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The Book That Is Making All Movies the Same 384

Posted by samzenpus
from the who-needs-a-story-when-we-have-math? dept.
Bruce66423 writes "This Slate story explains how a 2005 book has led to all Hollywood movies following the same structure — to a depressing extent. From the article: '...Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster. The formula didn’t come from a mad scientist. Instead it came from a screenplay guidebook, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. In the book, author Blake Snyder, a successful spec screenwriter who became an influential screenplay guru, preaches a variant on the basic three-act structure that has dominated blockbuster filmmaking since the late 1970s.' I've always known we could be manipulated — but this provides a segment by segment, almost minute by minute, guide how to do it."
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The Book That Is Making All Movies the Same

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  • by gstoddart (321705) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:21AM (#44351129) Homepage

    No wonder most movies seem like derivative things you can predict what will happen ... because they apparently are.

    Still, keep making the superhero movies, and I'll keep going. =)

    • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gl4ss (559668) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:38AM (#44351345) Homepage Journal

      No wonder most movies seem like derivative things you can predict what will happen ... because they apparently are.

      Still, keep making the superhero movies, and I'll keep going. =)

      it's just not this book though.

      the writing schools have been teaching this same classic shit for decades. if you draw storylines(up's and downs of "mood" plotted on a x/y axis where x is time) you'll see patterns with classic movies, plays and books.

      it's actually at the point that if you're going to do something new that's going to be classic you might be better off on purpose veering off from it.. but a lot of stuff done like that is shit, too.

       

      • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by AmiMoJo (196126) * <mojo@@@world3...net> on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:11PM (#44352425) Homepage

        There was an interesting debate about this on BBC radio last week. Writers and directors are moving to TV because they can't get interesting stuff made in Hollywood any more. They said that even the likes of Speilberg, who you might think would have pretty much a blank cheque these days, was complaining about it. On the other hand it's good for TV.

        • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by crunchygranola (1954152) on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:50PM (#44352909)

          On the other hand it's good for TV.

          So true. Much of the best adventure and drama of the past decade has been made for cable.

        • by TubeSteak (669689)

          The series of summer bombs is promising to shake up the American movie industry.
          Whether that means they'll spend more on multiple smaller movies or just spend more on sequels....

      • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by crunchygranola (1954152) on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:49PM (#44352891)

        No wonder most movies seem like derivative things you can predict what will happen ... because they apparently are.

        Still, keep making the superhero movies, and I'll keep going. =)

        it's just not this book though.

        ...

        If you think about it, it is inevitable that it can't just be this book. Because if it were, then it would mean that this author was someone of striking originality, almost a contradiction in terms. Instead this must be a careful codification of formulas already commonly known.

        If this book is indeed very influential it is only because it was produced and marketed well, and so reached a wide audience.

      • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by LateArthurDent (1403947) on Monday July 22, 2013 @06:17PM (#44355623)

        the writing schools have been teaching this same classic shit for decades...it's actually at the point that if you're going to do something new that's going to be classic you might be better off on purpose veering off from it.

        Well, there's a reason the school teaches it: it works. It's optimized storytelling to maximize the emotional effect on the reader / viewer. You absolutely can do better by purposefully veering off from it, but you shouldn't even attempt it before you've completely and absolutely mastered the formula. If you're a beginner, stick to the formula. If you're a master of the writing craft, by all means try something new to challenge yourself. The reason for it being that if you don't understand exactly the reason why each part of the formula is there, you can't possibly know when it's appropriate to change it.

        .. but a lot of stuff done like that is shit, too.

        And my explanation above is why that's true. You can be guaranteed that most things that veer off the formula will be crap, but also that just about everything that is the cream of the crop will also veer off the formula. If you're good enough to write the classics that will be studied 500 years after you are gone, you'll veer off the formula. If you're not that good, but want to write something people will still enjoy reading / viewing, then stick to the formula.

        The problem with action movies of late is actually that they've changed the action movie formula on us. It used to be you'd get the action beats at very specific parts of the movie to punctuate the plot with. Something about 1/3rd of the way through after the exposition, then something bigger to get the audience excited about half way through, then a huge climax toward the end. Everything else was story, because they couldn't afford to blow up things for the duration of a 90 minute movie. These days, CGI is cheap. So if you watch Man of Steel, for example, you get a ton of action scenes punctuated by the plot. You see the huge battle on Krypton, then you completely skip the period he's growing up in Smallville because there can't be much action there. Instead, all of that is shown through flashbacks after action sequences in the present.

        I like action movies, people. But the most important part of any movie is the plot. If you don't have that down, the action is irrelevant. Let's go back to the original formula.

    • This.

      Or mostly this, anyway.

      Look at the latest Start Trek movie. Bleccchh. After that great re-start, the second movie was a re-make of The Wrath of Khan... arguably the most successful of the prior run of movies... but so what?

