Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 5, 2013

Storytelling is getting formulaic. This is an opportunity

There were two articles in Slate last month about summer movie doldrums that hold a lesson for storytellers, including novelists.

The first is about how Steven Spielberg predicted a disastrous summer movie season because of studios' over-reliance on formulaic blockbusters at the expense of a more diverse lineup. His prediction looks prescient so far, with relatively modest Despicable Me 2, This is the End, and The Conjuring outperforming the massively budgeted RIPD, The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim.

The gargantuan special effects uber-spectacle this year has resulted in some gargantuan uber-flops. (Though the Star TrekIron Man, Superman and Fast and Furious franchises are chugging right along).

And in the second article, Peter Suderman notes how if all Hollywood movies are starting to feel familiar and formulaic... it's because they are literally following a formula . One book, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! has become so thoroughly influential that nearly every movie made these days follows its beat by beat model. Save the Cat! doesn't just offer suggestions on structure, it literally says what needs to happen on specific pages, from the opening image that sets up the protagonist's problems to the false victory at 90 minutes to the closing image, which mirrors the opening image.

This isn't the apocalypse for storytellers. This is an opportunity.

First, it just goes to show that while you might follow the market and cash in on the short term, following your own vision will win out in the long run. This is the End is a seriously weird movie. I saw it. It was pretty enjoyable. At no point while watching the movie did I have the sense that it was focused grouped or was concerned with franchising or that anyone involved in the movie was concerned with anything other than cracking themselves up and maybe the viewers too.

The sense of "This movie may completely suck and be a flop but who cares, we had a blast making it and I can't believe people pay us money to do this" is pervasive while watching the movie. And what do you know, it didn't suck and it was a success.

Formulas also present an opportunity. Just ask George R.R. Martin.

He knew fantasy conventions, which were dominated by hero arcs and redemptive plotlines for years and years. He took those conventions, upended them, shocked his readers, and then he did it again. And again. And again.

Know those formulas and conventions. Anticipate what your reader will expect will happen. And then pull the rug out.

Just when things start feeling static and generic is when someone will come along and reinvent the paradigm. If you're following your own vision, it may well be you.

Art: Design for a Flying Machine by Leonardo da Vinci


Anonymous said...

First! Finally!

Formula isn't bad. There are certain stories that resonate with a majority of people, so telling those stories isn't necessarily bad.

But, like steak, you have to switch it up. Even chateaubriand will get lame after 30 straight days of it.

I'd also posit that the other problem is precisely that Hollywood ISN'T following the formula. One of the biggest compliments about the Avengers movie was that while the Dark Knight movies were fabulous, people actually miss a superhero movie about superheroes doing super stuff and being fun, rather than dark and morose.

Being formula, or mainstream, and still adding personal flair are not mutually exclusive.


Anonymous said...

I think Spielberg is partially correct. However, I also think people with families are not willing to spend the money anymore at theaters, especially when they are now setting up home movie theaters. One of the biggest home renovations now is the basement, and many are becoming home theaters where people spend thousands on flat screens. And they stream the films now instead of renting them in many cases. In other words, I think the reason the summer season was so awful has to do a lot with the way people are watching films the way they are reading books. And I hate to mention it, but many are also pirating films and TV shows.

As for the post about formula, I totally agree.

atsiko said...

As long as we don't go to far in the other direction, and subvert everything all the time. But yeah, good point.

Linda K Sienkiewicz said...

I agree! With anything from a story to a poem to a piece of art or music: Know the formula and then blast it. Thanks for some inspiration!

abc said...

I love it when a movie isn't a complete Syd Field experience. Well, my favorite movies aren't usually mainstream, but I still often watch them and hope to enjoy them. On the other hand, I think it is going to take awhile for audiences to feel completely comfortable with a shift. Too many people have told me how much they hated The Tree of Life (which I loved).Still, there are those that subvert and still prove to be wildly entertaining--P.T. Anderson, Robert Altman, Tarantino, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace...

This makes me think of one of my favorite movies: Adaptation. Remember how everyone kept describing "The 3" has a really tight script? Well, you have to watch it. Too long to explain.

