Monday, May 28, 2012

The Hollywood Formula

One of the most practical things I've learned as a creative writer is that you must be willing to learn from all sources.  One of the sources that I learn from is movies.  My wife and I are probably at the movies about once every two months (and during summers like these twice to three times every month).  She enjoys the experience for getting to see a visual story (she's not one much for novels), and I enjoy it because I get to deconstruct a story. And I had no problem doing that with most movies until recently.  I watched the Avengers.

In most movies I would be able to tell you the blow by blow of what happens at the end, because of what I've seen at the beginning.  But I couldn't have told you exactly how I did that.  I just thought it was because I had mad story deconstruction skills.  And then I listened to a podcast starring Lou Anders on Writing Excuses featuring The Hollywood Formula and suddenly two things became clear: I am not as awesome as I was thinking that I am, and how they plotted the movie of the Avengers.

This blog will share spoilers for multiple movies.  If you don't want to know the spoilers for The Hunger Games, How to Train your Dragon, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, or Marvel's The Avengers.  This would be a good place to stop reading, go watch the movies and then come back here and read.  If you don't care, then lets break down Lou Ander's version of the formula (Lou Anders credits his mentor Dan Decker for the formula).

The Hollywood Formula starts with three characters:  The Protagonist, the Antagonist, and the Dynamic or Relationship Character.  (I'm going to use the term Dynamic Character to avoid the implications that the Relationship Character is the one the Protagonist is in a relationship with.)

The Protagonist (Katniss) is the main character of your story.  They must want something concrete and achievable.  To be happy or save the world is not concrete.  But to get the girl so you can be happy or to save the world by destroying the one ring are both concrete and achievable.  Katniss wants to win the games so she can return to be with her sister.

The Antagonist (Peeta) is a person who puts obstacles in the way of the protagonist.  They block the protagonist from what they really want in the story.  And your Antagonist must be a character, not a thing or an entity in the concept of the Hollywood Formula.  Peeta is an unusual antagonist because he looks like he's on Katniss's side, but throughout the book and the movie it is Peeta who keeps Katniss from her goal of winning the games.

The Dynamic Character (Haymitch) is a person who accompanies the protagonist on their journey.  They are someone who has accomplished the journey they believe the protagonist is on before, and are trying to share their wisdom.  You can tell who the Dynamic character is because they are the person to whom or from the theme of the movie is articulated.  Early in the movie there will be a conversation upon that film's theme which will be revisited at the end of the film where they have a conversation called "the reconciliation of the Protagonist and the Antagonist."  Haymith knows that in order to win Katniss needs people to like her, he shares this early in the film.  And they build the idea of people liking her for the kind of person she is throughout the games.  And in the end it is because the people like her that both her and Peeta are enabled to survive.  Which articulates the theme of the importance of being liked.

Katniss volunteers for Prim.  This scene still shocks me.
The next part of the formula is about the structure of the story.  You need three acts that are broken down by percent of the story they should encompass: First Act 25%, Second Act 50%, Third Act 25%. In the First Act you have to establish the characters and what they want.  During this act you'll also need to have a fateful decision.  This is the choice which determines whether or not you have a story.
This decision happens pretty early in the story.  In a screen play of a 120 pages it is estimated to start at around page 11 to 13 (which translates to 11 to 13 minutes into the film).  In the Hunger Games it is when Katniss volunteers for Prim to be the pledge for Sector 12.

Act Two is all about the transition from asking questions to resolving questions.  The first act and a half is all about asking questions, and halfway during act two you need to start resolving them.  I say resolve instead of answer because some questions will be resolved with other questions.  (That's a bit of me applying what I see some of my favorite authors do to this formula.)  The Hunger Games is about half over when Katniss goes looking for Peeta.  Questions are resolved to bring about bigger questions throughout that period.

Sharing of the nightlock, isn't double suicide romantic?
The transition from Act Two to Act Three is the low point of the story.  This is the point where things are so bad that they could not possibly get any worse.  In the Hunger Games it is when Katniss has to go out and get the potion to save Peeta.  She's up against several tributes and Peeta is begging her not to go.  The rest of Act Three is called the Final Battle.  It is the fight from the low point to the end of the movie.  It begins with Katniss's struggle for the potion, and culminates with the attempted suicide with the nightlock berries.  Shortly thereafter the story ends and the hook to the second story is introduced beginning the arc for book and movie two.

