WTW – Hollywood Formula

Story structure is a massive subject. Books can, and have, been written on the various ways to structure or analyze story. In this post, I want to focus narrowly on one that stuck out to me the first time I heard it explained.

The Writing Excuses crew interviewed Lou Anders, who gave a quick and dirty overview of what he called “Hollywood Formula.”

Hollywood Formula is a system that Lou describes as a set up where a story has a Protagonist, Antagonist, and Relationship Character (and they aren’t always who they appear to be). The Protagonist is the main character/star and must have a definite, achievable goal. The Antagonist is the character standing between the Protagonist and her goal. This is not necessarily the “bad guy.” The Relationship Character is the character who accompanies the protagonist on the journey, and helps frame the theme of the story.

The film is done when the protagonist achieves her goal, defeats the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer in time that these three events happen, the stronger the emotional impact.

From a length perspective, he splits a film into three Acts. Act 1 is the first 25%, Act 2 is the next 50%, and Act 3 is the final 25%.

About 9% of the way into the film, the Protagonist is faced with a choice, the “Fateful Decision.” The Protagonist essentially chooses to go on the adventure.

Okay, now that we’ve laid it out there in an even faster, dirtier, way than Lou did on the podcast, let’s take a quick look at one in action. (spoilers follow)

Wedding Crashers

Protagonist: Owen Wilson

Antagonist: Bradley Cooper

Relationship Character: Vince Vaughn

Fateful Decision: Owen Wilson agrees to crash the daughter of the Treasury Secretary’s wedding.

Climax: Owen Wilson reconciles with Vince Vaughn at the church and Bradley Cooper gets knocked out in almost the exact same moment.

It’s clean, it’s memorable, it’s vivid.

Lou Anders uses the The Dark Knight to demonstrate how “Relationship Character” isn’t always what it appears. In the Dark Knight, the Joker is the Relationship Character, and Harvey Dent is the Antagonist. Batman wants to give up being the Batman so he can be with Rachel. He pins his hopes of being able to do so on Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight, only to be let down again and again as Harvey demonstrates he’s not up to the task. This is why there’s sort of a double-ending to that film where Batman strings up the Joker but still has to go on to confront Harvey.

This structural pattern repeats over and over again in Hollywood and just because it’s “formulaic” doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It appears in classics like Casablanca (perhaps, as Lou Anders posits, the first film to use it). And, although it uses films as examples, and is probably best suited to screen writing, prose/novels can benefit from keeping these principals in mind as well.

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