Shawn said...

There's two different plot models for two different "classes" of authors.

Experimental and fresh and outside-the-box can be the hallmark of an established author.

But as far as the first-timer, wannabe writer, you darn well better color between the lines and it darn well better be a picture of a pony.

Because you're not transcending the slush pile with anything new or different.

Same and same. It had better be marketed toward 14 year old girls, yet understood by 63 year old female agents who have spent their entire life in the 212 area code.

Go ahead and name Bret Easton Ellis as your exception to the rule. I promise you'll run dry of exceptions before you run out of fingers on one hand.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that things are getting formulaic, but it's because of the film and publishing industries, not a lack of creativity.

I am trying to publish my first novel. On the first go-round, I had several editors say they loved it, but it needed more of a romance. Several said it needed a love triangle.

I'm willing to pump up the romance a little, but I'm not willing to put in a love triangle just because everything published since Twilight has one. If it made sense for the story, sure--but it really didn't, especially for a middle-grade book!

I think a lot of really original stuff is probably not making it to the light of day if it's not self-published. Spike Lee's interview on why he is doing Kickstarter also says a lot about the film industry.

@TheWritersTeam said...

Yes I definitely agree movies are getting formulaic due to reliance on STORY and SAVE THE CAT, but I've noticed this doesn't apply into popular books.

I find that most popular books really don't follow the story formulas. Readers require more from books than they will of movies. And you are allowed a lot more with books. Take A Daughter of Smoke and Bone-ends with several chapters of flashback-wasn't a great experience for me.

But in terms of YA...I definitely see too many girlcentric books revolving around romance. I guess guys don't read YA books anymore and apparently there are no such thing as men and women being just friends. It always has to be romantic...

david elzey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
david elzey said...

ironically, it was spielberg and the "movie brat pack" of the 70s who helped define and codify the formula to begin with.

in film school in the 1980s, syd field's version of the formula was taught using robert towne's "chinatown" as the shining example of near perfection in formula and execution. another would be william goldman's "butch cassidy & the sundance kid." side-by-side you wouldn't detect formula because they were executed by writers who understood how to create solid characters who felt real, not just actors moving through space to push a plot point through its paces.

if there is an opportunity here, hollywood also has the example for non-formulaic storytelling: just watch any american movie made after "bonnie & clyde" and before "jaws." writers and directors were caught in the same counter-cultural maelstrom as the rest of the country and their films reflected that in their rambling, sometimes meditative, oddly unsettling and often unique modes of storytelling. there were plenty of car-wreck disasters to be sure, but one thing there were not was formulaic.

Mirka Breen said...

I'm reminded of the cartoon where a man tells his boss, "I'm glad to give you innovation. What are the guidelines?"
For storytellers, paying less slavish attention to "how to" books and courses, as well as online posts, is a start.

Karen Clayton said...

Love the picture! I just love National Parks.

Karen Clayton said...

My 3 kids and I have seen several movies this summer. While none of them made our all time favorite list, we enjoyed them all.

Anonymous said...

It is an oft-repeated meme that Steven Speilberg, along with his cohort George Lucas, helped bring about the demise of "original" moviemaking and ushered in the popcorn-flick era.

Thing is, Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and E.T. were themselves NOT anything that the studios would've made back then. Hindsight is 20/20, we know such movies work now, but back then, before either of them made their big names, studios routinely scoffed at that sort of movie.

Another example is James Cameron. Sci-fi action thrillers are in style now, but back in 1983, no studio would touch Terminator. Or even Aliens, and that was a sequel to successful Ridley Scott movie.

What happens is, somebody takes a chance and creates a successful work, and suddenly everyone jumps on the bandwagon and then blame the person who created the work for having created the bandwagon as well.

In literature, look no further than Harry Potter. Joanne Rowling didn't invent the "kid of destiny" genre. But because of Potter's ovewhelming success, there are no end of knock-offs.

