Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Formulaic Writing

Alex Epstein gave an interesting definition on his site today:

"Hacks are writers you can count on to turn in a screenplay with a by-the-numbers plot; clear first, second and third acts; a love interest; and likable characters. They are writers who do not experience writers block because they have disabled their critical faculties. You will not get a brilliant screenplay out of a hack. But you will always get something you can shoot."
Accordingly, I am by no stretch of the imagination a hack. Of course, this definition could be incorrect and I could be a hack because my characters have, in the past, actually been waaaay too likable and I have had to rewrite them -- but that's for another post.

I think.

Anyway, I bring this definition up because it reminds me of a formula I saw on a screenwriting blog some place... some time ago.. that made me so angry I almost blew a vein in my forehead.

FORMULA. That's your first clue that it's bad. The word -- FORMULA!

It happened during one of those awful migraine days, too. Ouch. But those days are gone. I'm on week four, migraine free and seizure free, by the way, but one of the side effects of the meds is short term memory loss.


I was leading some children in music last week and forgot what we were singing. Then I was burning CD's and forgot why I was burning them. Yesterday, I was chopping up franks for my son's beanie-weenies and not only did I forget what I was cooking, but I forgot what day it was and whether I was making breakfast or lunch.


Focus. Focus. Must Focus.

What was I talking about?


Oh. Okay.

Basically, this formula that said your screenplay should have such and such beats by this page and some other beat by that page and there was some kind of automation that would check it for you or something. I argued that the formula was a terrible writing tool and a good way to screw up new writers and teach bad writing or something like that. I don't remember what I say when I blow a gasket. I just take a deep breath and blow.

Gee, I wish I could remember where that formula was...

Let me make this clear. I don't have a problem with guides and beat sheets as long they don't extinguish creativity with something as stifling as "Julie must kiss John by page nine". How can you create like that? How do you know it won't happen on page twelve or fifteen until you write it? How do you keep from spitting out formulaic crap?

I think I got pretty beat up on the board for opposing this "great new tool" so if anyone remembers where it is, could you point me to it so I can refresh my memory? That would be cool.

Or, maybe not.

Anyway, the point here is, according to Alex Epstein, this type of formulaic writing by the numbers makes you a hack. Doesn't mean he's right -- but it has my vote.

Wait. What did I just vote on?


ECHenry said...

I LOVE the way you write blog posts, Marry Ann. You have a knack for starting a story with a extra, in this blog's case, your memory, going into something, then going back to that extra. I LIKE that about your blogs.

Personally I don't waste ANY time worrying about formaulatic writing. The trick is to discover who the characters are in what you're writing, then have them tell their unique story.

If you obsess about being hackery chances are, you are a hack!

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

P.S. I met this red-head at work, and durring break she showed me her ass. Not litterally, but she did bend over the vending machine, wink at me, then laugh and say she was at the wrong machine.

Now she's hot a fire engine, and I'm a horn dog. I can talk a good game, but putting theory into practice hasn't been good to me in the past. Got any ideas how I break the ice withi this chick?

Unk said...


I think if you look at formula as form instead of formula, you can actually absorb a lot of good things from different kinds of structure.

I've created my own hybrid 4 Act Structure that I've been piecing together from other formulas (forms), structures, beat sheets, movies, articles, workshops, books, etc.

If I were to give you this FORMULA, one could easily say that it's too FORMULAIC but aye, there's the rub...

It certainly becomes formulaic if you write it with clich├ęd characters, events, obstacles, twists, etc. That's being a HACK. A HACK doesn't concern themselves with creativity. They simply hit all the marks and hope for the best.

I believe one can take a formula -- hit all the marks but do so in such a way that nobody would EVER see the story as FORMULAIC.

Having said that...

I never write to every structural element contained in my own theory of structure. I list all the same beats that I believe outstanding movies contain but again, there are no rules.

But it's always NICE to have a SET OF RULES laying beside you... Like playing Monopoly. In fact, I have a post coming up that compares the two... LOL.

Now... Where's your truck?


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Unk.. I didn't give you the keys?

E.C., she winks with her ass? You're sure you want to date somebody with that scary kind of talent?

