The question of precisely why books and films today have become so generic and formula-driven is one that’s intrigued me for some time.
Not long ago I watched the 1997 science fiction film, Contact, again. And, like 95 percent of the science fiction movies I see, it annoyed the living hell out of me. Why? Because it was a copout.
The movie was a copout because it took no risks. In a genre where you can do anything, here was yet another contemptible example of the failure of imagination, the refusal to take risks. The movie fails largely by resorting to the same tired tropes: the ambitious politician, the evil, scheming intelligence baron, the attempt to reconcile the dichotomy between faith and science, the heavy-handed, tired message that humanity is at a crossroads between self-destruction and transformation. Oh, please. We knew all this half a century earlier.
In trying to reduce the ineffable mystery of being to a comforting, human scale, the movie manages only one thing: to reassert traditional values and fill the viewer’s mind with a bland mush—which, comforting as it may be to some, gets us nowhere. It’s the modern equivalent of the heliocentric view of the world. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch something like The Core or The Day After Tomorrow which, though truly awful, are at least honestly and unpretentiously awful and provide huge entertainment value.
Contrast this with the 1972 Tarkovsky film, Solaris (not the 2002 George Clooney remake). Beyond being a daring, exceptional film by any standards, Solaris was true science fiction because it rejected convenient tropes and succeeded in communicating the inexplicable strangeness of the universe and the ultimate isolation of the human condition, rather than trying to simply comfort the viewer and rake in maximum bucks. Solaris was art; Contact was visual junk food. And no prizes for guessing which made the most money.
It’s always been my nature to question assumptions and conventional wisdom handed down by élites. Today, as an indie author who also works as a freelance copyeditor and writing coach, I see why we have so many generic and/or dull stories: writers of all kinds have been coerced into thinking there’s a simple formula for success—a nice, codified rule set that, when applied, will make a book or movie a sure-fire hit.
The push to force everyone into a one-size-fits-all template began in Hollywood and is now rampant in the publishing industry. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of good people on the creative side of traditional publishing, readers and editors who really care about storytelling and discovering new authors. But they’ve been sipping the Kool-Aid too, right along with the authors of all the writing books, websites, and blogs which parrot the same, tired dogma to writers desperate to publish. And although there’s plenty of excellent advice out there, so much of it is buried among mountains of generalization, dross, and sheer nonsense that most writers learning their craft learn only to march in lockstep. Before long, they’re churning out the same cookie-cutter fiction as everyone else.
Yes, a few rules are needed. But the vast majority of rules which writers obsess over are either dogma, passing fads, or entirely misunderstood. What matters is story and the reader experience. Everything else is secondary.
Unfortunately, in their attempts to follow all the diktats laid down by their writing group buddies, the agent blogs they frequent, and the pricey workshops they’ve attended, authors lose sight of the reader, the person actually shelling out cash for their book. It’s a sad irony that there’s more and easier money to be made by writing Nail That Bestseller!-type books and haranguing people on how to make their novel the next blockbuster than there is by actually writing.
The problem of too many rules becomes quickly apparent to anyone considering writing a screenplay. You see, there’s a very precise formula all nicely laid out. Writing a killer script or a breakout novel is, we’re told, a simple science.
I’m not talking about three-act structure here. I’m not talking about—yawn—the Hero’s Journey. I’m not even talking about the (insert favorite number here) possible types of story. No, I’m talking Commandments From On High, the madness that reached its peak when screenwriter Blake Snyder’s little book, Save the Cat! became a cult among both screenwriters and novelists.
Apparently, for a story to succeed, everything has to be rigidly structured and happen right on the beat, down to the page. Miss one of those beats or try for originality, and your chance of success, the cultists will tell you, goes down exponentially. A glance at the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet will tell you that the theme must be stated on page 5 of a script; that the catalyst occurs on page 12; that all is lost on page 75; and that the curtain comes down on page 110. “Isn’t this pure? And easy?” the author tells us.
A lot of people buy into this hogwash. Can you imagine an art dealer or gallery owner walking into an artist’s studio as they’re working and telling them to back off the blue a bit and made the canvas narrower if they want to sell? Painters are typically left to work undisturbed, and the finished product is the way they see it. Writers, for some reason, are fair game for everyone.
Among the indie books which have become world-class bestsellers are E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy. None of these people followed the rules. Like Cervantes and Capote, Nabokov and Hemingway, Douglas Adams and JK Rowling, these authors had a passion and vision, and they stuck to it in complete defiance of the status quo and its stupid rules. And readers rewarded them.
Because it’s about story, and it’s about the reader. The real, actual reader, not the rule-obsessed writing wonks.
There’s nothing wrong with publishers attempting to pick winners and make a profit, but there’s a great deal wrong with agents and marketing people dictating a book’s final shape, which is how publishing currently works. If an author today snags an agent, they can be sure they’ll have to rewrite their work for the agent, then for the editor, and maybe again to keep the publisher’s marketing department happy. I know of several authors whose book was turned down by a publisher because the marketing department had issues with it (in one case just because it didn’t pigeonhole neatly into a category) despite the fact that the editorial team were unanimous in approving and wanting to acquire it.
