Just Strangle the Damned Cat! – The Problem of Formulaic Storytelling

Yesterday I blogged about how I don’t much care for what is currently considered “quality drama” in the US and that I find many of the regular, non-prestigious TV dramas, cop shows, police procedurals and the like, inferior to similar programs that aired in the 1980s and 1990s. And one of the reasons why the average cop show of today is less enjoyable than the average PI show of the 1980s is that today’s US cop shows and police procedurals are just so damn formulaic and predictable. Most of the time, I can tell whodunnit at around the fifteen to twenty minute mark, which regularily amazes friends and relatives who are less savvy with regards to current conventions of televised storytelling, as practiced in the US.

I had also long since figured out the culprit for the predictability of many routine American TV dramas (Like I said, I usually know whodunnit within twenty minutes or do), namely the fact that way too many screenwriters today adhere to the magical formulae peddled by screenwriting gurus such as Blake Snyder and Robert McGee. Nor am I the only one to have come to this conclusion for Slate has an article on how screenwriting guru Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! caused Hollywood films to become increasingly formulaic. The Slate article refers to summer blockbusters, but the underlying problem applies just as well to many TV shows.

Now the article is somewhat unfair in putting the blame solely on Blake Snyder and Save the Cat! (though I’ve been heard to mutter “Can we please just strangle that damned cat already?”, when watching yet another totally predictable installment of CSI), because while Snyder laid out a page by page formula for a successful screenplay, he did not invent that formula. Indeed, Blake Snyder’s “beat sheet”, kindly reproduced by Slate, is strikingly reminiscent of the granddaddy of all storytelling formulae, the Campbellian hero’s journey. Now The Hero with a Thousand Faces came out in 1949 and Joseph Campbell did not invent the hero’s journey either, but distilled it from analysing the myths of several world cultures and religions. So the basic monomyth pattern is as old as storytelling itself.

What is more, there is a reason why the hero’s journey is so damned dominant in storytelling: Because it works. It works and it has worked for thousands of years. My MA thesis has a chapter on Joseph Campbell and the monomyth. In that chapter, I detect the basic monomyth pattern in various SF novels and films. At around the same time, I also checked some of my own works against the Campbellian hero’s journey and detected the pattern in most of them, down to details such as threshold guardians (I rarely have mentor figures, though, cause I have never trusted them). I was stunned because I had never consciously tried to write a monomyth story – indeed I heartily distrusted any sort of storytelling formula. Yet somehow I had managed to produce variations on the monomyth time and again, several of them written before I had ever heard of Joseph Campbell and the monomyth. For even though I had never consciously tried to write a monomyth story and had never read Campbell, until I wrote my MA thesis, I had nonetheless consumed and enjoyed hundreds of stories conforming to the basic monomyth pattern over the years. I knew how stories worked, because I had read and watched so many of them (including quite a few of the myths Campbell based his original theory on, since I went through a huge mythology phase in my teens). And when I started telling stories of my own, I subconsciously applied the ingrained patterns I knew from the stories I had consumed.

Plot was always an aspect of writing that I was good at. A lot of beginning writers produce plotless vignettes of beautiful lyrical prose (or what the writer considers beautiful and lyrical), but I never did. I told stories. Indeed, in creative writing class at university I sometimes got in trouble for imposing a plot on plotless vignettes of beautiful prose (when told to describe an ugly vase, I wrote Courier Duty) and even writing poems with a plot. Why? Because I had consumed a lot of stories and my main drive for writing was the wish to tell stories.

Now it is almost as popular to hate on Joseph Campbell and Gustav Freytag for that matter (usually Freytag haters are people who have never even bothered to read Freytag and know only his pyramid and besides, they heard somewhere he was an anti-semite – which is wrong BTW) as it is to hate on Blake Snyder and Robert McGee. For an example, check out this sequence of four posts by writer Paul Jessup. There probably are more posts along those lines scattered throughout his blog, but I could only find four.

However blaming Gustav Freytag or Joseph Campbell or Robert McGee or Blake Snyder for the sorry state particularly of filmic storytelling is unfair. To quote a comment I made on one of the Paul Jessup posts linked above:

I think a large part of the problem is that a lot of people have never actually read what Gustav Freytag or Joseph Campbell wrote, they just know the Cliff’s Notes version that was condensed and boiled down a dozen times. Campbell analyzed various myths and found common themes. The one diagram in The Hero with a Thousand Faces actually shows a cyclical form rather than a linear plot. And while Gustav Freytag came up with the pyramid that bears his name, he did not even take his own advice, as anybody who has ever read Die Ahnen, a mammoth cycle of six massive volumes meandering across centuries, can attest.