      I was wondering where this year's "blockbusters" are... so far they have seemed formulaic to the point of boredom.
      • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by curunir (98273) * on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:28PM (#44352639) Homepage Journal

        The Star Trek reboot suffers from the same phenomenon that most of the recent reboots have. The first movie ends up being good because they get to explore the formative events that turn the characters from something normal into something resembling the iconic characters we know. It's also able to exploit the information we know about where the characters end up for jokes and introductions. But the first movie has to develop those characters nearly completely or they won't be formed enough for the first movie to complete its story arc, so the second film is left with an almost fully-formed character who doesn't have much room for growth.

        Sometimes the movie will try to invent character growth that never existed in the original and sometimes Hollywood just amps up the special effects, but it almost always produces a movie that's much less interesting than the first. The only example I can think of off the top of my head where the second movie was great was the Dark Knight series. But that was due, for the most part, to an amazing performance by the villain. But, other than that anomaly, most follow-ups to hero films (I'm including Star Trek in the hero category since it's very similar once you consider the entire crew as the hero) just don't have any direction they can head that will be as interesting as the first movie.

    • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Informative)

      by poetmatt (793785) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:52AM (#44351481) Journal

      This has been covered extremely well by everything is a remix ( http://everythingisaremix.info/ [everythingisaremix.info] ). I highly suggest people watching that if they want to realize how long ago creativity left everything that was original from Hollywood and simply became remixes of everything from Hollywood.

      Which begs the question and/or makes it seem ridiculous when anyone tries to assert ownership of these ideas, when they don't even come up with it themselves.

      • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by somersault (912633) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:04PM (#44351601) Homepage Journal

        Ideas aren't actually that important when it comes to movies IMO.. it's the way the story is told, the atmosphere of the thing, that makes a movie good or bad. Good ideas might make you go "whoah, I didn't see that coming" the first time you see the movie - but it's the atmosphere they create that will keep you coming back to them.

        • by lymond01 (314120)

          This is right. Most plots have been done. It's how the plot is described, how the story is told that's important.

          Method 1: Jack and Jill went up the hill. They found some water. Jack tripped on his way back down.

          Method 2: Jack, the village upstart who always seemed hellbent on making others' lives miserable, was found, oddly, walking hand in hand with the virtuous Jill towards the secluded town well...

    • Just in time for Transformers. That movie really looked like a formula movie (without a plot). Interesting to note it came in 2007 and felt like junk right of the bad. It had all the elements of "successful" movie, the inadequate boy... who meets the hot girl, pointles fights here and there. Oh yeah, did we mention the hot girl bending over the open hood of a car? Shouldn't miss that. So the bullied boy... oh yeah and the awkward parents who are actually happy to see that he'd been sneaking a girl in his r

      • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by tlhIngan (30335) <slashdotNO@SPAMworf.net> on Monday July 22, 2013 @03:16PM (#44353885)

        I never understood its success given the lack of plot, but apparently the book was right. Form trumps content anytime. (but really, was a little bit of a plot linking the different ingredients that much to ask? I didn need an Oscar winning plot, just the kind of plot that gets childrens books going).

        Or, perhaps it didn't need a plot beyond the basic because people went to see it for other reasons?

        There are many reasons to see a movie. One of them is enjoyment - the movie makes you feel good in some way. Another is escapism - for a couple of hours, you leave the real world behind. Other reasons include education, trying to make the world a better place, story, etc.

        Transformers did well because it delivered escapism - people went out to see humanoid robots that change into cars. That's it. Especially since many people who saw Transformers had the toys back in the 80s, so there's a bit of retro-nostalgia going on as well.

        People don't all go out to see and read literature. A lot of material is pulp, pure unadulterated pulp. And it always has been - people produced more plays than Shakespeare and read more than Jane Eyre or the Grapes of Wrath or other books. Just like they saw more films than Gone With the Wind or somesuch. It's because that stuff sells and people watch it.

        Of course, most of the pulp gets recycled in the end, which is fine - and why we think "times were better" - but they weren't. Tastes may have changed, but for every "literary" work that we know today, there were probably hundreds of others that we'd regard as pulp and end up forgetting about in a few decades. I'm fairly certain they all had the "summer blockbuster" that's rapidly forgotten about.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jellomizer (103300)

      Ah the criticism of "derivative" the most derived criticism of all, in essence it says I liked it, but I needed to find something wrong to make me look intelligent and cultured. Because only stupid people actually like anything. Intelligent and Cultured people will must be depressed and hate everything.

      Big hit movies will not be thought provoking, you need to go to the indie theaters for that, but if you wan't to pay $12 bucks for a two hour show. it better have big special effects and large explosions so

      • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by gstoddart (321705) on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:23PM (#44352569) Homepage

        Wow, are you always such an ass?

        Let me explain 'derivative', because you can come up with easy examples.

        When a movie studio announces a new project, another movie studio will almost immediately come out with a movie based on almost exactly the same premise -- so when "A Bugs Life" was announced, a few months later we got "Antz".

        Movies tend to come in groups, where someone says "hey, we're doing a movies based on X", and someone will immediately rush to get some turd out the door based on X.

