Furry Writers' Guild Forum

Formula as spoiler

Any more, whenever I start to watch a movie, it feels as if I’ve already gotten a minor spoiler, that I know more than I should about what’s going to happen, even if I know absolutely nothing about the movie. The reason for this is that I know too much about the beat sheet followed by Hollywood on virtually all movies produced at least as far back as the 1970s. Some blame screenwriter Blake Snyder and his book Save the Cat for describing the beat sheet in considerable detail, presumably as an aid to screenwriters hoping to make a big break, but I think doing so would be a case of blaming the messenger, since the formula he describes was in use long before 2005 when that book was published, though some claim it’s being followed more closely in recent years as Hollywood would rather stick close to its tried and true formula than take a chance on anything that deviates from it. But therein lies the problem - the more everyone follows the formula, the more it gives everything they produce have a sense of sameness and predictability, even across divergent genres and styles.

Some have recommended using a beat sheet in story writing. I don’t think I ever will, for reasons explained above. I think I’ve done all right in my stories just going by what feels right, and often I end up hitting some of the beats, but it happens by feel rather than by design.

I’ve found that it’s absolutely worth learning how to write screenplays – not necessarily Snyder’s beat sheet, but something that gets you thinking about how longer stories are structured. Most of my novellas (and my novel) roughly follow a three-act structure, have turns at the end of each act and at the midpoint, and have common elements that could certainly be called “beats.” Indigo Rain even opens with a “save the cat” scene (which in that case quietly sets up a lot of important plot elements). I think all this is to the benefit of my writing, not its detriment, because I’ve been learning to ask questions that make my stories stronger. What does the main character want? Why? Who wants to stop her? Why? What does the main character need, which is a separate thing? How does that get fulfilled (or denied)? Are the stakes in the story high enough on a personal level for the hero? Is the tension rising? Are some of the complications due to the protagonist’s actions? Is the final outcome of the story due to her actions?

Writers have a really strong negative reaction to what they see as “formula.” ;D The problem, I think, is that they look at it as a didactic “thou shalt write only this way” rather than looking at it as a recipe. Some of you might know I’m a cocktail nerd; something you learn if you drink too much get into cocktail history is that there are an awful lot of drinks that start as close variants on one another: a “sour” is basically sweetener, citrus juice, and liquor, usually in that order from least to most in the drink. All sours are following essentially the same formula, but if you order a strawberry margarita, you will be unhappy if the bartender brings you a lemon drop and says, “hey, it’s the same beats, right?”

While I think that “formula” is unavoidable in story-telling at a certain level (all good stories require a beginning, middle and end, for example, and share many other key traits in common as well) I go far out of my way whenever I can to do the unexpected, or at least do the expected in an unexpected way. In fact, I sit back on a regular basis while writing-- every couple of work-hours-- to think about what I’ve just written and am about to write. The most crucial question I ask myself is, is this predictable? Was the reader expecting me to do this, just this way? If so, then I immediately stop and find at least a slightly modified path that’s not the predictable one, at least on some level. For one example… In the Birkenhead books, things begin predictably because they just about have to in order to allow a coherent tale to be told. But in book two the protagonist’s predictable plot-arc is to at least some degree diverted-- because I realized the original plan was too predictable and therefore boring. Instead of him launching his heroic rise through the ranks beginning as a ship’s engineer (as foreshadowed) he’s instead shunted off to Graves Registration due to malignant political influence. This assignment was quite deliberately selected as the least-likely place for a hero to rise from that I could come up with. He achieves his (expected, predictable) meteoric success there instead of doing things the reader has read about ten thousand times before, and fully expected to read about again.

The final result, in other words, is indeed predictable at the plot-arc/character development level (because it about has to be), but this is (hopefully) masked behind a thick layer of “new” and “different” at the “specific-events” level. Personally, this is as high as I’m capable of aiming. Not much that’s truly and completely original is left to us in this tired old world. Everywhere we go as writers, we find the footprints of those who’ve been there before us.

Look, the fact of the matter is, there’s only a handful of basic plots. Exactly how many depends on who you ask, but it’s somewhere between five and fifteen.

And yet, how many stories are out there playing on these same templates? Millions. Are all of them good? Heck no. Some are as you said, repetitive and boring. But even the good ones use these same basic structures.

That’s not a bad thing. All stories need a solid foundation. People expect a certain degree of consistency to stories, especially when dealing in genre fiction. These basic plots are the blueprints, the DNA, the skeleton of the thing. A writer takes that skeleton and fleshes it out. It’s how we adorn that skeleton that makes or breaks a story. And if a writer does it right, you’re too entranced by the glitter to see the skeleton underneath.

Using a beat sheet isn’t for everyone. I take notes on longer works, but I don’t have a template sitting next to me when I write. Most of it I’ve internalized over a lifetime of reading. But it helps some people to outline main plot points. shrug There’s no right way to write.

Now, on the topic of predictability and movies, that’s a failing of the industry. Hardly the fault of the writers. Hollywood likes its explosions and shiny reboots, and it panders to plots that follow a very narrow interpretation of story progression. It’s sad, really. I’ve had the same problem with an utter lack of surprise at “plot twists” lately. But at least the special effects are pretty.

I absolutely disagree on Rabbit’s point about there being little completely original left to us. Fantastic and original takes on common themes pop up on the bestseller lists and new releases on a regular basis. A very regular basis. Really good ones may not happen but once or twice a year and you’ve got to sift through a lot of crap to find them, but they’re out there. My own bookcases are stuffed with 'em.