Every writer must at some point have read Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey or at least heard of it. If you haven't, you've probably read Christopher Vogler's excellent interpretation of it, which a friend has kindly lent me, or his seminal 1985 memo on it that sent Hollywood into a spin.
Vogler's memo was subsequently blamed for a lot of formulaic flops, as well as being credited with inspiring hits like The Matrix. Critics of this and systems like Save the Cat claim that they're nothing more than movies by numbers. But it's not possible to write a movie without any kind of underlying structure or principle, right?
Well it is. Harmony Korine gives it a pretty good go most of the time. BUT - Korine does not have a large audience. I don't think he cares, mind.
The fact is, people have been telling stories around campfires for thousands of years, and even campfire stories tend to have a beginning, middle and end. A hero and a villain. An unimaginable challenge, and an act of bravery or ingenuity that surmounts it.
It's like the universal, innate archetypes that Carl Jung described. Why do people all over the world respond to the same basic stories? Why do children who've never lived in the country draw a detached country pile with five windows and a door when asked to draw a house? There are common threads that every human recognises: the search for love, the battle between good and evil.
These universal stories can be used in an film like Office Space, where the villain is a company man and the hero a disaffected desk jockey. Or in a film like Fight Club, where the villain is more complicated and closer to home.
If someone buys Vogler's book and designs a screenplay that sticks painstakingly to the path of the Hero's Journey, the result may well look formulaic. But if the common threads are pulled in an unexpected direction - writing the hero of Alien as a woman for instance, you have something which is at once universal and very unique.
Take the principles and learn 'em - because you have to recognise them if you're ever going to subvert them.