        Dreamworks [imdb.com] is terrible for this, but I'm sure they all do. If one studio announced they'd have a story about a wise cracking orphan who chews tobacco and wears a funny hat, at least one other one will immediately rush out and try to not miss the new trend of movies about wise cracking orphans who chew tobacco and wear funny hats.

        Disney has always been horrible for this, cranking out an endless stream of sequels which are crap, intended to go straight to video, and just more of the continuing adventures of characters which have already ran their course. And, more recently, turning the girl from Brave into yet another formulaic Disney princess.

        Some days it seems like they don't ever try any more -- and with a lot of movies about a week or so after you hear about it, you also start hearing about something which is based on almost exactly the same premise which will also be out soon.

        By the time you see it long enough, it's hard not to class most of it as derivative, because they just steal the high points of the plot and make a very similar movie -- and usually the copy cat doesn't do nearly as well because it's a hastily written script intended to get into theaters before the competition does.

        • by TWiTfan (2887093)

          Some days it seems like they don't ever try any more

          In an age of ballooning budgets for "tentpole" movies, it's just that they're scared to take a change any more. They want to eliminate as much risk for their $200+ million investment as possible. So they go with the safest script, the safest director, the safest stars, etc. As with most things safe, they're also pretty bland. The produce something truly amazing, you have to swing for the fence and risk striking out completely in the process--instead of just going for a nice, safe single.

        • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Informative)

          by lgw (121541) on Monday July 22, 2013 @02:39PM (#44353475) Journal

          When a movie studio announces a new project, another movie studio will almost immediately come out with a movie based on almost exactly the same premise -- so when "A Bugs Life" was announced, a few months later we got "Antz".

          Oddly, they seem to have been produced in parallel, with neither inspiring the other. Bugs's Life was released just 2 months after Antz, with both in production for quite some time beforehand (the final render pass for each likely took more than 2 months).

          Not coincidence, but synchronicity: computer animation had just reached the point where you could take a leap forward in realism, as long as you didn't try for hair or muscles-under-skin. Toy Story was the breakthrough, but "what else doesn't have hair or muscles?" led both Pixar and DreamWorks to "ooh, insects!".

          • Re:No wonder ... (Score:5, Informative)

            by Dahamma (304068) on Monday July 22, 2013 @04:33PM (#44354723)

            Oddly, they seem to have been produced in parallel, with neither inspiring the other. Bugs's Life was released just 2 months after Antz, with both in production for quite some time beforehand (the final render pass for each likely took more than 2 months).

            A friend of mine worked on Antz (and is still at PDI/Dreamworks). The movie itself was in development for more like 3 years, not 2 months. And WAAY more than 2 months to render the final frames. Remember, this was 1998. Each frame took hours to render, depending on the complexity. A Bug's Life reportedly took up to 100 hours to render some frames (though Pixar's tools were notably not as efficient as PDI's).

            Not coincidence, but synchronicity: computer animation had just reached the point where you could take a leap forward in realism, as long as you didn't try for hair or muscles-under-skin. Toy Story was the breakthrough, but "what else doesn't have hair or muscles?"

            Well... not quite. The real story of the two movies [businessweek.com] is fairly interesting, and revolves around Jeffrey Katzenberg (who left Disney to start Dreamworks). Turns out the Antz concept came first (almost 10 years earlier) but Katzenberg decided to make it largely in response to Pixar's project and feeling slighted by its competition with another Dreamworks release (The Prince of Egypt).

    • by alen (225700)

      the three act structure has been around for thousands of years

      creativity is simply writing a story that the human psyche is programmed to like if you hit the right points

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:21AM (#44351131)

    Good luck getting funding for a unique motion picture when the studios not only know what makes a profitable film, they can prove it. And because the average moviegoer could not care less, this is not going to change until the sun burns out. What makes matters worse is that each successive generation grows up watching these movies and will never know that there used to be something better -- which makes this approach even more profitable.

    • What makes matters worse is that each successive generation grows up watching these movies and will never know that there used to be something better

      Unless you have a collection of older films and encourage the younger generation to watch them. Obviously only works within your own family, but it's a start.

      • Netflix (Score:4, Interesting)

        by tepples (727027) <tepples&gmail,com> on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:46AM (#44351439) Homepage Journal

        Unless you have a collection of older films

        I thought one of the selling points of Netflix and foreign counterparts was older films.

        • That works too :-)
        • Netflix has several great old films, but as a counterexample, it contains only the newer version of "Sleuth", with Michael Caine playing Laurence Olivier, and Jude Law playing Michael Caine, which I found a puny attempt at improving the original classic.

    • I think they'll find that they can't prove it... because people will stop going. Not all of them, or maybe even most. But a lot.

      The movies that have made the MOST money, were not rubber-stamps like the majority of others.
    • by tlhIngan (30335) <slashdotNO@SPAMworf.net> on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:47AM (#44351447)

      Good luck getting funding for a unique motion picture when the studios not only know what makes a profitable film, they can prove it. And because the average moviegoer could not care less, this is not going to change until the sun burns out. What makes matters worse is that each successive generation grows up watching these movies and will never know that there used to be something better -- which makes this approach even more profitable.

