Writing Formulas — Part I

Alright, so I’m really, really, going to get back to writing. For reals. Like, today.

I want to enter Flames of Prague in an Arts & Sciences competition this year. The competition is the first weekend of December, but you have to submit written entries at least one month in advance to give the judges time to read it. So that means I need to have my edits and proofreading done no later than the first of November. So, hopefully, having a serious deadline will get me motivated to actually do the editing.

(I’ve already done the hard editing; I’m on my second draft. And, actually, I’ve done the grammatical editing, too, it’s just written in my paperback copy; I need to transfer that to my digital copy. Then begins the proofreading, and I’ve actually got a friend who said he would help me with that, so I only need to proof two or three times (plus his) instead of the six or seven times I did with Acceptance. (And that still needs some proofing; I have some changes written in a print copy and I need to run it by my friend, too. Proofing, it’s never-ending.))

Writing Formulas

Save the CatSo, speaking of writing, I got a book for Christmas called Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. I put it on my wishlist after reading positive things about it (where, I don’t remember). Even though it’s about screenwriting, it’s supposed to be good for novel writing as well.

I’m only a few chapters in, but there’s a section in here that is really useful for novels, and I want to share it. The author divides movies (or books; same thing for this exercise) into genres. But they’re not the genres that we think of: romance, comedy, thriller, horror, etc. He divides them up by what I’ve decided to call formulas (since it tells you how the story works and how it has to end). Here’s his list:

Monster in the House

This is where your horror and a lot of your suspense movies/books happen. This is any plot where there is something out to get the protagonist(s) AND the protagonist(s) is stuck someplace (maybe literally in a house, but not necessarily) which means he/they will have to confront the monster eventually. Think about Silence of the Lambs. There are really two monsters involved–Hannibal Lector and the serial killer–and you can’t be sure which one is going to get Clarice. First, she’s in the jail with Hannibal, then she’s stuck in an actual house with the serial killer.

But, Blake points out that movies like Fatal Attraction and Jurassic Park are also monster-in-the-house movies, even though you might not immediately consider them a horror movie.

JP-WhenDinosaursRuledThe thing to be careful about when writing this genre is that you confine your protagonist(s)–be it in a house or on an island or at an empty hotel deep in the mountains. It just needs to be hard/impossible for them to escape so that, eventually, they are forced to face the monster in order to get out of the trap they’re in. (The tension comes from seeing if they can get out and how many people will die before the monster is finally defeated.) It’s okay for them to escape at the last minute and leave the monster(s) behind–as in Jurassic Park–but only after there’s been a lot of monster fighting (and dying). It’s also okay for the protagonist to be “stuck” in the house by a sense of duty or a need to kill the monster; he doesn’t have to be literally locked in. (Clarice didn’t have to go into the serial killer’s house alone, but she did so because she thought she might be able to rescue his victim before he killed her, and we saw that he was indeed getting ready to kill her.)  You have to create tension by creating some sort of showdown where there is no choice but to try and fight the monster.

Golden Fleece

This is the quest movie/book. The hero has to go on an epic adventure to win/do something for some important reason, but also discovers himself along the way. Old Greek tales like Jason and the Argonauts, The Odyssey, and Clash of the Titans, are quests (literally for the Golden Fleece in the case of Jason and the Argonauts), but things like The Wizard of Oz fit into this category as well. (Dorothy goes on a quest to get back home, discovering, in the process, that the place she thought she wanted to leave was the place she really wanted to go to the most.)

WizardAlso included in this category are roadtripping adventures, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Even if the protagonist doesn’t set out to find something tangible, like a Golden Fleece, he finds himself, so it amounts to the same thing. (I.e. a spiritual or personal quest, versus the classic hero quest.) Or, as Blake Snyder says, “it’s not the mileage we’re racking up that makes a good Golden Fleece, it’s the way the hero changes as he goes.”

