There were two articles in Slate last month about summer movie doldrums that hold a lesson for storytellers, including novelists.
The first is about how Steven Spielberg predicted a disastrous summer movie season because of studios’ over-reliance on formulaic blockbusters at the expense of a more diverse lineup. His prediction looks prescient so far, with relatively modest Despicable Me 2, This is the End, and The Conjuring outperforming the massively budgeted RIPD, The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim.
The gargantuan special effects uber-spectacle this year has resulted in some gargantuan uber-flops. (Though the Star Trek, Iron Man, Superman and Fast and Furious franchises are chugging right along).
And in the second article, Peter Suderman notes how if all Hollywood movies are starting to feel familiar and formulaic… it’s because they are literally following a formula . One book, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! has become so thoroughly influential that nearly every movie made these days follows its beat by beat model. Save the Cat! doesn’t just offer suggestions on structure, it literally says what needs to happen on specific pages, from the opening image that sets up the protagonist’s problems to the false victory at 90 minutes to the closing image, which mirrors the opening image.
This isn’t the apocalypse for storytellers. This is an opportunity.
First, it just goes to show that while you might follow the market and cash in on the short term, following your own vision will win out in the long run. This is the End is a seriously weird movie. I saw it. It was pretty enjoyable. At no point while watching the movie did I have the sense that it was focused grouped or was concerned with franchising or that anyone involved in the movie was concerned with anything other than cracking themselves up and maybe the viewers too.
The sense of “This movie may completely suck and be a flop but who cares, we had a blast making it and I can’t believe people pay us money to do this” is pervasive while watching the movie. And what do you know, it didn’t suck and it was a success.
Formulas also present an opportunity. Just ask George R.R. Martin.
He knew fantasy conventions, which were dominated by hero arcs and redemptive plotlines for years and years. He took those conventions, upended them, shocked his readers, and then he did it again. And again. And again.
Know those formulas and conventions. Anticipate what your reader will expect will happen. And then pull the rug out.
Just when things start feeling static and generic is when someone will come along and reinvent the paradigm. If you’re following your own vision, it may well be you.
Art: Design for a Flying Machine by Leonardo da Vinci