      Depends on the motivation of the movie-goer.

      Movies are just an entertainment medium - a way to escape life for a couple of hours. Depending on how you do it, you can see a standard summer blockbuster that'll give you visuals and effects that you won't see elsewhere outside of movies, or an artsy thought-provoking movie.

      Fact is, most people go for shiny and don't want to think - the movie becomes a basic 2 hour vacation from the ills of life they don't want to think about (which is one reason we have entertainment).

      That, and I'm sure a ton of people just hated English class when they read literature and had all the fun sucked out of books through critical thought and analysis, leaving people less willing to see "better" because it brings back days when they had to look for deeper meanings and such.

      There will always be the classics - and then, like now, a bunch of crap was made. We're seeing the survivor effect - the ones we call classics today people remember. They just forgot that at the time, there was a ton of crap as well. The proportions of crap vs. good haven't changed, it's just the crap got forgotten and the good lasted. Movie theatres played more than Gone With the Wind in the past, after all.

  • Novels, too (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Roblimo (357) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:23AM (#44351153) Homepage Journal

    Read a recent best-seller thriller or crime novel. It follows the same formula.

    Sad, isn't it?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:24AM (#44351167)

    This was the book that inspired Micheal Bay's mother to conceive.

  • Yeah. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:26AM (#44351179)

    'Cause movies weren't formulaic before 2005.

    • 'Cause movies weren't formulaic before 2005.

      Really. It's like the 80s never happened to the writer, apparently. Nostalgia doesn't mean movies were better back when.

    • Re:Yeah. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by squiggleslash (241428) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:39AM (#44351361) Homepage Journal

      There's always been some notion of formula, what I believe Slate's point was however was that it's gotten pretty much to-the-numbers in recent years, thanks to a book that wouldn't be more specific if it was a "Fill in the words to make the story" thing.

      For example, you can reasonably say Star Wars (or "A New Hope" if you're a young whippersnapper who doesn't know about these things and should get off my lawn) was based upon tried and tested formulae. I'm not in any way insulting Lucas by saying this, he's pretty much said it outright, actually pointing at the research he did into everything from Beowulf to Seven Samurai. However, nothing Lucas did was based upon a system that went into such detail that it told you every event that had to happen and what pages of the screenplay these events should occur at.

      I think blockbuster-style movies have become increasingly formuliac over the last few decades, but there's a strong argument that they've become ridiculously so in the last few years. This article posits a reasonable explanation as to why, and should also serve to upset anyone who enjoyed, say, the latest Star Trek movie.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by iluvcapra (782887)

      TFA's claim is pretty bullshit. Syd Field [wikipedia.org] basically wrote the same book on screenplay structure and "how to sell your spec" in the 1970s, there's nothing particularly new about the claim here. I work in LA and have many produced screenwriter friends (yes even ones who've worked for Jerry Bruckheimer) and they haven't read this silly book.

      Movies presently suck for a lot of reasons, but structure isn't one of them. The biggest problem nowadays is that a movie must have a simple enough story to be marketab

      • Re:Yeah. (Score:5, Informative)

        by Sique (173459) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:03PM (#44351597) Homepage
        TFA's claim is pretty much that Syd Field's work differs in some way from the work of Blake Snyder.

        Field and McKee offered the screenwriter’s equivalent of cooking tips from your grandmother—general tips and tricks to guide your process. Snyder, on the other hand, offers a detailed recipe with step-by-step instructions.

        So either you didn't read TFA, or you wanted to deliberately miss its message to post your own rant.

        • So either you didn't read TFA, or you wanted to deliberately miss its message to post your own rant.

          Or he read both books and disagrees with the article. I have read both, and I'm with him that they aren't fundamentally that different. And there have been plenty more such screenplay formula books. Snyder's a more to the point, but not a fundamentally different beast. Not different enough to have fundamentally changed the amount to which the Hollywood movie industry is formulaic. It's been just as formulaic for most of it's history.

      • by dj245 (732906)
        The biggest problem nowadays is that a movie must have a simple enough story to be marketable in the international market, and specifically the Chinese market. 2/3s of all of Hollywood's revenue now comes from international distribution.

