Week 15 – The Formula

“I always say that if something can be reduced to one clear concept, it is artistically dead. If a single concept captures something, then everything has already been resolved—or so it ­ appears, at least.“

Michael Haneke

You could say that a screenplay starts with a concept, a combination of ideas that creates the seed, the starting point for a story. You could juggle from scratch with a handful of elements like actors, genre, locations, props or you could even just copy already existing structures. Different strategies can have different advantages and disadvantages and lead to different results. As always: the tools you decide to use to a certain degree determine the outcome.

Michelangelo Antonioni once said that creating a work of art often starts with the observation of real life. It doesn’t necessarily mean to invent things out of nothing, but rather to transform what already exists according to your own nature, your own personal style.

In Hollywood it is widely believed that what you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it: “if your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.“ (John Truby)

Furthermore that a certain amount of form is necessary to reach a wide audience. Because that is what people expect and enjoy, as long as it is a variation or an innovative combination of already existing patterns. I.e. it shouldn’t be completely predictable.

And on top of that, that it is important to write for the needs of the audience: depressing stories are not recommended.

But, to say it bluntly: this is rubbish. Michael Haneke is right when he says:”But whether it’s a good or a bad film depends entirely on its form. Everything is a story. The Holocaust is as much a story as is the tale of Rumpelstiltskin. Now the real question is, what do you do with it? What will you make of your story and how are you going to tell it? That alone determines how it will be received.“ (Michael Haneke)

Whatever works to tell a story works. There is no formula, but strategies! Raising questions and encouraging you to think, without given answers, is one of them. Stephen King suggests that you construct your own toolbox “and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you.“

His strategy is to set up stories by using three elements:

  • Narration: moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z.
  • Description: creates a sensory reality for the reader.
  • Dialogue: brings characters to life through their speech.

And interestingly: there is no plot! Actually he distrusts plot for two reasons:

  • Our lives are largely plotless and
  • plotting takes away spontaneity.

Mike Leigh uses a totally different approach. His journey of making films is a journey of discovery about what the film is. Characters are invented as part of the process. That doesn’t mean he gets people together telling them: This is the theme, let’s all get together and improvise. While working with the actors as they improvise, he makes suggestions, he puts things in and takes things out. But at the same time he always has an overall conception.

And finally Will Storr: “Many stories begin with a moment of unexpected change. And that’s how they continue too. Whether it’s a sixty-word tabloid piece about a TV star’s tiara falling off or a 350,000-word epic such as Anna Karenina, every story you’ll ever hear amounts to ‘something changed’… When unexpected change strikes we want to know, what does it mean? Is this change for the good or the bad? Unexpected change makes us curious, and curious is how we should feel in the opening movements of an effective story.”

Your turn!

1. Create ideas by copying and altering already existing ones.

2. Two lovers found dead in a hotel room, it seems they committed double suicide. Tell this story going backward! One day, two days, three days.

3. There are many films where answers and explanations are given for everything. But real life is different! Think of a strange and obscure situation, where everything is strange, nothing is explained. Surprise yourself!

4. “Forms that resemble ideas. Treat them as actual ideas.“ (43) (Robert Bresson) Try to work with this approach.

5. Think of an idea as a recipe with different ingredients, instead of reducing it to a formula.

6. In Germany we have a YouTube channel which is called “Jung & naiv“ (Young and naive). The interview technique of the young journalist is to ask very (seemingly) naive questions. Question everything, to finally come up with surprising answers.

7. Adapt forms, schematic diagrams from science. Fill out the empty structure with characters, situations, locations, props, and ideas.

8. As we saw before for Stephen King a story consists of three parts: narration, description and dialogue. Furthermore for him a situation comes first, the characters come next. Try to think in these categories while setting up a short scene: one location, two characters not knowing each other meeting there accidentally.

9. Nothing gets the muse talking faster than motion. Go for walks, runs, long drives; take the tube, the tram or the bus. Watch and listen. Take notes all the times.

10. Another tactic to get into writing is to begin with the initial phrase “I remember …“ For example: “I remember that last week our friends visited us, it seems they are about to getting divorced.“ Now delete the initial phrase: “Last week our friends visited us, it seems they are about to get divorced.“

Films to watch

Christoffer Boe

  • Reconstruction (2003) IMDB

Leo Carax

  • Holy Motors (2012) IMDB

Huai-en Chen

  • Island Etude (2007) IMDB

Jim Jarmush

  • Mystery Train (1989) IMDB

Chen Kaige

  • Life on a String (1991) IMDB

Mike Leigh

  • Life is Sweet (1990) IMDB

Ken Loach

  • I, Daniel Blake (2016) IMDB

Milcho Manchevski

  • Before the rain (1994) IMDB

Christopher Nolan

Abu Shahed Emon

  • Jalal’s Story (2014) IMDB

Steven Soderbergh

  • The Limey (1999) IMDB