Formulation Errors

I got David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants today. I found his topic very interesting. Check it out…especially the last paragraph.

“This morning I got an email from a friend who asked me what I knew about a green-lighting company in Hollywood that looks at movies in an interesting and instructive way. In analyzing a potential film, they look for what they call ‘formulation errors.’ Now, the basic concept here is that each viewer has in his mind a ‘perfect movie’ that he or she hopes to see. Just as Plato suggested that we each have our own concept of a ‘perfect chair’ which exists only in the imagination, so we also have a mental image of a perfect story. We might not be aware of it very much, but as we read a story or watch a movie, we begin to notice little things that are ‘wrong’ with it, and we sort of cringe inside as we see it.

“For example, let’s say that I’m watching a romance, and the hero goes into a store to buy his girlfriend a snack. He wants to impress her, but doesn’t have much money, so he begins to shoplift. For me, that’s a ‘formulation error.’ I don’t imagine that the ideal man shoplifts. Furthermore, the ideal man isn’t so broke that he needs to shoplift. If he’s stuck in a bind, I imagine that he could sweet-talk the shop owner. Perhaps he’s known the cashier for two years, and the cashier would say, ‘Hey, Joe, take what you want. I know you’re good for it.’ (That’s the way that we ran my father’s grocery store, years ago.) But he doesn’t steal to impress a woman.

“When you make a storytelling blunder like that, it’s a formulation error, and there are dozens of types of them… So when you write a book or a screenplay, part of your job is to look at the characters and action in your story and compare it to what the audience might desire in a ‘perfect story.’

“If you meet the audience’s expectations, you’ll do great. The audience will love it, and they’ll talk about it. Of course, with any given viewer, he or she might imagine that your story has ‘formulation errors.’ After all, your idea of perfect story and her idea won’t match exactly…. Yet people from the same society usually agree on most points of what makes a good story, so you can at least hold your audience.

“But here’s the really great part: generally speaking, the audience’s expectations aren’t very high! They’re not professional storytellers, and so very often when you construct a scene or write a bit of dialog, you can do it better than they ever could have imagined! So make that a goal, to create your story in such a way so that even if you add some unexpected or unconventional twists, creating some dissonance that the audience might at first simply think are formulation errors, your tale turns out better than your audience could have imagined!”

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