        Why does a story have to be "simple" in order to be well understood in an international market? As long as country-specific scenarios or themes are avoided, and the translating team is decent, I don't see the problem with a complicated storyline.
      • Re:Yeah. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by jitterman (987991) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:38PM (#44352027)
        Honest question: then why is it that many foreign films offer more depths than we tend to produce in the USA? I realize I am only exposed to a small minority of the films made outside the States, but that's the impression one gets - the more intelligent and engaging films do relatively well here (relatively, given that we as a nation don't see "their" movies as often as they go to see "ours").
  • by TomR teh Pirate (1554037) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:28AM (#44351209)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure [wikipedia.org] Essentially, the book described here strikes me as nothing more than a derivative of the accepted formula of ancient Greek drama. From Wikipedia: In his Poetics the Greek philosopher Aristotle put forth the idea that "A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end" (1450b27).[1] This three-part view of a plot structure (with a beginning, middle, and end – technically, the protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe) prevailed until the Roman drama critic Horace advocated a 5-act structure in his Ars Poetica: "Neue minor neu sit quinto productior actu fabula" (lines 189-190) ("A play should not be shorter or longer than five acts").[2] Renaissance dramatists revived the use of the 5-act structure. In 1863, around the time that playwrights like Henrik Ibsen were abandoning the 5-act structure and experimenting with 3 and 4-act plays, the German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag wrote Die Technik des Dramas, a definitive study of the 5-act dramatic structure, in which he laid out what has come to be known as Freytag's pyramid.[3] Under Freytag's pyramid, the plot of a story consists of five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and revelation/catastrophe.[4]
    • by swillden (191260) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:55AM (#44351509) Homepage Journal

      Did you read the article?

      There's no doubt that the structure of effective stories has been studied for millenia, but what's different about this is the degree of detail with which its laid out, including not only the key elements (15, not three or five), their exact sequence and even their timing to a fairly high degree of precision.

      Aside: Something that has occurred to me of late (while watching discussion about the Zimmerman trial, actually), is that I think humans have a tendency to fit real-world events into neat, narrative structures that have the same three-act form as good stories. I'm wondering if any news story that achieves really broad penetration of a large population's collective psyche doesn't end up getting "adjusted" until it fits a smooth, memorable narrative arc. This became apparent to me in the case of the Zimmerman trial when I realized that those who argued for guilty and not-guilty verdicts were discussing two rather different versions of the narrative, each of which followed a traditional storytelling arc, and neither of which was overly concerned about including facts that didn't fit the arc. The whole sequence of events, especially when the focus is on the actual evidence, makes a rather lumpy, disjointed tale with false starts and inconvenient edges, but the pro- and anti-Zimmerman stories are both much smoother.

      I'm going to start watching to see if that phenomenon arises frequently.

      • Aside: Something that has occurred to me of late (while watching discussion about the Zimmerman trial, actually), is that I think humans have a tendency to fit real-world events into neat, narrative structures that have the same three-act form as good stories. I'm wondering if any news story that achieves really broad penetration of a large population's collective psyche doesn't end up getting "adjusted" until it fits a smooth, memorable narrative arc. This became apparent to me in the case of the Zimmerman trial when I realized that those who argued for guilty and not-guilty verdicts were discussing two rather different versions of the narrative, each of which followed a traditional storytelling arc, and neither of which was overly concerned about including facts that didn't fit the arc. The whole sequence of events, especially when the focus is on the actual evidence, makes a rather lumpy, disjointed tale with false starts and inconvenient edges, but the pro- and anti-Zimmerman stories are both much smoother.

        Not "humans", but "Westerners", primarily because we're so used to that three-act structure in Western media. Asian movies frequently show a four-act structure - see Kishotenketsu [wikipedia.org].

      • by azadrozny (576352)

        This applies to sports, and many other things in life. Most successful professional golfers or baseball players have the same key elements in their swing to maximize how far they hit the ball. The athlete spends years tweaking their swing, getting all the right movements in at precisely the right time. Every so often radical new techniques, like the Fozberry Flop [wikipedia.org], come along to change the paradigm. When this happens, they are copied and refined. The fact that it can be done for movies is not surprising

      • by FhnuZoag (875558)

        There are 15 key elements instead of the usual 3-5, but they tend to be obvious and inevitable elaborations of the standard structural components, that the author decided to assign 5, or 10, or 15 pages for.

        For example, 'Opening image', 'Theme is stated', 'Set-up' would all be part of the 'Exposition' part of the 5 part structure. In turn, 'Bad guys close in', 'All is lost', 'Dark night of the soul' would be parts of the 'Falling action' part of the 5 part structure. If your story involves bad guys at all,

    • by fermion (181285) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:59AM (#44351555) Homepage Journal
      Creating within a structure can be liberating. That is why students are given the five paragraph essay, with initially very strict guidelines on the type of content and number of sentences.Of course as creative individuals we are supposed to move beyond these structures. The problem is that moving beyond these structures involves violating peoples expectations, which means that commercial success can be jeopardized. Or getting back to school, we are trained to stay within a structure so that we get good grades.

      So the challenge is meet commercial expectations while expanding it slightly so not to be too repetitive. I would argue that the six flops of this summer were a victim of over dependence on the structure and the Hollywood star system which lead to bad writing and production. By blaming the structure we blame the car and not the driver. If Dispicable Me 2 can be the #1 film, them repeatedly giving people the same drivel is not the problem. It just has to be fancied up drivel that is well managed and well executed, just like anything else.