I still agree with this comment almost two years after I wrote it. Because the problem are not Joseph Campbell and Gustav Freytag, both of whom wrote scholarly analyses of dramatic literature (Freytag) and mythology (Campbell) respectively and never set out to create a formula for successful fiction or write a how-to-book, but those who condensed and simplified and often misapplied their findings. And let’s not forget that even though The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published in 1949, fiction and screenwriters only jumped on Campbell’s theories within the last approx. 15 years. The earliest recommendation I have seen for The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a book that explains how to tell stories successfully is in a Ben Bova essay from the 1970s. And while George Lucas famously claims to have extensively consulted Campbell’s monomyth, while writing Star Wars, I for one have never seen or heard Lucas mentioning Campbell until the late 1990s, shortly before The Phantom Menace came out. Did George Lucas read The Hero with a Thousand Faces back in the 1970s and consciously applied Campbell’s findings to create Star Wars? It is possible. But it is equally, if not more likely that George Lucas came up with a cracking adventure story that hit all the right notes on his own, because he had consumed a whole lot of stories over the course of his life.

However, it was only after George Lucas credited Joseph Campbell as providing part of the inspiration for Star Wars that fiction and screenwriters started to jump on Campbell. And since Campbell isn’t all that easy to read, not to mention that he was writing about mythology not modern genre fiction or Hollywood blockbusters, several how-to writers took it upon themselves to translate Campbell’s findings into a jargon more suited to contemporary storytelling. Hence, we get Campbell-lite books such as Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey or James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damned Good Novel as well as the already mentioned Story by Robert McGee and Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, which offer step by step outlines and formulae.

Now formulaic storytelling isn’t necessarily bad in itself either. In the sidebar, I link to Lester Dent’s pulp fiction masterplot and I own a copy of Plotto – The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook, both of which coincidentally predate Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. One of my all-time favourite TV shows is The A-Team, which is formulaic as hell. And as Jennifer Crusie points out, even sonnets are formulaic, yet no one calls Shakespeare a hack.

As with pretty much every bit of writing advice, the problem with those step-by-step plotting guides is not that they exist, but that writers (as well as editors, agents, producers, directors, head writers, etc…) slavishly adhere to them, often without really understanding the reasoning behind what they are doing. The result are films and TV shows and novels that are totally predictable, because they follow formula X laid out by Blake Snyder or Robert McGee to the letter. You don’t even need to read Save the Cat!, you only need to have watched enough films that follow the formula to be able to predict what will happen and who is the killer.

Some time ago, a supposed editor on a self-publishing forum fervently recommended Save the Cat!, because it will help writers to recognize all “fluff” in their novels and cut it out. And I cried, “No! I like fluff.” Because to me, the fluff that gets cut is often the most interesting or memorable bit of the book/film.

I rarely bother with DVD extras, but I always watch the deleted scenes. Now conventional wisdom is that deleted scenes were deleted for a reason, because they are useless fluff. However, while watching deleted scenes I often find little gems of characterization that got left on the cutting room floor (and in the case of a season 1 Torchwood episode, a deleted scene that actually contained crucial information for understanding the whole damned episode), while a self-indulgent but expensive fight or chase scene was left in. So in many cases, the “fluff” that was cut was actually the best thing about the film/book/TV episode.

And indeed the fact that we can no longer have any fluff is one of the reasons why TV shows are so damned predictable these days. Because every line, every single word has to serve a purpose, you automatically know that the throwaway line of the police chief about a wave of burglaries on XXX Street or the prison guard’s phone call to his wife in the background will inevitably turn out to be a vital clue to solving the case. Because in a modern crime drama, there never are any throwaway lines anymore. No one ever has a conversation that does not directly pertain to the plot. Fluff must be cut, everything must serve a purpose. Coincidentally, this is also why so many works these days fail the Bechdel test. Because any character and any sort of conversation that has no direct impact on the plot is cut.

Now cutting “fluff” is very much in keeping with the ideal of lean and masculine prose that is sadly dominant in Anglo-American storytelling thanks to the unholy trinity of Strunk and White, Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard, who have probably done more damage to English language storytelling than Joseph Campbell, Robert McGee and Blake Snyder combined. I particularly dislike Elmore Leonard’s much quoted ten rules for writing and especially I dislike No. 10 “Leave out the parts that readers skip”. Readers are individuals, so how the hell can Elmore Leonard or anybody else for that matter know what they will skip? All Elmore Leonard knows is what parts he skips. Which aren’t the same parts that I skip. For example, I like the goofy, awkward and quiet character moments that frequently get cut in the quest to get rid of the bits that readers skip and viewers fast forward through. Meanwhile, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of gratutious fight and chase scenes, unless they are really well done.

