An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 5): Times have changed and so have expectations for a screenplay

September 19th, 2014 by

I’ve not only been writing screenplays since 1986, I have been a student of the craft. Along the way, it’s been fascinating to look at the emergence of movies as narrative through through the lens of screenwriting. In fact, I teach a university level course called “History of American Screenwriting,” a decade by decade survey beginning in the 1890s all the way up to the present.

One thing I have learned in my research: Screenplay structure, format and style are ever evolving. I posted something on this very subject here. Bottom line: Screenplays today are far different than screenplays of yesteryear.

Given the fact that the narrative form we call a ‘screenplay’ is an organic entity, constantly changing, consider this: Almost all of the most influential screenwriting gurus developed their screenplay formulas in the 1980s. While they may have tweaked their ideas over time, the core of what they promulgate has it roots in movies as they were over 30 years ago.

Times have changed. Expectations have as well.

For example, if you watch almost any mainstream commercial movie from the 1980s, you will likely note how damn long it takes for the plot to ‘get going’.

In Back to the Future (1985), Marty McFly doesn’t end up in the 1950s until minute 33.

In Witness (1985), John Book doesn’t reach the Amish farm until minute 36.

In The Karate Kid (1984), Miyagi doesn’t start teaching Daniel karate until minute 55.

Minute 55!

Personally I have no problem with stories unfolding at a more leisurely pace, taking ample time to set up all of the characters so we get a solid sense who they are. That would seem to be the best way to make us care enough about them to be emotionally invested in their adventure. Then again, I’m an old dude and not representative of Hollywood’s target audience which is much younger.

My take is contemporary moviegoers want to get into the action quicker. It figures since each of them will have seen, heard or read on average 10,000 stories by the time they get out of college, so a lot of their knowledge about narrative structure is intuitive at this point. They don’t need as much exposition. They don’t need as much setup. As a result, what in the 80s screenwriters would consider to be the end of Act One is now more likely to be the middle of the first act.

The success of the movie Lucy, just released this summer, is instructive. We meet the Protagonist (Lucy) in the movie’s first frame, hear her have a conversation for a couple of minutes with a guy she knows well enough to have partied with a few times, but not much more than that. She agrees to do something, then WHAM! Five minutes into the movie and we are on our way, Lucy swept up into an action thriller. Hardly any exposition, any backstory about her character. Five minutes, we’re off and running.

So when I say what used to be the end of Act One — the Protagonist venturing forth from their Old World into the New World — is now more often positioned as the middle of the first act, who knows? Maybe that’s changing and we’ll be witness to even more time-compression for story setups.

Here are some more changes in screenwriting since the 80s:

* Whereas the length of an average scene in the 80s was around 2 pages, my sense is that today, it is 1 1/2 pages, this a reflection of the post-MTV / YouTube / jump cut generation. Obviously that number can vary per genre, story and type of scene, but I think it’s fair to say that most contemporary scripts feature more and shorter scenes than decades past.

* Whereas the rule-of-thumb in the 1980s was paragraphs of scene description should be no longer than 5 lines, today the norm appears to be 3 lines or less. Again this can vary from script to script, but for example, compare the scene description in the script for the 1988 movie Heathers to the script for the 2010 movie The American. If you read 20 scripts from the 80s and 20 scripts from this decade, you will notice a pronounced difference in the handling of scene description, more 1-2 line paragraphs to suggest individual camera shots and read less ‘blocky’.

* Whereas scripts used to clock in at 120 pages, we are more likely to see page counts of around 100-105 pages, even in the 90s for certain genres like Comedy and Family. You can read a post I wrote in 2009 about this phenomenon.

All of these shifts have an effect on story structure and how we tell a story. Do you really want to be relying on screenplay formulas whose perspective is grounded in conventions common to movies three decades ago?

Look, if there’s one thing you take away from this five-part series, please let it be this: Embrace the fact that story structure is not best served by adhering to a preset screenplay formula. Instead respect the organic nature of Story by engaging your characters. Immerse yourself in their lives. Interview them. Listen to them via their monologues. Do biographies. Character sit-downs. Reflect on what you learn about who they are. Through that process, the story structure will emerge naturally. Plus you will have a collection of vibrant, multidimensional characters to tell their story.

Tomorrow I will post something that acknowledges a certain kind of value — extremely limited in my view — in studying these screenplay formulas.

For Part 1 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: They are selling you a lie” — go here.

For Part 2 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: Formula leads to formulaic writing” – go here.

For Part 3 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: They diminish the craft of screenwriting” – go here.

For Part 4 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: They make the job of a screenwriter more difficult” – go here.

I welcome your comments and thoughts.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I’m including my update from Part 2 drawing a distinction between formula and structure.

I’ve gotten emails from several writers a bit frantic in tone, so let me make this clear: There is a difference between formula and structure. When William Goldman famously says, “Screenplays are structure,” at a fundamental level, that is true. The ultimate end point for a screenplay is the production of a movie and because of certain limitations and conventions common to movies, the structure of a script is intimately tied to the actual nuts and bolts process of making a film.

So let me be clear: I am not saying structure is bad. On the contrary, story structure is critical to the success of a screenplay.

The problem is equating formula with structure.

First off, as discussed, there is no one single formula to craft a screenplay’s structure. Stories are organic. Formulas are not. So the very premise that this screenwriting guru or that can make some claim as to the universality of their formula is false on the face of it. There are endless possibilities for stories and story structure.

Second, from what I’ve seen in the countless scripts I’ve read from writers who have been influenced by screenplay formulas, clearly their focus in the writing has been with Plot, as if Plot is the sum of story structure. It is not. A screenplay’s universe has two dimensions: The External World, what I call the Plotline, the domain of Action and Dialogue, and the Internal World, what I call the Themeline, the domain of Intention and Subtext. The former is where we see and hear the story’s Physical Journey. The latter is where we interpret and intuit the story’s Psychological Journey. Without the Internal World, a story is essentially without any meaning or emotional resonance. Therefore if the preponderance of focus in a screenplay formula is on the makeup of the External World, that is only serving one part of the story’s structure. Story structure properly understood involves both domains: External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, whatever story structure you end up with, one of the major points of emphasis in my teaching is how you get there. This goes back to outside-in writing, as described in Part 2, versus inside-out writing. I believe you are much more likely to find an authentic story structure, not a formulaic one, through the inside-out approach, starting with characters, immersing yourself in their lives, engaging in an active, dynamic process in which both the Plotline and Themeline emerge.