  • by Xaedalus (1192463) <Xaedalys@[ ]oo.com ['yah' in gap]> on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:30AM (#44351233)
    I'm part of an award-winning writer's group, and several of the members swear by this book. They follow it meticulously--and it isn't even the first to do this. The Warrior's Journey describes how Disney and Pixar created all their big masterpieces, and then takes that technique and applies it to novel writing. And then there's the Nora Roberts/James Patterson formulaic ghost-writers, plus the Harlequin series, any of Dan Brown's books; heck 90% of the entire fiction market follows a formula similar to Save The Cat. Formulaic writing is nothing new. Authors and screenwriters follow this like it's a religion--they cling to to the formula because they fervently believe it's the best chance they have of getting their work published. Fortunately, there are two mitigating factors that I've found: 1) a good idea is a good idea and even a plot-writing formula won't ruin it; and 2) good writing is good writing.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:45AM (#44351429)

      I'm a big fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, and they talk about story structures all the time. There's a good reason that story structures are followed - they can make for compelling stories. It's like saying that engineering best practices are often followed. Yeah, because it results in working machines! You can break the rules if you work hard at it, but it will always be iffy whether the product will actually be better for it.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:30AM (#44351237) Journal
    Formulaic isn't always bad. For example, TFA would have been better if it had followed a formula for conveying information in a shorter space, instead of droning on and on.

    Overall the article reads like an author's lament that she doesn't have as much freedom as she used to (or wouldn't, if she were a screenplay writer). It's not like movies have gotten noticeably worse in the last 7 years......
    • by JeanCroix (99825)
      Um. From the end of TFA: "Indeed, I relied on Snyder’s beat sheet to write this piece, using every beat, in the order he lists. (Try reading this piece from the beginning and see if you can spot all the beats. Or click here to see a version of the essay in which they are all labeled.)"
      • No wonder the piece drags on. Those 'beats' are supposed to fill an entire movie. You can't take such a long formula and expect it to fill an essay.
    • by MightyYar (622222)

      Formulaic isn't always bad.

      If someone were to "figure me out" and make my brain happy every time I watched something, I might not complain, actually. Netflix does a surprisingly decent job of this, actually. And Pandora is just creepy :)

    • by Rinikusu (28164) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:28PM (#44351923)

      This is true and it's not unique to "Save The Cat!" (which I have read and enjoyed). However, as other screenwriters have pointed out, it's not the only way to tell or sell a story, but almost all of your favorite movies, if you bother to sit down and ruin your movie experience by going "meta"*, follow a structure that can be teased out of it. The reality is, no one really wants to watch 2.5 hour movies anymore (god forbid you ever read about film history and see how early film makers were trying to make 5 and 6+ hour movie epics... Fortunately for us, those are TV series these days) for the most part. And if you want to talk formulaic, watch TV shows, especially crime dramas. They've been doing this for decades and have it down to an art. And we love every minute of it.

      I like Lennon & Garant's break-down of movie story structure: Put a guy in a tree, throw some rocks at him, throw some bigger rocks at him, get him down from the tree. That's basically it in a nutshell. Now, the nitty gritty of STC gets into how to make those 4 steps at least somewhat interesting (no one is gonna watch a movie where the protagonist just gets his way every step of the way for the most part.. Even Ferris Bueller (unless you ascribe to the notion that Cameron was the real protagonist and Ferris was the catalyst) had issues to overcome, etc. Or stuff like "Memento" or even "Pulp Fiction", they've all got discernable structures, they just move them around.

      *Take some film courses at your local community college, if offered. Pay attention to the cinematography methods classes,etc. Pretty soon you'll see you can't just "watch" a movie; instead you'll be focusing on shots, or framing, or sound design, or story beats, etc. It really sucks if you just want to turn off and watch a movie and be entertained.

      • As far as TV goes, it's hard to beat the police procedural for being the most repetitive, tedious and formulaic form of entertainment this side of reality TV. I've watched more than my fair share and would rate CSI as being the worst offender - though Bones and NCIS are top contenders too.

        It's always the same. The lead characters have 22 minutes or 44 minutes in which to solve a murder. It's almost always a murder unless you watch Law and Order SVU - in which case you get a few rapes and other assorted crim

  • by ichthus (72442) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:33AM (#44351273) Homepage
    Formula for chic flicks:

    1. Eye contact. They play coy for a while. He makes a buffoon of himself. She likes him, because he's a little shy.
    2. Connection. She hides her innermost feelings from him, while he opens up.
    3. Conflict. He either screws up somehow to make her unhappy, or she just can't get over some painful memory from her past.
    4. Separation. The relationship falls apart, for whatever idiotic reason.
    5. Resolution. Days, weeks or months later, they make contact. They either get together and everything's peachy, or they realize it was never meant to be and end up happy with someone else.

    And, #3 always ALWAYS ends up being something so idiotic and petty that nobody with any kind of rational thought process can relate. This is called the estrogen phase.

    Damn, I hate chic flicks.
  • Several of these themes and structures are found in Shakespeare, and a few echo Greek tragedies. It's not just this one book, though it's convenient, I guess, that he broke it down for screenwriters rather than leaving it in the realm of Theater and Literature Liberal Arts classrooms.

