The summer movie season is coming to a close, and you probably noticed something about the blockbusters you watched: a lot of them were pretty much the same. The films probably told similar stories with similar plot points. Formula storytelling is nothing new, but are the big films becoming too similar? It’s Hollywood product, so of course it needs to be appeal to the most people possible, but do movies have to be so formulaic?
A few recent news and opinion pieces kicked off an internal discussion here at Flixist over the last two weeks. Formula talk is not going to die out anytime soon. Over the weekend there was this Vulture piece about Damon Lindelof and blockbuster screenwriting, which just adds to the larger conversation about movies and formulas.
Jim and I decided to discuss the nature of formulaic storytelling, the uses of familiar story structures, and what role the hero’s journey and books like Save the Cat should or shouldn’t play when it comes to creativity.
Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.
Hubert: What set this all off is a combination of a couple things. There’s the Slate piece by Peter Suderman on the influence of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat on formulaic Hollywood storytelling. (Read the Slate piece here.) Then there’s a piece that showed up on Marketplace about Hollywood using an algorithm to alter scripts for highest potential box office, which means changing plot points, determining which characters should be in the film, and even picking the cast. (Read the Marketplace piece here.) That’s like Netflix’s MO for original programming but taken to a new and dastardly height since it’s applied to scripts.
And so on top of that, there was a Guardian piece by Anakana Schofield I read a the other week about the struggles of first-time authors, ending on a note about people more interested in tips on how to write rather than being interested in actual literature (read the Guardian piece here), and this put me in mind of an older piece in The Atlantic by Richard Bausch about the horrors of how-to writing books/manuals (read the Atlantic piece here).
So in the bizarre Rube Goldberg machine way my head works, this led me to pitch a feature by email and declare in a fit of over-coffeed rage:
…Anyone who writes a novel, a non-fiction [work], or a screenplay based solely on advice from a how-to book is a talentless hack bastard who can’t write for shit and doesn’t care about the craft of writing and should go fuck themselves…
Fuck, I may tell people [in this feature] to quit it with the god damn hero’s journey already. Yeah, Campbell’s great and you can do that Jungian stuff however you want, but dammit, we need new structures and new tales and new heroes and a new take on storytelling rather than people repeating script guru formulas, or conversely aping [the style and formal complexities of David Foster Wallace for the mere appearance of depth and novelty] when they don’t have the same talent.
Anecdote: I remember in a screenwriting class way back as an undergrad we watched a Syd Field video and the teacher shut it off and just said, ‘This is fucking stupid.’ We spent the rest of the class talking about off-beat movies we liked and looking at their structure instead.
So that’s where this discussion began.
Jim: Sadly, the tragic thing about Campbell’s Hero’s Journey story structure is that it’s become so ubiquitously tried-and-true because it WORKS. And it works, because it always has. It is self-fulfilling prophecy, to a degree. As an audience, we are simply hard-wired to accept that style of story format, no matter how often it crops up.
The basic blueprint was deeply-entrenched enough even by Campbell’s time that all he did was analyze centuries’ worth of existing storytelling, and point out the extant patterns. He didn’t really INVENT it, he just wrote it out. One hero, a thousand faces. From Jesus to Odysseus to Ulysses to Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and everyone in between… People just respond to that structure.
And, total disclosure, I’ve read buttloads of screenwriting books. And at the end of the day, whether it’s McKee’s three-act structure, Syd Field’s “paradigm,” or Blake Snyder’s bullet-pointed Save the Cat beat-sheet, none of them are so much paint-by-numbers blueprints as they are just sets of instructional guidelines regarding the most effective, efficient, and ready-for-audiences ways to tell stories. And to tell them in such a way that people are already prepared to enjoy them before they even introduce cheeks to seat.
Does knowing this have a tendency to make you cynical once it sinks in? Sure. Does it kind of ruin movies in a way to pull back the curtain like this, and show off the wires, spackle, and seams? Sadly, yeah. But at some point, it really becomes clear that for all the griping about predictable, formulaic story structures, the meat of any story lies within the art of the telling of it.
To put a finer point on it (and speaking of meat): When you go to a restaurant and order a steak, it’s because you want steak. You have a pretty decent idea of what it is you’re going to get before you even plop your posterior into the chair. And even if what arrives is expected and standard, you’re still pretty satisfied. But if the chef has gone the extra mile, and really done something special with the flavor, preparation, or plating? That piece of meat can still have the ability to delight and surprise. It can still be memorable long after it’s done its job.