So when I call into question screenplay formula, please understand, this is not the same thing as story structure. In a sense, screenplays are structure, but that structure involves both Plotline and Themeline… and it’s critical how you go about crafting that structure.

Outside-In / Formula = No!
Inside-Out / Characters = Yes!

Twitter Rants: Eric Heisserer on Loglines

September 19th, 2014 by

Eric Heisserer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5, The Thing, Hours, Story of Your Life) is probably the Hollywood screenwriter most willing to go online and provide a Twitter rant on a specific subject related to the craft. Writer Tim Wainwright hosts a blog and has been posting Eric’s rants there for the last year or so.

After several GITS readers asked me about archiving screenwriting Twitter rants so they wouldn’t get lost down the online rabbit hole, I reached out to both Eric and Tim about hosting some of Eric’s previous rants here. They both thought that was a swell idea.

Today: Eric’s March 2014 rant on loglines.

Notes call now has me writing furiously into the night. But a quick break to talk loglines.

The short version (“I see what you did there”): I’m terrible at loglines. No way around it. But I can recognize a great one instantly.

There is a mountain of how-to material out there about constructing an amazing logline. A lot of formulas and rules. A lot works, too. One version is the WHEN > THEN > UNTIL model. In one sentence you lob the situation, the complication, and the big conflict.

Another model suggests you clash your protag’s emotional need with your antag’s need. Set up both and smash ‘em together in 2 sentences. Yet another model pushes you simply to tee up the movie rather than summarize it. Hit the inciting incident and drop the mic.

There is no single method to a great logline. But I can tell you the interesting versions that fire people up. The first is the one that plays the big reveal at the end of the logline. You read the conflict and then BOOM, bomb dropped. “A frantic father struggles to save his community against authorities conspiring to cover up an unstoppable disaster called GODZILLA.” That isn’t perfect, but that’s the WHAMMY I’m talking about. You get the heart and the humanity in the front, then end with the “oh shit.”

Another version uses brevity as its main weapon. It offers a question or a declaration that creates a dozen more questions in your head. One of the shortest I’d ever seen:
“A man sues God.”

Another variation: “What if your whole life has been in a virtual reality?”

These can work in certain circumstances, although they fail when applied to script repositories like Black List, because lack of story. The strongest loglines speak to the big conflict the protag faces, and suggests the choice they must make without giving away the answer. In other words, strong loglines communicate the subtext and theme of your story. Which is why some writers start with one.

What is really going on in your story? The thing behind the thing.

Rather than getting into the minutia of word choices and sentence structure, let me toss out some practices that will help.

1. Have five trusted friends read your script and ask them to write a logline for it. Compare them, notice what they responded to/ignored.

2. Use a fun social game on the logline: Tell your story in one minute, then in three words, then in only one word.

3. Pick a favorite movie and pitch it in one sentence to friends. See how many guess the movie, how many agree with your logline.

All right, that’s good for now, I must crawl back to the salt mines for more work. Keep creating, you gorgeous monsters.

The link to Tim’s blog post for this rant is here.

Eric has put together a book that arose from his Twitter exchanges: “150 Screenwriting Challenges” which is available for Kindle here.

Each day this week, I will be posting one of Eric’s Twitter rants via Tim’s blog.

You may see all of the Screenwriting Twitter Rants archived on the site here.

Thanks, Eric, for taking the time to share your insights with the online screenwriting community.

Thanks, Tim, for making the effort to aggregate Eric’s Twitter rants.

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 4): They make the job of a screenwriter more difficult

September 18th, 2014 by

Script notes. From studios. From producers. Sometimes the notes are good. Sometimes not so good. Sometimes awful. Script notes are a fact of a screenwriter’s life and you learn to just deal with them.

Hopefully you are working with smart people. Those who understand Story. Maybe not as much as you, but that’s to be expected. They’re not the writer. You are. But between their intelligence and embrace of their role as a development executive, combined with an honest, open dialogue about the story and its issues, hopefully you emerge from the meeting with a set of script notes that are, by and large, executable and could even benefit the project.

Then there are people who do not understand Story very well. Oftentimes this is where the specter of screenplay formulas arising from the cauldron of screenwriting gurus emerges to bite you in the ass.

You see, these books, seminars, webinars and story structure software have proven not only to have found willing buyers among aspiring screenwriters. Their influence has filtered its way up into the ranks of Hollywood development circles.

How can you know? When the notes your receive reflect the actual language system of a particular screenwriting guru.

This is not to say a script note based upon one of these screenplay formulas may not have merit. On a case by case basis, some may. But by and large, receiving notes like these makes the job of a screenwriter more difficult.

Why?

What if the story you have written does not fit into the screenplay formula at all? Then you are left trying to jam a round block into a square hole. Worse, if there are so many notes that you have to rewrite the script so it becomes another story, then you find yourself in the unenviable position of writing a screenplay to fit a formula.

Sometimes the formula in question has been created by someone who has never sold a script or worked as a professional screenwriter. So there’s that. Even if they have, this can become a nightmarish case of outside-in writing, which I describe in Part 2 of this series, where creative decisions are being made not from within the context of the story universe and its characters, but rather per the whims of some complete outsider, someone you have never met, someone who has not read your script, all they’ve done is write a book and seen their ideas somehow permeate into the consciousness of people who work in movie development.

I have talked with enough other screenwriters to know this is a real and growing issue, yet another dynamic to have to deal with when working with script notes and an additional path toward Development Hell. As I’ve said, the presence of these screenplay formulas can make the life of a screenwriter that much more of a challenge.

There’s also this. Know how you and seemingly everyone else complains about how formulaic Hollywood studio movies are nowadays? Yes, the corporations are playing it safe nowadays to an unprecedented degree with remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, but what about the influence of screenplay formulas in Hollywood development circles on actual storytelling? Net positive? Or net negative?

