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Writing Excuses 6.18: The Hollywood Formula

Writing Excuses 6.18: The Hollywood Formula


Key points: The Hollywood formula starts with three characters: the protagonist, antagonist, and relationship or dynamic character. Protagonist must want something concrete, a definite achievable goal. Antagonist places obstacles in the path of the protagonist and is diametrically opposed to the protagonist. The antagonist is not necessarily a bad guy. Relationship character accompanies the protagonist on the journey, articulates the theme, and in the end reconciles the protagonist and antagonist. First act (30 pages) introduces the characters and what they want, poses the fateful decision, and closes. Second act (60 pages): transition from asking questions to answering questions, and ends with the low point. Third act (30 pages) is the final battle. End with the protagonist achieves his goal, defeats the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer all three events are to each other, the stronger the emotional impact.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 18, The Hollywood Formula.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] this And we're not that smart.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Lou] And I'm Lou.

[Howard] Lou Anders. The Hugo award-winning Lou Anders joins us for a discussion of the Hollywood formula. Lou approached me at Worldcon after learning that Mary sort of name dropped him a little bit as we talked about the Hollywood formula with Dave Wolverton back in season five. So we thought we would go ahead and circle the wagons on this topic and talk Hollywood formula with Lou. But I think I need to let Mary ask the questions.
[Mary] Well, Lou, sitting around over drinks with [name - Paoli Basculaga? Paolo Bacigalupi!], you explained the Hollywood formula to me in a very pithy way. I was wondering if you could just explain it again.
[Lou] I would be happy to. I should say going in too that a lot of people think the word formula has a negative connotation. They think formula Hollywood movies means the same cheesy things over and over again. But when we use the word formula, we're really talking about the rules. Just like you wouldn't set out to write a concerto without learning how to write music and learning your scales. Hollywood has a formula that has developed over almost 100 years of cinema, basically to squeeze maximum emotional value out of every scene of a film. When you learn the formula, you can use it to shape your screenplays to get that reaction from the audience.
[Mary] I'm going to jump in and say that I have found that it works with novels, too. Which is what was so exciting about the conversation.
[Howard] Well, and that's the whole point of talking about this on Writing Excuses instead of Screenplay Excuses.
[Lou] Yes. Mary, you had said in the podcast that when you applied it to novels, your beta readers started crying. That's what struck me. So I started... I just at ArmadilloCon I did an hour-long presentation to a writer's workshop on the Hollywood formula. I'm going to do it again at FenCon in two weeks from the time that I'm speaking.
[Dan] Of course, this is broadcast live.
[Lou] Yes. So you're the reason that I'm now teaching this.
[Mary] Excellent. [Garbled]
[Dan] Well, let's talk about it, then. Tell us what the Hollywood formula is.

[Lou] Well, the next thing I have to do is, I have to give credit where credit is due. Which is that this version of the Hollywood formula was created by Dan Decker, who was my mentor in screenwriting. In the 90s, I studied under him for a long time. Dan had a career being flown in by studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount to teach their story executives what the formula was so that they knew what to look for.

Basically, first of all, it all starts with three characters. Every single film has three characters that matter, and everything else is peripheral. You have your protagonist, your antagonist, and what's called your relationship or dynamic character. I'm going to use the term relationship character, but don't think that that implies the person with whom the lead is having a relationship. It does not.

The protagonist is usually the most obvious one. He's the star of the film. He or she is the star of the film. The protagonist is someone who wants something. It has to be something concrete. It can't be "I want to be happy" or "I want to be pretty" or "I want to be rich." It has to have a definite, achievable goal associated like with that. So I want him to fall in love with me so that I will be happy. I want to win the game show that I'm going to be on so that I will be rich. I want to rob a casino of the guy who's dating my ex-girlfriend, that will make us happy.
[Dan] So I can be happy and rich.
[Lou] Yes. Exactly. So it has to be a concrete, achievable goal.