The fact is home theaters and pirating and the cause of Hollywood's lacking numbers. Hollywood is suffereing exactly what the publishing world is suffering. They are so ingrained in their ways they won't give the people what they want.

People want to pay money to sit in a theater with other people and enjoy a movie. But they want to enjoy a GOOD movie. Not an "artsy" angsty, independent movie. Not some big 3D, starring the latest cover model, with a bunch of explosions movie. But a GOOD movie, whatever that may be.

When movies deliver that, they make money, just like when a book delivers the story people respond to, they willingly pay money and buy the book.


PamBrunskill said...

Lovely post! I enjoyed it. Thanks, Nathan!

Bruce Bonafede said...

I think formula is artificial and structure is organic. All stories have to have structure or they don't work as stories. But when the structure isn't organic it sticks out and looks artificial and we call it formula.

To deliberately TRY to write to a formula is just silly. It's like a magician saying "I'm going to make sure the audience can see every bit of slight-of-hand I do so they don't think it's magic."

M said...

Thanks for saving me money on "Save the Cat." It was on my to-buy list. Not that I can make myself conform, anyway. Just ask my mom.

Stephen Godden said...

There is a difference between a formula and a structure. A structure is flexible, while a formula is the same combination of ingredients, combined in the same way, to achieve the same effect every time.


adan said...

"At no point while watching the movie did I have the sense that it was focused grouped or was concerned with franchising or that anyone involved in the movie was concerned with anything other than cracking themselves up and maybe the viewers too." -

very encouraging, in so many art forms, thank you :-)

Chris Eboch said...

My brother, a scriptwriter, challenges the Slate article on his blog:

abc said...

My favorite storytelling these days in on television. There is so much good stuff to watch. Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Girls, Mad Men. Fresh, exciting ideas. None of it derivative. I can't even name a favorite.

Peter Dudley said...

I follow a recipe when I make cake or brew beer because I generally want a reliable result. When I write, I take the basic recipe and play with it. I could do the same with beer, but I wouldn't stray from grain, water, hops, and yeast too much. Similarly, my writing has the basic fundamentals of a story arc, but I like to screw around with the ingredients.

Formula has its place, but stick too closely to it you get McCoke.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Dear Mr. Former Agent Man:

I admit to being extremely concerned on reading the headline to this piece that, perhaps, you were recommending--since I fear storytelling, and not just in movies, IS getting "formulaic"--that the opportunity lay in writing formula novels as a sure way to get published.

I have long felt, in fact, that at least here in the U.S., what had been considered an art--the writing of "literature," as in a short story or novel that, because of its theme, and its writing, outlasts its author in terms of the effect on readers--has been reduced by creative writing programs and workshops and professors and agents and publishers and even newer writers to a formula, with a well-worn set of rules in terms of story arc, plot points, and all the rest.

In fact, the idea of the "high-concept" novel is the same, virtually, to the "high-concept" movie; query letters are now referred to as 'elevator pitches,' as in the movies, and publishers are really interested most in a series, as in a "franchise" that they can expect to keep making money off of essentially until readers (like movie goers) decide they don't really have to see the fifteenth sequel to the original great movie 'Taken,' or a comic-book "buddie" movie like The Avengers, or Justice League, or whatever other vigilante group formed at Marvel and DC to get readers to read more than one super-hero comic.

The most obvious aspect of this trend is every time they try and "remake" a movie that did well. What it says to me as a movie goer is: "we made so much money on this the last time, let's try it again!"

As with Life of Pi, and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, and a host of other recent "big" selling books, including all of Harry Potter, I predict that the "new" paradigm will likely come from overseas. If not from an overseas writer, or even a writer in a foreign language, at least from a publisher overseas who does not feel the constraints of publishing in the U.S.

As noted also before, I think, I have recently been published by a new literary publisher in India, as well as one in Belgium.

My point is, what it takes to change the paradigm is an agent, and/or a publisher, willing to take a risk with "new" writing, as Maxwell Perkins was for Scribner's.

More than writing has to change. Publishing has to change, as well, in the U.S. particularly. It has to stop trying to find the next movie, and go back to trying to find the new voice--the new paradigm in story telling.