“Ah, but the system works,” they say, pointing to a successful name author who plays the game. Wrong: that successful name author would have made it on their own as an indie. They’re successful because they have a story to tell that readers want to read, not because they’ve been massaged into shape by a bunch of corporate non-creatives.
Story, dammit, is about the reader, not the industry that’s putting out the product.
And the vast majority of readers aren’t writers, agents, or editors. They’re not prose wonks. They don’t want to be lectured. They aren’t swayed by technical mastery or compliance with the latest fashion taught in the prose madrassas. They don’t care about beats, or the Hero’s Journey, or whether a book neatly fits into a genre, category, or reader demographic. Readers want a story, pure and simple. If you don’t believe that, then I guess J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Dan Simmons, Jacqueline Susann, E. L. James, Robert James Waller, Dean Koontz, Ayn Rand, Dan Brown, and Isaac Asimov’s bestsellers were all just accidents. Because although some of these are good writers and others arguably mediocre, all of them have flouted one or more of the “rules,” flagrantly and often. Their readers love them because they tell great stories.
The bottom line? Readers (and moviegoers) are far smarter than industry insiders give them credit for: they don’t give a fig about all the formulas, templates, categories, politics, and constraints the industry’s barons and gatekeepers typically try to impose on them—readers want a good book which is both well-written, well-produced, and which, most of all, entertains them. Period.
And if it breaks a few rules and still works, all the better.
* * *
Dario Ciriello’s book, Drown the Cat: the Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, releases on July 4th from Panverse Publishing.
Drown the Cat is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing.
Drawing on fifteen years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explains and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers from books and blogs, agents and publishers, and puts you in control of your story.
Whether your interest lies in novels or screenwriting, Drown the Cat will help you tell your story and place it before your audience, bringing out your unique vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.
That’s a dispiriting experience. Writing groups are very hit-and-miss and can be really dysfuctional or wrong-headed; others can be terrific. I’ve founded several over the years and cover the topic in some depth in the book precisely because they can make or break a newer author. Good luck in the future!
I quit a local writer group after two sessions because they were too fond of enforcing nitpicky rules without understanding the reasons behind them. I’m looking forward to checking out your book.
Thank you so much, Karl — I’m hoping it’s a book whose time is now 🙂
Some few rules, as I say in the book, are actually necessary, of course. Dialogue attribution, for example, can be a disaster in the hands of writers who don’t understand how to use them; some (not all) the usual protocols of viewpoint are important; characters need to have credible motivations; and so on. But all things being equal, a critique group should be supportive and not browbeat its members. Some structure at the group level, the mechanics of submission, etc., is also good to have…but a writers group is like a band, where so much depends on the personalities and dynamics of its members. My general advice if you can’t connect with a good one is to find a few good writers at or above your craft level and found your own, face-to-face or distributed via web.
Good luck with your writing, and thanks for your interest!
Thank you, Dario, for the time and responses!
Welcome, Sir! 🙂
Yeeeah! It’s all about not caring about rules and writing CONFIDENTLY. Have fun and your reader will too. Great post.
Thank you, Jon! All things being equal…totally. Readers like some spirit and exuberance driving a story.
Thank you so much, Jon. I think spirit and fun really helps to drive a story (all other things being equal). I love it when it’s downright infectious. Roger Zelazny and Fritz Leiber are two classic examples from SF.
Story is King. Period. non-negotiable.
Loved how you pointed out that the greats would have been so as indies as well. Too true.
Bonnie, thanks so much! And absolutely — story rules. Every time.
Because writing is removed in time and space from the audience, the sense of the writer as a performer is lost. An actor or a musician must tailor their performance based on the audience’s reactions–or to get the precise reaction from the audience that they want. A magician must manipulate an audience’s attention so his tricks appear “out of nowhere.” Yet writing and the industry are more concerned with Platonic ideals of what art should be instead of going out and busking for a living and getting that all important practical experience in front of an audience.
In many ways, Dario Ciriello’s pitch here echoes Robert Turner’s advice in his “Pulp Fiction” booklet.
Nathan, those are good insights about the differences between performing and more cloistered art processes.
And a big thanks for the Robert Turner reference: how did I miss him? Perhaps because he wrote mostly crime fiction, and I’m not really an historian, just someone who’s read a lot of old work and started off reading classic SFF back in the very early 60s. Anyway, he’s on my radar now and I just bought the pamphlet. From the quotes of his I’m reading, he’s definitely a kindred spirit. Thanks again!
Not just screenwriters. There is a really bad tendency by movie critics to ding a movie for breaking those rules…even if it is still a good movie (and perhaps better for it). And that hurts those movies at the box office, even if the people who DO see it love it.
