Template In The Head Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-05-20 14:00:00 No comments

Regular readers of these pages know I have issues with the way mass-market entertainment is pounded out according to a series of predictable formulas. With movies, it's the three-act script structure (the "Syd Field" template), which has become so standardized that not only screenwriters but producers take lessons in how to write scripts like everyone else, less they not know what to look for. Other examples abound, but that's one of the most egregious and obvious of the bunch.

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Some folks manage to make the templates work with them, not against them. PIXAR are masters of this sort of thing — well, at least they used to be, until Disney's commercial pressures got the better of their storytelling impulses.

For a long time I had trouble explaining why three-act beat-structure storytelling bothered me so much, aside from the obvious indictment that it was storytelling-by-formula, and that when you do anything by a formula you get nothing but variations on the formula. It took a conversation with a friend the other night to put better words to the objection: it's a conflation of an explanatory device with a generative device.

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When literary theory first reared its tousled little head, it was confined mainly to the academics who were still sussing out the newly-created field of literary studies. This whole business of studying books as books is relatively new, not dating back more than a hundred fifty years tops. Before that, literary theory consisted mostly of individual authors debating between each other about what made for a better story. This isn't to say that systematization was such a terrible thing, but it brought to light a whole slew of new ways of thinking and discussing literature. Some of them have been wonderful: I don't think I would want to do without such delights as Professor Ian Johnston's lectures. The point of such work, though, was to take what had already been produced and slice it along different axes to see what it looked like.

Over time, the components of literature and drama — the concept of the protagonist, the structure of acts, etc. — became regarded by screenwriting as more important than the alchemy of personality, which is what any story worth its paper is really about anyway, but not something you can reduce to a formula. When you wanted to write a movie that worked, in the sense of putting asses in seats and keeping them there for two hours, you didn't want to mess around with airy notions that weren't reproducible. You wanted a process, in the same way the guy running a refinery wants a process for taking the black gunk piped into one end of the place and cracking it into a dozen different parts for a dozen different applications. You wanted the reliable flame of commerce, not the wild sparks of genius, which were so difficult to court and touch off in the first place.

The side effects of such story-manufacturing become clearer when you see how many bad movies can be made that adhere perfectly to the formula. They are bad because the amount and variety of work put into fulfilling the formula has driven everything else off the page and the screen, in the same way the end products themselves displace everything not made along those lines. Just because a given story can be explained according to a formula does not mean the formula is the best place to start when creating a story.

One example of how the formula fails both creator and audience is through the concept of conflict, as appropriated by formula storytelling. Stories are about conflict, we are told, and so every story must have conflict rigorously engineered into it as a way to keep the audience's attention from wandering into the theater next door. The problem is, not all conflicts are built the same. Some are just not as interesting as others, and to use many of them well requires expressing an intimacy of understanding that doesn't lend itself to being distilled into a beat sheet.

Think of all the films that are ostensibly about "family", but simply simply slot in prefab conflicts with the "family" label stuck on them (father dying, kids estranged, wife divorcing you) as a way to fulfill the narrative obligations. Granted, much of what makes one kind of conflict or another worth the while is up to the writer, but the formula — and more importantly, the market pressures of those who use and expect the presence of the formula — gradually drive out more complex forms of conflict in favor of the thuddingly obvious ones.

It's been said that the formula supplies discipline to the storyteller, and to a degree it does. But the next question too often goes unasked: is it not possible for that discipline to be supplied any other way? The formula supplies useful discipline for beginning writers and beginning audiences, but to pre-emptively cut out the possibility for evolution on the part of either party is damaging. Turn all of storytelling into a mere technocratic process, and you don't have storytelling anymore — or, for that matter, stories. You have checklists, and checklists are not by themselves interesting.

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It's possible to reduce most anything to a process, especially a technocratic one, as long as you don't mind the long-term damage done to creativity along the way. I am reminded of John Cage's statements about jazz and "serious" music: the former is best left to grow wild, and when the latter derives from the former, the situation becomes rather silly. I did not agree with him entirely — after all, then I'd have to say uncharitable things about works like Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes -- but I do see where he gets the idea from. 

Tags: John Cage creativity movies screenwriting storytelling writing