So that is the entirety of the formula.  A few movies that I've been able to use the formula with are below.  Feel fee to debate with me on any of my analyzations I've made.  Including the one above.  I always appreciate a good discussion.

How to Train your Dragon

Who wouldn't want a boyfriend who rides dragons?
Hiccup is the Protagonist.  He wants to protect Toothless and the other dragons from his people.  Stoick is the Antagonist.  He wants to protect his people from the dragons by killing them all.  Astrid is the Dynamic Character.  She is a girl Viking, the toughest of the kid Vikings also.  This means she has gone through a lot be accepted in her role in the village, and she has to teaches Hiccup by the end of the story that it is okay for him to be who he is.  A smart kid who wants harmony between the dragons and the Vikings.  (An example of a Dynamic Character who is also the love interest.)

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

The Fall of a Jedi and the Rise of a Sith
Anakin is the Protagonist.  He wants revenge on all the people who have stood in the way of his relationship with Padme.  Obi-Wan is the Antagonist.  He wants to save the Republic and return order to the Galaxy.  Senator Palpatine is the dynamic character.  He is the one who teaches Anakin to embrace his rage and that through his anger he can save Padme.  He orchestrates the events which reveal the development of Anakin going from being a Jedi to a Sith, and even makes him his apprentice.  The reconciliation at the end of the story is the final lie told to Anakin that turns him into Darth Vader.

Marvel's The Avengers

The focus is on Ironman, the protagonist.
The Avengers was such a complicated movie.  I would daresay there was more than one story being told in the Avengers, but for our purposes I chose what I felt was the main storyline to the show.  In that storyline Tony Stark, Ironman, is the protagonist.  He wants to protect the world from all enemies foreign and domestic (remember he's against S.H.I.E.L.D. and Loki.)  Loki is the Antagonist.  He wants to enslave the earth and become its ultimate ruler.  Steve Rogers, Captain America, is the Dynamic Character.  He is the one who teaches Tony that in order to save the world he's going to need to be willing to sacrifice even himself for the cause.  Tony rejects that throughout most of the movie and at the end he is the one who carries the nuclear weapon into Loki's gate to destroy his army.

Those are just a few movies that I felt followed this.  If you check out the Writing Excuses with Lou Anders and Nathan Russell's blog you can get a few more examples you can agree or disagree with.  What is really important is understanding this formula.  Nobody says that you have to follow it, but if you understand the principles behind it you can develop stronger stories and make believable character arcs.  And that should help you immensely as you write your stories for Camp NaNoWriMo or anything else.

Thanks for reading today.  I'll be sharing a Mashup on Wednesday and I can't wait to get to it.  I hope that you all have a wonderful week.  I'm Jayrod Garrett, the First OG, and I want you to throw your opinions down about the Hollywood Formula and these movies in the comments.  It would would make me smile.  Peace, people.


  1. So for a movie the antagonist has to be a character? For my adventure romance, nature is an antagonist.

    1. In the construct of this specific structure, yes. I love the book "Hatchet" where nature is the antagonist, but it doesn't fit purely into this structure. A lot of good books don't. This is only a technique that you can use to structure your novel better, or gain greater emotional impact for your audience. It shouldn't be used in every situation.

  2. Great post, and great job deconstructing the stories. For a minute I was thrown by Peeta being the antagonist, but now that I think it about it. You are right. She doesn't want him to die, but he must for her to win. Even though some of the other tributes are stronger contenders, he is the one she can't bring herself to kill.

  3. While The Hunger Games in terms of the Hollywood Formula makes perfect sense to me (Katniss as the Protagonist, Peeta as the Antagonist, Haymitch as the Dynamic/Relationship Character) I can't remember off hand where the reconcilliation occured between Katniss and Haymitch, the so-called "reconciliation of the Protagonist and the Antagonist," especially in the film. Then again, I've only seen it twice and read the book once...

    Great additional examples of films that follow this formula, it was just what I was looking for! (Additional examples beyond those in the Writing Excuses episode)


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