Form vs. Formula

There is a certain breed of writer that I just can’t seem to reach. As the brilliant Strother Martin drawled as the Captain in Cool Hand Luke, the situation can be summed up as “a failure to commune-cate (communicate).”

The crux of our problem is in my assertion that there is a very big difference between Story Form and Story Formula. I turn blue in the face trying to explain how Form is not a synonym for Formula, but to no avail.

These writers, most often very talented and of the highly praised literary fiction variety, see The Story Grid and its practical application of Story Form as nothing more than yet another cheesy “write your novel in 30 days” come-on.

The truth is that years ago, at the very beginning of my career, I had the pleasure to actually edit one of those “follow this formula and after you dump in your ingredients, you’ll have a finished novel” books.

And what the writer of that book (an accomplished mystery writer and all around great guy) and I discovered is that the writing advice process isn’t about how to invent a formula, but rather how to use Story Form to help writers map out a work plan. (Ironically, one reviewer of The Story Grid dismissed it as inferior to the book I edited as an assistant all those years ago…go figure.)

So, what is the difference between Story Form and Story Formula?

In a comment of his last week, Story Nerd Alec Graf (thanks Alec!) led me to the obvious answer.

It reveals itself in my generic Foolscap Global Story Grid for an Untitled Redemption Story. So let’s walk through it line-by-line.

Here it is again:

Updated Foolscap for Redemption Story

Updated Foolscap for Redemption Story

The first question we must answer (and remember I learned my lesson about this here) is:

What is the Global Genre?

That is, what is the dominant genre of the Story…the one that will drive the Ending Payoff…the one that we hope the reader/audience will take away when they finish reading the final page or seeing the final image on screen?

The one our ideal reader will use to describe the Story to a friend…

It’s about this girl who’s a petty brat at the beginning who ends up caring for shell-shocked WWI veterans. (Atonement)

It’s about this southern gentleman who comes back from WWI lost and deep in the throes of bacchanalian obliteration who agrees to play in an exhibition golf match. (The Legend of Bagger Vance)

Now our primary interest in writing this story, as you’ll remember, is to reverse engineer a very commercial controlling idea that Robert McKee discusses in his book Story:

The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values—success, fortune, fame, sex, power—will destroy you, but if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.” (Page 125, Story by Robert McKee)

And what better description do we have of Redemption than that?

So our Global Genre is Redemption. Duh!

What about our External Genre?

As I wrote here, I think using the Performance Genre is a great way to frame your redemption plot.

You could use others too, Crime (John Cassavetes best film Gloria with Gena Rowlands is a pitch perfect example), Thriller (The Professional), Love (When Harry Met Sally)…just about any of the external genres can use the Redemption Story for added weight.

The reason why I love the Performance/Redemption combo is that it allows for a big dramatic moment when the protagonist will have to act on his/her internal transformation. It’s one thing to say you’re going to forgo the rewards of the material world. Another completely to actually act as you say you will act, especially when under intense pressure to stay as you ever were.

How many times have you told yourself before you went to a party that this time you weren’t going to eat any of the host’s cream puffs? How’d it go? I’ll bet you had one, perhaps more than one…just so your friend wouldn’t be offended. Your desire to change your cream puff eating ways collapsed the moment you were confronted with one.

This is why we love to see fictional characters act, at great cost, on their convictions. Maybe it will inspire us to say “thank you, no” the next time the cream puffs are passed our way. And for the record, I would never let a cream puff go uneaten. Some things are worth changing.

So our External Genre for our Untitled Redemption Story will be Performance.

Now the value at stake in the Performance Genre is Respect, which boils down to what I call “third party validation.” Which just means having people think you’re important, a big shot. I wrote this over at Steve Pressfield’s site a while back about it.

Moving from the positive expression of the value to its negation of the negation…Respect (being recognized as one worthy of admiration) to its contrary, Anonymity (being unknown/not recognized at all) to Shame (recognized as wrong/foolish/pathetic, a cautionary figure) to Shame disguised as Respect (being viewed with ridicule, but being treated with deference).

To keep the value progression of Performance straight in my head, I think of politicians.