What do you think?

There is one more critique I have about these screenplay formulas and that derives from a key fact: Most of the more well-known and influential systems or paradigms were born in the 1980s. And times have changed. More on that in Part 5 of the series tomorrow.

For Part 1 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: They are selling you a lie” — go here.

For Part 2 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: Formula leads to formulaic writing” – go here.

For Part 3 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: They diminish the craft of screenwriting – go here.

I welcome your comments and thoughts.

And for the record on Saturday, I will do a post in which I make an argument on how screenplay formulas do have a place in a writer’s life, albeit a very, very limited one.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I’m including my update from Part 2 drawing a distinction between formula and structure.

I’ve gotten emails from several writers a bit frantic in tone, so let me make this clear: There is a difference between formula and structure. When William Goldman famously says, “Screenplays are structure,” at a fundamental level, that is true. The ultimate end point for a screenplay is the production of a movie and because of certain limitations and conventions common to movies, the structure of a script is intimately tied to the actual nuts and bolts process of making a film.

So let me be clear: I am not saying structure is bad. On the contrary, story structure is critical to the success of a screenplay.

The problem is equating formula with structure.

First off, as discussed, there is no one single formula to craft a screenplay’s structure. Stories are organic. Formulas are not. So the very premise that this screenwriting guru or that can make some claim as to the universality of their formula is false on the face of it. There are endless possibilities for stories and story structure.

Second, from what I’ve seen in the countless scripts I’ve read from writers who have been influenced by screenplay formulas, clearly their focus in the writing has been with Plot, as if Plot is the sum of story structure. It is not. A screenplay’s universe has two dimensions: The External World, what I call the Plotline, the domain of Action and Dialogue, and the Internal World, what I call the Themeline, the domain of Intention and Subtext. The former is where we see and hear the story’s Physical Journey. The latter is where we interpret and intuit the story’s Psychological Journey. Without the Internal World, a story is essentially without any meaning or emotional resonance. Therefore if the preponderance of focus in a screenplay formula is on the makeup of the External World, that is only serving one part of the story’s structure. Story structure properly understood involves both domains: External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, whatever story structure you end up with, one of the major points of emphasis in my teaching is how you get there. This goes back to outside-in writing, as described in Part 2, versus inside-out writing. I believe you are much more likely to find an authentic story structure, not a formulaic one, through the inside-out approach, starting with characters, immersing yourself in their lives, engaging in an active, dynamic process in which both the Plotline and Themeline emerge.

So when I call into question screenplay formula, please understand, this is not the same thing as story structure. In a sense, screenplays are structure, but that structure involves both Plotline and Themeline… and it’s critical how you go about crafting that structure.

Outside-In / Formula = No!
Inside-Out / Characters = Yes!

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on Pitching

September 18th, 2014 by

Eric Heisserer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5, The Thing, Hours, Story of Your Life) is probably the Hollywood screenwriter most willing to go online and provide a Twitter rant on a specific subject related to the craft. Writer Tim Wainwright hosts a blog and has been posting Eric’s rants there for the last year or so.

After several GITS readers asked me about archiving screenwriting Twitter rants so they wouldn’t get lost down the online rabbit hole, I reached out to both Eric and Tim about hosting some of Eric’s previous rants here. They both thought that was a swell idea.

Today: Eric’s March 2014 rant on pitching.

All right, folks, who’re my writers out there now? I’m at the mic for a bit and feel like talking about the dragon that is pitching.

All right, I’m going to be tossing around lessons learned. When I use the word “you” I mean “me” as it’s what I’ve discovered. YMMV.

Let’s make some delineations. There are pitches of original material you invented, and pitches on properties/assignments, two diff beasts.

If it’s your own idea and you’re pitching it, that is a crazy steep climb. Because the buyers will wonder why you don’t just write it. What you need to get in the room with anyone at that point is a super strong script of something else they’ve already loved. Even then, pitching your own ideas first and hoping to get paid to write them is leaving money on the table. Specs = always bigger $$.

So with that out of the way, let’s focus on what 90+% of pitching will be for you: Writing assignments.

So there is a writing gig up for grabs out there and you want it. Your agent or manager or friend at the front desk can get you in the room. Or maybe you have a general meeting with the producer and you use that opportunity to say you’re crazy about X and want to pitch them.

Sounds silly to mention, but you have to really care about it. You have to know why you want to write this thing vs your own stuff. Even if one of the big reasons is, “I’m terrified someone else will screw it up. I’d rather be the one, if it comes to that.”

But what will be your guide from the start is your motivation for this story. What do you want to say through this particular voice/world? That’s a huge help going into the pitch. The next step is to share how that motivation is personal to you. How it connects to your life. That’s what you lead with. Why is this personal to you, and how does it connect to the character(s) of this property? What is its soul?

This means being able to talk about yourself, sometimes sharing traumatic experiences, with a room full of strangers. Tough.

But binding yourself and your passions or fears to a thing increases both your purpose and its value. Producers want that connection.

Now I’m going to keep going by talking about the particular beast of movie pitching, but I’ve done TV dev for 8 years and that’s tough too.

If you’re swinging for something even halfway cool in this town, expect it to be a “bake-off” (lots of writers pitching). You are not really in the game with the other writers. That is the tragic mistake I used to make. Your big opponent is yourself. Not them. Focus on what you love about the property, be it an adaptation, remake, or sequel. Share what it means to you; what it does so well.

Now here are some really crazy specifics, based on tragic blunders by yours truly.

All the preamble talk can be about how you identify with the story, and how that translates, but when you get into the actual pitch…Hit the milestone at around five minutes in and declare it. For me that’s the “end of act one” moment, but it can be the big sequence, etc.

The thing that launches the rest of the movie, whatever that is, gets announced. “That’s our engine for act two.” And here’s why you say it: Producers/execs have sat through pitches for 20 minutes only to hear the writer say at the end, “That’s the backstory. Now, we open on…”

This is one of their horrible fears: That you don’t know where to start pitching.

