Monday, July 25, 2011


Are you ready for the rollercoaster 
that is my mind?

I dyed my hair dark brown from it's natural blonde and I loved it. It was a really fun change.
But going back to blonde....not so fun.

Currently my hair looks like an orange hypercolor shirt that turns white at the scalp. It's intense. And today when I pulled it back (so that I didn't have to look at it) I looked in the mirror and saw a blast from the past.

This lady:

(but I don't wear blue eyeshadow, in case you were wondering)

Ah, Strictly Ballroom! I have great memories of that movie. If you haven't seen this movie AND you can stomach Baz Luhrmann films then watch it! It is wonderful. More about it later....

Follow me if you will.
We're walking...we're walking....we're stopping.

I asked you fine folk a question a little while back about book writing formulas.
And I discovered that some of you felt strongly about the topic.

"I would love a formula."
"No formulaic writing, please."

I loved the discussion in both directions.

And we're back to Strictly Ballroom
(You're just going to have to trust me)

The plot of Strictly Ballroom is this:

This guy (Scott)

wants to dance new dance steps in competitions that are 'strictly' ballroom

he loses his dance partner (the bleach blonde, Liz) and gains a gangly nerd girl (Fran)

His mother and the dance board say "NO NEW STEPS!"

But the couple blow the competition out of the water with their new and improved Paso Doble
(Now you don't have to see the movie ;)

Sometimes I think we hate conformity, just like Scott, and want to dance to our own steps ("I would never follow a story formula!")

But allow me to discuss a contrary thought for the sake of argument.

Scott didn't change the face of ballroom dancing, just like Baz doesn't change filmmaking, just like non-conformist book writers don't change the novel- at least for the majority.

Ballroom dancing still follows strict rules (and the dancers must be creative inside of those boundaries), the films that draw in the biggest crowds are rather formulaic, and most non-conformist books never get published.

I loved some of Scott's moves, Baz's films, and I chose to write an entire thesis paper on Jack Kerouac.

But structure is there for a reason.

"Thy reason, dear venom, give thy reason!" (Shakespeare's 12th Night)

Because it works.
Because we like it.

I think there is value in studying structure, especially as a newbie to any field.
-Want to learn to paint? Paint just like the greats until you feel your groove and paint your voice.
-Want to learn to design homes? Build from tried and tested blueprints until you are inspired to stray.
-Want to learn to write? Study the greats and follow a form until you know how to write in a way that is all your own.

People who start with the idea of reinventing the wheel are often frustrated. You can reinvent the wheel but it is best done by those who study the wheel, what works and what doesn't, then come up with a better wheel. Not just by someone who looks at a wheel and says, I can do better than that.

I present these ideas as one side of a debate and something to think about. I think there are some people who somehow can invent a new and improved wheel without all the prep work, but they are rare. If you feel strongly inspired to break from conformity- BREAK FREE! I really believe that. But if you just don't like the work and would rather skip it and get to the might be a long road.

Here is a short blog post about this topic that I found after writing this the first time. If you have two minutes to spare, it is worth it.

Complete side note (if you have followed me thus far, you can follow me anywhere!) I watched Strictly Ballroom for 2 years in a row in high school spanish class. Why? Because there are some tidbits of spanish in this Australian film. You gotta love underpaid public school teachers!


  1. Love Strictly Ballroom. Just watched it again a few weeks ago. What a great analogy, Shelly. Scott was able to dance new steps because he already knew the regular ones.

  2. I agree that you need to have a firm grasp on the rules before you can break them. Stories have structure--life has structure. Without this structure our stories lose the power they could have.

    I just read a story that was zipping along and then in the last chapter out of nowhere a ghost shows up and resolves the problem the Protag should have solved. This wasn't a ghost story and the resolution came out of nowhere. I hated it.

  3. Best moment of that movie:

    Liz: What do I want? I'll tell you what I want! I want Ken Railings to walk in here right now, and say 'Pam Shortt's broken both her legs, and I wanna dance with YOU!'
    [the door flies open. It's Ken]
    Ken: Pam Shortt's broken both her legs, and I wanna dance with you.
    Kylie: That was unexpected.

  4. Even the movie plot is following a formula: hero wants change, hero gets persecuted, hero finds unlikely partner/sidekick, hero faces difficulties, hero triumphs, hero gets girl.

  5. I love this, Shelly! Structure becomes the shell and our job is to fill it with new and pretty things.

    I'm going to check out Strictly Ballroom. Haven't seen it. Do I need to hang my head in shame?

  6. Structure-haters overlook the power of resonance. If a book reminds us of another favorite book, we're more likely to love this book, too.

  7. Totally followed you though this post, and I agree. It's like what they say about writing rules too: learn them first, so you know how to break them with effect and purpose. Be creative and non-conformist, but also understand why "the formula" works and acknowledge its good points.

    I still haven't seen Strictly Ballroom, but I loved Moulin Rouge!

  8. @Kayeleen- It's great isn't it!

    @Angie- A ghost? LOL! That's just silly. Unless it's Scooby Doo.

    @786- Along those same lines I love how Liz is always screaming. Baz is pretty good with the funny. I think I read somewhere that this stemmed from a longform improv...but I could be off.

    @cherie- amen! That is what made it work. His style is a little off the norm and that puts some people off, but the story is simple enough.

    @Ruth- Just find a copy. It's pretty fun stuff.

    @Robin- yes, yes, yes! I didn't even think about that.

    @Krispy- get yourself some balsamic, truffle oil, and french bread and watch Strictly Ballroom. It is, believe it or not, more normal than Moulin Rouge and just as funny.

  9. I love that movie! It's one of my all time faves. LOVE LOVE LOVE.


    And I agree with you so wholeheartedly--learn the structure. THEN you can make it your own, twist it, turn it, dress it up in sequins and maribou trim and slather aqua eyeshadow all over it's reconstructed face. But learning it is very very helpful!

    Rock on with your not-quite-back-to-blond self.

  10. This is a totally fabulous post. I think that sometimes I totally pants it, but to really know what you're doing can not only make a better product but save you time in the end. Of course it is possible to make something extraordinary while working with those guidelines. Great post. :)

  11. Ooh, I love Strictly Ballroom! And I LOVE how you brought out that dancers have to be creative within the confines of their dance, because I agree-- that's how we need to be as writers. I firmly believe that whatever kind of structure you use, there has to be some there. You don't have to reinvent the structure of stories in order to be creative.

    In fact, I've found that I can actually be more PRODUCTIVELY creative when I know what the structure boundaries are and can play around within them.

    Thanks for this awesome post!

  12. Nice analogy: You've got to learn the rules in order to break them! I love Strictly Ballroom. One of those ones you can watch again and again. "Show me your Paso Doble!"

  13. I think writers need to know the rules before they can break them, and a lot of people who scorn structure don't realize their writing is more formulaic than they think. We're all prone to it. Studying up on structure gives us a chance to look at what we're doing from an outside perspective and choose to depart from it if we wish.

    So really, in order to break from the formula, you have to see it in your own work.

  14. I used to love that movie! I think I always secretly wanted to be a ballroom star. I've been trying to get Spenny to watch it with me...don't think it's going to happen. :) I think I got shivers every time at the end when Scott slid across the ballroom floor. Oh wow!


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