Saturday, April 19, 2008

Formula Freaks

When I posted The Nature of Today’s Storytelling Debate, Miriam commented, “I agree that the ‘rules’ aren't hard and fast, and should be more of a jumping-off point than a map to follow slavishly. It's just that articles like this have a way of encouraging new writers to skip learning the basics and go straight to writing their 200 page epic narrated in voice over by a character who stays in one room.”

She’s right, as always, and I should begin with the caveat that I believe all aspiring screenwriters should go through the same learning curve. They should master the basics first. Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Altman all spent years working mainstream and mastering stories in the classical form before they dared venture into alternative types of storytelling, like the non-plot (and good luck getting that financed nowadays). But there’s wisdom in that. Newbies should, before they step onto the world stage, have quite a few scripts under their belt in which they’ve experientially gone through the process and really learned how to effectively compose a 3-act story as well as a rising conflict and sympathetic protagonists with goals and obstacles in their way and arcs in the end, all that crap. (Sites like Zoetrope and TriggerStreet are great for giving you endless feedback along the way.) These are the basics everyone should master. When you read a script from an aspiring screenwriter you want to get the sense that writer has really mastered the basics cold.

And I’d say that’s generally what the industry wants to see, too.

However, I have two thoughts:

1) Even though my audience is, I think, mostly comprised of aspiring screenwriters does not mean that I’m obligated to spend my days doing nothing but reinforcing the basics so as not to confuse them. Hey, this is my blog. I’m going to exhaustively explore the craft and consider all those things no one else has taken the time to thoroughly study, like
subtext and visual storytelling. And if I feel inclined, I will explore higher levels of craftsmanship even if it means it goes against basic "principles." And I will be the devoted contrarian, too. I will absolutely challenge contemporary thinking about the craft. If not, what’s the point of being anonymous and having a blog? I should “go there” when no one else is willing or able to “go there.” However, all newbies should know that they must master the basics first. Just because certain “principles” might be wrong does not mean the industry will embrace you if you break those “principles.” Not until well after you’re established will you find any opportunities to break the rules and explore higher levels of craftsmanship.

2) On the flip side of all this, let me say that it’s one thing to look for basics in scripts submitted by unproduced writers, and it’s quite another to say that every single story - EVERY SINGLE STORY IN EVERY GENRE - must follow the same formula. That’s completely absurd. It’s madness! It never fails to surprise me in my travels through this biz and encounters with people who, despite the first impression of being obviously intelligent, educated, well-spoken, and established within the industry, actually believe that every single story must have a sympathetic protag with a clear goal and a character arc and an antagonist to stand in the way. Are you kidding me?

Let’s take, for example, the perfectly acceptable genre of
satire (which was, by the way, never discussed in Robert McKee’s Story). Ebert sometimes spoke of this art form periodically in his reviews by saying that “satire is what closes Saturday night,” but I tell you that satire is, in fact, the highest form of comedy writing in existence. You cannot make comedy more brilliant than satire. (In fact, John Gassner said this repeatedly in his book, Masters of the Drama.) But, you see, the whole point of satire is to ridicule the protagonist. And you can't do that if the protagonist is sympathetic with a goal. Why else do you think we had Adolph Hitler as the protagonist in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator? That’s a beautiful film and a stirring condemnation of not only Hitler but also fascism, antisemitism, and the Nazis, whom Chaplin beautifully excoriates as “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.”

For some writers I know, satire is what they love and it’s what they're good at and it's how they wish to express themselves. And yet, they get slammed again and again by idiot readers, consultants, analysts – those who actually provide coverage on scripts – because the writer “failed to offer a sympathetic protagonist with clearly defined goals that the audience can root for.” And while these talented writers struggle to get discovered, a beautiful art form tragically lies six feet under and relegated to cable news shows because our industry's infested with A) consultants who are nothing short of intellectually dishonest frauds, and B) thoughtless readers wholly ignorant of the genres they’re supposed to be covering and who spend their days looking for the exact same formula within every story. They don’t THINK about the unique parameters of a given genre.

There should be a name for these people – Formula Freaks.