Seed some “mile markers” in your pitch to help everyone know where in the story they are. It’s a great relief to them, trust me. Next: visual aids. Cards. Posterboard. Maps. Diagrams. All workable. Keep something in mind when using material like this in a pitch…

If you put too much on them for your buyers to read, they’ll be reading and not listening to your story. So be visual, not wordy.

Characters in a pitch. Often tricky describing them. Some people love it when you offer casting ideas, so they see the actor in the movie. I can tell you I had a pitch completely crumble on me only because the studio exec HATED an actor I used as my template for the lead. Pow.

Try to avoid: Physical description, unless it’s germane to the story. Don’t bother with that crap, it’s superficial 99% of the time. Instead, think of one behavioral trait that paints a bigger picture of a person. A bad habit. A cute sentimentality. What real people do. “He’s the kind of guy who rants about the president but never voted.” “Birthdays and holidays are a big deal to her.”

That sort of thing.

More hard lessons I’ve the scars to prove: Make it a discussion. Don’t feel it’s a stand-up routine. Let them ask questions. Ask them ones. I spent way too long making my pitch simply “here are the beats of the story.” That’s not what they want to hear. Crazy, I know.

They want the story — they really do — but have you ever managed to pay attention to someone telling you the events that happen in a film? It can be really… dry. Sadly. Even if the events are really cool.

GARY WHITTA INTERJECTS: @HIGHzurrer I’ll often break out of the story at certain moments to talk about why something is important, goes to theme/character etc.

You gotta keep thinking to yourself, “How does this moment make me FEEL?” And share THAT with your buyers in the room. So in a weird way, it’s almost like telling someone about a crazy thing you just lived through. Yourself.

To get all chart-y, it helps to go between very specific details and broadstrokes. Give me two mental photographs then talk subtext.

Show me the plumbing of the pitch. Don’t go into detail the HOW of that epic shootout, but the WHY of it. The more I understand what’s in the walls of the house you’re describing, the less I worry about the decorations. Just dip into some really great bit of description now and then so I get eye candy, and feel the movie you see. A little goes a long way.

And the more you talk about the main characters, the better. If it’s a sequel, the question in their minds is “Will [star] love this?”

Something a few of you have already mentioned: This is a multi-tier process. You don’t start by pitching to the top decision-maker. You will be pitching the same thing again and again to people at increasingly higher levels, all who want to hear what you told the others. You’re like Bruce Lee in GAME OF DEATH pitching to get to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And because you’ll be pitching it a lot, practice it a lot. Get it down to fifteen minutes or less. Leave a ton of room for Q&A. Annnnd I see some of you already just said that. But yeah. Make it shorter than you think it should be, they can always ask you follow-ups.

Sometimes you’ll get the sense that the people you pitch to will simply re-pitch your story to their boss. Try to avoid that. How? End the meetings by saying you’d love to get back in the room and pitch to anyone else who needs to hear it. Be direct with them. Won’t always work but if you ask that to their faces you can come back and help keep the pitch’s integrity vs a bad translation by execs.

Does your pitch have a villain? Find a way to say “Here’s why I agree with the villain” and mean it. Make us feel s/he could be a hero….in some other version of the movie.

Next up: References and inside language. You know what can save your hide? A little homework on what movies/TV/lit the exec loves. Find out (thru your reps or your own questions in a call/mtg) what posters they hang on their walls. What they couldn’t put down at home. That helps you to know what shorthand to build into your pitch. Not to pander to them, but to give them emotional anchors to your story.

And finally, a reminder: It’s a scary, exhausting, nerve-wracking thing, to pitch for a story you love. It’s tough. It’s also the job.

Don’t be hard on yourself afterward. Practice pushing through social awkwardness in non-pitch scenarios. At parties. With friends.

As scary as it may be to put your heart on your sleeve and say, “This is me, this is my heart in this story,” talent does this all the time. We are the first to do it, but then we’re telling people to follow our footsteps. The director does the same dance, to slightly diff music. Actors REALLY do it, in an all-in kind of way that still boggles my mind. And they’re relying on your commitment from way back.

Okay, with those trial-by-fire lessons learned, I’ll end with this, my worst pitching horror stories.

I once pitched to an exec who got up mid-pitch to use his private adjacent restroom, but left the door cracked for me to “keep pitching.”

Yeah, that was a moment of humiliation right there.

I once pitched on a comic book adaptation using other successful CB movies as touchstones. Their reply at end: “That won’t win us Oscars.”

I once pitched to someone at Smokehouse Pics and mid-pitch was interrupted by GEORGE EFFING CLOONEY, totally wiped my brain.

Once, my only way to crack a tough property and make it personal was by putting it in a very different setting. So I start my windup…
ME: “We open in [setting].”
EXEC: “I hate that setting. Next?” ME: *crushed silence*

And let me reiterate: There are as many ways to work in this business as there are writers. But these are my lessons based on my path. And in my experience, feature pitching is all about writing assignments. (TV writing is a different ballgame.)

Some studios (be it TV or feature) love original ideas and buy those pitches, to make it their own. TO MAKE IT THEIR OWN *spooky music*

I pitched and sold an original idea to a studio that then got warped and twisted into something else.

That can happen. It has happened. It will happen. You have to keep swinging and act as if it won’t happen again to you.

Okay I just gave myself PTSD from those horror stories and have to go lie down for a spell. Have a great day, you gorgeous monsters.

The link to Tim’s blog post for this rant is here.

Eric has put together a book that arose from his Twitter exchanges: “150 Screenwriting Challenges” which is available for Kindle here.

Each day this week, I will be posting one of Eric’s Twitter rants via Tim’s blog.

You may see all of the Screenwriting Twitter Rants archived on the site here.

Thanks, Eric, for taking the time to share your insights with the online screenwriting community.

Thanks, Tim, for making the effort to aggregate Eric’s Twitter rants.

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 3): They diminish the craft of screenwriting

September 17th, 2014 by

Ever since the beginning of the studio system era back in the 1930s, writers have had a tough slog gaining much in the way of respect in Hollywood. Movies have always been star vehicles, so actors have always had power. With the ascension of the auteur theory in the 50s, directors moved to the forefront, too, and we are reminded of their power status every time we see “A Film By” credit going to one of them, even if they didn’t write a single word of the script. Studio executives have the power of the green light, ultimately determining whether a movie gets made or not. There are many powerful producers as well based on their networking, track records and financial connections.