Anonymous said...

that's the main reason I threw the McKee out with the bathwater... anytime I see diagrams, flowcharts, piecharts my ____ shrivels up like a raisin in the sun

Lucy said...

Moviequill: your ______ shrivels up? Sounds serious. Does this affect all keyboards, or just those in the US?

Enzio Pesta said...

Say, what's wrong with being a hack?!

Some hacks make 7 figure incomes.

Screenwriting is all FORMULA, like it or not. Try sitting through a few Jean Luc Goddard movies and talk to me then.

So what if I never sold a screenplay? I will one day, just as soon as I come up with an original story that hasn't been done to death a million times.

ECHenry said...

enzio pasta,

You're dead wrong on all counts. Great stories aren't formulatic. Formula's bore. I think the word you're looking for is STRUCTURE. Yes, structure helps to convey a MEANINGFUL story, but it doesn't gaurantee you have something interesting.

Focus on the art, not the $$. Integrity matters. If we were in Oz, I'd say this is a good time as any to go see the wizzard.

Mary Ann,

Her name is Jennifer and she's delcious. Not Pralines and Cream, mind you, but a flavor on the menu board that I might be able to get a taste of.

Yeah, my Spidey sence tingled a bit when she dangled her bait. Yes, it was a bit raunchy. But, then again, maybe that was just her way of showing me she was interested. I mean how is a girl supposed to do that these days?!

Anyway, Jeniffer's a knockout and part of me thinks I'd be a fool not to pursue this further. When she's arround the compass points north -- if you know what I mean.

Anyway, your distance the situation, the fact that you are a woman, and can write killer rom/com's to boat makes you a prie canidate to be ace in the hole. So feed me girl. I need ideas how to test Jennifer out further and see if she's a keeper. This roster is looking to do a little pecking, Mary Ann, help me find some seeds.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Todd, that's entirely TOO PERSONAL of a mental image for me to maintain this big brother thing you and I got going...

Lucy, thanks for clearing that up.

Todd, my bad. Disregard.

Enzio, I've got a great book that discusses different structures and how they work and when they don't... maybe I ought to do a post on that. I don't think structure is formulaic writing by the way. Lack of structure is insanity and I don't have a problem with guidelines either. It's rigid formulaic crap that chaps me...saying that you must hit a certain beat by a certain page. Says who? How do they know how you've even structured your story?

E.C. -- okay, I'll work on it but seriously, I have a mental block because you said she BENT OVER a vending machine and every vending machine...that would make her what? Mrs. Kong? An AMAZON? Interesting premise for a ROM COM. Man falls in love with humongous woman and falls IN love... literally... FALLS IN!

Okay.. gross. time to stop.

Tracy said...

Hi MaryAn,

Great post. I’ve been lurking for a while, but decided to jump in and comment. This subject is one that always seems to get mixed messages from most writers, and used to cause me to pull my hair out.

Someone mentioned the difference between formula and structure; a lot of books however, seem to meld the two. From day one I’ve had a set of rules thrown at me, from act structure, to page count, to the one-sentence logline. Rules are rules, and every-so-often, someone breaks them. God, I love when that happens.

While I, too, hate the paint-by-numbers approach, I still read up on these different “formulas”. Why? Procrastination mostly. I don’t know; my goal is to find what works for me – like looking for a needle in a haystack. Okay, it’s really just procrastination.

ECHenry said...

Sorry about the misleading description, Marry Ann. My Jen-love, as I'm now calling her (I knew sooner or later I'd have one of those), just bent over NEXT to the vending machine and showed me her rear side goods.

In retrospect, the whole thing had a Andy gets Trish's number while selling her a DVD player at Smart Tech, his place of work in the movie, "The 40 Year Old Virgin."

Maybe Jen-love's my Trish -- you never know. I working in a shipping department, Jen-love's in accounts payable. Help me come up with ways of testing love's waters while at work.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Grubber said...

Glad to hear you are migraine free. Putting it bluntly, they suck. Hope the ST memory loss is only temporary.

Alex Epstein said...

Well, sorta. Writing by the numbers makes you, I think, an amateur. Hack writing often goes by the numbers but the hacks have internalized standard structure and don't need the numbers. Either way it results in predictable storytelling, and predictable is never good.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Alex.