They’re freaks. That’s all they are. They’re intellectual degenerates.

How about another example? Everyone hates the “passive protagonist,” right? However, in classical film noirs there was (throughout the 1940s, mainly) a class of protags you might characterize as the “male victim.” I’m talking guys like Walter Neff of Double Indemnity and Frank Chambers of The Postman Always Rings Twice. These guys were weak, passive protags who allowed themselves to be manipulated by the femme fatales and they blindly went along with some very evil schemes. You see, there was a point to the passive protag. It was the man’s passivity and weakness that got him into trouble in the first place, and in the end, he pays the price for it. It's like an exploitation of the worst fears in some men and a moral tale of what happens to the weak, emasculated American man.

If a writer wanted to compose a film noir today in the classical construction (with a femme fatale exploiting a weak male), are you really going to condemn that writer for having a passive protag?

9 times out of 10, they would, because the Formula Freaks don’t THINK about what it means to tell a story differently. They have a little chart in which they put check marks next to questions about sympathetic protags, arcs, and goals. They’re freaks.

Let me ask a few more questions to all you Formula Freaks out there: if every protagonist had to be sympathetic with a goal we can root for, then tell me, did you root for Citizen Kane to abandon his principles, betray his wife, and basically, lose everything? Did you root for Michael Corleone to order the execution of his own brother? Did you root for Anakin to switch over to the dark side? Did you root for Scarlett O'Hara to steal Ashley away from Melanie? Or better yet, steal her own sister's fiance so she can marry into a part ownership of his store and thus, get the tax money she needed to save Tara? Can you imagine the abomination of storytelling had a Gone with the Wind adaptation twisted Scarlett O’Hara into a sympathetic protagonist with a goal the audience can root for? Are you kidding me? Had they actually done that, I believe the fans would’ve been in such an uproar that Atlanta might’ve burned for a second time. Not every story (or great film that has made mountains of money) can so easily fit into McKee's narrow, simplistic formula. People WILL watch characters that are totally unlike them and even unsympathetic if they're entertained and/or fascinated by them. The sheer record of cinema history bears this out.

This all boils down to one very simple truth:



This industry that reads thousands and thousands of scripts and judges all writers according to the same narrow McKee-like principles involving “sympathy” and “arcs” is a total fucking sham. Is it any wonder most films are the same shit? All you readers and consultants should get off your lazy asses and start THINKING about what it means for a writer to a tell a story differently and work within the parameters of what that writer was actually trying to accomplish.


If you please, let me switch gears.

Consider this
rave review by Manohla Dargis of Paranoid Park:

The Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr has been instrumental in Mr. Van Sant’s recent artistic renaissance — evident in his newfound love of hypnotically long and gliding camera moves — though his tenure in the mainstream has left its mark too, as demonstrated by his rejection of straight narrative. As in three-act, character-driven, commercially honed narrative in which boys will be boys of a certain type and girls will be girls right alongside them.

The boy in “Paranoid Park,” Alex (the newcomer Gabe Nevins), lives and skates in Portland, Ore., where one evening he is implicated in the brutal death of a security guard. In adapting the young-adult novel by Blake Nelson, Mr. Van Sant has retained much of the story — a man dies, Alex writes it all down — but has reshuffled the original’s chain of events to create an elliptical narrative that continually folds back on itself. Shortly after the film opens, you see Alex writing the words Paranoid Park in a notebook, a gesture that appears to set off a flurry of seemingly disconnected visuals — boys leaping through the air in slow motion, clouds racing across the sky in fast — that piece together only later.

With his on-and-off narration and pencil, Alex is effectively shaping this story, but in his own singular voice. (“I’m writing this a little out of order. Sorry. I didn’t do so well in creative writing.”) Although you regularly hear that voice — at times in Alex’s surprisingly childish, unmodulated recitation, at times in dialogue with other characters — you mostly experience it visually, as if you were watching a still-evolving film unwinding in the boy’s head. Mr. Van Sant isn’t simply trying to take us inside another person’s consciousness; he’s also exploring the byways, dead ends, pitfalls and turning points in the geography of conscience, which makes the recurrent image of the skate park — with its perilous ledges, its soaring ramps and fleetingly liberated bodies — extraordinarily powerful.