In my humble opinion. said...

Very interesting debate - made me think of the most formulaic fiction genre (and I think the most popular) - romance.
All romantic stories demand that the couple face a challenge: it is the challenge that creates the story, but in popular mass market romance there is a set formula:
1) the romance has to be such an important element to such an extent that if it were removed there would be no story
2) There has to be a Happy Ever After Ending, although authors can sometimes get away with HFN (happy for now).
3) The hero has to be more powerful than the heroine in some way. For example he might be older, or richer or more successful
4) The hero – probably after making a number of mistakes - falls in love, deeply, madly, sincerely. And – this is the crucial part – that’s where the story ends. The gritty reality of ordinary life doesn't appear on the page.
And if you are thinking that this is not the kind of fiction you would want to read let alone write, just consider Jane Eyre...
1) if you took the relationship between Mr Rochester and Jane out there would be no book.
2) Happy ever after? Reader, I married him.
3) Mr Rochester is older than Jane, richer than Jane, more experienced than Jane and her boss
4) We have an insight into what lies ahead but we don’t follow the couple.
Jane Eyre has all the ingredients of a Harlequin or Mills and Boon romance (the British imprint)... It’s what you do with the raw material that matters...writing matters...that and having the self confidence to twist the formula and break the rules because it helps the story and not because you want to show off your Eng Lit degree.

wendy said...

I lived through the sixties and seventies when not only did every mode of entertainment change but also people's awareness of what was important and right. It's funny how when the culture moves forward, it's also a time of spiritual growth. Or perhaps spiritual growth enables creativity and inspiration to flow. The Renaissance period, coming out of the Dark Ages, followed a similar pattern.

I feel over the last decade or so, rightly or wrongly, world cultures and spiritual awareness/growth have stagnated a little. Perhaps it's time for a 21st century re-birth with fresh ideas to inspire us to take us another step on the evolutionary ladder. However having said that, I believe that over the last fifty-sixty years, our societies have seen more growth and invention than in the combined history of the human race.

We're going ok.

wendy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew MacNish said...

This is why I don't read. Then my manuscripts can't possibly be influenced by trends.


Maureen McGowan said...

Smart post... As usual.

And the thing about This is the End, is that I'm pretty sure it did follow a conventional storytelling structure. But what it bent was genre conventions, which IMO is why it stands out as fresh. Plus, it was hilarious. And who doesn't like hollywood types making fun of themselves. But as a story? I think it hit all the beats. Although I was laughing too hard to be sure.

Sarah Hipple said...


Now I just need to figure out what formulas/conventions to turn on their ear.

Although, I did quite enjoy Pacific Rim. I don't think its going to be one of those long-lasting classics of the action genre or anything, but I thought it was fun, and it had an honest to goodness fully developed non-white female character. So that was pretty cool.

Lauren Monahan said...

At the heart of the matter, I still think that Aristotle's Poetics is a good baseline for understanding how to feed us what humans tend to crave in stories, but any more than that and it can give us too much. Personally, I love what Kurt Vonnegut had to say/draw on this matter:

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Not only has Hollywood gone all formulaic (big surprise - cuz if one is good, five million are even better - they are borrowing CGI creatures from each other. I'm seeing the same sorts of special creatures in movie after movie. Gross!
Right now the small screen, TV, is way better than the big screen. Better quality, better writing, great acting. Orphan Black, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, GOT, Vikings, Downton Abbey... you name it, better.

John Celestri said...

Peter: I was forming my comment about this topic while reading others'. Then I saw yours, and you said EXACTLY what I was thinking. It's the true artist who can satisfy an audience's tastes but in an unexpected way.

Andrew Turner said...

Publishers are the reason there is so much crap on the shelves.
First you have to satisfy the pumped up supposedly knowledgeable publisher before you can get anywhere near the public, Anyone noticed how totally ,so called expert Simon Cowell, is out of touch with the audience? How many great performers has he ruined to find the few that have made his fortune? Publishers are just the same, lushes in Ivory towers stifling real talent.

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