The devil is, as ever, in the details.
Hubert: With the hero’s journey — which I’m not saying Campbell invented but simply codified using Jung as his guide — I think it could be said that a lot of people are forcing their own stories to fit into the framework rather than allowing their stories to tell themselves on their own terms. The familiar framework ought to be the afterthought rather than the guiding principle for the characters and the plot. I mean, the myths of the past were simply told and the structures were not conscious decisions by the tellers of myth. There should be more emphasis on the act of telling rather than fitting a story into a mold; and if these are unconscious/subconscious structures of certain stories, then these things are internalized and will manifest themselves in different ways regardless without needing to consciously force stories into that mold.
The value of learning structures — and I think there’s more inherent value in Campbell since it examines stories in terms of their greater cultural function, whereas the work of Snyder, McKee, and Field seems less interested in actual craft or culture and more focused on how to reduce stories to efficient story-commodities — is to know what’s been done and how to use patterns, avoid patterns, and subvert patterns with purpose. When it comes to screenwriting and Hollywood product, these formulas and script-guru guides (and now screenwriting algorithms) take on an extra level of cynicism only because it’s such blatant pandering.
Yes, it’s product, and yes, it’s assembly line, and yet people will gobble it up regardless, but I think this stuff is more like bad Chinese take-out than decent steak — we digest this junk and are still starving. The steak is the stuff that manages to get past the formula and the cynicism (even if there is an underlying familiar structure) because the story itself is so involving.
Like I think about that Atlantic piece a while ago and I think that’s where I’m always thrown when articles like the Slate one come out every couple of months. It reveals that people are less interested in crafting something wholly their own and more interested in consciously resorting to formula. There’s a line that appears in Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch that goes something like, “Let us try to create new passions or at least reproduce the old passions with a like intensity.” What most of the formulaic stuff out there lacks is any sense of passion or intensity because familiar structures are being used as crutches when they should be leaping-off points for risk and play. And really, the works that make most people want to become screenwriters or novelists or good non-fiction writers are the ones with that sense of risk, even the competently cooked steaks — they’re bloody still, and that’s how you can tell they’re good.
I’m not arguing for fine meals all the time, but just better fast food from mainstream entertainment. Less McDonald’s, more In and Out Burger. (And sadly, yes, I am the type of person who will quote South American novels while drunk at parties, sometimes in the same sentence as a dick joke.)
Jim: Though it may seem like I’m defending rote, same-y features borne of “How-To” books, I’m really not. I’ve decried the rise of “Tab-A-into-Slot-B” formula films for ages, because I really do feel like following predictable, pre-set roadmaps sucks a lot of the endemic creativity out of the process. Once audiences begin to discern the patterns, it can make them cynical, and creates an environment where EVERYONE is afraid to take chances, no matter which side of the screen they’re on. Ultimately, that’s bad for movies in general.
So, if there’s any sort of “defense” to be read into my position, I suppose it’s tepid, at best. I recognize and acknowledge the place of features with tried-and-true structures much in the same way that I would respect a hard-working cover band. In as much as you more or less know what you’re getting when you go in. It may not be original, but it’s familiar. Comforting, even. And it still holds some inherent entertainment value. Good for the nights when you want to hear “Mustang Sally” and “Brick House,” and don’t feel like rollin’ the bones on checking out an original band. One that may end up disappointing you.
I guess, in that light, I sort of look at stuff like Snyder’s “Beat Sheet” as almost a form of sheet music. But still somehow… less than that. More like a sort of shove in a proven direction. Like, if you’re going to write blues, you might want to think about starting off with a 12-bar, I-IV-V progression. Because that’s pretty much what the blues IS.
I mean, hell… A guy I know is the primary singer/songwriter of a popular alt-pop trio that had it’s heyday in the ’90s. And though they’re still doing well touring, he has carved out a lucrative second career writing songs for other people. Songs that inevitable do really well. And every song he’s ever written goes the same way:
Intro > Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus > Outro
That’s his M.O., and he makes it work. Every. Single. Time. He also almost always manages to stick in a vocal-and-acoustic-only quiet inverted bit at the end of every bridge, which has become something of a calling card.
His method is so consistent. Once I even took two songs he’d written for two different female artists and slapped them directly on top of each other in a sound-editing program. They became an INSTANT mash-up, because the tempo, chord progression, and structure were IDENTICAL. The only real differences were the melody, and lyrics. And that guy? He’s a multi-millionaire. He gets paid ludicrous amounts of money for simply knowing the equation, and repeatedly solving it in incrementally different ways. Thing is, he does so WAY better than most, and that’s why the checks keep on showing up.