Mr. Van Sant’s use of different film speeds and jump cuts, and his tendency to underscore his own storytelling — he regularly, almost compulsively repeats certain images and lines — reinforces rather than undermines the story’s realism. With its soft, smudged colors and caressing lighting, “Paranoid Park” looks like a dream — the cinematographers are Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li — but the story is truer than most kitchen-sink dramas. This isn’t the canned realism of the tidy psychological exegesis; this is realism that accepts the mystery and ambiguity of human existence. It is the realism that André Bazin sees in the world of Roberto Rossellini: a world of “pure acts, unimportant in themselves,” that prepare the way “for the sudden dazzling revelation of their meaning.”

Let me switch gears again.

Consider this fabulous article by Kathrny Millard (who I’m sure would be thrilled to be quoted in a post called “Formula Freaks”). It's called
Writing for the Screen: Beyond the Gospel of Story:

In a recent review of Tarnation (Cauoette 2003), writer Helen Garner speculates on the limited range of narrative strategies explored within contemporary cinema: “I have often wondered why cinema so rarely makes full use of what it can do better than any other art form except perhaps music; recreate the mind's random movements, its swooping back and forth in time, its fleeting connections and smashes, its lightening recoveries” (Garner 2006). For American screenwriting theorist, Howard Rodman, the over-emphasis on utilitarian screenplays, aimed primarily at attracting actors on the route to production finance, has contributed to a lack of life in contemporary screenplays. The complexity, beauty and messiness of life has been edited out of the picture, he complains: “The screenplay needs to be freed from utility. It needs to forget its planned itinerary – to open itself up to the beauty and terror glimpsed at the periphery of one’s vision” (Rodman 2006: 1).

I would argue that the processes of filmmakers from Chaplin and the Lumiere Brothers, to Wenders, Wong and Van Sant, all offer new possibilities for revitalising cinematic scriptwriting. The pre-planned, conflict-driven Story, evangelised in texts and seminars around the globe, points towards a narrow and overly prescriptive conception of cinema. Much can be learnt about the possibilities of cinema by examining how filmmakers have written, revised, rewritten and refined cinematic texts in the process of shooting, designing, editing and post producing their films. Studying scripts and their structures can only get us so far; examining instead how filmmakers have worked with images, and the traces that they and their collaborators have left of those journeys, returns us to the possibilities of cinema. After all, inherent in the caméra-stylo advocated by Alexander Astuc, was the idea that a more fluid way of writing with the camera would allow filmmakers to explore new philosophies, new world views.


You Suck At Screenwriting... said...


Couldn’t of said it better and with that –- “Paranoid Park”. Now, let me just start off and say I’m not entirely against the man’s work (Van Sant), but I do have a lot of problems with him. Take “Paranoid Park”, thought it was very Dull…and truthfully speaking, it had about 20 min of material but Van Sant of course has those brutal Long Takes of misunderstood teenagers walking to the principals office. Now I’m all for Long takes (when they're good) such as P.T Anderson’s “Magnolia” where they are setting up to go on air for Game Show. But enough rumbling about Van Sant’s work….

Formula Freaks. I agree not sticking to the traditional formula all the time, but as you said, aspiring screenwriters try to do it but they don’t know the basics to begin with. And usually most amateur scripts I have read are still using the ol’ so loving Flashback as a crutch to introduce exposition. They are like Robots those Formula Freaks; you must always do this here, and have that there. With that said, I hate to admit it…but I’m kind of a Formula Freak myself. :( DAMN YOU FORMULA FREAKS!!!

terraling said...

Haven't seen Paranoid Park to know whether it is dull or great, but in all of the research and studying I have been doing it seems to me there is only one inviolable law about writing, which is: keep the audience interested. Doesn't necessarily matter how you do it, what format, structure or tools you employ, but your work will succeed or fail on that basis. Perhaps naively, I hope that making sure that every single page is interesting, takes the reader somewhere they didn't realise they wanted to go, will be enough to overcome the checkbox mentality.