This is very apparent in a book (or epic poem, if you want to get technical) like The Odyssey, where Odysseus starts out as a very arrogant man and his hubris gets his men killed. Along the way, he learns that it’s not enough just to be clever and witty; you have to be smart enough to know when to shut up, too. (Although, Greek stories are sometimes just about having courage to prove yourself worthy of what you quest for, so there may not be a lot of change, but a whole lot of proving-up.) The Rock (the movie starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris set in Alcatraz, not Dwayne Johnson) is about a wimpy chemical weapons guy and a former British secret agent whose quest is to stop some rogue soldiers from dropping chemical weapons on San Francisco. But, along the way, Nicolas Cage learns courage. So we’re not just rooting for the two guys to stop the destruction of the city, but we’re really rooting for Nicolas Cage to become a man.

Blake Snyder also includes heist movies in this genre, because while the quest is obvious–steal the money/jewels/art–it usually ends up being a personal movie about the thief, who may end up changing his ways or talking a young guy out of following in his footsteps because he’s come to realize this is not right life to lead.

Of course, if you write this genre, the rule to follow is that your hero finds what he’s looking for (even if he didn’t even know he was looking for it until the very end). You can’t take your protagonist on a quest and not end up with what he was after, or leave him as confused and lost (or worse off!) as he was at the beginning.

Out of the Bottle

It's_A_Wonderful_LifeThis is where something (usually magical) happens to the protagonist, it seems like a good thing at first, but then it turns out to be a headache, and, in the end, the protagonist learns a valuable lesson. A recent movie example listed is Liar, Liar, but It’s a Wonderful Life also qualifies. George Bailey wishes he had never been born, he gets his wish, and then he sees how much worse things are without him. He realizes that hey, things aren’t so bad and neither am I, the spell is reversed, happy ending. The tale of King Midas is also an out-of-the-bottle morality tale. King Midas is greedy and wants gold, so he is granted the ability to turn everything he touches into gold. Then he touches his beloved daughter and she turned into a statue of gold and he realizes that some things are more precious than gold (literally).

The rule is that your protagonist has to learn a lesson by the end of the story and reform/redeem himself. Blake Snyder divides these into two types: underdog and comeuppance. George Bailey is an underdog type; we want him to learn to see his own worth, so we watch him undergo the trial in the hopes that he will find himself. Liar, Liar is about a man who needs to get taken down a few pegs, but at the same time, Blake emphasis that these types of protagonists must have something in them worth saving, so yes, we want to see him punished, but so that we can see him redeemed.

Dude With a Problem

These are hero movies, minus the quest. You basically have a good guy and a bad guy and the good guy has to save the day. Think Taken. Guy’s daughter gets kidnapped; he goes to rescue her. It’s not really about him learning anything about himself; it’s about a mano-y-mano showdown using smarts, weapons, or just old-fashioned fists to win.

10th or 11th century Beowulf

Not an action picture, but too cool to pass up. This is a page from a Beowulf manuscript dating to the 10th-11th century.

In literature, Beowulf is a classic example. Modern filmmakers (and writers; Grendel started it) want to turn Beowulf into some sort of introspective piece (that doesn’t follow any formula, that I can tell) where the alleged hero finds that the monster is understandable/relatable/not so bad and that maybe it is himself who is the real bad guy, or maybe it’s not clear which of them is bad–or maybe neither of them, etc. wishy-washy mush. The original Beowulf is about a hero who kills a couple of monsters, becomes a good king, then saves his kingdom by killing a dragon and dies a hero’s death. That’s it. Dude had a problem. Dude ripped its arm off and beat it over the head with it until it ran off and died. The end.

Westerns are a good example of this genre, too, because the story is straightforward: bad guys are tormenting the common people, harassing the womenfolk, poisoning the wells, etc. A hero rises up, defeats the bad guys, and then either gets the girl or rides off into the sunset to dispense justice wherever else it’s needed. The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Tombstone/Wyatt Earp, The Three MusketeersPirates of the Caribbean, and pretty much any and all other swashbuckling or western-type movies or books fit into this category.