The antagonist is the person who places obstacles to that goal in the path of the protagonist. This does not mean the bad guy. Now, we can talk about some very interesting examples. The antagonist is the one whose goals are diametrically opposed to the protagonist, and they're the one who is blocking the protagonist's journey.

The third character, the relationship or dynamic character, is the person who accompanies the protagonist on their journey. Typically, they are someone who has been there, done that before, and they have wisdom to communicate to the protagonist, and the protagonist isn't hearing it. You can tell them because they are the person to whom or from home the theme of the film is articulated. There will be a conversation in the film between the two of them that is the articulation of the film's theme. At the end of the film, they will revisit that conversation and they will do what's called the reconciliation of the protagonist and the antagonist.
[Howard] I'm going to need an example.
[Mary] This is where it gets good.
[Lou] Can we get through it, and then go back to the examples?
[Howard] Okay. No, that's fine.
[Dan] Oh, I thought we were done. All right, let's keep going then.

[Lou] That's the structure of it. Now, the way it plays out across a film... By the way, a film is done when the protagonist achieves his goal, defeats the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character, and then you bring the curtain down. The closer those three events can happen to each other, the more emotional impact the film will have.

Now, films are all different lengths, but we're going to describe this formula in terms of a two hour film. So, in Hollywood speak, you get 1 minute per screenplay... One screenplay page equates to 1minute of film time. So a two hour film is 120 pages. We break that into three acts. The first act is 30 pages long, the second act is a double length 60 page act, and the third act is a 30 page final act. Those proportions hold whatever length the screenplay is. But we're going to speak about it as if it's 120 pages.

In the first act, you introduce the three characters and what they want. 11 to 13 minutes in, which means page 11 to 13, you have what's called the fateful decision. This is the moment in which the protagonist is presented with a choice, and he must choose to have a film. If she's given a choice and she chooses... If... When... In Thelma and Louise, when Thelma's jerky husband tells her she can't go on the trip, if she listens to the husband, we have no movie. If she gets in the car despite being told by the overbearing husband that she can't go, we have a movie. That's the fateful decision. It's about 11 minutes in the film. In the Matrix, "Do you want the red pill or the blue pill?" Depending on which pill he has, the movie's either over or it's moving forward.
[Howard] Now, The Matrix was longer. That was about 20 minutes in, if I recall, isn't it?
[Lou] The Matrix has three fateful decisions. First, he gets the cell phone in the FedEx package and he chooses not to go out on the ledge. He is given a second choice with the pill. Between, there's the choice in the car, where Trinity says to him, "If you get out of the car, you've been down that road before." And he chooses to stay in the car. So that's a very interesting film in that it plays with the fateful decision three times. But...

So the first act establishes our characters, establishes what they want, gives us the fateful decision, and then closes. Now the first act and a half, up to page 60, is about asking questions. Once we get to page 60, we should stop asking questions and we should start answering them. So from page 62 page 120, we're going to begin to answer questions.

Now, page 90 is called the low point. That is the position at which we are the farthest from our goal that it is possible to be.

What does James Bond and the Harlem Globetrotters have in common?
[Dan] They always win.
[Howard] Cool hair?
[Lou] Absolutely. The Harlem Globetrotters have an amazing record. They've never lost a game. That poor team that always plays them never wins.
[Dan] Washington General.
[Lou] What's fascinating about the Harlem Globetrotters is not the suspense of the outcome. It's how far away Curly can take the ball and still make a basket. He may run outside the stadium and do laps around the parking lot and still somehow score a goal. That's the same with James Bond. James Bond never loses. So the tension of a Bond film doesn't come from "Is Bond going to win or not?" It comes from what Bond is going to have to go through to achieve that win.

