Should Screenwriters Stick With Movie Formula?

While in high school, I taught myself how to write a screenplay. It looked more like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a few slugs thrown in on the page rather than an actual screenplay. Fortunately this was enough to garner acceptance into film school.

When I finally had the chance to write a full feature length real-deal-legit screenplay, I had to knock the socks off of my professor. So I ignored any sense of constraining movie formula and I simply wrote. After turning in my work, I spent the next days imagining he would finish reading my pages of courier 12, take off his glasses and exclaim:

“This girl is about to change the film world!”

movie formula

Should Screenwriters Stick With Movie Formula?

Of course, this didn’t happen. Not even close. When my first draft was handed back to me, it was littered with spelling corrections and comments like “where is this going?

I wrote a romantic comedy.

And the typical movie formula got the story moving: girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy. But it continued from there. I crammed those key beats that compose entire 120 page scripts into the first 50 pages and stumbled down a somewhat romantic rabbit trail of girl meets new boy, girl loses boy 1, girl gets boy 2, girl loses boy 2, girl gets back with boy 1.

Yes. This plot could work. But not for screenwriting 101.

No matter how much ambition, textbook education, Nora Ephron binge-watching weekends, or decades of subscriptions to Entertainment Weekly – First time screenwriters should NOT try to stretch the boundaries of movie formula.

Quite the opposite is true.

Movie Formula Writing Should Be Embraced

Movie formula writing should be embraced, particularly for new writers. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not much a fan of big, blockbuster commercial films. I’ve always leaned toward films that are a little quirky and awkward. “Ugh, you always get these weird Miramax movies,” was my mom’s typical reaction to my movie rentals growing up.

I’m not bashing tentpoles and popular fair either. But my tendency toward “weird Miramax movies” influenced me to push the limits of formula. Which was a terrible idea. And despite my professor’s blatant consternation toward my story-telling, I tried again and again to alter what I considered to be the confines and constraints of formula.

Five years later, I now realize that my professor wasn’t trying to stifle creativity or close outside-the-box thinking. He wanted his students to master the craft. Learn the rules before you break them.

Years after struggling to tighten my floundering screenplays, I made the decision to remove the self-inflicted pain and pressure that resulted from abandoning movie formula to instead have fun writing within format and genre. Guess what happened?

I wrote a script in less than two months. And it was tight. It had the obvious beats. It was enjoyable to write and I received positive response from industry types.

This is in sharp contrast to spending up to four months working on a story that meandered, was challenging to write, and frankly, was sometimes embarrassing to ask people to read.

I thought I was alone in my realization. However, I recently came across an article in Creative Screenwriter Magazine. Turns out a lot of writers, if not most, want to be original and resist the cookie-cutter story. And to a point, we should.

In his article “Formulaic is Good!”, Dennis MacGee Fallon interviews Michael Hauge, a major motion picture coach, consultant, and author of Writing Screenplays That Sell. In this short article, Hauge reasons why:

The film industry is first and foremost a business. People who invest in films want a return. Give them something that has a proven track record and you’re more likely to sell a script.” Adding “Once we have accepted this rule (willingly or begrudgingly), it does not mean we have sold out! There are still opportunities to get a little crazy.

Understandably, for most new screenwriters, writing to a movie formula creates fear of being boring and predictable.

We think writing with movie formula in mind sets us up for those fears to be actualized, right? After all, by definition formula is a template of how to tell your story; a design constructed from repeatedly told plot lines. No one wants to hear “I’ve seen this a thousand times!

But from personal experience, I’ve created my some of best characters when adhering to a formula from fear of hearing those very words. And I would advise you to experiment with movie formula too.

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