There’s a moment in Robert Altman’s Hollywood-on-the-dissecting-table film The Player where a pitch meeting is in progress, and the woman making the pitch describes her project idea as “Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.”
Seeing that wasn’t the first time I had been exposed to the “X-meets-Y” formula for describing any creative project, but it cemented something I’d suspected for a long time before: People take this formula very seriously indeed.
As well they should. It has amazing explanatory and imagistic power, just like being able to say “He is a Scrooge” lets you draw on a whole cosm’s worth of cultural connotations.
The problem is—you knew I was going to say that at some point, didn’t you?—mistaking a descriptive formula for a creative formula.
When you say something is “X Meets Y”, that’s typically terminology you come up with after the fact to describe what’s in your head (or, if you’re finished, in a file somewhere). Some can, and do, use the X-Meets-Y formulation to drive their initial creative burst: Wouldn’t it be cool if we took the Wild West and added ALIENS!?
That’s all great. Just don’t get stuck there. Don’t substitute a descriptive formula for the actual creative process.
When we use the X-Meets-Y for settings—steampunk comes most to mind—the standard advice I hear for such things is “Follow the implications.” Meaning if you add CLOCKWORK VAMPIRES to VICTORIAN ENGLAND, you need to think the idea through all the way to the bitter end and see where it takes you.
Good advice. Thing is, that exploration by itself can be so exhausting and all-consuming for some people, that while they do come up with some great ideas (they, imagine such a thing going doubly bonkers and becoming Jack the Ripper!), they forget that a truly absorbing story is not just about the cool things you can jam into it.
In fact, the more such things you jam into a story, the more you run the risk of having them get in the way of, rather than support, the story—which should be about the people you’re centering the story around.
X Meets Y is a starting point, not an endpoint. If you begin with X Meets Y, you need to remember that it’s just that: a beginning, a place from which to move forward. It’s not the entire sandbox you play in.
Some years ago, I was part of a creative project which involved myself and a couple of other key collaborators. The idea we had was, I feel, original and daring. The way we talked up the project to others involved these kinds of formulations—but I noticed that we didn’t use those same formulas amongst ourselves when talking about the project. They didn’t fit, and the project had already been created entirely apart from such things anyway. I am ashamed to report the project never got off the ground, despite a few years of effort on everyone’s part, but I walked away from it with a great deal more of an understanding about how to make people notice something.
A formula is a tool, and all tools have a specific usage set. You can pound nails with a saw, but you’d be better off with a hammer, and both of those things tend to make a poor jeweler’s screwdriver. X Meets Y is a great tool for marketing and a good tool for generating creative sparks, but it isn’t meant to substitute for the real nitty-gritty of making a story worth caring about.