Yikes. That’s true too. Beyond that, I notice a flattening trend in indie film, once such a refreshing (if hit-and-miss) playground, as it develops its own set of formulas and expectations…
I can agree with the gist of what you wrote but I hate your examples. Michelangelo was definitely told he was using to much blue and other critiques. The best artist of the past made commissions at their patrons’ request. The modern artist, modern musician, and modern writer will justly die in poverty for change for the sake of change. Their work is not just bad but godawful to 99% of people.
Blume, thanks for your comment. Before I became I writer and freelance editor I had a 25-year career as a decorative painter, typically working to strict requirements and parameters for my clients. But I’d note that the vast majority of writers who play by the rules also die in poverty, and I disagree that that’s a “just” end for anyone.
One also shouldn’t undervalue luck, and the fact that some truly remarkable authors artists beloved by their readers also die in poverty. A notable case in point would be Fritz Leiber, as tragically chronicled in this famous piece: http://www.marclaidlaw.com/fritz-leiber/
One, it is the fate of the vast majority of all mankind to die in poverty. So yes it is just that those who would sneer at the plebian taste of the masses be forced into obscurity and poverty just like the masses they hate.
Two, whose rules? You degrade genre tropes and classic story formula that have worked for centuries. The reason the hero’s journey exist as a tropes is because it worked a thousand times and it will work a thousand more.
You are making the mistake of assuming the editor and his ilk are the patrons instead of the reader. Readers have rules you have to follow in order to get their money. Try writing a romance without a happy ending and see how much money it makes.
Tragic romances are super common. West Side Story?
I get what you’re saying but that is a REALLY poor example.
Those are called tragedies. Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy. West Side Story is a tragedy. Genre exist for a reason.
Bullshit. They’re tragic romances. I don’t want to hear some high and might BS about the importance of genres when I have been repeatedly told in no uncertain terms that genres are a Very Bad Thing, and we should be blurring lines.
Those movies make best romances lists for a reason.
Sure, but the big difference is that you’re also supposed to feel legitimatey bad for everyone. It’s bad things to dumb people, but it’s also terrible in a very not-funny way.
I’d say it has strong comedic elements.
Honestly though you’re using the word a little differently than I am so we’re not far off.
Hard and fast structures like ‘Save the Cat’ have place. I own that book. Using it helped me write two screenplays. It’s a great system for training yourself to think like a screenwriter.
Which is not to disagree with Dario at all.
The time is not always an the place not everywhere. My first two screenplays were dull and predictable. The rules in ‘Save the Cat’ are like every other rule out there – you have to know when to break them.
You have to treat a book like that as an exercise and not holy writ. They can make you a better writer, but only if you use them to broaden your skillset instead of allowing them to narrow your vision.
John, thanks for your comment. And you’re dead right: you have to understand the reasons for the rules in the first place. The problem comes when people take rules or guidelines as ironclad and follow them off a cliff. DtC is specifically intended for the newer/intermediate level author who needs some clarity on these issues. And in the book I’m pretty clear about which few rules aren’t real flexible…such as traditional Happy Ever Afters in romance, or an existentially crushed detective in a Nordic Noir.
Point of View, on the other hand…whew. The general rules apply, but good writers often them into pretzels so deftly you don’t see their hands move. Same with structure: if it works and you can pull it off, everything else goes out the window.
What ultimately matters is to keep the reader turning the pages to the end, and have them walk away feeling the ride was a good one.
What do you mean that romances need happily ever afters? Seriously, this isn’t true *at all*. Gone with the Wind? West Side Story? Titanic?
Tragic romances are REALLY popular.
LOL. Anthony, you’re right of course…but try selling, oh, Harlequin, a romance that doesn’t have an HEA…although now we HFN too (Happy for now). It’s changing, and dependent I think on subgenre and that subgenre’s reader expectations. I don’t for an instant pretend to be an expert on this issue, but there’s a good discussion on it here: http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2016/03/happily-never-after-and-the-changing-nature-of-the-romance-novelsymbolism-survey/
CONTACT started as a great novel by Carl Sagan. The movie was disappointing, because it left out the last third of the story and Jodie Foster’s performance was overwrought.
I broke ALL the rules once … it allowed me to do things that were impossible otherwise, but it resulted in a schizophrenic novel. It’s better to start off by breaking a few smaller rules before you work your way up to grand larceny, drug trafficking, and first-degree murder.
Fenris, Good point! I never read the novel, but I can see that would be a problem. Gotta love Hollywood…
Breaking all the rules at once, that’s gotta be fun, especially if you set out to do it (Joyce smiles in his grave). I wish I had the nerve to do that. 😛
“If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.”
Thomas De Quincey
Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827).
Misha, as a big fan of De Quincey (in particular “The English Mail Coach”, I especially appreciate that…
I’m actually a big fan of de Quincey’s REVOLT OF THE TARTARS. A bit atypical, but entertaining.
Thanks for this Jeffro. I joined a Writing group about a year ago, in an attempt to get serious about learning.
The group leader at the time was a Hard Corps Beat Sheet Evangelist. And rather than critique your writing, he would critique how well you followed the formula even if you had never heard of it or read it. Very, very frustrating.