As for writers? We get hired, we get fired. We rewrite a script on assignment, we get rewritten. By and large, the press, while fawning over actors and directors, do an amazing and consistent job of overlooking the writer’s contribution to movie projects.

This is ironic because none other than Hollywood’s first great movie producer Irving Thalberg, who was directly involved in the production of 90 movies during his career, was quoted as saying this:

“The most important person in the motion picture process is the writer… and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from ever realizing it.”

Why important? Because it is the writer who takes ideas and puts them into script form. Without a script to shoot, it is next to impossible to make a movie, at least one with any quality to it.

And what factors in a writer’s arsenal can result in a great script? Talent. Experience. Voice. Knowledge. And perhaps most important of all… Creativity.

At a fundamental level, Creativity is our calling card. Thus writers, individually and collectively, must do everything we can to protect this piece of conventional wisdom: We are creative.

Hollywood needs stories to survive. We, as writers, create those stories. That is the ultimate foundation of whatever power writers have.

Now consider this dialogue from the 1992 movie The Players, screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel, directed by Robert Altman. In this scene, new studio executive Larry Levy, arrogant and opinionated, posits the following:

Larry: I’m just saying there’s time and money to be saved… if we came up with these stories on our own.
- Where are these stories coming from?
Larry: Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. The newspaper. Pick any story.
- ‘Immigrants protest budget cuts in literacy program.’
Larry: Human spirit overcoming human adversity. Sounds like Horatio Alger in the barrio. Put Jimmy Smits in it and you’ve got a sexy Stand and Deliver. Next. Come on.
- This isn’t my field.
Larry: It doesn’t matter. Give it a shot. You can’t lose here.
- How about ‘Mud slide kills in slums of Chili’?
Larry: That’s good. Triumph over tragedy. Sounds like a John Boorman picture. Slap a happy ending on it, the script will write itself.

The Player Gallagher

Peter Gallagher as Larry Levy in The Player

The script will write itself. The suits would love to believe this, even though they know it’s not true because that would make their lives a lot easier, not having to deal with pesky writers and their ideas, vision, tempers and mood swings, not to mention sometimes what they write works… and sometimes it doesn’t.

So along come the screenwriting gurus with their tsunami of screenplay formulas.

What do you think the impact of those systems and paradigms have on the perception of the screenwriting craft in Hollywood? Would it elevate what we do in the eyes of others? Or diminish it?

Cue playback: The script will write itself.

It’s not just the books, webinars, weekend seminars, and DVDs, it’s story structure software, literally creating the impression that all someone needs to do is answer a series of questions, plug in information, and there you have it: Story structure in a nutshell.

To my knowledge, the software angle is not a particularly new thing as I’m aware of one program that has been around since 1994, but others have emerged to tap into the growing number of consumers wanting to explore screenwriting. Over time, the aggregation of all this formulaic detritus, I fear, has contributed to the devaluation of screenwriters in Hollywood. Not a primary reason perhaps, but one factor, helping to reinforce the idea that writing a script should be easy, anyone can write a script, and buttress this attitude…

The script will write itself.

This cuts straight at the writer’s power base: Creativity. Worse, some of these formulas appear to have bubbled up into and through Hollywood development circles, the result of which is to make the job of writing a script on assignment, already a challenge, that much more difficult.

That is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

For Part 1 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: They are selling you a lie” — go here.

For Part 2 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: Formula leads to formulaic writing” – go here.

I welcome your comments and thoughts.

And for the record on Saturday, I will do a post in which I make an argument on how screenplay formulas do have a place in a writer’s life, albeit a very, very limited one.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I’m including my update from Part 2 drawing a distinction between formula and structure.

I’ve gotten emails from several writers a bit frantic in tone, so let me make this clear: There is a difference between formula and structure. When William Goldman famously says, “Screenplays are structure,” at a fundamental level, that is true. The ultimate end point for a screenplay is the production of a movie and because of certain limitations and conventions common to movies, the structure of a script is intimately tied to the actual nuts and bolts process of making a film.

So let me be clear: I am not saying structure is bad. On the contrary, story structure is critical to the success of a screenplay.

The problem is equating formula with structure.

First off, as discussed, there is no one single formula to craft a screenplay’s structure. Stories are organic. Formulas are not. So the very premise that this screenwriting guru or that can make some claim as to the universality of their formula is false on the face of it. There are endless possibilities for stories and story structure.

Second, from what I’ve seen in the countless scripts I’ve read from writers who have been influenced by screenplay formulas, clearly their focus in the writing has been with Plot, as if Plot is the sum of story structure. It is not. A screenplay’s universe has two dimensions: The External World, what I call the Plotline, the domain of Action and Dialogue, and the Internal World, what I call the Themeline, the domain of Intention and Subtext. The former is where we see and hear the story’s Physical Journey. The latter is where we interpret and intuit the story’s Psychological Journey. Without the Internal World, a story is essentially without any meaning or emotional resonance. Therefore if the preponderance of focus in a screenplay formula is on the makeup of the External World, that is only serving one part of the story’s structure. Story structure properly understood involves both domains: External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, whatever story structure you end up with, one of the major points of emphasis in my teaching is how you get there. This goes back to outside-in writing, as noted above, versus inside-out writing. I believe you are much more likely to find an authentic story structure, not a formulaic one, through the inside-out approach, starting with characters, immersing yourself in their lives, engaging in an active, dynamic process in which both the Plotline and Themeline emerge.

So when I call into question screenplay formula, please understand, this is not the same thing as story structure. In a sense, screenplays are structure, but that structure involves both Plotline and Themeline… and it’s critical how you go about crafting that structure.

Outside-In / Formula = No!
Inside-Out / Characters = Yes!

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on the Screenwriter’s Creative Power

September 17th, 2014 by

Eric Heisserer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5, The Thing, Hours, Story of Your Life) is probably the Hollywood screenwriter most willing to go online and provide a Twitter rant on a specific subject related to the craft. Writer Tim Wainwright hosts a blog and has been posting Eric’s rants there for the last year or so.