Now this does not mean that Elmore Leonard’s writing rules are bad advice. Elmore Leonard does make some useful points and indeed pretty much every writing advice book out there makes some good points. It’s slavish and unquestioning adherence to those rules that is the problem.

Why is George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire cycle so popular, both in written and televised form? It’s because the story is so damned unpredictable and because things don’t happen the way they are supposed to. The execution of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding are such shockers, because such thing are not supposed to happen. They violate the ingrained storytelling patterns. And if all a writer ever does is follow some kind of step by step masterplot outline, he or she may well produce a decent story or five. But they will never ever write a Red Wedding.

Some time ago, I chanced to watch an interview with Swiss writer Martin Suter on TV. In the course of that interview, Suter chanced to mention Story by Robert McGee. And I just sat there, totally stunned, and thought, “Wait a minute, Martin Suter has read Story by Robert McGee. Now that totally does not compute, cause Suter is not that sort of writer.” But then I thought, “Why the hell shouldn’t Martin Suter read Robert McGee? He is a writer, so why shouldn’t he consult all the writing advice books that are out there? After all, no one said that he had to follow McGee’s advice to the letter.”

The problem are not Joseph Campbell or Robert McGee or Blake Snyder. The problem are not patterns and formulae of storytelling. The problem are writers who slavishly follow those formulae without ever questioning them. And the problem are editors or producers who force writers to follow those tried and tested formulae without question.

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7 Responses to Just Strangle the Damned Cat! – The Problem of Formulaic Storytelling

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    I’m surprised that you consider GRRM unpredictable. He telegraphs those (many, many, MANY) deaths. Well, we all know that tastes vary!

    • Cora says:

      GRRM is quite predictable, if you know a bit about history or alternatively have read Shakespeare. And he does telegraph many developments, which is even more notable in the TV show (because I read the first book ages ago and had forgotten many of the details, e.g. that Tyrion and Jon Snow have a semi-hostile heart to heart early on). But one thing GRRM does not do is follow standard storytelling templates (because history usually doesn’t), so the deaths of characters who would have been protagonists in other fantasy series (i.e. heroic, able-bodied and nobly born white men) are shocking to people raised on standard monomyth type stories.

  2. Laran says:

    I have never heard of Campbell before – thanks for pointing him out! – but I have read Lord Raglan and Vladimir Propp – who both wrote earlier than Campbell and went into the same direction. So what does Campbell contribute to myth pattern analysis that is original? What you tell of his work seems very similar to Raglans “The Hero”. Or does Campbell simply have the merit of getting more popular outside scholarly discourse?

    • Cora says:

      There are definite similarities between Joseph Campbell on the one hand and Lord Raglan and Vladimir Propp on the other. I’m not sure if Campbell cites Propp, but he definitely mentions Raglan as well as Carl Gustav Jung, James Frazer and Robert Graves. For some reason, Campbell is not all that well known in Germany. I had to order a copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces from Amazon, because the university library did not have it.

      As for why Campbell is better known than Propp or Raglan in non-scholarly circles, particularly among SFF fans and writerly types – well, George Lucas mentioned Joseph Campbell and not Propp or Raglan as an inspiration for Star Wars. Of course, Lucas only started talking about Campbell around the time The Phantom Menace came out (though apparently he invited Campbell to the Skywalker Ranch in the late 1980s), while all interviews and articles from the 1970s and 1980s only mention Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and a western called The Searchers as inspirations. The only SFF person who explicitly mentioned Campbell in the 1970s was Ben Bova. Ursula LeGuin may have referred to Campbell as well – I’d have to check my notes.

      Another reason why Campbell is better known in the US than either Propp or Raglan may be that he was American and professor at an Ivy League type university (Sarah Lawrence College according to Wikipedia).

  3. silver price says:

    The works of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche had a profound effect on Campbell’s thinking; he quoted their writing frequently, often in his own translations from the original German.

  4. Troy says:

    Cora,
    Thank you for this article. Realizing years ago that Hollywood hadn’t had an original idea in 30 years (remakes and sequels) I was challenged by a producer’s assistant to do better. I wrote the book (got 5-star reviews) and wrote the screenplay but ran into other writers who warned it that it MUST fit the ‘save the cat” structure.
    The success of my book was that it was so unpredictable while the STC structure seems to be so predictable. We all know the protagonist will live. His partner will probably die but in the end our hero gets the girl/money, like we didn’t see that coming.
    My question, is everyone director, producer, studio stuck on this formula?

  5. Kirk hodges says:

    Late to the party –but thank you for writing this. I can’t hear one more (overly literal) misinterpretation of Joseph Campbell. How do we have so many illiterate authors?

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