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The Screenwriting Formula: Book Review

When the New Yorker published an article on Scott Frank back in December of 2023 about his career as a Script Doctor, finding his own voice as a screenwriter and making $300,000 a week; I'll admit I was really interested in screenwriting for a few months. I read Save the Cat and Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting years ago while working in VFX in London so I was roughly familiar with the fundamental parameters for a western feature screenplay and by reading scripts during my time in VFX bidding. This time around I wanted to dive a bit deeper so I picked up a copy of The Screenwriting Formula: Why It Works and How To Use It from my local library to expand my understanding. Below, I summarized what stood out to me and some of the things I learned from reading and listening to Scott Frank interviews over the last month.

A quick preface: most storyboard artists are not writing an entire feature film and then boarding that out for a portfolio piece. With that said, I suggest ways you can apply it to a 1-4 minute scene to help elevate that next piece ahead of your next networking event (ie Lightbox Expo).

Here's a Brief Overview of the chapters in the book:

The Seven Elements

  1. The Hero

  2. The Flaw

  3. Enabling Circumstances

  4. The Opponent

  5. The Hero's Ally

  6. The Life-Changing Event

  7. Jeopardy

The Structure

  1. Act One

  2. Act Two (two parts)

  3. Act Three

The Big Picture

  1. The Logline

  2. The Outline

  3. High & Low Concept

The book lays out several different events that the hero can encounter throughout the three acts in a list format (that's too long to list here but can be helpful for coming up with story beats if you need them).

One of the biggest take away from the book was the hero/heroine should have a flaw that they struggle with throughout the course of your story. For instance, your protagonist could be a hermit but their life is upended by an event that forces them to journey across their kingdom to defeat a villain. The flaw should be a behavior that they can express clearly and have a tendency to do that they will need to overcome in order to succeed. This flaw leads into the difference between a Subjective and Objective storylines.

Objective storyline is the hero’s struggling with the life changing event which is the inciting incident. Subjective storyline is the hero dealing with their flaw. The solution to the flaw should be on an subjective level not objective. 

  • The subjective level is on how the hero works out their flaw. 

  • The objective level is how they show they’ve overcome their flaw.

Once the hero struggles with their flaw on an objective level that is the inciting incident which causes the story to take off. Think of two lines on a graph, one representing the objective plot structure of the story over the three acts and the other subjective line following the objective line but occasionally crossing over. These points would represent your hero dealing with their flaw and the plot of the story.

The last part of the book discusses outlining, the logline and the high and low concepts of your film. These are great topics to learn and focus on when developing shorter scenes as well. The book makes a good point that if you can’t summarize your film (or scene) in one to two sentences then your story has structural problems.

Elements of a Logline:

  • Hero

  • Flaw

  • Enabling circumstances 

  • Ally

  • Opponent

  • Life changing event 

  • Implied journey 

  • Ally’s MO 

Here are a couple of loglines mentioned in the book, see if you can guess the films:

“A jaded, old boxing manager gets a second chance when a female fighter convinces him to train her”

“A down and out club fighter gets a one in a million chance to fight for the championship”

Having both objective and subjective plot lines in your logline help describe your character and their struggle with the story. The trick to all of this is how can you show something in the simplest way but with a lot of depth. That's a lot harder to do than you might think and I think that's where the true mastery of filmmaking comes from in all areas of the craft.

The book does a good job going over the various events and characteristics of screenplay while referencing renown movies such as Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and Wedding Crashers.

The answers to the loglines were Million Dollar Baby and then Rocky.

The Screenwriting Formula primarily focuses on the structure of a screenplay and the specific events that revolve around your protagonist. These fundamentals are important for selling any screenplay because according to this author, many other agents and executives, they look out for these story elements check off those boxes.

This leads me back to Scott Frank and what made his career so successful. I realized it's one thing writing an entire screenplay following a set of guidelines your characters must encounter. It's another thing entirely creating a well written and effective screenplay. So I did some digging and found a book that Scott Frank recommended for screenwriting and it's not what you think. It's a novel from 1929 called, Red Harvest. Scott says:

I think the best book about screenwriting that will help you in terms of prose is Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. Read his prose in that book—he says a lot with a little. It’s so terse and wonderful. Just the way he describes things in that novel. The way the dialogue done, but more importantly the way he sets up a room or sets up what someone is thinking—it’s the greatest how-to book on screenwriting ever written.

One of the things you are trying to achieve in a screenplay is tell the reader what they must know. Nothing more, nothing less. If the reader doesn't need to know the color of the house in the script, then don't include it in the script. I picked up Red Harvest off Amazon and it became immediately clear what Scott Frank was talking about. Screenplays pack so much story in 120 pages which requires writers to write so effectively, keep a specific pace and maintain a cohesive story. It's no easy feat.

The next time you approach writing a scene, I recommend starting with a logline to really hone on the essence of your story. Vomit out a pass of the script then revise it to strip out all the unnecessary descriptions and subtext. Make the hero(ine) and story as simple as possible even if it's in a complex setting (utilize the environment to display the lore, don't have your characters talk about it). Scott mentioned he puts most of his time and effort to the opening of a script so that the audience becomes invested into the characters which should be at the forefront of your scene. Open your storyboard project with an awesome introduction to your character displaying their flaw and their personality. Then quickly proceed to the inciting incident that changes your protagonist's status-quo.

I recently wrote a short scene that I will draw storyboards to and publish on my website. It was great to practice something I don't normally do because I usually just write alongside storyboards but writing a script helps iterate through the dialogue.

Conclusion: Understand how to utilize the screenplay formats then just practice writing short scenes and boar them out. Read screenplays such as Minority Report and Logan by Scott Frank to see what they do and do not do. Remember, there are no shortcuts to success, you have to put in the work especially in filmmaking.

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