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.
Not just because it explains the poor quality of Hollywood writing of late, nor that it made me feel like a sucker for having paid to see some of these formula-based movies, nor that my vague suspicions about the plots being formulaic to the point of predictability turned out to be have a basis in fact No, it’s that just as we’re finishing up the detailed outline for Ghosts of Tharsis (aka Book 2, aka The Sequel) after a prolonged delay, I discover that our outline follows the sequence of Snyder’s template almost perfectly.
Which is unintentional, I assure you. It’s been through so many changes (including a recent retooling of one of the villains, with significant consequences for the plot) that it could only have gotten this similarity by coincidence. Yes, admittedly, we follow Syd Field’s three-act storytelling structure, but as the article says Field’s approach is more general while Snyder’s is essentially a paint-by-numbers approach.
I suspect that despite being overused or too zealously followed, Snyder’s template isn’t simply a contrived or otherwise arbitrary way to tell a story, in the sense that it’s just one of many possibilities but one which Snyder picked and systematized. More likely, his structure reflects one particularly effective way of telling stories, one which maintains tension and interest by springing surprises and emotional ups and downs on the reader, and which has evolved and refined into a pattern over time.
The problem is not that there’s this pattern for storytelling, it’s that it appears to be taken as the only such recipe and is adhered to so diligently that every movie seems to be the same story distinguishable only by differences in the setting, character, and marquee names. Slavish adherence to a formula (down to actual page numbers) limits the opportunity to include real creativity, and as the article notes, can actually drive plot elements and character behaviors that make no sense.
Really, I’m not too put out by the resemblance of our outline to this template. It’s entirely coincidental, for one thing, and it follows only the general sequence and not the portioning out of page counts. Plus, we blatantly violate the Finale and Final Image sections so as to set up the third book, so there’s that…