Structure versus Formula

My blog reader has been filled recently with posts about “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder (2005). First was the Slate article condemning the book, claiming that this lone book is the reason why every movie seems to be the same. Then came a number of articles snapping back at the Slate article. I have placed some links at the end of this article if you would like to read some of the Great Cat Debate.

On this blog I have been in favour of structure writing since the beginning. I have spoke about my 9 Story Flags in the past (and I will again in the near future). I read Syd Field’s books, starting with “Screenplays” as my part of studying what makes a good screenplay. It was just last month that I finally got a hold of a copy of Snyder’s book and read it. I will say it was an interesting read written by a man who knew movies, but for me it was nothing new. Snyder, like myself, read other books and watched a lot of movies and saw that in good films there is a structure and like myself Snyder named different parts of this structure to make it easier to teach.

We live in a Do It Yourself world where everyone thinks they can do anything as long as they read a book. So the DIY industry is huge money. Writing a book to teach someone how to do something can make the author very rich. Like any other screenwriting book on the market Snyder broke down his ideas and wrote a book to teach people his way of writing a screenplay. There is nothing wrong with that. Head to your local art supply store and flip through a How to Draw or How to Paint and those books break the process down to it’s simplest form so it can be taught just as “Save the Cat” does.

Burying the Formula

Much of the world around us is built using formulas. We, as a society, rely on formulas. An apartment building is built to code (a formula) to ensure it safe for use. Medication is manufactured based on a very specific formula to ensure the product’s safety. If the medicine’s formula is not followed then a recall of the product is required. When you look at the buildings in a city they’re all different because once the foundation and structural skeleton (the formula of the building) is complete it is hidden under bricks, glass or concrete making each building unique. Writing a screenplay should be the same.

In 335 BC, Aristotle wrote his book “Poetics” that laid out the rules of story structure that are still used today. Every screenwriting book since 335 BC has built on Aristotle’s foundation. Snyder wasn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last (I have an article coming soon). A formula is a great way to learn screenwriting. It ensures that the writer has all of the key parts of their story before they commit to writing the screenplay. I use a self developed formula for my own story development.

My early ideas are often handwritten and as the pieces start coming together I scan the handwritten pages and start a new Scrivener project. This is where the formula starts but once I start writing the screenplay I put the formula aside and start writing based on my notes. This is how I bury the formula. During the development of my screenplays I get to know my story well enough that when it comes time to write I just write. I know the required elements are there because I developed the story based on my formula so I just need to focus on writing the screenplay. I’ve found that writing like this allows my writing the freedom to explore new ideas as I continue to create the specific details of my screenplay.

And that’s what many of these DIY screenwriting books are getting wrong, don’t write using a formula, develop your screenplay using a formula and then just write.

The Slate Article, “Save the Movie” – July 19, 2013
Good in a Room, “Slate Got it Wrong” – July 26, 2013
The Workbench, “Slate’s Article Screws the Pooch” – July 23, 2019

Do you use a formula of some sort? If not, would you ever consider using one?

Next time I’ll present my formula,
– Steve


One response to “Structure versus Formula

  1. I put a great deal of attention into story structure. I think it’s one of the most important parts of writing a good story. It’s kind of the silent majority vote on whether or not a story is any good. When the structure works, nobody notices it. When it’s off, a reader can feel it in their bones almost instinctively.

    I’m a lot like you, though. When it’s time to sit down and draw up an outline, I do it with a structure already in place; I’ve got Acts 1-5 in a list, with blank bullet-points waiting eagerly beneath each.

    Once I start writing, though, that goes out the window, and it’s only the actual story-contents of the outline I pay any attention to. I find that a lot of the time events will shift pretty radically (as a result of new ideas spreading their wings, old ideas not working, etc) and it then becomes my job, as I go, to keep course-correcting the formula to make sure I’m staying somewhere within the lines.

    It’s kind of like laying road ahead of an out-of-control car, while still trying to guide it in a North-ish direction. I try to set myself up so that if my characters decide to take the plot down some unexpected detour, I have the flexibility to see where it goes without completely derailing proceedings.

    It’s like, “What’s that, Jack? You want to STEAL the files right now, rather than wait until the end of the chapter when they’re sent to you in the mail? Well, that’s fine. But then you’re not allowed to look at them yet, because the ‘Jack Pieces Together the Mystery’ part isn’t until next chapter. And for being a cheeky little bastard, have these five additional complications, ya jerk.”

    I think playing a lot of tabletop can make you pretty good at this sort of thing.

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