Needless to say, your job is to make sure the hero wins in the end. Maybe he learns a little something along the way (the Antonio Banderas Zorro starts out just wanting to satisfy his own revenge, but ends up doing everything for the love of a woman and the oppressed masses), maybe he loses his good buddies along the way, maybe he falls in love–whatever happens, though, it must be a sideshow and the main attraction must be that the hero wins in the end (even if he dies, he must go out in a blaze of glory, beating all the bad guys and accomplishing all his goals). Don’t be like the bad movie version of Beowulf and have your hero walk away feeling conflicted and unsure about himself and leave the audience wondering who the good guy was: the supposed hero or the supposed bad guy. This is not the formula for moral gray areas. Everything is black and white, good versus evil.

Rites of Passage

These are coming-of-age stories, or the Golden Fleece stories minus the quest part. The entire purpose of the story is for the protagonist(s) to learn something about themselves and/or the world. Hopefully it’s good, but not necessarily. But this is not just about young people coming of age (think pretty much every Beverly Cleary book), but also people having a mid-life crisis or facing death (their own or someone else’s).

French KissFrench Kiss with Kevin Klein and Meg Ryan is probably best categorized as a Rite of Passage, because while the two characters fall in love while having some zany (mis)adventures, the story is really about Meg’s transformation. She is a somewhat paranoid and hypochondriac person who always plays it safe. Then her fiance leaves her for a French woman and she goes France to get him back. Kevin Klein (for ulterior motives) tries to help her get her man back by telling her how to act in a way that will intrigue him. The pivotal line in the movie comes after her fiance tells her, “It’s like a light’s been turned on inside you!” and she ends up asking him, “Why weren’t you the one to turn it on?” That’s when she realizes that she’s chasing someone that will never make her happy and that her happiness really needs to come from inside her–through her own confidence–not from a man.

And, while we’re watching Meg Ryan’s character change, we’re also watching Kevin Klein change. We see early on that he’s a diamond-in-the-rough, but in trying to help Meg change, he changes in the process as well and he realizes he doesn’t want to be rough anymore; he wants to wholly embrace his good side.

While a rites-of-passage story sounds like it might be serious or even glum, French Kiss is actually ranked as a romantic comedy, so it’s not required that the character brood darkly or grow up only through tragedy (e.g. The Fawn or Old Yeller).

Buddy Love

This encompasses buddy movies–Wayne’s World, Thelma & Louise–as well as many romantic movies (The King & I), and the classic boy-and-his-dog story (Lassie).

thelma-and-louise-reunionAt first, the buddies/romantic partners might be distrustful of one another or even hate one another, but they end up growing close. Then something might happen to drive them apart and it seems like it’s the end of their relationship for good, but then they overcome their own egos or the lies or the whatever was driving them apart and drive off into the sunset (or over a cliff) together.

In other cases, one buddy will be undergoing a fundamental change while the other buddy acts as a constant presence or even a catalyst for that change. The other buddy–especially in a romance–may need to learn to bend a little, too, but most of the change will come from one person.

The relationship is everything in this formula; it’s what moves the story forward. Any action taking place is just being used as a catalyst to affect the character’s relationship–to give them something to fight or bond over. With this formula, it is required that your buddies have to still be together in the end (even if that means they die together).

Whydunit

Rather than focusing on the “who,” this is more about the “why.” Most detective stories and some dramas and thrillers fall into this category. Blake describes it as, “the story is about seeking the innermost chamber of the human heart and discovering something unexpected, something dark and often unattractive, and the answer to the question: Why?” (Maybe this is why bad guys are always compelled to explain their evil plots before they kill the good guy: because the audience needs to know why it was done more than who was doing it.) He also points out that sometimes in trying to solve the case or catch the bad guy, the detective ends up confronting dark parts of himself–maybe he even does something immoral for the greater good, so the bad guy might get caught, but the good guy gets tarnished as a result.