So Respect would be someone like Abraham Lincoln.

Anonymity would be 99.9% of today’s or history’s politicians…I just have no idea who they are or what they stand for. I have no opinion either way. They’re anonymous to me.

Shame would be someone like Anthony Weiner or Elliot Spitzer.

Shame disguised as Respect would be someone like Richard Nixon. I’m sure that even after his resignation after the Watergate break in, few people he encountered treated him poorly. Most gave him respect, but deep down held him in contempt. Even his apologists. A terrible fate, indeed.

This is a good moment to go back and talk about the difference between Form and Formula. The Performance genre could be just about anything that has a big moment at the ending payoff built in from its beginning hook. An obvious moment that the reader/audience looks forward to from the get-go. A promised time in the offing that your protagonist must “perform” will keep readers reading.

Your protagonist may be an aspiring Senator, The Candidate.

Your protagonist may be an aspiring Buddy Rich, Whiplash.

Your protagonist may be a little girl desperate to win a beauty pageant, Little Miss Sunshine.

Your protagonist may be a broken down football player longing to show his genius, North Dallas Forty.

Your protagonist may be a coding nerd lost at Harvard, The Social Network.

Your protagonist may be a misunderstood artist looking for his “thing,” Pollock.

Your protagonist may be a hungry trader, Wall Street.

You get it.

The Performance form is easy to identify in all of these Stories…there is a big event at the end..the election, the concert, the pageant, the big game, the VC meeting, the art showing, the stock manipulation… That big event is part of the Form of the Performance Genre.  It’s an obligatory scene.

But there is no evidence of a shared formula/recipe in any of these stories:

There is no formula akin to something like this:

Take character X, have him/her apply for a job, then have something good/bad happen to him/her at the job, and then set up an opportunity for him/her stand up to his/her boss at a critical moment and lose their job but win our respect.

Just try to create a formula that combines all of the above Performance Stories yourself. Actually don’t. It’s a waste of time.

Instead of formulaic pablum, the movements of the Performance Stories I’ve listed require serious specificity, deep knowledge of the settings and sensibilities of each of the players in the narrative.

The writer of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle, knows his world in much the same way that Michael Arndt knew the world of Little Miss Sunshine. These writers didn’t use a formula.

What they knew was the form of the Performance Genre and they delivered the conventions and obligatory scenes of that form in a way no one has seen before.  They innovated a popular story form.

They didn’t follow a formula.

What they did was to translate a unique experience into a beneath-the-surface language we all can understand.

Genres are those subconscious languages. And languages are not formulas, much to the chagrin of Google translation robots.

Great writers know their chosen genres fluently and are capable of translating the conscious worlds of the characters, be they “Mark Zuckerberg” or “Jackson Pollock,” into subconscious genre forms that we all “know” in our bones.

We don’t know how to code or paint, but we sure know what the Zuckerberg character felt like when the Winklevoss twins interviewed him at the Porcellian Club and how Pollock felt when no one appreciated any of the work he was doing before his drip technique. The form of the Performance genre prepares us for the emotional arc of the Redemption Story…

Speaking of which, next up on our Foolscap Global Story Grid for an Untitled Redemption Story is the space for the Internal Genre, which we already know is Morality Redemption.

And the value at stake in a Redemption story is, drum roll…Altruism.

As the Redemption story moves from negative to positive, I like to write the value progression on my Foolscap from negative to positive too. Just so I have a quick reference of the internal progression of the protagonist at hand.

He’ll begin negative and end positive in terms of the Altruism value.

The negation of the negation of altruism is of course “selfishness disguised as altruism,” which is a terrific phrase to inspire you when conceiving your protagonist.

We’ve all met people who speak in terms of “helping others” and “doing it for the good of all humanity” who later turn out to be complete narcissists. Again politics comes to mind. These are characters that live in the negation of the negation. The TV show Veep is riddled with them. That is one of the reasons why it is so hilarious.

I didn’t write down the negation of the negation in my first draft of my Foolscap Page from the last post because I was a in a bit of a hurry getting it into the hopper, so I updated it for today.

