WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Formula vs. Structure

Those who claim that the formulaic path is the only way to go when writing a screenplay are further confusing the beginning writer. Stewart Farquhar analyzes formula vs. structure.


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Formula vs. Structure. The distinction is evident yet rarely considered.

Formula is NOT Structure. Unfortunately, for writers, they are often confused.

Formula:

  • A mathematical relationship or rule expressed in symbols. – Dictionary.com
  • A fixed form of work, especially one used in particular contexts or as a conventional usage. – Dictionary.com
  • A set of symbols showing the composition of a chemical compound. – Wikipedia
  • A customary or set form or method allowing little room for originality. – Merriam-Webster

Structure:

  • The arrangement of and relationship between parts or elements of something complex. – Dictionary.com
  • Narrative Structure: A literary element. It is generally described as the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative is presented to a reader, listener or viewer. – Wikipedia

FORMULA

Many of the derivative screenwriting books and courses rattle on about the formulae needed to create a screenplay, television pilot or novel. They tout that this method, this page content, or this genre specific series of events MUST happen or your work is not a true fill-in-the-blank tome.

For certain forms of expression adherence to “formula” or more correctly style, is true. Most poetry, certain abbreviated writing styles and joke styles come immediately to mind. There are others. However, the use of formulae along with their nefarious cousin the three / four / five act structure are NOT helpful methods if you wish to graduate and become a successful screenwriter. Great in kindergarten but not in graduate school.

Those who claim that the formulaic path is the only way to go when writing a screenplay, teleplay or novel are possibly, at best, inadvertently ignorant or, at worst, further confusing the beginning writer. What is even worse, these “pundits” give the false impression that if you follow MY formula, book or class you’ll experience success as a writer. They further confuse by referring to formula and structure as the same. Hence, the spurious mantra; the use of formula is a must for success.

In most cases, all these gurus do is separate people from their money.

They prove the showman, P.T. Barnum, correct.

Please study the above definitions.

As I mentioned, when a writer is forced to rely on a formula to tell a story, it soon becomes evident that this works only in a limited set of entertainment writing styles. Procedurals, who-dun-its, simplified Rom-Coms and others where certain events must occur or where the story requires certain events at specific times in the narrative, are just a few.

The unfortunate side effect of this method is that the stories become hackneyed and predictable. The audience is fed heavy doses of insipid Pablum via homogeneous mental feeding tubes. The series, film or novel is little more than a regurgitation of storylines. The audience returns mainly for the vicarious thrill of how this or that character is going to do the same thing(s) in a different suit or dress on a different day. The stories become predictable, void of originality and depth.

Certain “instructors” force writers to create specific events or explicit “beats” (no such word for either an actor or a scribe, as discussed in previous articles here and here), on certain preordained pages. Placement or content requirements are an anathema to creative story development.


How to Structure a Screenplay – In Defense of “Formula”


These same experts state categorically that your story must have three, four or five acts (Aristotle says up to 14) along with other clearly defined “turning points,” “a placement defined midpoint” or “something really big happening on each page.” They pick the stories or films that match their definition or technique and tout them as a universal example of what is required. All of these required points must occur at specific locations in a well-structured story.

Phooey.

All that creates is a mundane assembly line word mill not a vibrant story hive.

The emphasis on page content placement or organization crushes any hope of complex story ideas that don’t fit into some prescribed structure.

What you end up with is the classic Merriam-Webster definition, regarding lack of originality, from above.


Cautionary Advice for Writers


There are multiple successful films and novels that break free from these shackles of mediocrity. They have gone on to garner audience accolades, peer awards and financial rewards. In other words, they are original ideas, characters and events that add up to original stories that involve and entertain.

There are as many ways to tell a story as there are ideas that these stories spring from.

I have NOT said that formulaic stories cannot, in some small degree, satisfy or reward. What I contend is that a majority of the audience eventually evolves, then smartens up. They ceases to buy into the bait and switch “Star Wars 96” or Fast and Furious 25 con game. This now sophisticated audience looks elsewhere, as Pixar and Universal have recently discovered.


INTERVIEW: Screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods Discuss ‘A Quiet Place’, Writing Process and So Much More


Do you recall the incessant complaints about the overall decline in movie box-office numbers and the closure of independent bookstores? How many scripts and books vs. texts and emails have you read?

What’s a novice writer to do? Other than write for the short attention span digital media, that is.

Play with the formula tools until you become comfortable with your storytelling skills.

Then ditch it and learn structure.

Next time, we will delve into successful non-formulaic stories that had serious structure and success.

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

Get more tips on formula vs. structure with our on-demand webinar, The Myth of the 3 Act Structure: Why Am I Lost In The Second Act?

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One thought on “WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Formula vs. Structure

  1. LaMightyMarLaMightyMar

    Stewart, thank you for the formidable lessons on structure against formula. As a beginner writer, and an Operational Research major, I have a passion for formulas (both in the infant stages of screenwriting and\mathematic problem solving). I was drawn to your suggestions in reference to finding the optimal structure opposed to the perfect formula. As I continue to write my screenplay “Career Builders,” a satire to leadership in business, I will continue to pursue a unique structure that deters from a formulaic approach. I think in the end, this style will promote flexibility for myself as the writer and keep the audience in a perpetual state of mind predicting the next scene. After reading your article, I’m excited, and motivated to finish!

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