After several GITS readers asked me about archiving screenwriting Twitter rants so they wouldn’t get lost down the online rabbit hole, I reached out to both Eric and Tim about hosting some of Eric’s previous rants here. They both thought that was a swell idea.

Today: Eric’s March 2014 rant on the creative power a screenwriter brings to the professional table.

*takes a swig* Okay, ladies and gents, it’s thunder and lightning.

In a meeting recently, an exec pitched me a movie title and showed me the poster. That’s all they had. Plus marketing’s word it was “gold.”

You don’t build a goddamn house by starting with the furniture. I don’t care what the IKEA lady said, you’re gonna have a bad time.

This kind of mindset is actually common in the studios. Why? THEY DON’T CREATE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. That’s our job. So what can they do? They can think up movie titles and walk them into the marketing department and get some poll done at a mall. No studio wants the motto: “Patiently waiting for original material.” They don’t want to believe that’s a reality. They want control.

The good news is: An original story with a universal message will win you keys to the city. That right there is the REAL gold.

But if you’re struggling to get a foothold in this crazy upside-down business, sometimes your only way in is with a studio property. *cough*

So what can you do in the scenario when facing an exec pitching you CATNADO? If you’re struggling to pay bills? Character. It will feel like the most bizarre thing to go at it talking about theme, character, and metaphor, but crack that, you’ll get hired. The mid-level people are all focused on the trailer, the poster, etc. But the top execs? They want to keep relationships with actors. How?

By delivering great CHARACTERS in their movies.

If you want to pitch CATACLYSM or whatever “summer tentpolecat” open writing assignment, make it something a star would love to star in.

I pitched for a project last year by showing up with a scripted monologue for the hero. I said, “This is the kind of person he is.” That was above-and-beyond, but I saw the whole movie through that lens, and as a writer my most convincing weapon is actual writing.

On top of all this, you ABSOLUTELY CANNOT be cynical about the business. Even if you feel like Charlie Brown w/ Lucy’s football. Way more execs than you realize can smell cynicism. Can sense when you truly believe they’re the enemy. That attitude is cancer.

There are amazing people in the studio system, at all levels. They can be hard to find, yes! But good attracts good. Seriously. The people making STORY OF YOUR LIFE believe in movies with ideas. They have big hearts. They don’t care about the ‘fuckability factor.’ There are screenwriters who’ve found their way to producing positions. They know the plight of the writer. A lot of them are way cool.

You have to silence that voice that warns you’ll get fired for pushing for quality, and assume it’s a monogamous movie relationship.

Also! The studio system isn’t the only game in town. I got HOURS made entirely out of that world, with one producer and financiers.

None of these paths are simple or easy. You will get exhausted swinging at them. But great material gets attention. Maybe quick, maybe slow.

If your goal is to sell a screenplay, you are in for a world of hurt. Because those shouldn’t be your goalposts. A sale = a START to career.

Another one: DO NOT dare watch a crap movie and think you can make it in the biz because “I can write better than that!” No no no. That is called the “shit plus one” dilemma. It means your goal was to produce something marginally better than shit.

And consider maybe that crappy movie actually started as a GENIUS script, way back when? And some writer cries over the monster it became.

*coughs* *coughs again*

So let’s reach for really damn awesome writing. Let’s raise the median, skew the grading curve, build a new floor.

If you’re looking for total creative autonomy, you’re bound for heartache in this business. It’s collaborative by design. Want your words to reach the audience directly? Cool! Write a novel. A script is a thing to build what the public eventually sees. That means when you’re working with producers, directors, cast, execs, etc., you have to think about what will help them in your writing.

The spec script gives you freedom to do whatever you want. Put in all the needle drops you desire. Paint the world blue. Go nuts.

The moment that spec sells, understand the realities that set in: Song rights are expensive/impossible. Digital coloring troublesome. Etc.

The biggest lesson I learned as a writer was to work on my social skills. Shyness cost me jobs early on. Fear of introducing myself, mainly.

I hate the term “networking.” It’s not really accurate. It’s also a staid business term. What we do? Seek friends. Mentors. Peers.

When I write a script now, I don’t write for the studio, I write to impress @jonspaihts, @jonrog1, @garywhitta, and my other writer friends.

So this began with me bitching about the exec with a movie poster and no script, but it ends with: They need us to show them the better way.

You’re all awesome and I’m a little drunk. I’m gonna bail tonight before I start hugging everybody.”

The link to Tim’s blog post for this rant is here.

Eric has put together a book that arose from his Twitter exchanges: “150 Screenwriting Challenges” which is available for Kindle here.

Each day this week, I will be posting one of Eric’s Twitter rants via Tim’s blog.

You may see all of the Screenwriting Twitter Rants archived on the site here.

Thanks, Eric, for taking the time to share your insights with the online screenwriting community.

Thanks, Tim, for making the effort to aggregate Eric’s Twitter rants.

If you have any questions…

September 16th, 2014 by

…about the craft of screenwriting, the business of screenwriting, the meaning of life, feel free to head to comments and post them there. I’ll be happy to share my thoughts.

The cool thing is often what happens is readers come along and provide more observations, so there can be a lot of insight that emerges from the conversation.

To wit, check out the Readers Questions archive here, which has nearly 300 questions-and-answers from past blog posts, organized by subject.

FYI, if you’d prefer, you can email me directly with your inquiry: GITSblog at gmail dot com.

While I’m here, if you aren’t following me on Twitter, now’s the time to do it. I have over 27K followers, so join the party!

Twitter: @GoIntoTheStory

Onward!

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 2): Formulas lead to formulaic writing

September 16th, 2014 by

David Seltzer is a longtime screenwriter who has amassed over 30 writing credits in a career stretching back to 1966 including the movies The Omen, Lucas, Punchline and Dragonfly. Here is a quote from Seltzer which I posted as part of the ongoing weekly Screenwriting 101 series:

I think people try a few screenplays and they just fall apart in the middle, or people say, ‘It was great until this happened or that happened,’ then maybe they can read one of those [screenwriting] books, but there are not three acts in a screenplay. There may be seven, there may be two… I think it’s a huge mistake. If you go in with formula, you come out with formula. The whole thrill of being a writer is to do a prototype every time out. And you can do it, something that nobody ever wrote before.

formula

If you go in with formula, you come out with formula.