This is one of the great reasons to keep thinking about this stuff even after you think you’ve “solved” your questions. Having an internal Socratic dialogue is never a bad idea.  Explaining and questioning your reasoning to yourself never fails to clarify.

A step less negative on the value spectrum for Altruism, more positive than a Machiavellian figure who disguises his narcissism, is the obviously selfish person. An example is that overtly ambitious colleague we all know from work. These people are so obsessed with “making it” that they aren’t capable of hiding their myopia. And when they do make it, boy does that suck the wind out of us, leaving us to think, if only for a moment, that we should be selfish too.

Moving more positively, there’s the person who places just one other person’s needs above his own. These are people who are firmly living in a committed and loving relationship. They’ll literally die so that their beloved will live. That’s a movement from self-obsession to caring for another.

Just realizing that another person’s life is as important to us as our own is a huge transformation. As Good As it Gets is a Story built entirely on that difficulty.

More positive still is the person committed to a tribe, the William Wallaces of the world, or Green Berets…the men and women who serve in the armed forces. They fight for their fellow warriors…place their brothers and sisters security above their own.

Lastly there are those who put all of humanity above their own concerns. We all have our favorites of this class of rare people. Religions are dedicated to these figures.

It’s important to reiterate the External or Internal Genre in your Foolscap Global Story Grid even if you think it’s silly. You need to have it in black and white in front of you at all times. There is a reason why these choices take up such important real estate on the Foolscap page.


Because, your genre choices will remind you not to inadvertently lose the forest for the trees as you work your writing plan. And after you’re finished with your work, you’ll need to be clear about the genre choices in order to defend your work from flippant criticism.

That is, if you want the controlling idea that we picked out from the very start to resonate, you better not let the secondary genre overtake the global genre at Story Climax.


What would have happened if the crime story in Gran Torino overtook the redemption story? If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s terrific. I’m going to spoil it in the next few paragraphs, so here’s your chance to stop reading, go watch it and come back.

Okay, time’s up.

What if the Clint Eastwood character, Walk Kowalski, lived in the end? In other words what if the writer, Nick Schenk, lost the core of the Story at the very end? He gets notes from the studio and they tell him it would be better for the Box Office if ole Clint pulls a Dirty Harry and survives at the end.  Then Schenk would have a chance to write a sequel…

And what if Schenk made the mistake of making that change…

Kowalski’s survival would have destroyed the climax of the redemption story in favor of the secondary crime story. And I hazard a guess that the movie would have bombed!

Kowalski’s survival would have changed the controlling idea of the global story.  It would have overrun the redemption idea and made it crime specific…

Instead of redemption’s controlling idea that hits like a punch to the solar plexus at the end of Gran Torino:

The compulsive pursuit of contemporary values—success, fortune, fame, sex, power—will destroy you, but if you see this truth in time and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.” (Page 125, Story by Robert McKee)

it would transform into something like:

Justice prevails when men take the law into their own hands.

The Clint Eastwood character, Walt Kowalski, at the beginning of the movie cares more for his freaking car than he does for any other human being on the planet! Which means he only cares about himself.

At the end, though, he’s a hero. He’s thrown away his selfish ways and redeemed himself by sacrificing for the good of his community.

This is a perfect example of a Redemption Story that uses the External Crime genre as its compliment.

In the next post, I’ll work further down the Foolscap Global Story Grid for our Untitled Redemption Story. This is a heads up for all of you compiling your databases of conventions and obligatory scenes for all of the genres.  I’ll put forth what I think they are for a Global Redemption Story.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts The Story Grid Bonus Material posts and Storygridding The Tipping Point posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.



20 comments on “Form vs. Formula

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    After trying (and failing) to explain the difference between form and formula to someone over lunch on Saturday, I’m thrilled to see this post and will direct my friend to read it! Thanks for continuing to excavate deeper into form – my own WIP is a Redemption Story, so I’ll be here bright and early on Thursday. As always, thanks!

