Ask the Expert: Friends Don’t Let Friends Write to Formula

Question: Is it necessary to write with a ‘formula’ to craft a great script?

I was extremely fortunate to launch my career by having Ridley Scott hire me to write a screenplay and fly me to London to work with him on developing the story. The first night we went to dinner, one of his producers leaned across the table and asked me, “You go to UCLA, right?”  I nodded. I was still in my second year of film school. He shook his head, warning, “If you try to write this script to one of those bullshit film school formulas you’ve been taught, I’ll fire your ass and hire a real writer.”

At first I thought he was joking, or at least I sure hoped he was.  Because that was the only way I knew how to write a screenplay, and my greatest fear was they would realize they had made a mistake in hiring me and fly me home–or make me walk.

The script, a sci-fi thriller called Metropolis, never got made. But it turned out to be the best experience of my writing life. The producer took me under his wing and patiently taught me specific tools and techniques needed to organically structure a non-formulaic script.

A few months later my agent invited my wife and me to one of her dinner parties. She was a major agent at ICM and represented such people as Callie Khouri and Milos Forman. The party was full of writers with successful careers and hit movies – the kind of career I so desperately wanted.  After dinner and a fair amount of wine, the conversation turned to writing. As I listened, it became increasingly clear these writers weren’t using the popular paradigms taught in the books and seminars.  In fact, they openly made fun of the writers who do.

Yet a growing and highly profitable industry continues to sell writers on formulas by branding them as universal paradigms or genre guidelines or structural building blocks or the like. They do an incredible marketing job of making it seem like following their particular edicts is necessary for success.  It’s like the gold rush.  Almost none of the prospectors got rich. The real fortune was made by selling items to the prospectors, such as divining rods and maps to supposed gold-rich veins. There’s always been a fortune to be had selling things to the dreamers.

And what’s heartbreaking is just how many talented and dedicated writers waste valuable years writing script after script with no real chance of success because they’ve been told that professional writers need to use a certain paradigm, which is patently false. Or that readers look for certain plot points, rejecting scripts that don’t have them, when in fact, the exact opposite is true.

I recently had Julia Howden speak to my UCLA class. Julia is one of the industry gatekeepers, having worked as a creative executive for various studios over the past eleven years. She told the group about her first day on the job.  Her boss gave her three scripts from the black list, each one commercial, but also fiercely original. He then gave her three scripts written to one of the popular structure books advocating what must happen on pages 1 to 10, 10 to 20, 20 to 30, and so forth. He told her the first three scripts were real screenplays and the other three were bullshit and her job was to never let a bullshit script cross his desk.

She finished her talk by quoting the great Earnest Lehman, who said, there are only three screenwriting commandments you can’t break if you want to have a career:

Never confuse the reader.

Never bore the reader.

Never have characters do or say things they really wouldn’t do or say in order to advance the plot.

And writing to a formula inherently violates the last two.

Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Warner Brothers, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant and Walt Disney Pictures.  Corey teaches screenwriting at UCLA and offers private online classes using real time video conferencing.  For more information please visit coreymandell.net

8 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: Friends Don’t Let Friends Write to Formula

  1. Paul de Leonardo

    The Universe moves in a pattern governed by the laws of physics. Planets sometimes cease to exist. Others are born. These happen eratically, most of the time, but their remains continue to be ruled by the laws of physics.

    Now, our world is no different. Life happens differently for each and every one of us. No particular exact pattern for everyone. These are the organic ways of life. Our stories can be told the way they happen. The sure law here on Earth is that we are born, we struggle, we win, we lose, we give up, and we try chasing our dreams, and sometimes we overcome. Then we die.

    In between, life doesn’t happen the same way for everyone. Now, to tell every story the same way, when they didn’t happen in the same pattern, is surely boring. One rule I hold to. Before I start, I always have a tentative beginning, a middle and an end, plus every possible sigpost in between. Then I know where I’m going. Again I must have the freedom to change these as I go along.

  2. Mercutio

    while structure is everywhere in some form or other, i think the article means that in order to sell a script it needs to stand out. a person with no contacts need to be original or he won’t get noticed. all those movies you see are mostly made by hired writers that have little room for freedom; “it must have a refridgerator and an atomic explosion”.

  3. Woody1Bob Woods

    I would like to think that structure is BS because it seems to be the hardest part of writing a script. However, I do notice that most movies do pretty much hit the marks for inciting incedents, turning points, etc.

    I’m relatively new at this game and your article versus the many books and articles I’ve read just left me more confused…

    Although, I do appreciate your wisdom.

    Bob

  4. Dave K

    Wow Kean. While I agree with a few points you made, I think you’re misreading the article’s intention. This is Corey’s experience in the industry. Whether you like it or not, this is what happened to him. Nowhere in the article does it say to “do away with structure” or that “structure bores people.” What is says is that FORMULAS bore people, those people being the ones that read and BUY your script. He’s not saying that these types of films do or don’t get made. He was told (by the person handing him a paycheck) to have an “organically structured non-formulaic” script. A script with NO structure whatsoever would be chaos. He’s doing you a favor by telling you what THE PEOPLE WHO READ AND BUY your script will toss it if it is too predictable. He even spells out how he thought differently too at first. He has SOLD SCRIPTS and made money in the industry. My gut tells me to listen to him. Just because you don’t seem to think that type of script is what is being made doesn’t mean that type isn’t being sought after and bought. Most people that can’t sell a script blame the industry (this same phenomenon happens in the music industry all the time too). I just feel that you went into a personal attack that was unfounded, and frankly makes you come off as bitter because your script(s) haven’t sold.

    Thank you Script, for the article. I found it very insightful.

  5. Kean Salzer

    While your premise for this article seems valid you have to admit that most of the theatrical releases in the last five years have been crap. Very few will be remembered and referred to as quality projects. This is your world. This is your mentor’s world. You and your “clever” suits who feel the need to identify yourself as people who cannot tolerate structure and must have originality or death are just sad little people trying to cover up your insecurities with bold proclamations. Structure exists and patterns exist that help writers chart a course. To say that structure always bores a reader and never relates to real world conversations or choices is just inherently stupid.

COMMENT