Joshua James said...

Great post.


Elver said...

Thank you for writing this post.

Laura Reyna said...

"This industry that reads thousands and thousands of scripts and judges all writers according to the same narrow McKee-like principles involving “sympathy” and “arcs” is a total fucking sham. "

Your post points out why I'm disconcerted over the popularity of Snyder's Save The Cat book & formula. His formula has little relevance outside the High Concept-Hwood-comedy-spec market. It seems industry people WANT & expect a formulaic template for this genre.If you want to use his formula for your HC comedy, OK. Not so OK for a Sci-Fi/Thriller trying to push the envelope.

Also... you've given me a kick in the ass with this. I'm currently writing a script with what some might call a "passive protag". But I've designed him that way, it's part of the point of the story. I've been stressing over this issue but will stress no more. Fuck 'em.

Thanks. Great article.

Elver said...

Snyder's principle isn't actually bad, from what I've read about it. It sort of makes sense. What it basically seems to be saying is that if you want your protagonist to be seen as the good guy, have him display his good side through action. And this is entirely logical.

Since this "formula" is essentially a tool for character exposition, then it does have its use even if your protagonist has a job pushing envelopes in a sci-fi world.

Regarding the passive protag. Um. If you read Campbell with the right kind of eye, you could come to the conclusion that Campbell's idea of a mythic hero is... a passive protag.

After all, the future hero is supposed to hear a call to adventure and what does he do when he hears this call? He does nothing. And then he gets burned so badly that he has no choice other than to go forth and have an adventure. Reluctant heroes are pretty much passive protags and Campbell is all about reluctant heroes.

My view is that formulas, as tools and learning aids, are of huge importance to writers, but in a reader's mind they will only ruin the experience.

deepstructure said...

can you give some more examples of good satires?

Kevin Lehane said...

We are all so bludgeoned to death with stories that involve putting your hero up a tree we're ignoring the rest of the countryside. There is a whole world out there and we're all stuck under the same damn tree.

William said...

Excellent, MM!

It had to be said and it's something I wholly get behind. It's not to say I don't like a well-orchestrated genre film but I think since Story came out it has become the Bible to all the little D-girls and boys. It's made what constitutes a compelling story fit into this narrow enclosure.

Challenging films with off the beaten path storylines and unsympathetic characters (my personal preference - one true skill of a writer IMHO can be measured if he or she can make an audience relate to and/or understand, not necessarily like, an unsympathetic character by the end of the film) have always had a hard time in the industry. It's like there's a stranglehold on anything outside of the McKee template right now. I don't think anyone really knows how to shepherd a risky (i.e. a Being John Malkovich for example), and let's please not forget, well-crafted film. The two must go hand in hand. It takes a special individual to have enough insight and they are far and few between.

Mystery Man said...

Hey guys, thanks so much.

I feel much better after posting this.

I'm not sure "Paranoid Park" lives up to the review, but the review completely inspires me.

Deep - The first few films that come to mind are "Thank You For Smoking" in which the protag was a spokesman for the tobacco industry. There was also "American Psycho," a vicious indictment of greed. I wrote extensively about it here. Hope that helsp.

William - I would just add that it represents "safe" filmmaking, which has become a bigger, more dangerous risk, financially speaking because the audience is more movie-savvy than they've ever been in the history of films.

I will never quit believing that there will always be an elusive, undefinable "mystery factor" to the magic of storytelling.


Laura Reyna said...

BEING THERE is a good socio-political satire. (Wasn't JJ arguing with someone about this one here??... lol)

ELECTION & CITIZEN RUTH dir by Alexander Payne are v good too.

William said...

I will never quit believing that there will always be an elusive, undefinable "mystery factor" to the magic of storytelling.

You, me and many others, buddy.

Christian M. Howell said...

Great post. It snapped me out of my funk. I, too, get tired of the same story where you can always tell what he next line will be because of the "formula."

I recently got 5 reads of a screenplay and everyone tought something different. That is the purpose of movies; to relate to EACH INDIVIDUAL, not group.