So the low point is the point in which you've moved your protagonist as far as he or she could possibly get from their goal. In the movie Midnight Run with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, this is the point where Charles Grodin has been captured by the bad bounty hunter and taken away. DeNiro is left without a car in the middle of the desert. Right after he loses him, a 100 cop cars come over the hill, and he's in trouble. That's the low point.
[Howard] Okay.
[Mary] [inaudible]
[Lou] In Free Willy, there's a marvelous scene... Not necessarily a marvelous movie, but when the whale is in his tank teetering on the edge of a cliff, the boy looks at him and says, "Gee, Willy, this really is a low point, isn't it?" That's a screenwriter joke.

The third act is called the final battle. The third act is just the fight from the low point to the end. Stargate, the original film, and Diehard are unique in that they are all third act movies. They get through the first two acts in about 10 minutes, and then they have an hour and a half long final battle, which is a way you can play with this.

So that's how the structure breaks down. Then the very end of the film, you achieve your goal, you reconcile with the relationship character, you defeat the antagonist, and you drop the curtain. Now I think we can do some examples, if that's...

[Howard] Well, actually, the next thing we want to do is our audible book of the week?
[Dan] Our book of the week. This week we're going to talk about The Dervish House, recently Hugo nominated and has a brand-new audio book. Lou, what can you tell us about The Dervish House?
[Lou] The Dervish House is from Ian McDonald. He's a multiple Hugo nominee and winner. The book itself was just on this year's Hugo ballot. It is set in the very near future in Turkey in Istanbul. It concerns an assortment of characters who live in an apartment complex that used to be a whirling dervish house. One of them is a little boy who has a very real disease that extreme noises will stop his heart. There are only in the world today about five people diagnosed with this disease, for obvious reasons. The boy lives in a room covered with egg shells, and he has to wear special headgear that dampens all sound. He experiences the world by sending this remarkable robot out that can be a monkey, a bird, or a snake. He says on the other people in the dervish house, and he spies on the outside world. Another person in the dervish house is a Greek dissident who's been exiled from Greece for political activism. He lives in the dervish house and he's created a way to play the terror market. People trade stocks based on the predictions of where terror is going to break out in the world. He gets involved in a big government think tank because of this terror market. There is a young man who's basically what the Brits would call a wastrel or what we would call a loser. He doesn't know... He's jobless, he doesn't have very much direction. He is on a train, and there is a very unique terrorist attack. A woman's head explodes, and no one is injured.
[Howard] Yeah. I remember that scene, and was intrigued. I have to confess, I haven't finished the book yet.
[Unsure] But you're reading it. That's what counts.
[Howard] Yes. I'm reading it.
[Lou] After that event, he starts to see djinn everywhere he looks. The monkey/snake/bird robot also witnessed it. Then witnessed another robot witnessing it witnessing it. That robot tries to tear up the monkey/snake/bird robot. The boy and the Greek man decide to figure out who was there and why they were there, and it starts a mystery. The other plot thread, and I'll wrap this up, is there is an art dealer, a woman who deals in rare collectibles, who is hired to find a mellified man.
[Howard] Yeah. The concept of the mellified man is very cool. So you've taken us through about, what, the first 20 pages of the book?
[Lou] Oh, yeah, not much at all.
[Howard] Not very much at all.
[Lou] Just the introduction of the characters.
[Howard] Yeah. Good fun. So you can go out to, and kick off a 14 day free trial membership, download your copy of The Dervish House... Remind me of the author's name again, I'm sorry.
[Lou] Ian McDonald.
[Howard] Ian McDonald. Download a copy of the Dervish House by Ian McDonald, or any other audio book of your choice. But we recommend this one because it was nominated for a Hugo, and it's an awesome book. Help support the podcast and have some fun listens.

