Review: "The Screenwriting Formula" by Rob Tobin
Writers Digest Books, 2007
by Ebony Jones
I'm sure you've heard writers who have said that they refuse to follow the formulas because they're afraid of writing the same movie that everyone else is writing. Tobin takes blockbuster titles and tells it like it is by saying that there are some major blockbusters with poorly-written scripts. He warns against getting so emotionally involved in viewing a movie that we lose sight of its flaws. And in this book he points out where these scripts go wrong by not following the formula. But how do these blockbuster movies get away with deviating from formula? The bigger question that Tobin asks is, do they really get away with it? He also takes six different movies from six different genres and explains to us why these movies work by following the same formula yet are still originals.
So, what is the formula? What I loved most about Tobin's book is that he takes you step-by-step through it. Please bear with him through this process. I have read many screenwriting how-to books, and while it's easy to get cynical while reading this one, there is payoff. One of the pieces of payoff is Tobin pointing out that there are two levels to a movie that must exist, both objective and subjective. I will admit that I've often misjudged the objective level as the success of the movie, when it's actually the subjective that brings the audience to their knees and could be the difference between an Oscar screenplay nomination and a win.
It's been said that writing a character-driven script versus a plot-driven script is a nonsense argument and along the lines of which came first, the chicken or the egg? That may be true, but Tobin's focus in this book is on the hero, the ally, and the opponent -- the characters. In some movies, both the ally and opponent are the same character. He takes you through a hero's journey. Tobin doesn't gloss over this journey because it's the true reason why we see the movie in the first place. He breaks his analysis up according to the three-act structure. He also denotes the importance of believability in the character's actions. It's important to justify why a character has a certain flaw and why they hold onto that flaw and why they act the way they do. Tobin emphasizes the importance of back story in every element of the movie even if it's not apart of the script. He shows you how to subtly weave in elements of back story when it's applicable, to move your plot forward.
So, what's the blockbuster film that Rob Tobin feels had a terrible script? You'll just have to read the book. If you're a fan of that film, please hear him out. Tobin notes that the movie won Oscars for practically everything it was nominated for except best screenplay. I recently watched the movie and looked at it from a writer's perspective, and Tobin is right in his assessment. One big flaw that struck me about that particular script even before reading Tobin's book is the many times that the main characters called each other by their names in a simple conversation. But little things like that matter to the whole of the script.
And speaking of little things, Tobin discusses making your concepts “high concepts” but still keeping it simple. Your hero should only have one major flaw. I must emphasize that a great movie can be made with only one major character flaw. Giving a character too many flaws can keep a script from tying up loose ends and you walk away from the movie feeling like something was missing.
Pitching the script, loglines, outlines, and brainstorming techniques are all important parts to the success of a movie. Tobin makes them secondary to what matters most to the viewer. Sometimes Hollywood forgets why we invest money, gas, and time to sit in a theater opening weekend to watch these movies. We watch them because we identify with or feel sympathetic toward the “hero” in some way. How that movie got onto the screen doesn't matter to the average movie watcher. I loved Rob Tobin's The Screenwriting Formula because he wants writers to build a story on a strong foundation. He says in the book that it's like architecture. You don't want to build a house that looks pretty but could easily fall without structure. One of the most important things that Tobin says is that once you learn the rules, you can elect to break them. But don't break the rules until you know what they are.
Ebony Jones is a 2001 graduate of Cornell University's School of Hospitality with a degree in business communications. She has completed her first unpublished novel Swimming in Blue Drink as well as a short story, “When Ariel Lost Her Voice”. She is finally going to tackle restructuring the dramatic screenplay she's been working on titled “When Momma Dies”.