cast it off. While the formula built your story, it is the story your trying to sell, not the formula. Make sure your story stands strong on it’s own and you should have little trouble getting your screenplay sold.


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