  2. Hi Shawn.

    In today’s post, you wrote:

    “The writer of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle, knows his world in much the same way that Michael Arndt knew the world of Little Miss Sunshine. These writers didn’t use a formula…They innovated a popular story form…What they did was to translate a unique experience into a beneath-the-surface language we all can understand…Genres are…subconscious languages…Great writers know their chosen genres fluently and are capable of translating the conscious worlds of the characters…into subconscious genre forms that we all “know” in our bones.”

    What I’m beginning to see, I think, is that the “one common story” Joseph Campbell wrote about in The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the “original” form, the story we all “know in our bones.”

    Then great writers use that original form but translate it into specific genres which they innovate to give us, the reader, a story that will resonate with us deeply because it was written using a “beneath-the-surface language we all understand.”

    This is not a formula because a formula can’t do all that.

    I think I get it now!

    Thanks for another amazing post!

    Please keep ’em coming!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      That’s exactly it! The Story Spine reflects the Campbell journey and external and internal genres provide the outside the body and inside the body forces of conflict.
      All the best

  3. Brian Carter says:

    Shawne, The Story Grid is an epic achievement. It really stands out in the sea of writing/editing books. I’m applying it to my story design now and was wondering if there are more internal genres than you’d listed- and I think by way of example you answered yes on that. I think that designing a value at stake ahead of time either needs more fleshing out or is supposed to be found by just writing? For example in my story idea I wanted to show a guy moving from alienation to misfit to tyrannical leader to good leader. Thanks for all of this!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Brian,
      I recommend the redemption internal genre for your story. The character you describe is moving from a state of selfish obsession (he’s alienated because he believes he’s “other” or “special”) moving to misfit (which I would say is a move forward for him trying to become a part of something larger than himself with unsatisfying results) to tyrannical leader (the character doubles down on his “otherness/specialness” and uses his genius to co-opt others to do his bidding) to good leader (he has a change of heart for some reason, what I call a Truth will Out scene, and reforms to become concerned with others more so than himself).

      What I’ve described from your description is a classic Redemption arc.
      Hope that helps

      1. Brian Carter says:

        Related question – do you think an author like Lee Child- whose Reacher stories I love but are very similar and that makes it easier to love them all- tend to use the same internal genre, or external, not just have the same character over and over? Reacher is such a non-arc character, while so many books recommend a protagonist char arc, I keep trying to figure it out…

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Brian,
          There is no requirement to have an Internal Genre. You can go full bore action and it’s fine. James Bond is like this. So is Dirty Harry. No inner conflicts whatsoever. These stories are extremely difficult to create because they require external conflict innovation over and over again. It’s difficult to come up with a new way for two people to fight…but somehow Child does this very well. He purposely chose to have Reacher be an empty vessel of sorts. I suspect that in the years to come, we may find out more and more about Reacher as a human being. I confess I haven’t read all of the books. Only a few, but I enjoyed them.
          I prefer intense external and internal together.

          1. Brian Carter says:

            Got it, thanks!

            P.S. have you considered running classes for writers?

  4. Teddy says:

    Great material, Shawn. I continue to wait patiently for more. Thanks.

  5. Patrick Maher says:

    In fact, the person to whom most ‘change’ occurs seems to me to be the hero of any story – the protagonist. Redemption is simply a process on a continuum of ‘change’. If I read objectively a story is a process marked by asking the hero, at least four times, ‘Will you change?” Each ‘No’ is another cream puff. The final ‘Yes’ is the actual act of redemption – and only the final ‘Yes’. Usually this final act of redemption is the theme of the story writ large because the cost to the hero can be his or her own life – is that altruism? But the big thematic question at the beginning is answered at this point. The question asked at least four times is, “Will you become yourself and heal your core wound?” The hero MUST change – that is why stories have a beginning (NO!), middle (No!), a whacking great Obstacle (No!) and an end (Yes!). Every character in the story is umbilically tied to the progress of the hero’s big thematic question. That is a challenge worthy of a story and worthy of a reader’s time.

    Ah! Shawn you are about to tackle one of Philosophy’s biggies. “Is there such a thing as Altruism?” One camp says, ‘of course, look at the love a mother has for child – she would willingly give her life for her child.’ The other says, ‘there is no such thing as altruism – self interest is always at play – even when it is completely unconscious or bred in the genes. Genes have zero altruism. It is all self interest.’

