Writing Formulas: Unnatural or Helpful Devices?

Nobody likes a faker. Nobody likes being able to smell insincerity on someone from all the way across the room, desperation reeking like an over saturation of AXE body spray. Somehow our BS detectors work really well, for some people more than others, but we’re all aware when the person we’re talking to is not fully truthful to the way they present themselves. Maybe it’s a dude trying to be more confident than he really is in a bar, maybe it’s a cosplayer who has only read your bio on Wikipedia but pretends to be a hardcore fan of yours, whatever it is, we all hate being aware of when we’re being manipulated by someone who isn’t genuine.

For that matter, nobody likes feeling manipulated at the movies. Which is weird, since that’s exactly why we go to the movies in the first place, to have our emotions provoked, prodded, and stirred by a puppeteer behind the screen, or above the screen, or wherever they are in proximity to the screen. You get my point. What is it that separates truly great art, or even satisfactory art, from manipulative, melodramatic crap?

Formulas? Somehow us writers have grown to either love or hate that word, depending on our background, style, and preferences for writing. Nobody seems to be in the middle ground. Either you love math, or you think it’s an affront to human integrity. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe most of you out there are completely happy to be completely apathetic.

Three Act Structure. The Hero’s Journey. Syd Field, Robert McKee, Joseph Conrad, amongst others. Character trees, plot devices, rom-coms… Oh how familiar we are. Boy’s a jerk, boy meets girl who makes him less of a jerk, boy loses girl because he’s still a jerk, boy learns to not be a jerk, boy gets girl. Credits. Done and done. Hello, Adam Sandler, how are you today?

adam-sandler-1

Hello!

Yet we know what we’re getting into so why does it feel so… fake?

It is my opinion that technically anything can be formulaic. I mean, all a formula really does is control variables in such a way as to give you a specific result. In this case, input the right plots, characters, and dialogue, and you get a hit movie. Or not. The formula always works though, so what must be going wrong is somewhere along the way the input stopped working. After all, formulas aren’t like machines in that they don’t really need maintenance. Once they’re done, they’re done.

What separates organic writing from formulaic writing?

What makes organic writing seem real is simply this: there are too many variables. Think about it this way, if every word on the page is a variable, that’s… I don’t even want to do the math – okay fine, I did the math: the average novel has 80-120,000 words. Screenplays will have far less, of course. That’s still a lot of variables. Because every single word is a variable, after all. It could have been different. The author could have chosen a different word that would have achieved a different result. And in the end, they still would have gotten a book (or movie) as an output. The formula isn’t the problem, it’s the inputs.

By this standard, technically even the most artistic, organic writer, is still using a formula. They’re just using a different one, and using it differently, but they still get the output. They may not even be aware that they’re using it, and this is why we tend to say they’re not formulaic, but this is my metaphor so back off.

Of course, controlling 80,000 different things at once is way too much. I can only keep track of about 3-5 things at once and I multitask all the time. So we give the writers some slack. We cut that down to about… oh, 15 things, if you’re Blake Snyder. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Seems more manageable? Good.

So now you’re left with less variables to control, less inputs to worry about, and you’ll still get the same results. Except you don’t. People still say your movie feels inorganic, feels formulated, feels fake. Like something they’ve seen a million times before. And it is, because they have seen it a million times before. What audiences are looking for, what everyone who reads or watches is looking for isn’t originality (everything is a remix) but authenticity. They want to see you use different variables. They already know what they’re getting: the output – a movie or a book – that’s what they paid for. They simply want to see a different process happen, a variation on the formula. They want to see something real go into the craft of writing.

It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. This couldn’t be more true than with writing. Maybe with life… but also with writing.

So you input. What matters to you? What makes you connect with people? With characters? How do you speak? How do your friends, your coworkers, your acquaintances speak? What kind of thoughts do you have? What unexpected things happen to you? Make it real, draw from real life – don’t steal from real life, she will get revenge – and put yourself into the story. Take those variables, the inputs, and make them yours. You don’t have to eschew the formula, you don’t have to be afraid of it, because you can own it. You can do whatever you want, you can follow the formula, working closely with it, or you can go outside of the norm without needing to do something so advent-garde that nobody “gets” you. Or you can just go for it and do whatever you want. It depends on your approach.

The truth is, my point is, that there’s nothing wrong with all these writing tips, these gurus, these words of advice, these formulas, in and of themselves. What happens is that writers lose sight of what makes them real – what makes them authentic – and they use the exact same variables that we’ve seen before. Let’s get Adam Sandler back for a moment:

 

Me?

Me?

 

They use this character.

And make him say these things.

And have these plot twists happen to him.

And he gets this girl.

And we’ve seen that…. a million times before.

 

 

But what if you used a different character?

What if you made him say different things?

And had different plot twists happen to him?

And he gets something different?

We’ll technically have seen that before too – remember, stories are built into our society, we’ve seen everything before – but it will be completely fresh. It will be real. Especially if you put YOU into it.

To quote the magnificent Dr. Seuss,

Today_you_are_you_span7

Put yourself into your story. Use those inputs as a mechanism to be authentic. This isn’t to say be autobiographical, and most certainly do NOT use your story as a mechanism to give yourself therapy – audiences don’t like that. Just tell us your story. What makes you different? Because you are different. You are unique, and we want to see something unique. We want to see something real. We can relate to real, we can’t relate to fake.

Neil Gaiman said something that I hold very dearly to my heart. I’ve tried it, tested it, and found it to be very, very true:

“The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”

 

So don’t worry too much about whether or not you’re using the right formula, or whether you should be or shouldn’t be using one at all. You have thousands of inputs to play with. You’ll still get what you wanted at the end.

I wish you luck and I hope this helps.

 

 

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