Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Magic Formula

Peter here. For reasons I won't even begin to go into, I am unable to provide you with a guest blogger this Sunday. So you're stuck with me, I'm afraid.

And I am minded to touch on a phenomenon that affects screen writing more than novel writing. That's the trend - encouraged by a plethora of how-to books - towards what I call writing by numbers. These books are written by self-proclaimed experts who claim to have studied all the most successful screenplays in movie history, and have discerned a pattern in their construction suggesting that there is a successful formula, which if you follow faithfully, will also bring you success.

I have no doubt that there are similar "experts" who have found a pattern in the most successful books, and would recommend that you follow that, too.

The fundamental flaw, of course, with all these peddlers of formulae, is that if they really do have the secret of successful writing, why are they not writing hit movies and best-selling books themselves? The answer is that they are nothing more than snake-oil salesmen selling vacuous dreams to the vulnerable.

As a teenager in the sixties I used to listen to a European radio station called Radio Luxembourg. There was an ad that played repeatedly on that station trying to sell you on Horace Bachelor's secret formula for winning the Football Pools - a betting game that paid out millions to those correctly predicting the weekly soccer results. Even then I used to think, if he really has this formula, why is he not simply winning the pools himself every week?

The truth is, there is no formula for predicting chance, any more than there is for the writing of a great story.

Here is a link to an article on the subject written by my spouse and fellow writer, Janice Hally, for the online magazine, Suite 101, where she is the feature writer for the Writing for Stage and Screen section. As someone who has written and storylined hundreds of hours of top-rated television drama herself, she is pretty well-placed to comment, and also offer her own advice on what makes a good story...

Stucturing a Story - The Secret Magic Ingredient


Hannah Dennison said...

Coming from a screenwriting background I must have read every single how-to book there is. My favorite is "How to Write a Screenplay in 21 days" that practically gave me a coronary as I couldn't keep up with the program! Yes, I remember Radio Luxembourg. My Dad won the football pools a lot in those days and as far as I know, didn't buy Horace Bachelor's secret formula ... he just claimed it was a mixture of persistence and luck.

Janice said...

You know, Hannah, I think "persistence and luck" is probably good advice when it comes to screenplays, too!

Just to give an example of the kind of thing that screenwriters face - not just when looking for advice, but when being " judged" by readers working for producers - here's a quote describing what should happen on certain page numbers!

"Keep These Important Page Numbers in Mind:
Page 1 contains the opening image and should set the vibe and tone of the movie
The inciting incident, the event that launches your story forward, should be inthe first 10 pages
Page 17 is the point of no return for the protagonist and signals the first act break
Page 30 is the usually the end of act one and reflects the first act break
Page 60 is the Tent Pole, where the protagonist goes from being passive to active in his or her own destiny
Page 75 contains the second false epiphany, when the audience is tricked into believing that all is well before all hell breaks loose
Page 90 is the Big Gloom, where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong
Page 109 is where you should try to get out on an emotional high"

My favourite's the "second false epiphany" on page 75! Hilarious!

The not so hilarious thing is that there are script readers straight out of college who will be reading and rejecting scripts if the boxes described above don't get checked!

Hannah Dennison said...

I remember it well!!! I read scripts myself for studios for about seven or eight years but these days, the readers are often STILL in college. I find it appalling that they have the power to make these kinds of decisions. It's very disillusioning for those writers who have put their hearts and souls into their work. One of the reason I changed horses - but I guess that's the nature of the beast ... Hollywood is for the young!