[Howard] Now we're going to come back around and talk examples, right?
[Lou] Casablanca. Everybody's seen it?
[Howard] Nope.
[Lou] Oh, you're kidding.
[Mary] Oh, come on. What?
[Howard] I'm a horrible person. I'm sorry. But go ahead and use that example and we'll pretend I said yes.
[Lou] All right. Dan, have you seen it?
[Dan] Yes, I have.
[Mary] Yes.
[Lou] Who's the protagonist?
[Dan] Oh, dang it.
[Lou] That's easy.
[Dan] I assume it's Humphrey Bogart, right?
[Lou] Of course. What does he want?
[Dan] The protagonist wants Elsa back. He wants his girlfriend back.
[Lou] Okay. Who's the antagonist?
[Dan] The antagonist, I would say, is the horror of war.
[Lou] No.
[Dan] No, I'm sorry.
[Lou] It has to be concrete.
[Dan] I know. Dang it. Um... I can't remember any names. It's Elsa's other boyfriend, right?
[Lou] Oh, you jumped right to it. Most people mistakenly think it's the Nazi, because Nazis are bad.
[Dan] No, no. It's not the Nazi.
[Lou] It's not the Nazi at all. The Nazi is perfectly happy for Rick to have Elsa and in fact will conveniently take her husband away and shoot him to help Rick get Elsa. So he's an evil dude, but he's not the antagonist. It's Victor Laszlo, hero of all Europe. Greatest... The hope of... The only man who escaped like two concentration camps and is the hope of all Europe. He's the one that's the obstacle in Rick's path. Who's the relationship character?
[Dan] The little... The Vichy water guy.
[Lou] Yup. Claude Rains. He's the relationship character.
[Dan] I have seen the movie. I just... Apparently...
[Lou] No, you're doing quite well. The expression of theme is when he tells Rick, "I think you have the letters of transit" and Rick says, "I stick my neck out for no one and nobody." And he says, "No, you don't. You're still a patriot." That's it. He's telling Rick you're still a patriot. Rick doesn't want to hear or believe. When Rick gives up the girl in the end, he says, "I was right, Ricky, you are a patriot." They say, "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Bring the curtain down on that line.
[Dan] Cool.
[Mary] Which is interesting, since they apparently started that film without knowing the ending.
[Dan] They did.
[Lou] Yes, I think this is the film that created the formula because if you go back and watch something like the film of the year before, To Have or Have Not, which also stars Humphrey Bogart as an expatriate in World War II, it's a tangled mess. In fact, it's probably why he was cast in Casablanca actually, now that I think about it. He was typecast. But there's a lot of films from before that era where the pacing just feels odd. It's because Casablanca nailed it and kind of...

[Howard] So Casablanca nailed it not because somebody hypothesized that there was a formula, but because they got lucky. Then they looked at it and said, "You know what? I bet we can do that again. We just have to figure out what these elements are."
[Lou] Exactly. Study this and see how it works.
[Mary] Yeah. This is the key to any formula. I think of them as recipes. A lot of times people will go, "Oh, Harry Potter is really successful, so I should write a novel about a little boy who lives under the stairs." Which is looking at the ingredients but not understanding what each part is. It's like when you go into the kitchen and you're cooking and you discover that you're missing an ingredient. You can shuffle the recipes around as long as you understand what each ingredient is supposed to do. The same is true in the Hollywood formula. One of the things that you talked about that I thought was really interesting was subverting the formula. Thelma and Louise was one of the ones that you talked about as an example of a way that the formula can get subverted. I think it was Thelma and Louise.
[Lou] Well, there are a couple. Actually...
[Howard] You subverted it... You talked about Stargate subverting it.
[Lou] Right. Stargate and Diehard both pull the final battle forward.

Thelma and Louise... Who's the antagonist?
[Howard] The cliff?
[Lou] Wrong.
[Dan] Now, see, that's not one I've seen, so I will back out and let you guys answer this one. I was on the block for Casablanca.
[Mary] I've already gone through this, so I'm... Like I'm not going to be guessing, I'm just going to be repeating.
[Howard] I already threw out my best guess. Mary?
[Mary] No, just let Lou. It's only 15 minutes long and we're not that smart.
[Lou] Thelma and Louise, the one person... Their goal is escape, and escape is defined sadly by killing themselves in the end by driving off the cliff. Every single male in the movie is horrendous except for Harvey Keitel who actually understands them, gets what they're about, and is giving them every break and is trying to save them. And guesses that they're going to try and commit suicide and tries to prevent it. So the one decent male in the entire film is our antagonist, because what he is doing is at odds with what they're trying to achieve.

