The Hollywood formula

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I’ve already discussed various ways to structure a story. Today, I’ll discuss another variation of the three-act structure: the Hollywood Formula. Interesting to know if you like writing, but also if you like to pick apart movies.

The Hollywood Formula

I learned about the Hollywood formula through Writing Excuses, but it was – as far as I can find out – originally devised by Dan Decker. As you may have deduced from the title, it applies to movies. However, as with many things related to movies, it also applies to writing.

Note that this a way to structure your structure, but it is not the only way, or even necessarily the best way. However, I feel it is always useful to analyse how a story is structured, and if you disagree, all the better, you’ve just found an even better way to structure your own novel.

The Hollywood Formula follows the three-act structure, but adds some specific elements to it. First off, it establishes three archetype characters that are there in each story:

  • The protagonist: the main character, who has a clear tangible goal to achieve in the story.
  • The antagonist: the character that places obstacles in the protagonist’s path to achieving their goal.
  • The dynamic character: the person who accompanies the protagonist on their path and understands what the protagonist is going through.

The story structure

The story is structured into three acts, which have a length and specific events that happen in that act. The following list assumes a 120-minute (two-hour) movie:

  • Minute 0 to 30: Act 1, introduction of the protagonist, antagonist, and relationship character.
    • Minute 11~13: the faithful decision of the protagonist. They have a choice to bow out of the adventure, but they decide to set out on a quest to achieve their goal.
    • The dynamic character will voice the theme of the story: something they understand, but the protagonist still needs to learn.
  • Minute 30 to 90: Act 2, the main act, which lasts twice as long as the others, meaning it makes up half the story.
    • Minute 60: halfway through act 2 (and also the movie), the story should switch from asking questions to answering them. This signals that the story is going from build-up toward climax.
    • Minute 90: the end of act 2 and the low-point in the story. The protagonist as far from their goal as possible.
  • Minute 90 to 120: Act 3, the climax of the story.
    • The protagonist achieves their goal.
    • The protagonist reconciles with the dynamic character.
    • The protagonist defeats the antagonist.
    • The three events above should happen as close together as possible for maximum climactic effect.

Looks simple enough, right? You can apply this to many movies, and it helps explain why some movies work and others don’t.

You can apply it to writing just as easily by replacing ‘minutes’ by ‘pages’.

Some examples

In Writing Excuses Lou Anders explained the formula as it applies to Batman: the Dark Knight. I’ll reproduce it here.

The protagonist in the Dark Knight is – of course – batman. His goal is to stop being the Batman by freeing the city of organised crime.

The antagonist of the movie is actually Harvey Dent, who continually makes bad decisions, eventually leading to his downfall and becoming two-face. His failure to be the hero batman seeks prevents batman from stepping down time and again.

The dynamic character is the Joker, who understands that Batman is a freak and that here is need for a bad guy freak.

At the beginning of the movie, Batman decides to rid the city of the mob once and for all by allying with Dent and Gordon. As the story passes the halfway mark we start to learn what the Joker is planning and what’s in store for Harvey Dent. The low point is when Rachel Dawes dies, the Joker escapes custody, and Harvey Dent is severely wounded. From there the story progresses to the climax: Batman first reconciles with the Joker (arresting him), then defeats Harvey Dent, and finally stops himself being Batman by making himself the criminal that took down the great Harvey Dent.

Another example, Star Wars: A New Hope. The protagonist is obviously Luke Skywalker, who wants to be a hero for the rebellion. Darth Vader is the antagonist, blocking him every step of the way, and the dynamic character is Obi Wan Kenobi.

The movie starts out with two droids coming into the possession of the Skywalker family on Tatooine. As Luke cleans the droid he sees part of a message from princess Leia asking Obi Wan Kenobi for help.

At this point, Luke makes his faithful decision to remove the restraining bolt on R2D2, because he wants to help the rebels, and ultimately triggering his whole adventure.

The low point is when they finally manage to flee the Death Star. Alderaan is destroyed, Obi Wan is dead, and Leia reveals that their escape was just a ruse and that the Empire is tracking them to the rebel base.

From there we come to the climax: Luke reconciles with Obi Wan and decides to trust the force, he defeats Darth Vader, and becomes the hero that he wanted to be.

Conclusion

The Hollywood Formula is not the answer to all story-structure woes. However, knowing why a story is structured the way it is can help identify what works and what doesn’t, even if you decide to move away from the formula itself.

It’s also quite fun to watch for these (sometimes hamfisted) touch points in a book, movie, or television show.

 

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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