So, in any creative area, there’s going to be mass-produced “comfort food” to a degree. It’s intended for a large, lowest-common-denominator, four-quadrant audience, and it works great as that. It is exactly what it needs to be. And I don’t even mind admitting that I like some of that stuff, if it’s well-done. It has every right to exist for its intended audience.
When I look back over my favorite films, the ones that really stick with me, I think of movies like The City of Lost Children, A Clockwork Orange, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and, what is hands-down my favorite film of all time, one I’ve easily seen over 200 times, Clerks.
So, it’s really all relative. All art has merit. Some of it just has a more niche appeal compared to the rest.
Hubert: I think we’re on a similar page here, Jim, because I can see the value of those books and structure as, like you said, guidelines. The problem is when people take the guidelines as rules and/or rely more on the guidelines than they do their own creativity. It’d be better for people to go back to the works that moved them as inspiration rather than to look at some dumb how-to book. (This is Hollywood, though, so of course they wouldn’t do that. A lot of the suits probably don’t like watching movies or reading books.)
With songs it’s interesting because it’s all about how to play with rhythm, melody, and form, and the most effective way to a hook is the pattern, whereas film, books, and other mediums work in different ways. But great pop songs seem to be about the play that takes place within the pattern. There’s a structure there — though I’m not sure it’s necessarily like plot points — but like you mentioned earlier, the devil’s in the details, and you can do a lot with a verse-chorus-verse structure, which is a pattern but seems like something different than a mere formula.
Like I think of songs like “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem and “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” by Talking Heads. Both are just built on a spine of repetition, but they’re played with different layers and variations that alter mood, meaning, and intensity. And then there are ways you can switch tempo, drop instruments out for effect, and do key changes that reveal the real creativity within structures that aren’t pre-determined by the structures.
I mean, I think back to “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by The Four Tops. If I remember right, that was originally two different songs that were stitched together with that drop into the almost-silent pre-chorus, which is just a bass line and tambourine for a bar. It’s such an awesome transition and isn’t something that’s formulaic at all. That was the creativity of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team doing problem solving in their own heads rather than with a how-to.
Actually, the song thing is interesting because the verse-chorus-verse progression is tried and true and great, and it only seems to get bad when songs get bland and pander or become formulaic. There was that study/survey that led to the creation of the world’s most wanted song based on a series of pop cliches. And Christ, it’s fucking wretched. (Read about and listen to the most wanted song here.)
It’s the stuff that’s built by committees in order to cynically appeal to the largest audience possible that reveals the worst in the formulas/algorithm approach to creativity. It reduces entertainment to a checklist for palatability and middle-of-the-roadness, and in the process this stifles the interesting human stuff of a work, whether it’s a story or a song or whatever. By the human stuff, I just mean all the bloody, risky, unique, and catchiest parts of the work we wind up loving. It’s like the two steaks in The Fly: the non-telepod one is real and tastes like actual steak, the telepod one tastes synthetic because the machine has reinterpreted the flesh but doesn’t actually understand the flesh.
I’ll give you the closing thoughts on this.
Jim: Case in point: I actually really want to see The Wolverine. I do. Even though going into it, I absolutely know what the basic (adamantium) skeleton of the story is going to be. It’s a big, summer-tentpole, superhero popcorn-muncher. So I can uncategorically guarantee they’re not going to be taking any ill-advised risks with the story structure. All the beats will happen exactly where they’re supposed to.
And — here’s the thing — I’m perfectly okay with that. And on some level, I think I’d be disappointed if they didn’t. I WANT to see Wolverine get enticed to go on a journey he may not want to, but then fully commit and decide to go after an inciting incident that all but guarantees his commitment. I already know he has a meeting with a wizened mentor, because that shit is straight-up in the trailer. So is our boy getting brought down by a hail of arrows, and seemingly defeated. And you can damn well bet that, just when it seems like he’s beaten down, he comes back with a vengeance to kick ass and walk away victorious. And whether or not he gets his powers of regeneration back, there’s STILL going be the old “You didn’t need your powers, because you had the strength inside you all along” chestnut floated as a theme.
I know it’s going to happen. So do you guys. So does everyone else, whether they realize it or not. But — also whether they realize it or not — that’s what they WANT. Nobody wants to see a pensive, moody Logan playing chess with death on the beach. They just don’t. (Since writing this, I have seen The Wolverine. And…Yep. It’s all there.)