The Screenwriting Formula

Jack Brislee reviews “The Screenwriting Formula. Why it Works and How to Use It” by Rob Tobin.

Writers Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. 2007. 202 pages. ISBN 978-1-58297-462-0

Price: US $15


Rob Tobin is a screenwriter, script doctor and writing coach. His brief biography in “The Screenwriting Formula” tells us that he has read more than 5,000 screenplays, and this book is based on his experience.

He has written and sold dozens of screenplays and treatments and currently has one screenplay, “The Camel Wars”, in pre-production with director John McTiernan of “Die Hard”, “Predator” and “The Hunt for Red October” fame. Clearly, Rob Tobin has the credentials to write a good book about the Hollywood screenwriting formula.

Unfortunately this is not the book.


In the introduction to “The Screenwriting Formula” Tobin declares that “…there is a formula for writing screenplays, a formula used to write nearly every successful movie in Hollywood history. This book will teach you what the formula is and how to write structurally perfect scripts with believable dialogue, credible and interesting characters, a strong but unobtrusive theme, and the kind of story that sticks in the minds of readers and viewers.”

There is a formula for writing screenplays, a formula used to write nearly every successful movie in Hollywood history.

Like many self help books, the introduction promises more than it delivers. Tobin discusses some of the elements of the formula, but misses the nuts and bolts. A book that fails to identify the inciting incident, the various turning points, focus points and the half way point of a tightly structured Hollywood screenplay is not the last word on the screenwriting formula.

And, just for the record, there is no discussion about believable dialogue.

At the end of each chapter Tobin adds to a sample screenplay that he is supposedly writing with us, the readers. If this is the kind of story that sticks in the minds of readers and viewers then there is something terribly wrong with the mind of this reader.

The tale of Ross Parkes, the evil Matt and the gorgeous Leslie held my attention for all of three seconds.


Tobin, however, is very good at analysing some of the elements of a tightly structured script, and if this book were entitled “A Companion Piece to Writing a Formulaic Hollywood Screenplay” I would have few problems with it.

Tobin’s book compliments excellent primers such as “Teach Yourself Screenwriting” and the works of Syd Field, but does not replace them.

He suggests that there are seven elements to a basic Hollywood story – the hero, the hero’s character flaw, the enabling circumstances, the opponent, the hero’s ally, the life-changing event and jeopardy.

He then analyses each of these elements, referring to a wide range of films including “Midnight Cowboy”, “The Player”, “The Verdict”, “Million Dollar Baby”, “Wedding Crashers”, “Brokeback Mountain” and “Schindler’s List”.


Some of his best and most original observations concern the “enabling circumstances”. These are the circumstances that surround the hero at the beginning of the story that allow him to maintain his character flaw.

I recently watched “Ghost Town”, a film released after this book. It offers a great example of enabling circumstances. Bertram Pincus, played by Ricky Gervais, is a dentist who cannot stand people. He has absolutely no interest in the lives of others and lives as a semi-hermit. He is in the right career. When his patients bore him with their conversation he shoves a wad of cotton wool in their mouths.

Tobin’s observations regarding the hero are a bit one dimensional. We know that “watching a hero struggle with his flaw makes for an interesting film”. What most filmgoers know, and what Tobin seems not to know, is that there are other very interesting films that work outside this concept. Tobin criticises “Crash” because it is what he terms a “backdrop” story.


“Crash”, he says, “is about racism rather than the story set against a backdrop of racism”. True, but we have seen plenty of films about a hero set against a backdrop of racism – “To Sir With Love”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Romper Stomper”, “This is England” and “Gran Torino” to name just a few.

I found “Crash” interesting because it interconnected different stories in a very clever way, resulting in a satisfying multi-protagonist drama.

Tobin’s criticism of “Crash” is made by the oblique statement, “One major critic called “Crash” one of the worst films ever to win an Oscar”.

This is a very weak way to pass judgement. Tobin should offer his opinion, not that of an anonymous reviewer.

Become aware of this formula. Learn it backward and forward, and then apply it with your own unique voice, style, personality, goals and philosophy.


Part Two of “The Screenwriting Formula” concerns structure. Here Tobin seems to disregard the conventions of inciting incident, focus point and turning point and instead offers various elements that can be found in the three acts and the backstory.

This is rather strange for someone who declares, “There is a screenwriting formula. Most commercially and critically successful screenplays use some variation of this formula. If you want screenwriting success, artistic and/or commercial, the first step is for you to become aware of this formula. Learn it backward and forward, and then apply it with your own unique voice, style, personality, goals and philosophy.”


Tobin lists various elements in each of the three acts of the classically structured screenplay. Unfortunately some of these elements seem to be alternate phrases for the more readily recognised plot points.

It is as if Tobin is saying, “I want to write something original about the formula, so I’ll change the names of some of the elements and forget about some of the others.”

Tobin’s “life changing event” in the first act is the closest we get to the inciting incident. In my opinion, all classically structured Hollywood screenplays have an inciting incident which takes the story by the throat and throws it in a new direction.

Having said that, Tobin’s list of elements does provide a good guide for screenwriters who might be bogged down with their story. Having trouble with that dragging second act? Don’t worry. Tobin has a list of 31 second act elements. Throw in a few and get back on the rails.


Tobin’s attention to the elements of the backstory is one of the book’s strong points and an area often overlooked by other screenwriting gurus. These elements are the Point of Origin, Original Circumstance, Original Challenge, Original Defining Decision, Original Self-Definition, Primary Emotional State and Character Flaw.

Screenwriters who think about these elements of a backstory will write stronger screenplays.

Tobin’s hints for writing a logline and an outline (chapters 14 and 15) are also useful, as is his discussion of high and low concept stories. His earlier work, “How to Write High Structure High Concept Movies” will be the subject of a later review.


In the last chapter, Tobin undertakes a critical analysis of the screenplay of “Titanic” to show precisely why it is a bad script. To strengthen his point, Tobin should have erased the Oliver Stone quote in the introduction – “You can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can’t make a good movie from a bad script”.

“Titanic” is financially the most successful movie of all time and won an Oscar for Best Picture, so on a number of levels it must be classed as a good movie. Tobin needs to cherry pick his quotes more carefully.

If Tobin wanted a good quote for “Titanic” he had only to turn to Robert Altman, who called it “the most dreadful piece of work I’ve ever seen in my entire life”. That should have replaced the Oliver Stone quote.


Tobin’s list of elements in the screenwriting formula are very good, but they do not explain the nuts and bolts of the classically structured Hollywood screenplay. He is strong on the elements of the back story, the enabling circumstances of the hero and how to write a logline. His analysis of “Titanic” is very good, and his suggestions for its improvement are convincing.

“The Screenwriting Formula” is a useful book, but it is not the book on the formula. Use it as a companion piece to the books that really analyse the classic Hollywood formula, not as a bible.

Next week: “Writing the Action-Adventure Film” reviewed.

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