JokerThe Dark Knight might actually fall into this formula (despite the fact that it appears to be a superhero movie). Let’s fact it, the movie is more about the Joker than Batman (which is good, because I hated Christian Bale as Batman–namely because of that terrible Batman voice he did). Batman is the detective and we are following along with him, constantly looking for a motive or reasoning behind the Joker’s attacks. If we can figure out why he’s doing them, then Batman (and us) will be able to figure out his next target in advance and catch him. Along the way, Batman (and others) are lured into traps by the Joker that makes it very hard to stay moral, so people are constantly being confronted by the question of how much morality would they be willing to give up in the greater good?

The Fool Triumphant

The bumbling dolt–the underdog–always manages to win. Forrest Gump is given as an example of this, but I saw someone else suggest that Life is Beautiful is also the story of a fool triumphant–while being set in the most unimaginable place possible for foolishness: the Holocaust. (While the “fool” dies in the end of the movie, his son survives, which was his real goal, so he gets to claim a victory.)

Another classic example: Rocky and Bullwinkle. Or Mr. Magoo. Or The Pink Panther. Or Dumb and Dumber. Obviously it’s a formula that lends itself well to comedies (especially slapstick), but Forrest Gump and Life is Beautiful are dramas, so it’s possible to play it seriously.

Blake points out that often the fool has a straight man as his sidekick or the person who winds up the butt of the jokes (often because he tries to interfere with the fool and stop him). The straight man often sees the fool for what he is, but can’t convince others that he’s really a dolt that’s incredibly lucky or riding on the coattails of others. (Think Inspector Gadget, who never realized that his niece and her dog were the ones solving all his cases while he got all the glory, or my husband’s suggestion, Get Smart.)

I would argue that there’s a secondary subset of this which is Dumb, but Not so Dumb. Your classic fools, like the Pink Panther, Inspector Gadget, and Mr. Magoo are 100% fools. But Forrest Gump actually falls into the Dumb, but Not so Dumb category because, despite the fact that he’s not smart–that he doesn’t get things that normal people get–he understands the things that are important, like love and friendship, and if people just take a minute to listen to him, they’ll receive really great wisdom.

Stop my momBlake Snyder was one of the writers of the screenplay for the old Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty movie, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and that’s arguably another Dumb, but Not so Dumb formula. Estelle Getty is the fool who cluelessly cleans her cop-son’s revolver in bleach (because it looked dirty) and meddles in his love life. But when she gets caught up trying to help her son solve a case, she smartly plays up her clueless old lady routine to trick the bad guys. So, like Forrest Gump, she’s at least partially aware of the fact that there are things she doesn’t understand, but she also knows what’s important, and she’s smart enough to take care of what matters.

As is obvious from the title, the requirement for this formula is that the fool must triumph. (What ends up happening to the straight man is anyone’s guess, though!)

Institutionalized

This is the story about a group–usually told from the point of view of one member (or ex member) of the group. Oftentimes, we will begin the story with the narrator or main character entering the group for the first time, and as he learns the rules, the audience learns them as well. The “institution” can include schools, clubs, friends/cliques, families, the military, religious institutions, mental wards, etc. Blake gives examples including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, M*A*S*H, The Godfather Trilogy, The Breakfast Club, and Animal House. I daresay a lot of military movies fit into this formula, as well as movies about teenagers.

GatsbyThe Institutionalized formula is about learning to fit into the group. Or maybe it’s about wanting to fit in, then, at some point, realizing that everyone’s crazy/mean/evil, and then wrestling with the decision if you will go along with the group (i.e. succumb to peer pressure) or rebel and remain an independent person (and probably become an outcast). Lord of the Flies is also an example of the group-gone-bad situation. Or, in the case of The Great Gatsby, you have a man who desperately wants to belong to the Old Money clique, and he’s trying to buy his way in, because he’s certain if he can be rich enough and socially-acceptable enough, he will finally win the heart of his love, Daisy. But what he doesn’t realize is that he will always be on the outside looking in, and even though he intrigues Daisy (albeit mildly, I think), she is a permanent member of the Old Money clique and she never even considers bucking the group for him. And, unfortunately, he dies before he figures this out.

