Imagine you’re at the autopsy of a close friend after a long and happy life. (Morbid way to start a blog, I know, but bear with me.)
The doctor doing the autopsy looks down at you and says, “I can tell your friend was considerate. Look at how healthy her colon was.”
You seem a bit confused as he continues. “She was prone to sarcasm though. I can see it in the spots on her lungs.”
Though there may be some correlation between personality and health, there’s no way to truly understand your friend’s soul by examining her physiology. In a metaphoric way, I’d like to argue that you can’t be a master at storytelling by having an idea of a few aspects of a story’s blueprint alone. There is no set formula we can all follow to storytelling glory.
Robert McKee stated that a story was too mysterious and complex for a formula to encapsulate. Although he was against formula, he did stress the importance of understanding form.
This brings me to the definitions I will use for form and formula. Form is knowing the structure and composition of your medium, which can include a myriad of factors (i.e. character needs, desires, plot points, twists, reversals…etc.). Formula is if you do x, y, z, you will get a. For example, form details the plot points in a two-hour screenplay and tells you in general around what page they should come. Formula says, for example, if you write out a detailed character history, your protagonist will have depth.
Although there is no set formula to storytelling greatness, knowing storytelling form can be a great help. In film school in the US, I remember hearing the necessity to understand structure described as knowing all of the tools in your toolkit before you begin to construct. For a few of us writers who had no interest in traditional storytelling, it was also explained that you have to master the rules before you can artistically break them.
Since there is value in knowing form, it’s what I will discuss in the next several posts. More specifically, I’ll be exploring what experienced writers have to say about character and examining characters from different works of fiction.
Unfortunately, nothing in these posts will be magic bullets to storytelling stardom. They may be, however, good refreshers on things you’ve already learned, or new tools that help you on our own storytelling journey.
What do you think about form and formula? Feel free to share below.
McKee, Robert; El guión