As a person who grew up reading comics, and modern pulp, I consumed adventure-based storytelling. It wasn’t until much, much later that I became aware of the Arkoff formula and what it means for storytelling. Following the formula gives a chance at an exciting and entertaining story – a chance that can be developed by having good writing, craft, and concept.
Bad writing? Well, let’s just say that there isn’t a formula in the world that can salvage bad writing
Samuel Arkoff founded American International Releasing in the 1950s, and produced over 500 films in his career. He made a practice of pre-selling films to audiences before making them so that he was profitable before even the first frame was shot.
He had a formula for success in a movie that also applies to books. Though many authors are reluctant to use the concept of formula in their work, at the end of the day, I would look at formula as a list of ingredients that you can mix and match any way that you want and use to build a story the way that you want. Rather than seeing a formula as restrictive by saying that you must have each and every element in there, I would approach it as liberating by seeing how each element can be added–if it needs to be added at all.
Now, I have only one commandment of storytelling:
ARKOFF and What it Means
Arkoff broke his name into an acronym and explained it thusly:
ACTION: A good story keeps moving the plot forwards, preferably at a breakneck speed so that the audience can’t wait to see what happens next. Even if two characters are sitting at a table, there should still be action in the form of verbal jousting and the dance of verbal subtext between the characters.
REVOLUTION: Revolutionary ideas and concepts should be brought into the story. Show the audience something interesting, something they may never have thought of before. Make it something that resonates with them. Don’t rely on old tropes, whether you repeat them or subvert them. Instead, push for something new.
KILLING: Arkoff did B-movies by the dozen, and went through entire swimming pools of stage blood, so he tended to focus more on the teenage audience that for some reason loves to see people slaughtered. For our purposes, look at killing in terms of the stakes facing your characters–what is so important that it is worth killing for? What is so important that one of your protagonists would kill–or worse?
If you are going to kill your characters, then make sure that it’s an interesting death that does move the story forwards. Make sure that each death has something to say about the deceased, or the person who killed them. Even in the middle of a brutal combat scene, there should still be a sense that the death diminishes us, or is justly deserved because of the path the character took.
Avoid “tells” which can foreshadow the death of the character (e.g. the cop three days from retirement, or one who just bought a boat) unless those tells resonate with the theme of your story.
ORATORY: Although Arkoff used Oratory in talking about the movie he was producing at the time, I think that it’s equally important to have your character speak well. Give them memorable lines. Let them speak with layers of subtext. Make the dialogue more than interesting–make it fascinating in a way that has your readers quoting their favourite lines of dialogue back to them. Nobody is going to care that you found the right adjective to describe your character, but they will remember your character’s dialogue if you make it good enough.
FANTASY: All of us have fantasies and want to experience them vicariously through others. Find which fantasies resonate with your audience and give them the opportunity to live those fantasies through the eyes of your characters. You are not just telling a story, you’re selling dreams to people. Whether they want to be the farmboy who wants to get off planet and fight a distant rebellion, the woman who finds out that she has the opportunity to show up the snooty prom queen at her high school reunion, or a man who wants to take violent and bloody revenge on the people that murdered his wife and daughter, write in ways that let audiences experience those fantasies.
FORNICATION: Yes, fornication. Sex appeal is an important part of the fantasy element. But we’re not necessarily talking about full, raunchy sex scenes that would make a porn star blush. What we’re talking about is sultry, sexy, sensual–the heat that comes from desire rather than the sweat that comes from the sex itself. Focus on the seduction, not on the sex. Let the audience fill in the details with their imagination–they will thank you for it.
Before we abandon fornication as a topic, there are two things to consider. First, does the sex move the story forwards, or is it just tacked in there in order to spice up a dull plot? A scene written where a woman has sex with a man she despises to keep the man from hearing the conversation of her co-conspirators in the next room pushes the plot forwards and also reveals something about the character. A scene written where a man and woman stop in the middle of a madcap race to stop an atomic bomb from detonating to have passionate sex is bad plotting.
Incidentally, the proper response to being propositioned for sex because “We might not live through the night…” is “GODDAMMIT! Quit Whining! Defuse the bomb and then we’ll celebrate.” Just saying…
The second thing to consider about sex is whether it ties into the fantasies of the reader. Harlequin has managed to build a very successful multimillion dollar business by having a very rigid blueprint designed to appeal to their female marketplace. Many of their series feature sex as fantasy fulfillment using the “heat of the moment” to allow the heroine to be swept away by her passions. And you can almost predict right to the page where the first sex scene occurs. The point is to know your readers and their fantasies and to allow the fornication to appeal to those fantasies.
So, What Do We Do with the ARKOFF Formula?
Well, we have the formula, so we can mix and match elements as needed in order to get an entertaining story, but I don’t think that’s enough. Anyone can pick up a hammer and start nailing 2×4’s together but that’s a long way from framing a house. Understanding the theory behind structure, and load, and even how the wood beams curve is all necessary.
The formula is simple enough that anyone can follow it. To master it, we have to understand what’s behind it. Take a look at all of the elements there, and see what the commonality is.
It’s vicariousness. It is allowing the reader or the viewer to live out exciting experiences through the eyes of the story’s characters. Vicariousness allows the audience to feel the thrill of being hunted, or of seduction. It allows them to imagine what it’s like to say memorable words, and to imagine the unimaginable. It takes them outside of their lives, and lets them experience excitement. It lets them watch bad things happening to someone else, far away, and see how that person triumphs against the bad things.
It goes back to the one commandment: “First, I shall entertain.”