I’m not prepared to etch that in stone as there may be instances in which writers use some type of screenplay formula and end up with a good script, even one that sells. However on the whole, I think Seltzer is right. Formulas do tend to lead to formulaic writing.

If you think about it, that’s a pretty logical conclusion. Whatever formula you use, however many sequences, stages, steps, beats or whatever narrative elements are called per whichever particular screenwriting guru you’re buying into, your focus will almost invariably and by necessity turn toward fitting scenes and plot points into the formula.

This is problematic for at least three reasons.

* I have read scripts where every beat aligned perfectly with the particular screenplay formula the writer had obviously used for inspiration, even down to the page count for key moments. And yet, what is on the page comes across more as an aggregation of events, rather than an actual story with an organic narrative flow.

* Many scripts I read that follow a screenplay formula telegraph where the plot is going. Let me guess: This is going to happen here because… well, that’s what the formula has instructed the writer to write. When you read a script where you know in advance how and where virtually every beat will happen, that does not make for a compelling experience.

* But perhaps the greatest ‘sin’ is the onerous danger of what I call outside-in writing, where the primary vantage point for the writer is outside the story universe, making narrative choices based primarily on the writer’s mindset. If the writer is working with a story formula, their attention is likely to be on fulfilling the requirements of the formula, not the actual story universe. In fact, the formula can actually stand in the way of the writer going into the story.

A writer is much more likely to have characters emerge as full-blown, complex, feeling individuals by engaging in inside-out writing, where the writer immerses him/herself inside the story universe, living with the characters, talking with them, listening to them, pondering them, observing them. When we care about the characters, that emotional resonance can come through the words we write and into the hearts and imaginations of our readers. Moreover as I suggested yesterday, by engaging the characters deeply and fully, the plot will naturally emerge into view.

The thing is, people who work on the development side of the Hollywood movie industry, high up on their list of what attributes they ascribe to a ‘good read’ is this: The story makes them feel something. When your job is to read dozens of scripts every week or month, which can suck the life-force out of you, especially when a majority of the scripts are average to poor, anytime one of them generates an emotional connection, that is a major plus, a story that can give a jolt to even the most overworked, cynical exec, reader, producer, etc.

How do you think you can best create a story with an authentic, compelling emotional resonance to it: Starting with a screenplay formula? Or by digging into and getting to know the story’s characters?

There’s a reason the old saying is “Character equals plot,” not “Formula equals plot.”

So if you start with formula, you are likely to write a formulaic story. That should be reason enough to avoid them. However the problem with the spread of screenplay formulas goes beyond their effect on individual screenwriters and their creative output. The creeping influence of screenplay formulas has a negative cumulative effect on the perception of the screenwriting craft. That is the subject of Part 3 which posts tomorrow.

For Part 1 of the series “An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas: They are selling you a lie” — go here.

I welcome your comments and thoughts.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten emails from several writers a bit frantic in tone, so let me make this clear: There is a difference between formula and structure. When William Goldman famously says, “Screenplays are structure,” at a fundamental level, that is true. The ultimate end point for a screenplay is the production of a movie and because of certain limitations and conventions common to movies, the structure of a script is intimately tied to the actual nuts and bolts process of making a film.

So let me be clear: I am not saying structure is bad. On the contrary, story structure is critical to the success of a screenplay.

The problem is equating formula with structure.

First off, as discussed, there is no one single formula to craft a screenplay’s structure. Stories are organic. Formulas are not. So the very premise that this screenwriting guru or that can make some claim as to the universality of their formula is false on the face of it. There are endless possibilities for stories and story structure.

Second, from what I’ve seen in the countless scripts I’ve read from writers who have been influenced by screenplay formulas, clearly their focus in the writing has been with Plot, as if Plot is the sum of story structure. It is not. A screenplay’s universe has two dimensions: The External World, what I call the Plotline, the domain of Action and Dialogue, and the Internal World, what I call the Themeline, the domain of Intention and Subtext. The former is where we see and hear the story’s Physical Journey. The latter is where we interpret and intuit the story’s Psychological Journey. Without the Internal World, a story is essentially without any meaning or emotional resonance. Therefore if the preponderance of focus in a screenplay formula is on the makeup of the External World, that is only serving one part of the story’s structure. Story structure properly understood involves both domains: External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, whatever story structure you end up with, one of the major points of emphasis in my teaching is how you get there. This goes back to outside-in writing, as noted above, versus inside-out writing. I believe you are much more likely to find an authentic story structure, not a formulaic one, through the inside-out approach, starting with characters, immersing yourself in their lives, engaging in an active, dynamic process in which both the Plotline and Themeline emerge.

So when I call into question screenplay formula, please understand, this is not the same thing as story structure. In a sense, screenplays are structure, but that structure involves both Plotline and Themeline… and it’s critical how you go about crafting that structure.

Outside-In / Formula = No!
Inside-Out / Characters = Yes!

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on Drafts, Parentheticals, Respect

September 16th, 2014 by

Eric Heisserer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5, The Thing, Hours, Story of Your Life) is probably the Hollywood screenwriter most willing to go online and provide a Twitter rant on a specific subject related to the craft. Writer Tim Wainwright hosts a blog and has been posting Eric’s rants there for the last year or so.

After several GITS readers asked me about archiving screenwriting Twitter rants so they wouldn’t get lost down the online rabbit hole, I reached out to both Eric and Tim about hosting some of Eric’s previous rants here. They both thought that was a swell idea.

Today: Eric’s Feburary 2014 Twitter ran provides some general screenwriting advice about the function of various script drafts, playing around with parentheticals, and respect for fellow writers.

All right, it’s Friday night and I have a glass of single malt warming my belly. Perfect time to set up camp on Twitter. Let me share some stuff I’ve learned as a screenwriter through trial and lots of error, in hopes it will save you some grief.

