Formulaic Storytelling Isn’t Always Bad: Rocky III Edition
Let’s talk about fiction formulas.
Back when I used to post on forums, I’d talk about my writing process. I write heavily to formulas and set ups, and I plan intensely before I write anything. Especially fiction, because the projects are long and it’s easy to mess up if you don’t plan ahead.
For a good example of this, check out George R.R. Martin’s books. I’ve no doubt whatsoever that A Game Of Thrones was a planned book and A Dance With Dragons is a non-planned book.
You can tell because planned books are sharp and the twists, hooks and turns work. Unplanned books tend to have a very different, undulating feel.
Now – that’s not to say they’re bad but it’s just not what I prefer to read. And to be honest, most readers aren’t looking to read unplanned books.
For evidence for this, check out the top 100 in the biggest fiction genres. It’s all formulaic.
Now… does formulaic mean bad?
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Here’s a great example.
What The Rocky Movies Teach You About Writing Fiction
Look at this intro to Rocky III:
It is the best example of a fiction formula that I’ve found.
Each Rocky sequel does basically the same thing in its intro:
- It recaps the former installment
- It introduces the characters again in their new state of being
- Introduces the new villain
- Sets up every single character’s transformation
- Hints at the plot
In fact, you can watch the Rocky III intro and you’ll see exactly what the whole film is about. The only thing it really leaves out is whether Rocky will win at the end.
Understand, this is perfect.
I’ll show you what I mean with each main consideration for a fictional story and I’ll only use the information provided in the intro.
The settings are twofold:
- The glamour and glitz of modern America (such as it was)
- The hard life of the streets
You can tell this immediately. The recap is on the grandest stage, and it’s set with fireworks. Then Rocky and his cohorts are living the good life.
Lang, on the other hand, is in grimy areas, doing primitive training with a permanent scowl. The matches are lit differently, the camera work is different.
There’s obviously the music which is distinctly 1980’s. You know exactly when and where this is set.
The first two minutes or so show us the recap of the last movie (or two movies.) Rocky is the underdog, and finally captures the title in a close fight through sheer will and determination.
He revels in his victory.
He revels in his victory too much.
Rocky is going soft. He’s on kids’ shows and having picnics whilst there’s an unknown enemy waiting in the wings.
The plot is straightforward. Rocky will have to stop behaving like a King archetype and start acting like a warrior archetype. It’s a distinctly 80’s feel, but 80’s movies were awesome, and I’ll tell you why in the conclusion.
Those people close to Rocky are worried, anxious and nervous until the moment of catharsis where Rocky wins the title.
Then they are elated. Rocky dedicates his final victory to his wife, who he loves – the implication with her being at home that she has sacrificed for him, and the battle is won.
This concludes the recap. We then move into the next movie.
Rocky is enjoying the spoils of victory. He defends his title and his wife and manager are enjoying the spoils of war. They gradually become accustomed to the finer things in life.
Meanwhile, the old wise man (there’s always one) is keeping a watch on the competition… with growing fear in his eyes.
Clubber Lang is introduced through montages and through newspaper clippings as the biggest and baddest foe Rocky has ever faced. He is Rocky from the previous instalments (more on that later.)
Lang is purposely training like a barbarian – no technology – just primitive training.
Meanwhile, Rocky is getting accustomed to being on top in direct contrast. While he’s goofing off, meeting famous people, riding motorcycles and kissing his wife in sunny places, his soon-to-be-enemy is fighting hard and enduring hardship.
This sets up the character arcs:
Rocky will have to remember what it was like to be the underdog.
Lang is the usurper.
Rocky’s wife is going to tell him to quit because he’s going back to square one.
The manager is going to abandon Rocky because he likes the good life. (We assume.)
The coach and wise old man will be the person who tells Rocky to reject the call to adventure.
Let’s talk about that, because it’s more than just a character thing.
Bonus: The Character Arc And Hero’s Journey
Anyone who writes fiction should be aware of the Hero’s Journey. Essentially, our hero lives in normal world > Goes on an adventure > Wins and returns to the world.
There are pieces of each of that three act structure.
Rocky fits the hero’s journey perfectly. We’re introduced to the hero and he’s our underdog American everyman. He doesn’t have any particular technique and certainly no inherent advantage by birth.
Rocky wins through sheer determination and we see in the intro that he reaches the top of the mountain.
But then what do you do with your hero once they’ve won?
It’s a good question if you want to write sequels.
Rocky shows you a simple answer:
You flip the script and you set the clock back.
At the end of the first act of a hero’s journey, the hero must refuse the call to adventure. Simba doesn’t want to return to fight Scar, Luke Skywalker doesn’t want to leave his desert home to fight the Empire, and every romance heroine ever decides that Mr Perfect isn’t right for her.
It’s a psyche-out and we know it’s not going to work like that, but it sets up the second act.
Rocky has won. He’s the World Champion and living life.
He starts at refusal of the call. He doesn’t want to fight the monster we know he’ll fight.
And what is the monster?
There’s nothing scarier to a king archetypally than someone who has the willpower to take the throne and will do whatever it takes to get it. The only thing that can beat someone like that is… someone like that.
And there’s your hero’s journey set up in a nutshell.
As the Rocky series will show you, you can do this an unlimited amount of times.
Nobody is going to argue that the story to Rocky III is complex. The reason a movie like Rocky is successful – winning an Oscar – is that it doesn’t need to be complex.
It knows the rules and it follows it.
The reason 80’s action films are held in high regard is two-fold:
- They embody the various masculine archetypes
- They set the stage and get on with it
If you watch the intro to Rocky, you know you’re not getting Gone With The Wind. You’re getting the warrior archetype battling it out along the hero’s journey. Rocky’s II through however-many-there-are now are the same story told again.
The formula works and it allows for depth of character. For all some critics would say there’s no depth, every single character in the movies plays a part. It’s a one-dimensional part, but there’s no fluff or Game Of Thrones-style detour where you spend hundreds of pages following a character who then promptly dies without contributing anything to the wider plot.
Now, if you want to write undulating fiction without a point, go ahead.
If you want to write stories that captivate people and keep them going from start to finish, then you might want to follow the Rocky III example.
Oh, and you’ll sell more books if you do.