The Dark Knight? We've all seen the Dark Knight?
[Howard] Yeah.
[Lou] Protagonist?
[Howard] I want to say the Joker. Are you going to tell me that the antagonist isn't the Joker?
[Lou] Who's the protagonist, first? Let's start simple.
[Dan] Well, I want to say Batman.
[Lou] Right. What does he want?
[Mary] He wants his parents back.
[Lou] No. That's a general. What does he want specifically in this movie?
[Dan] Batman? Specifically? He wants to bring order to the city.
[Lou] No.
[Dan] No? Dang it. He wants...
[Howard] Well, this is why I don't write Batman novels.
[Lou] When Harvey Keitel... I mean, when Harvey Dent arrests the 250 gangsters in one day in the courtroom, does Batman say, "Competition!" No, he says, "Beauty!" If Dent can arrest 250 bad guys in a day, he's wondering...
[Dan] That's right. What he wants is to replace himself. He wants to quit. He wants to not be necessary anymore.
[Lou] He wants to quit. He tells Rachel, "You said you'd wait for me. If I can quit, will you marry me?" She says, "Don't make me hope for a better life!" He wants to quit. So who's the antagonist?
[Dan] Himself?
[Lou] No, can't do that.
[Dan] I know, sorry.
[Lou] Weak. Weak choice.
[Mary] Commissioner Gordon?
[Howard] Well, Joker is pretty much the one who makes it impossible for him to quit.
[Lou] Wrong.
[Dan] Oh, you're right. It's Harvey Dent.
[Lou] Yup. Harvey Dent is not the man that he thinks he is.
[Dan] Which is why the movie feels like it's going to end when they catch the Joker, and then there's another 20 minutes because they haven't resolved it.
[Lou] [inaudible] Yup. It... Dent continually lets him down by not being a man he wants him to be. Dent is going to shoot the guy to find out where... He's going to shoot the crazy guy to find out where Rachel's been taken. Batman says, "Don't do that. If people saw you doing that, it would spoil your image." Dent is constantly making the weak choices. Even before he becomes Two Face, he's making bad decisions. Batman is constantly trying to hedge what he's doing and make Dent look like a better guy than he is. Dent is the antagonist by not being the person that Batman wants him to be. Who's the relationship character?
[Howard] That has to be the Joker.
[Lou] Yup. The expression of theme. "Don't pretend you're like them. You're not like them, even if you'd want to be. You're like me, you're a freak." The reconciliation is when the Joker says, "You know how I got these scars?" And Batman says, "No, but I know how you'll get these." Batman tells a joke, shoots him in the face with a knife, and accepts his role as the Dark Knight, and tells Gordon, "Tell him I murdered him, and let me be the Dark Knight, not the White Knight's that I wanted Harvey Dent to be." He finally got what the Joker was saying, which is why even though he's been shot in the face with a knife, the Joker is laughing his head off at the end, because Batman listened.

[Howard] Very cool. All right, well, we are pretty much all the way out of time. Who wants to throw a writing prompt?
[Mary] So, for your writing prompt, come up with a protagonist, an antagonist, and a relationship character. Then see what happens if you start spinning a story.
[Howard] Excellent. You are out of excuses. Now go write.

[Edited 10/30/2013 to give the right name: Paolo Bacigalupi]
Tags: antagonist, concrete goal, emotional impact, fateful decision, final battle, hollywood formula, low point, obstacles, protagonist, reconciliation, relationship character, theme, three acts

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