A first draft of something for producers can be everything you want it to be. Subtext. Clever setups and callbacks. Authentic dialogue. But there will come a time when you have to put some big mile markers in place, for the studio or director or whomever. It will feel on-the-nose to you. It will make you worry THIS is the draft that may get leaked. Don’t fret over it. One draft will be text.

The reason this helps is because while talent (actors) don’t need it, your barrier to talent will. And you want to be clear abt intent.

So, remember you’re writing as an interpreter sometimes. Allow yourself to tell the reader, “This is what the hero feels here.” I promise you’ll have a chance to pull that back and make it subtext again later, if you have a good relationship with those involved.

But also, dear god, pour your heart into it. Love your characters. Respect them. Treat every scene like a bonsai tree in your garden.

You know what I’ve been toying with lately? Parentheticals. Tone can sometimes be hard to interpret. Parens are like emoticons for scripts.

An example: COMMANDER And wear your tie with your uniform, private. PROTAGONIST (die in a fire) Thank you, sir.

Also, tinker with this: Find your character arc, then write a line of dialogue stating the end of arc as your last line of the script. Like I knew Nolan’s arc in HOURS was bonding with his daughter, so the very last line is, “I know you.” Give yourself a finish line. From there you can craft a bit of dialogue that spells out the beginning of the arc, and if you do nothing else, you’ve marked that journey.

Oh, and do you like eating delicious food? Of course you do. So remember to read amazing screenplays and stories, too.

And sometimes you read a script where it’s clear the writer was thinking, “If I were an actor, what would I just kill to say/do here?”

This is a really awesome job. Don’t let the bullshit bleed that joy from you. Keep that chin up. Oh, and one more thing…

RESPECT YOUR FELLOW WRITER. We’re all in the trenches, man. You know? Be excellent to one another.

If you get a rewrite, no matter how awkward it may feel, reach out to the previous writer. Be respectful.

Okay, I’m gonna shut up now because really you all know this shit anyway.

Oh, right. What do you say to a writer you’re hired to rewrite. “Hey, I’m borrowing the keys to your car. Any advice?”

The link to Tim’s blog post for this rant is here.

Eric has put together a book that arose from his Twitter exchanges: “150 Screenwriting Challenges” which is available for Kindle here.

Each day this week, I will be posting one of Eric’s Twitter rants via Tim’s blog.

You may see all of the Screenwriting Twitter Rants archived on the site here.

Thanks, Eric, for taking the time to share your insights with the online screenwriting community.

Thanks, Tim, for making the effort to aggregate Eric’s Twitter rants.

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 1): They are selling you a lie

September 15th, 2014 by

When I first broke into the business in 1987, there were just a handful of books about screenwriting. Now it’s become this “thing”. You can’t walk into a Barnes & Noble in some remote outpost like Minot, North Dakota and avoid slamming into a whole section of titles related to The Craft. Or more often than not selling The Fantasy. You know… this!

There is a burgeoning cottage industry of ‘screenwriting gurus’ selling what some call The Hope Machine. The Hollywood mansion. Tesla Roadster. Movie premieres. Write a script… strike it rich!

How to get there? If you’ve spent any amount of time clicking through the online screenwriting universe, you doubtless have seen ads with messages like these:

The secret to a million dollar spec script! How to write a screenplay that agents will want and studios will buy! Your bulletproof path to screenwriting success!

What many of these folks are selling — and that is their bottom line, to get you to buy their product — is a screenplay formula. To convince you they have some unique insight into screenplay structure that can somehow magically translate into a script Hollywood would feel compelled to acquire.

The assumption is that there is some right way to write a script. Their way.

I am here to tell you this: They are selling you a lie.

The truth? There is no ‘right’ way to write a script. Every story is different. Every writer is different.

Worse, the increased presence of these progenitors of screenplay formulas is having a negative effect, both with individual writers as they strive to learn the ins and outs of screenwriting, and the perception and practice of the craft of screenwriting in Hollywood.

As a screenwriter, teacher, and blogger, I intersect with hundreds of aspiring writers every year, and they convey to me two general complaints over and over again.

The first: Confusion. They have bought this book or that DVD, attended this weekend seminar or that webinar, dutifully devouring the wisdom of multiple screenwriting gurus, each with their own formula. And where the writer ends up is profoundly perplexed about how to write because the result is a confusing muddle of beat sheets, paradigms, sequences, and language systems.

The second: Critiqued. They have used the formula of this guru or that, and written one or more screenplays, but after getting them reviewed by pro script readers or entered into screenplay competitions, the response has been tepid. Maybe the screenplay formula they relied upon helped them craft a plot that falls into what is generally perceived to be a conventional narrative structure, but there is no life or unique voice to the story.

And that right there is the main problem: There can be no such thing as a bulletproof ‘screenplay formula’ because a good story feels organic. There is a vitality and life to it, unfolding in the moment scene to scene with surprising twists and turns.

Instead of thinking about Story as a sort of paint-by-numbers formula, I argue we are best served by starting here: Characters.

After all it’s their story, their story universe. They have been living it 24/7/365. Nobody knows who they are better than them. Furthermore they want us to tell their story. The story’s structure will emerge naturally by immersing ourselves in the lives of our characters, the arc of their personal destinies manifesting itself in the form of scenes and plot points.

In my view, strong character work is the single biggest antidote to the stultifying effects of formula-based writing. However characters are unpredictable and, therefore, harder to package into a marketable commodity. The people who sell the idea of ‘screenplay formula’ seem to prefer trafficking in widgets.

This beat goes here. That beat goes there.

Much easier to sell.

Hell, there are outfits around who promote story structure software.

Think about that.

Story. Structure. Software.

As if we can reduce Story to binary code.

Friends, this is a slippery slope that for most writers leads nowhere but to the expenditure of lots of money, a fundamentally shallow approach to screenwriting, and a slush pile of rejected scripts.

So this week, a series examining the very idea of ‘screenplay formula’ and why it is such a harmful concept.

Bottom line: Learn conventional wisdom. Understand generally accepted principles. But please, do yourself a big favor: Reject screenplay formulas.

They are not helping you nor the overall state of the screenwriting craft.

Tomorrow: Formulas lead to formulaic writing.