Thursday, October 13, 2011

The correct formula is Less Formula

I hadn't listened to Writing Excuses in some time when this week I went back and laid my earbuds upon me with the podcast, "The Hollywood Formula." This, actually, was immediately after trying to listen to the podcast on "Writing Assistants," which I found absolutely sickening in just about every way, and could possibly have laid a very negative foundation for my next listening experience. Nonetheless, I think - as dispassionately as I can - that "The Hollywood Formula," and the idea that this is something that ought to be taught, praised, or otherwise actively perpetuated, is a terrible thing.

The Hollywood Formula, as Anders describes it, is a sort of division of literary tasks, objects, and progressions. It is, effectively, the cementing of the three act structure and the protagonist/antagonist/sidekick/villain schema. This formula, Anders claims, will provide the "most emotional impact" for readers/viewers; Mary Robinette Kowal describes how, when she implemented this formula, her alpha readers started to cry. That's great: I love fiction that is moving. So it's not necessarily the formula that disturbs me in and of itself, but the idea that a certain way of formulating stories will always create the "most emotional impact" (it doesn't), and that, therefore, it demonstrates its own utility/goodness and deserves to be perpetuated, not because of any artistic or visionary qualtities, but because of economic, utilitarian, and mass-effect possibilities (which may be real, but certainly aren't deserving of laudations).

That said, there was a time when I believed in this kind of teaching. I was really, really into the idea that you could produce books-as-objects, that a story was like, say, a computer, and if you hooked up all the parts properly it achieved a certain objective. But now, I am virulently opposed to it in just about every way.

As a reader, do I want to hear that there is a certain structure that will affect me in the most affecting way? First of all, I don't believe this, especially because, as I've become a more sophisticated reader, I find books that follow or try to follow this structure (i.e., most of the books that are on the shelves) to be veritable snore-fests. But, just as if not more important: Do I really want to think that this is what writers are thinking? Do I want to pick up a book that has been calculated for emotional impact? Absolutely not. I don't want to think of books as a device, and I don't want to think of writers as technicians. Although I want my car to utilize as little gasoline as possible, I don't want my art to be figured scientifically: I want it to represent an authentic creation/outpouring of another human being.

Because do you know what we call people who have emotional/spiritual outpourings that are based on formulas? Drama queens.

Make whatever you want! ... using these bricks.
On the other hand: as a writer, do I want to reduce my own creativity to "playing with" a formula? This is quite literally how Mary Robinette Kowal and Lou Anders go off with excitement about the formula: that one can play with it. Listen, guys, art is not Lego. I've got videogames to play with. When I write, I want to stun myself; I don't want to say, "look how I shortened the second act and lengthened the third!" This is not interesting. I want to discover new bricks, I want to break bricks, I want to piss into the pile of bricks and laugh at those who think I'm insane.

But, look: I know how we got here. I mean, Anders says it himself: Hollywood perfected this kind of emotional game with Casablanca. I.e., they learned how to make the artpiece that will make the most revenue. Now, that doesn't mean all formulaic/structured stories are necessarily bad or created in bad faith; certainly, many excellent books and movies have been sold on this premise just as much as they've been sold on their authentic greatness. And - I cannot tell a lie - I've definitely enjoyed many of them. The problem is rather in thinking that "The Hollywood Formula" represents the pinnacle of storytelling, and that on the other side is only the downward slope of the mountain - that we can't get past it without its shadow at our back. Let me tell you something: something always comes next if you remain a visionary.

My point is, if you want to write to the Hollywood Formula, you're doing yourself in as a creative person. Maybe you'll make a bunch of money like Brandon Sanderson, but I'm not going to read your books (I certainly don't read his, eloquent though he may [sometimes] be on the subject of writing). So good luck playing around; I'd rather fail at making art than succeed at building furniture.


1 comment:

  1. You have some interesting points. I think the only "rule" when it comes to writing and storytelling is to do what works. Peronally, I love story structure--but it's also something that comes naturally and organically to me. I see these formulae more as a set of guidelines and useful, thought-provoking ways to analyze my own work. But do I follow them rigidly? Of course not.