Perhaps more than most of the other formulas, there’s no real prescribed outcome for the Institutionalized formula. Maybe it’s a wholesome story about growing up in the Walton or Brady family and learning to work together as a team for the betterment of everyone, or maybe it’s about wanting to join a group and working really hard and getting into it, or maybe it’s about doing that and then realizing that there’s a dark side to the group and maybe you need to get out. Or maybe, like Gatsby, you die still trying to break into a group that will never accept you. Whatever light or dark turn this story takes, it is all about getting into, being in, or getting out of a group and how the group affects each other (if you’re following multiple characters fairly equally) or how it affects the main character.

Superhero

This is not (necessarily) the tale of a radioactive-accident guy with supernatural powers. It’s actually the story of the misunderstood person. It is the Batman who wants to do good in the world, but is condemned as a vigilante. It is a group of people who want to save the world, but who are shunned as freakish or dangerous. It’s a genius who knows the answers to important things, but is shunned as crazy.

Blake suggests that the reason why superhero comic books are so popular with teens and “brainy geeks” (his words, not mine) is that those are two groups of people most likely to feel misunderstood and outcast.

And the superhero isn’t always an actual hero. Blake mentions Frankenstein as a superhero formula, but I would argue that only the Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein version with Kenneth Branagh follows the superhero formula. Frankenstein is himself a misunderstood genius, and he creates a monster that the audience ultimately ends up feeling sympathy for because it suffered from being misunderstood. But that’s only in that movie (and maybe other movie versions that I’m not familiar with). In the book, the monster is not sympathetic at all. It is an abomination that should have never been created. It is, perhaps, a Monster in the House, in that it’s hunting Frankenstein and he can never get away from it, but I think it’s really more a dark Out of the Bottle formula because Frankenstein wishes to create life, creates it, realizes too late that he’s done something evil, and his creation ultimately destroys everything he loved, then him. It is the unpleasant, Midas-style tale where the lesson is learned, but only at great (and irreversible) cost.

nosferatu_2He also mentions Dracula as a superhero. Again, most of the movies portray the vampire in a sympathetic light (Gary Oldman’s version, as well as the Klaus Kinski version of Nosferatu); it is not his fault that he’s a monster by nature; he could be better if only someone would understand him. However, in the original, silent version of Nosferatu–which stayed true to the formula in the book, Dracula–the vampire is just a Monster in the House and it needs to be eliminated before it can kill the protagonists and/or spread.

(So, as you can see, books and movies can tell the exact same story–have the same plot–but the way in which you present it–how you tell the story from the point-of-view of a different formula–changes the story measurably. It is the same thing… only different.)

The one thing that the superheros have in common is that they must suffer. Bruce Wayne may be mega-rich and have every toy imaginable, but he’s also permanently tormented by his parents’ deaths and the need to right every injustice in the world. Superman may seem to be invincible, but not only is there kryptonite to make a weak human out of him, but he also has to hide his true self, because he fears he would never be accepted as an alien strongman. Hercules is brought down by a goddess’ curse that causes him to go crazy and kill people–including his wife and child. No superhero can be perfect; each has to have his own version of kryptonite. Having a weakness makes him relatable; also, we’d hate anyone who had it all and lived a perfect life.

Think about fairy tales: Cinderella had to suffer her stepmother and stepsisters before she got her happy ending. Snow White, although a princess and a perfect beauty, was hunted by her stepmother and had to go into hiding. Even fairy tale princesses have to suffer being outcasts (and often suffer having awful families); even they have to face their own ruin or death before they can get the reward of a happily-ever-after. They are perfect, but their awful circumstances bring them down to our level.

Next Time…

Practice looking for the formulas in your favorite books and movies, because in Part II, we’re going to work on applying it to our own writing.

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