In 2016-2017 I was briefly “hip-pocketed” by a manager. He had found a screenplay of mine on the Blacklist 3.0 site and reached out to me to see what else I had. While our relationship ultimately didn’t pan out (more because of me than him), I learned a lot over the year of our talking and through the advice he gave me.
Throughout most of my conversations with this manager he really stressed playing to audience expectation. He discussed this idea of a story being 70% conventional and 30% unique. This is especially true for genre fiction, where a reader comes into it with expectations of certain tropes. Fantasy will have magic systems, space opera spaceships and distant worlds. If those expectations go unfulfilled, the reader is likely to be disappointed.
To be clear, this isn’t a “rule.” He never intimated it was one and I’d never treat it as such. It’s more of a guideline to what a reader, agent, or publisher looks for in deciding if a story is marketable. The question at the heart of this advice is, “Will the story be recognizable enough to fans of the genre you’re writing in to sell it successfully?”
It was broken down for me in this way: Successful writing is, more often than not, convention plus. That plus could be several things that add a spin to the convention. Unique set pieces, a high concept hook, quirky characters, or an unexpected backstory. You can point to several successful movies that put their spin right into the logline.
Hook: The story of Peter Pan if he finally grew up.
Snow White and the Huntsman: The story of Snow White if she learned to become a warrior.
I recognize that there may be better movies to point to, but these are simple examples. Television also thrives on this type of formula. How many shows premiere every year are Cop procedural plus? LUCIFER is a cop procedural where one of the cops is Satan. SLEEPY HOLLOW was a cop procedural where the cops are fighting against creatures of lore. And so on and so forth…
Here’s why I, personally, find the 70/30 concept to be an effective one: It allows your audience to gain easy entry into your story while leaving room for innovation that will surprise and intrigue them. I often wonder what draws people into stories and how much information they need in order to feel comfortable enough within a story to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. Adhering to the trappings of genre and looking for spots to flip cliche or add new ideas is an efficient way to do that.
Drew Goddard’s and Joss Whedon’s CABIN IN THE WOODS is a good example of this, if a bit extreme. The set-up is as fairly classic teen horror movie, Aside from a few seeds planted early on to introduce the audience to the controllers and make the world more palatable later on, the introduction of each of the characters and their journey to the cabin is essentially the same as the first act of any horror movie. The audience sits back, comfortable that they understand the characters and story–they’re totally invested in the story. In this movie, Goddard and Whedon use those expectations against the audience to surprise them, twist convention, and flip cliche all within a world that was established through the effective use of structure and convention.
By the end of the movie it really feels like anything can happen.
I know, I know. This sounds like a lot of rules when, as writers, we all want to run naked (or “nekkid,” if you prefer) through the fields of imagination. While I think it’s great to wander and create with no restriction I find playing within a box fun. I see it as a challenge Rules force me to think harder about what it is I need to do in order to tell the story I want to tell. Learning how to use them to my own advantage is part of the fun of developing as a writer. Hopefully, it will pay off.