Blockbuster Implosion: Formulas Fail Writers

Screenwriter Damon Lindelof knows a thing or two about movie scripts. The noted script doctor described this summer’s cinematic fare as “summer disaster porn flicks.” This prescient observation followed comments by Steven Spielberg, who predicted in June that Hollywood was headed for an “implosion” because an industry that only makes mega-movies cannot sustain itself.

Lindelof’s insights, given in an interview with Vulture, were right on target. “We live in a commercial world where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct. But ultimate I do feel—even as a purveyor of it—slightly turned off by this destruction porn that has emerged and become very bold-faced this past summer,” he said.

“And, again, guilty as charged. It’s hard not to do it, especially because a movie, if properly executed, feels like it’s escalating.”

One could substitute the word “ book” for “movie” in this commentary. Lindelof went on to say, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world. And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.”

This is evident in literature, when one looks at the best-seller list. It’s filled with proven commodities and genre fiction. It can feel formulaic, just as in screenwriting some claim the movie formula was laid out in Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat.

Nathan Bransford blogged about this trend recently in this post.

As usual, Bransford has nailed it. I would urge writers to resist the temptation to follow a proven formula. That doesn’t mean a writer should not learn about formulas. Formulas are really story structures and there are many that are tried and true. The three-act structure is as reliable and sturdy a formula as there is out there. Structure is fine and necessary, but when the story becomes a slave to a formula, the writer is robbed of the creative tools to shape it to its unique potential. If a writer envisions a story in which the inevitable conclusion is for the main character to die due to his own sins or weaknesses, it makes no sense to change the ending on the mistaken belief that readers want a happy ending.

So what is a writer to do, when there are formulas that enhance the chances of success? Here are a few ideas:

• Know the rules and then don’t be afraid to break them. The old adage, “You have to know the rules before you can break them” is true. Learn about the different types of story structures and the craft of fiction. Understand the importance of character development to the overall story.
• Own your story. A story is the writer’s creation. It belongs to the writer. The arc should be determined by the writer’s vision and execution, not by some arbitrary rule that dictates a particular event must happen by page 75.
• Read unconventional novels like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and watch cutting-edge programs like Breaking Bad, which takes the tired “send ‘em home happy” dictum and gives it a swift kick in the butt.
• Write from the heart. If the writer doesn’t feel passionate about the story, the reader won’t, either.

Are you tired of movies or novels that follow a formula? What examples of unconventional stories can you name?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Blockbuster Implosion: Formulas Fail Writers

  1. While I can’t name any unconventional stories off the top of my head, I think SOME kind of formula is good. The three arc story comes to mind, which has been around for centuries, and isn’t even detectable if done the right away. I am getting really tired of movies and books that have the same kind of theme, which almost translates into a formula. (IE- a love triangle, a girl in a dystopian world that has to change it around, etc.)

    • Katie,
      Yes there has to be a structure. All I’m saying is that authors and screenwriters shouldn’t follow the same formula. Another good example of an unconventional story is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Time travel is a high-risk strategy because it could come off as a gimmick, but this is a great story. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Diane W

    Have you read “After the Dark” by Haruki Murakami? I’ve read nothing like it before. Just started reading “Kafka on the Shore,” which was recommended by someone on WU. So far, it’s an interesting read.

    • Diane,
      Thanks for the recommendation. I will check it out. I have been meaning to read something by Murakami. Thanks for your comment. I’m a big fan of WU.

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