I mean, if you're outside a movie theater and people are exiting from two movies.
One group is "I liked the part where;" and the other group is arguing about the meaning of a scene, which one will attract more attention?

I thik readers, consultants, etc should really look at the Bazins and Bergsons and Deleuzes, who use psychology to relate images to actions to characters.

The whole point of cinema is to make people think. Sure laughter is great that, like every other emotion is built-in, meaning that you can have a rip-roaring laugh fest for 10 minutes of a drama and a heart-wrenching series of tragedies in a comedy.

I write the movie the way it feels not the way ANYONE ELSE says. I'm working on a political thriller right now that I consider to be my "home MFA thesis."

It jumps around a lot, unlike my comedy, coming-of-age drama or action flick.

But to your point, I think the onus is on writers to stop with the kindergarten, cookie-cutter stories and just entertain.

If readers stop seeing those "things," maybe they will stop looking for them. But then, if they take it seriously and look for those visual\auditory cues, they will "see" a lot more of the movie.

I guess most of them are just realists (vs. neo-realists) who are attracted by the sensory\motor of the silent era rather than the visual\sound of the neo-realists.

You can see this in the older Dracula movies of the 20s vs those that followed the Avant-garde period. They were less about jerky movements and abrupt actions and more about the entire image and the accompanying sounds.

I have been tryign to get my hands on more of the old stuff as it is "pure." Meaning, no Robert McKee, no Joseph Campbell.

I can appreciate their desire to catalog structure, but that's like saying every building has to look the same regardless of functionality.

For example, you don't need a firemen's pole in a police station or a fountain in a McDonald's.

Every story I have started or completed exists on its own. It has nothing STRUCTURALLY to do with the others.

Some stories require a passive protag, some require a psychotic one.

I actually have found the story that will represent my "home PhD thesis." It's a rather complex vampire movie that looks at vampires from a different angle.

Anyway, thanks for helping me with my funk.

marnie said...

Excellent post.

The world isn't perfect or predictable, love is NEVER perfect or predictable, people either. . .so why do our stories have to be?

Mim said...

Thanks, MM. I love you.

Anonymous said...

I don't write spec scripts at all, but I thoroughly enjoy this website, MM. Sure, you talk three-act, conflict, structure, but it's obvious if one pays attention, that you're also aware of more open and intuitive approaches to the form.

I do write, however, scenes, notes, explorations which inform the video pieces I create. The link to the essay by Kathryn Millard was brilliant and makes complete sense to me, as that's how I understand screenwriting. The reason I run very far away from all that is industry-driven is that, while not denying that are undeniably talented writers at work in that arena, all are still cursed with the need to over-write and over-plot. There is no room to breathe, there is no grit, no messiness, no life. It's hideous, and no place I want to be. Having to pitch an idea to a room of people who are largely indifferent to all matters of art? I'd rather be bounded by a cell and flogging myself daily. Which pretty much sums up my condition anyway, come to think of it.

It's astonishing to me that someone like Terrance Malick can actually find money in this environment to do the work that he does. How this is possible is beyond me.

"Hollywood movies are basically devoted to achievement. Characters are defined in terms of their ability to do things (anything from freeing the hostages to getting the girl)- frequently by being pitted against each other in tests of wit or prowess. Hollywood understands life as essentially a matter of competition, achievement, and reward." That's from Ray Carney's introduction (Stylistic Introduction: Living Beyond consciousness) to "The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing The World", Read it. The introduction is available freely on the net as a PDF. The book itself should be read, but do read the introduction. It's life-altering. It's that good.

In the Millard essay she cites Jean-Pierre Geuens' book, "Film Production Theory". Read this book. Let me say it again, Read it now.

This is a good place to come to. Thank you.

Last thing, your analysis of Kubrick's Napoleon is really very keen and great fun to read. Thanks for that, too.

Jim VB

Mystery Man said...

I'm a little embarrassed about this post now. I was venting frustrations, and ya know, I do feel much better now. Hehehe...

And thanks for all the comments. In particular, thank you, Jim VB. I really appreciate it.

And I love you, too, Mim.


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