  6. Patrick Maher says:

    My point of course, is that same question asked of the hero four times – at the beginning, middle, big obstacle and end constitute a FORM, not a Formula.

  7. Timothy Nobles says:

    Shawn, I am almost two years into creating a nonfiction book that your Tipping Point analysis has shown me is a Big Idea intellectual action-adventure (hero’s journey) with “The Environment” plot and internal genre of Worldview Revelation. The revelation is a key insight and a simple material-world maneuver to speed up our transition from millennia of self-destructive spin into the emerging healthy new paradigm. Your nonfiction grid has helped me understand and tune my structure–thank you!!! And, of course, I wonder when you will return to developing the Foolscap Global Story Grid and the Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point? I’m very excited to see where it goes.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Timothy,
      I’m working diligently on it and should be able to start posting my conclusions in August. It’s been a lot of fun. I’m just about done with the spreadsheet and the Foolscap…working up the final Story Grid now. Glad you’re looking forward to it.
      All the best

  8. Justin Fike says:

    Hi Shawn, great stuff as always. You’ve helped me zero in the external/internal genre of my manuscript in progress: action (which I knew)/ redemption (which I didn’t). Thanks!

    I do have one question: the novel I’m writing now will be the first of three. As I run the events and movements of the trilogy as a whole through the Story Grid I’m beginning to see that I’ve instinctively broken up the Redemption arc across all three books instead of arriving at the full positive end of the spectrum in book one.

    In brief his progression looks something like: Book 1 = Selfishness Disguised as Altruism to Selfishness to For the Good of One Person. Book 2 moves him through For the Good of the Tribe, while Book 3 ends with The Good of Humanity.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on internal and external arcs being played out over several books rather than just one? Obviously each book needs to pay off the promises of its beginning hook and stand on its own as a complete story, but if this is accomplished well in the external genre movement, can the progression of the internal genre be drawn out across a larger arc? Or does this run the risk of overly frustrating the reader along the way? I’m thinking of The Lord of the Rings as an example of this, although obviously that’s a pretty high bar.

    So in summary: can a two-part or trilogy story share the internal arc between them, with one book picking up where the other leaves off in terms of value progression, or does each book within the whole need to trace its own complete value progression to satisfy the reader’s unconscious expectations?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Justin,
      It’s virtually impossible to offer you advice about this. I will say that there is a risk of playing the same tune over and over in your trilogy if you rely on a single internal genre in every book. Just my gut talking there. You could certainly use it on a secondary character while exploring something else with your global protagonist. Don’t mean to discourage you, but I think it would be worth taking another look at your plan and see if you could work with another internal genre for Books 2 and 3.

      1. Justin Fike says:

        Thanks Shawn, that’s largely what I’d begun to suspect as well. It’s actually encouraging to realize it at this point in the process, rather than two thirds of the way through the second or, God forbid, the third book. I suspect your timely post today just saved me a substantial amount of re-drafting. Thanks again!

  9. Alec Graf says:

    Just back from watching Gran Torino….

    Yup, by combining Crime with Redemption AND Clint Eastwood — a whole *new* thing came out. Because there we were, watching for Dirty Harry to blast out the finale for yet another Clint Flick. But the way it actually pans out, it’s the most logical thing, and the old hindsight says, it couldn’t have been any other way….

    Thank you, Shawn.

  10. Jessika Picinich says:

    Hi Guys 🙂
    Quick question: Can my internal genre still be redemption if my protagonist didn’t actually do anything wrong/ act selfishly, she just thinks she did and as a result has always believed she is bad?
    Maybe I’m over complicating. Thanks for he help.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jessika,
      Hard to say without reading your book, but I’d suggest what you’re playing with here is the concept of self-deception as a means to keep from changing. I think you could use the Revelation internal genre as a means to get yourself on track. The revelation is the climactic moment that your lead character is lying to herself and falling back on her self-definition as “bad” in order to be free of having to change her behavior. She discovers this in here all is lost moment, which propels her to finally take an action that is not directly related to herself. She does something for someone else…sacrifices something for the good of another.
      Hope that helps

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