    The author of the article would probably get lost if he ever stumbled into TVtropes.org.

    Thematic elements recur. Surprising absolutely no one. The originality is in where things buck trends or subvert expectations, or in how th

  • This is the method, but it's the sheer horror of marketing the stuff [slashdot.org] that makes it the bible.

    “The closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.”

  • by j-b0y (449975) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:37AM (#44351323)

    One point for each beat present, with a bonus point for being in the right place

    Then we can easily tell how generic the structure is...

  • by rodrigoandrade (713371) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:38AM (#44351349)

    Yes, there's also a formula for the perfect +5 Slashdot post too.

    Always start by "I know this will get modded down into oblivion, but..."

    Then bash Google, Apple, Facebook, or Microsoft, no matter what the subject is.

    Make a car analogy.

    Br a grmmer Nazi.

    Insinuate all /. are virgins who live in their parents' basement.

    Use Simpsons, TBBT, Star Wars/Trek references whenever possible.

    Link to XKCD.

    Label someone's facts as opinions simply because the guy didn't post a Wikipedia link, and say "oh, don't let facts get in the way of your biased argument."

    • by OzPeter (195038) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:54AM (#44351499)

      Yes, there's also a formula for the perfect +5 Slashdot post too.

      Always start by "I know this will get modded down into oblivion, but..."

      I'd welcome you as the new slashdot post overlord, but Natalie didn't like you for not mentioning hot grits and she was also upset that you were not the frist to mention that vi is superior. Such an attitude almost petrifies me and thus instead of welcoming you, I have to ask you to hand in your geek card.

    • Lemme try:

      "I know this will get modded down into oblivion, but this absurd focus on social media crap (Thank you Facebook and to a lesser extent Google), along with the support from mobile/pseudo-mobile OS makers (It always comes down to Google, Apple and Microsoft screwing up, doesn't it?) is the perfect analogy for crap traditional media - masses digesting previously regurgitaded content that seems to never have been original and spreading it around so that more memebers of the idiotic masses can rinse an

    • by bjdevil66 (583941) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:11PM (#44351725)

      Someone posted a perfect formula for getting mod points years ago, but I can't find it. I'm stealing some of the following from that post:

      1 - The earlier you post, the more people will read it - thus, the higher the moderation may go.
      2 - If you reply to a +5 post (vs. starting your own thread), you're more likely to get read and get modded up.
      3 - Repeat something obvious someone else has said (getting modded Redundant doesn't seem to happen often anymore).
      4 - Keep your posts shorter, and more people will read them - possibly modding them higher.
      5 - Use subtle flamebaiting that comes off as Insightful in a groupthink-like environment.
      6 - Have a left-leaning, Democrat-focused, progressive viewpoint. If you lean more conservative on /. with your posts, you'd better have a solid argument or it's more likely to get ignored/blasted.

      I'd list more, but I need to post this now or I may miss out of a mod point or two.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I can hardly wait for the Hollywood blockbuster movie version of this book.

  • the syfy channel B-movies all seem to be alot a like each other.

  • Who noticed the essay following the formula before the end when it pointed it out? I didn't notice until the "all is lost" section, but perhaps more astute readers saw the pattern earlier.

  • Looking at the article, and the actual structure as it seems to have been laid out, it basically seems like its just an application of the hero's journey to screenplays, with some additional timing help. This isn't really something new, although the hard-line 'here's-exactly-when-each-thing-should-happen' might be. You never really know though -- the hero's journey is incredibly precise as well. The main reason that this structure is used is because it tends to work -- it gives you a nice plot that will ty
  • Most depressing is the way game designers use the same language, concepts and guides when created AAA games. They don't even think there's a problem being so obvious about it, willing to discuss how well they've following their chosen established story structure.

    If you've ever wondered why all blockbuster games seem so damn familiar I bet they have a copy of the same guide. Except they spend less on competent screen writers and more on slapping lipstick on the same old pig.

  • All literature (and for the purposes of this post, movies are a form of literature) can be broken down into formulas. The book in this article breaks down plot structure, but there is also a formula for the actual plot. As to the plot structure there are only two choices, the three act plot, or the five act plot. The three act plot structure is the beginning, the middle, and the end. In this structure, the beginning introduces the characters and sets the stage for what happens. The middle is where the main conflict of the plot plays out. The end is where the conflict reaches its resolution. The five act plot is a more granular approach to the same way of viewing story-telling (and screen writers would probably do well to adopt the five act approach, at least for a few years).
    As to plots, there have been several studies which show that there are only seven plots. Every story falls into one of these seven plots.
  • by Minwee (522556) <dcr@neverwhen.org> on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:56AM (#44351523) Homepage
    No, I'm pretty sure that Joseph Campbell published The Hero With A Thousand Faces [wikipedia.org] in 1959, and Christopher Vogler wrote the seven page summary [thewritersjourney.com] that was the closest thing to a book that anyone in Hollywood had ever read in 1985.
  • JJ Abrams (Score:4, Funny)

    by synapse7 (1075571) on Monday July 22, 2013 @11:57AM (#44351537)
    So what explans JJ Abrams latest products that seem to be random action scenes edited together, is this the next evolution? Who needs a complex plot or any kind of plot at all?
    • by lgw (121541)

      He's symptomatic of the biggest problem plaguing Hollywood right now: they've forgotten that you're supposed to care what happens. Without some sort of emotional connection to the characters, even if you don't personally identify with them, all the action is meaningless.

