Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why I Like Formulas

I can be a jerk sometimes when it comes to entertainment, because it is not enough for you to like the right movies and television shows, but you have to like them for the right reasons as well. (I am working on this, but it is hard.)

If you like don't like Pulp Fiction because it is a meditation on the American identity from a class and race perspective, ultimately drawing the conclusion that what makes us truly Americans is our shared love popular culture, and instead like the movie because it is freakin' cool how Bruce Willis chops The Gimp with a samurai sword, I will probably tell you I am not a big fan of Quentin Tarantino's work.

(Although, truth be told, I freakin' love Pulp Fiction because it is a mediation on the American identity from a class and race perspective, ultimately drawing the conclusion that what makes us truly Americans is our shared love of popular culture. And, ok, that samurai sword bit was kinda freakin' awesome, but only because it was SYMBOLIC.)

I am a horrible snob about some things and try to keep this in check. Sometimes it eeks out. For example, when someone dismisses a movie or television show because it is too formulaic, I go nuts.

My quip is usually a sarcastic, "Well, yeah. Because dramatic structure is never formulaic." Then I roll my eyes. Then I look down my nose. Then I point to their shirt and say, "You've got something right the- OOOOP!" and I flip their nose as soon as they begin to look down. Because that is the formulaic behavior of someone who is being a condescending jerk.

Formulas are great. No one should complain about something being formulaic because the fundamentals of storytelling can be distilled into simple formulas. Three Act Structure. Five Act Structure. Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, but Boy Finds Girl Again and Girl Turns Out to be a Killer Robot from the Future. These stories have been with us since the Ancient Greeks and probably earlier. As long as Robot Girlfriends are going back in time, we will have formulas.

I can understand how someone might get perturbed because they understand the formula enough to predict what is going to happen thus destroying any sense of tension and drama, but the criticism should not be leveled at the formula, but the execution of the formula. People know how Romeo and Juliet is going to end, but that doesn't stop them from watching it again with different actors. Don't blame the structure, blame the interpretation.

For someone who aspires to be a creative writer in the mediums of film and/or television, it is important not only to respect formulas, but to be able to interact with them and make them your own. Understand the rules of this particular universe and add variables that are uniquely your own.

Of course, all of the blog post up to this point is a ruse to trick everyone into hearing me talk about things I have written.

To become a television writer, you have to write scripts for existing shows and add them to your portfolio. This shows agents and people who might hire you that you have a fundamental understanding of the characters, the expectations, and the limitations of the show. In other words, you show how well do you use the formula.

Because I am bored a lot and because I daydream about being an underpaid and overworked television writer, I have written two such scripts for my portfolio, an Arrested Development script and an Office script. I shall now pitch you the scripts and you can determine how closely I was able to adhere to the formulas for each show.

If you are not familiar with the shows, this is going to sound like utter gobbeldygook. However, if you have seen these shows, imagine how these ideas fit in with a typical episode. And if you think I missed the mark, feel free to tell me how. I won't be getting a job in the entertainment industry any time soon, so telling me I don't have a future in Los Angeles will not hurt my feelings.

Arrested Development - Gob wants money so he can open a woman's clothing store named Perfectly Fit. The idea is that there is only one size of clothing available, and it is GOB's idea of what a perfectly fit woman's proportions should be. Michael misinterprets an overheard conversation and thinks George Michael wants to become a male model. Michael agrees to fund Gob's venture if he hires George Michael as a male model. Buster has an uncomfortable moment in a men's room which leads to him getting a stalker.

The Office - The Friday before Labor Day, Michael has accidentally approved vacation for everyone, giving everyone the office (except him and Dwight) a four-day weekend. No one is there to attend the Labor Day party Michael was planning (this year's theme - "Going into Labor"). So Michael and Dwight go from house to house, telling people to come back into the office and have some fun before they have their now three-day weekend. Stanley tries to have a barbecue.

So there you go. Formulas in action! Thank you for your time.


alex said...

I didn't like Pulp Fiction because the theater that I was in when I saw it erupted into uproarious laughter when Travolta accidently blew the kid's head off in the back seat.

I was never in on the joke. I felt like the dorky kid that got picked last for kickball.

And I blame that on the movie, the audience, the girl who brought me to the movie, and Quentin Tarantino for that, not any deep-seated insecurities.

M. Robert Turnage said...

Alex, I saw 'Pulp Fiction' at an early morning screening and I was the only one in the theater, so I didn't have a chance to be shocked at the audience reaction.

I liked it until it came out on videotape and then I harshly judged the people coming into the store asking for it.

And we all have deep-seated insecurities. Which is why we are all on the internet right now instead of playing kickball.

Pamela said...

It's kinda like music. There's a structure and it's what you do within the structure that makes it great, or not.

Courtney said...

I totally want to watch both of your episode pitches. Now. Can you get busy on that?

I think some of the best works are those that push at the boundaries of the formula. Shakespeare was chided for not following the "pure" formula of his time. For instance, his plays took place in multiple locations and over long stretches of time, and he even blurred the edges of comedy and tragedy. That's part of the genius and heartbreak of Romeo and Juliet--despite the title and opening speech, it starts out for all the world a comedy, and then with Mercutio's death, all that promise is shattered, and it's even more painful due to subtle expectations of love and marriage and happy endings.

Loves me some Shakespeare.

Never have seen Pulp Fiction. I don't think I can handle violence as comedy. Would like to know it, because it's been a force in film, but I just can't.

Thanks for the engaging food for thought!

M. Robert Turnage said...

Pamela, I have found that I respond to songs that have a dramatic structure than songs that are just kind of there. Compare something like Smashing Pumpkins' '1979' (which is just a repeated hook that doesn't build to anything) with the Silversun Pickups' 'Lazy Eye' (which is essentially the same song but with a slow dramatic build to a climax). I really cannot stand the former, but love love love the latter.

Courtney, I just gave the pitches because the actual scripts have problems in them and need some work. I am a little too busy to rewrite them right now. But maybe someday.

wubbahed said...

I just wanted to give you props for including an image from on your site. You need to incorporate more mathwarehouse clip art into your posts. 'nuff said?

Cyber D said...

I liked Pulp Fiction before I saw it because I liked Reservoir Dogs. It was like nothing I had seen before. I think part of my liking it was because there was some kick-ass violence up against an ubsurd backdrop. But I also liked it because I didn't expect the various twists and turns in interconnected story lines. I don't mind formula. In fact I'd have prefered a little more formula in that f-ing turd of a movie: No Country For Old Men.

Cyber D said...

P.S. I like both your ideas. I watch the office regligously and think your story fits in famously. I've seen AD here and there and from what I know, this is a cracking good idea!

heather said...

i've never watched the office but your ar senario is pitch perfect. after all, when you boil it al down gob's always looking for an easy way out, michael's always getting things backward and george michael always suffers because of it. and face it, buster ~is~ an uncomfortable moment. :)