Screenwriting: Beating the Odds

A recent trend reveals filmmakers mourning the demise of story. Everyone, it seems, senses something amiss.

Steven Soderbergh, the director behind Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight addresses the San Francisco Film Festival with a keynote that all but expresses his loss of hope. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting), while calling out storytelling more than story itself, bemoans the lack of sophisticated adult fare at the cinema. Studio executives and producers feel it too, apparently turning to a statistician to help increase the odds of producing a better, more-profitable story.

Regardless of where they see the problem or their efforts to resolve it, filmmakers everywhere share a common thread: cinematic storytelling needs help.

The Science of the Inconsequential

Vinny Bruzzese, the statistician featured in a recent New York Times article, takes advantage of this common thread by offering a script consultant service unlike any other. By providing cold hard data on successful and not-so-successful films of the past, Bruzzese and his Motion Picture Group hope to alleviate the feared result of a box office dud.

Naturally, screenwriters fear the intrusion of Bruzzese’s number-crunchers:

"This is my worst nightmare" said Ol Parker, a writer whose film credits include The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. "It's the enemy of creativity, nothing more than an attempt to mimic that which has worked before. It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road."

Parker and others have reason to fear: Bruzzese’s stats seem to only log singular instances of highly subjective data:

A cursed superhero never sells as well as a guardian superhero, one like Superman who acts as a protector.

Isn't Batman a "cursed" superhero? Guardian or not, the writers behind Bruce Wayne's alter-ego would undoubtedly concur that Gotham's son was more a victim of fate rather than a symbol of protection. If so then, based on the data provided by Bruzzese, the producers behind this summer’s Man of Steel have a lot to look forward to based on the disappointing returns from The Dark Knight series.

To be fair, the New York Times article may be overtly poking fun at this process—cherry picking examples of data that simply portray these “script doctors” as another in a long line of snake-oil salesmen. Additional examples of the service include singling out films with bowling as low-scoring and stories of "targeting" demons more profitable than their "summoned" brethren. On the other hand, this could be an excellent representation of the service they provide.

Regardless, with data like this—and more provided by marketing groups and executive think-tank sessions—screenwriters might have a reason to be afraid. How does any of this further the cause for a better story?

Writers Know Writing

Bruzzese does make a mistake in his assessment of why some call for caution. Writers aren't afraid of services like this because they want to protect their "babies" or because they're more concerned with "making art." They're wary because instinctively they understand these stats have nothing to do with writing an actual story. These common factors trim narrative like so-much parsley--they can't possibly claim responsibility for the meal itself.

Writers get that.

Removing bowling alleys and Ouija boards from screenplays recalls UCLA screenwriting professor Corey Mandell tongue-in-cheek "Food Propulsion" scene: that apparently common point in the middle of great films where food is dropped or thrown (please see the article Dramatica: Mad-Libs or Madly Accurate for more on this)— a common point that successful screenplays should mimic.

Correlation is not causation. The presence of one or two data points common to successful films in no way shape or form reflects the presence of a fully functional story. If anything, it merely outlines coincidence.

What Writers Would Like

In their latest Scriptnotes podcast professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin voice their usual concerns with the cottage industry of story consultants (a group they feel Bruzzese belongs to). They reiterate the idea that these data points correlate, but go further to outline the kind of causation-based data screenwriters can actually use:

“Here is why I think that (particular story point) is not going to work, because in this situation it’s going to track through this way, and we as the audience feel this way about the characters at the end because of the nature of what happened with that demon situation.” That is a meaningful note that you can actually think about and use and implement throughout your script.

Screenwriters don't want to know what should be in their story, they want to know why. They want to know why the audience interprets a scene the way they do and they want to know why a certain character’s motivation rings untrue.

They want the understand of story provided by Dramatica.

A Holistic Model of Story

Dramatica (narrative science theory) offers filmmakers a model of story bathed in causation. With Dramatica one can't point to a single "data point" included in any of the on-site analysis and say, "This story point will guarantee you box office success." One can't single out The Godfather's Objective Story Prerequisites of Being and say, Yep, if you want to go down in history as one of the greatest films of all time your characters have to act a certain way as one of the many steps along their way towards accomplishing the story goal. Likewise, one can't hold up The Dark Knight's Main Character Problem of Process as the key to that film's runaway success. "If you want to rule the summer box-office have your Main Character driven by the inequity of the journey rather than the destination." Ridiculous, right?

Dramatica theory only works when all of the structural story points found within a storyform present themselves clearly within the narrative. One can’t simply pick their favorites and hope for the best. The seventy-five or so structural elements within a Dramatica storyform work together to support and bolster the Author’s argument. Of course, key to this lies in the assumption that the Author has something meaningful they want to say with their own work. If they simply want to entertain, well then, why bother? But if they want to pass on some greater understanding, then Authors would benefit from an understanding of structural story elements that cause an emotional and logical response within the audience.

Take for instance, the ending of a story. Some end in triumph, while others tumble into tragedy. And still others end bittersweetly, with a balance of both good and bad. Great endings, meaningful endings, don't just happen--they must be properly setup, developed, and grown into. Bowling balls and tossed spaghetti aside, everything that comes before leads to that inevitable ending. Dramatica theory states that if an Author wants to end a story in triumph then the order of elements that come before it must be structured in a very defined way. Tragedies share this reality as well, but the order of events would be different.

These are the kind of data points August refers to when he looks for causation instead of correlation.

Let it Ride

Now it may be that Bruzzese and his group of script doctors have the inside scoop on what it takes to pen the next blockbuster. If wealth beyond imagination appeals, then by all means, lay down 20 large and engage. If, however, the end goal ventures more towards a love of story and an appreciation for what narrative contributes to the human condition, then perhaps a more holistic approach might be in order. Dramatica, and its understanding of story as an analogy to the mind's problem-solving process, may just be your very best bet.

New class begins January 2022!