      I like Rambo as an example. In the first film, they took the time to give you a reason to root for the guy, to feel he was the underdog. Same with the first Die Hard, to a lesser extent.

      I'd disagree with JJ Abrams stuff as random - he act

  • TV Show Formula (Score:5, Insightful)

    by trongey (21550) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:44PM (#44352107) Homepage

    Cop Show: follow the wrong lead - commercial - follow the wrong lead - commercial - follow the wrong lead - commercial - arrest the bad guy.
    Doctor Show: wrong diagnosis - commercial - wrong diagnosis - commercial - wrong diagnosis - commercial - save the patient.
    Home Improvement Show: find problem that changes the project - commercial - find problem that changes the project - commercial - find problem that changes the project - commercial - finish the project.
    Home Buying Show: show perfect home that's over budget - commercial - show crappy home that's in budget - commercial - show good-enough home that's in budget - commercial - completely random decision by homebuyer.
    .
    .
    .

    • Re:TV Show Formula (Score:4, Interesting)

      by icebike (68054) on Monday July 22, 2013 @01:48PM (#44352875)

      Pretty much spot on, except the Commercial Bit actually looks more like this:

      Ask bunch of suggestive questions to hook audience,
      show preview snippets of what's after the commercial
      show 5 commercials
      3 minutes of review of what happened in the last 5 minute segment
      5 more minutes of new material

      Rinse, repeat.

  • by udippel (562132) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:48PM (#44352165)

    "Mon dernier souffle" - 'My last breath' in English.
    He explains what he 'learned' while being on a sponsorship in Hollywood. He wrote this story around 1980. He had but acquired one item on top of what he had already known and done before he arrived: Setting up a geneology of all American movies. One night someone dropped in and told him of a new movie with a totally unexpected, novel and revolutionary line. He wanted to hear of the first minutes, and then he said, he'd be able to construct the rest. And that actually worked!
    Actually, Bunuel was a trainee of Charly Chaplin in the thirties. I always consider it the wrong way round in who should have been the person to be the supervisor. ;-)

  • its a shame really (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheSkepticalOptimist (898384) on Monday July 22, 2013 @12:55PM (#44352235)

    I mean, you can complain all you want about formulaic content but the reality is society has regressed into an idiotic stupor that allows this type of movie making to succeed.

    Look at CSI and all its derivatives. Its the SAME EXACT SHOW week after week. Then look at ALL the crime investigation shows and realize, its the SAME PLOT over and over again. Yet these shows consistently rank in the top 10 because viewers do not want to be challenged with new plot devices. Its why any even remotely unique show is usually cancelled because the idiot masses don't like watching it because its not like CSI or some other derivative tripe.

    All movies are coming out the same? Realize that the major demographic for movies are teenagers and early 20 somethings and you understand that this demographic has not yet developed the maturity or patience for investing any thinking power into changing their derivative lifestyles. Eat, sleep, party, fuck, get a tattoo, is about all they can handle so taking 90 minutes out of their "busy" schedule can't be over-complicated by something that challenges or inspires an actual original thought.

    So you can blame Hollywood all you want but the reality is that Hollywood makes a product, and the product only sells if consumers want the product, and consumers want this derivative bullshit, period.

    We are firmly in the era of the Stupocalypse. Mankind has entered a zombie state where originality, rational thought and common sense are thrown out the window and replaced with a need for immediate entitled gratification with a minimum investment of effort.

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Monday July 22, 2013 @02:21PM (#44353289)

    You don't KNOW what's going to happen in them. Seriously- there is no "chekov's" gun in Bollywood films. You may see 3 guns on the wall and only 1 of them will be used. You may have an entire subplot which is just interesting but doesn't mean go anywhere.

    It's fantastic. When I go to a hollywood film- I can often guess the ending within the first 30 minutes. And it LOWERS the value I place on hollywood films by a couple bucks. I might pay 9-10 bucks to see a genuinely interesting surprising film. But only about 6 to 7 bucks for a mildly entertaining predictable film with a manipulative soundtrack (they tell you how to feel about the actions taken basically-- making the same action "good" or "bad" based on the accompanying soundtrack.)

    I noticed several years ago that R rated films which are not "sex" films (like betty blue) have their first nude scene at 40 minutes into the movie (sometimes 39, sometimes 41 but you get the idea). Probably sets unrealistic expectations for dating people.

"Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years." "What about X?" "I said `intellectual'." ;login, 9/1990

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