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Why Resisting “The Formula” Might Be Hurting Your Story

Stop resisting and learn story structure! You won’t regret it.


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Nihan Kucukural

4 months ago | 5 min read
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Structure is not formula, it is form

I wanted to throw the book to the wall, but it wasn’t mine. And my job was to read it and write a summary to share with my screenwriting group. So all I could do was to take a deep breath and turn the page.

The Three Act Structure

The book was Syd Field’s Screenplay about the Three Act Structure. Why did I hate it so much, when I was okay with other writing advice? It was the first time I encountered the idea that all movies should comply with a set of rules. Until then, we all agreed formula was bad.

I didn’t want to be told that there was only one way. I didn’t believe in formulas. I hated how Field seemed to want to fit every movie in this narrow structure. How could that be true? I could count lots of movies that didn’t fit this structure at all! Or couldn’t I?

As I breathed and continued to read, it slowly made sense. There was no need to freak out. Syd Field was simply talking about the same old concept of beginning, middle, and end. He said that two events (plot points) would change the direction of events splitting the story into three acts.

He was a bit too confident about the minutes of these events, which didn’t sit right with me at first. According to him, if the events didn’t happen at the right minute, the audience would start yawning or scratching themselves. I indeed had plenty of those experiences.

Form or formula?

By the time I finished reading, I was sold. One metaphor did the trick for me, and it’s the thing I remember best from the book:

“What’s the distinction between form and formula? The form of a coat or jacket, for example, is two arms, a front, and a back. And within that form of arms, front, and back you can have any variation of style, fabric, color, and size — but the form remains intact.”

Yeah. Just like you can sew an unwearable jacket by failing to add two arms, you can write an unwatchable movie by ignoring the two plot points!

So let me call it “form,” or structure, not formula from now on. It’s the same thing with Hero’s Journey or Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet from his famous book Save the Cat!. T

hey might sound like restricting formulas at first, but later you realize they don’t limit the use of your ideas. On the contrary, these tools help you explore your story further than you initially assumed. They provide you with a form in which your ideas can flourish.

How can you hurt your story if you choose to ignore all this?

It becomes hard to write your story in the first place

Without a plan or a strong sense of structure, you risk not finishing your story.

You probably can write a short story in one sitting. But if you have a bigger project like a novel or a screenplay, it is easy to lose track. You might have good stamina, but it’s no use if you don’t know where you are heading.

Pantsers, such as Stephen King, don’t plot their stories beforehand. They let the story guide their writing. However, when they finish it, the story has a solid structure. It fits “the formula,” so to speak, it has three acts, beats, an inciting incident, an “all is lost moment” etc.

Everyone has their own way of creating. I can’t say that building the structure first is essential. Maybe your stories come with structure inherently built in them. But often they don’t. If you are having regular writers blocks, if you often find yourself overwhelmed, you might try drawing a roadmap first.

Tools such as Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet help you grasp the essence of your story and create it to its full potential.

You can build a house using your hands, but if you have the right tools, your work will be much easier, and the outcome will be more satisfactory.

Your audience cannot connect with your story

When your story doesn’t follow the conventional story structures, it becomes difficult to understand.

As humans, we have been consuming stories for thousands of years. We are used to being told stories in certain ways. When a story doesn’t fit the patterns we are familiar with, it gets confusing. We can’t get the messages clearly and we ask ourselves, “what is it they are trying to tell me here?”

I am not saying that audiences only want what they already know. We read and watch stories to learn new things, to experience fresh adventures, to be surprised.

But we can appreciate all the novelty only when it is within a framework we are familiar with. When we don’t recognize the framework, all the new information floats in the air and doesn’t stick. We shut the book or walk out of the movie theater feeling lost, confused, sometimes even ripped off.

Some art films that don’t fit the conventional story structure might confuse us too, but we still respect them because we can tell they are part of distinct frameworks.

They speak to art lovers differently. You are free to make an art film, too, as long as you can finance it. But it probably won’t reach a big audience and won’t entertain the masses.

It will be hard to sell it

At the beginning of my career, I remember talking to fellow writers who complain about publishers and film producers who don’t appreciate their unique talent. They had fresh and unique stories, but no one would understand them. But they were confident their stories were exceptional.

They were much better than the crap on TV. If only they got the chance to go public, the masses would recognize their genius.

Well, they might be right. We have many examples of talented artists who couldn’t sell their works for decades and once they were discovered, they achieved extraordinary success.

Publishers and producers are not perfect, and they don’t owe us anything. They are business people who want to be successful by publishing the best work to their abilities while minimizing their risks.

They have experience in their industries; they know their audience, therefore they have a feeling about which stories will succeed. They have their methods and routines to find the best stories their audience will enjoy.

And one way they assess stories is to check if they follow a familiar structure since those have a better chance of pleasing their audience. Can they be wrong? Of course they can. But remember that it is a gamble for them, so it’s understandable if they don’t want to take the risk.

By building your story on a solid structure, you make it more likely to be picked up by industry professionals.

Final thoughts

I am not suggesting that building your story based on Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is a surefire way to create a successful story. You will still need to touch your readers with original ideas, memorable characters, surprising plot twists, and scenes that trigger emotions.

Following the formula blindly doesn’t help either. You have to understand what each element means, why it is necessary to build the best version of your story.

You cannot fill in a beat sheet like a questionnaire without feeling all the conflict, the fun, the anger, the sadness. You still have to go through all the emotions.

So, stop resisting and learn story structure! You won’t regret it. Good luck!

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Nihan Kucukural

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Turkish copywriter and screenwriter, lover of stories, living in New Zealand


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