The Hollywood Formula

The Hollywood Formula is the formula that professional screenwriters use to keep their stories tight, emotional, and, obviously, formulaic.  Though I have directed you to the podcast that first taught me this formula, I doubt many of you have listened to it, so I shall describe the formula again here.  I did not make this up.

The Formula centers on three characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, and the relationship (or dynamic) character.  The protagonist is the main character, and he wants something material.  He doesn’t simply want happiness; he wants that specific puppy as a pet, which will make him happy.  He doesn’t simply want to be rid of the Ring; he wants to destroy the Ring by throwing it into the Cracks of Doom in Mordor.  He doesn’t simply want to get away from his uncle’s home; he wants to join the Rebel Alliance/Varden/class at Hogwarts.

The antagonist wants the exact opposite.  He wants the protagonist to forget about the puppy and settle for, perhaps, a ratty stuffed animal.  He wants the protagonist to stay in his hobbit-hole and let his minions murder him in his bed, and to never destroy the Ring.  He wants the protagonist to stay right where he is on Tattooine, Carvahall, or No. 4 Privet Drive.  This, too, is a material thing.  In some places, the antagonist is an evil warlord bent on destroying the earth.  In most places, however, the antagonist is an unexpected person.

The relationship character usually isn’t the love interest.  The relationship character is a side character who accompanies the protagonist on his journey.  This character usually has something wise to say, but the protagonist doesn’t want to hear it until the very end.

The story is finished when everything resolves: the protagonist has achieved his goal, the antagonist is defeated, and the relationship character and protagonist have reconciled (usually with a “You were right!” scene).  According to the podcast I already linked to, the closer together these events are, the stronger the film.

That’s just setup, though.  The real fun is mapping out the progression of the story.

Act I takes up the first quarter of the story.  It introduces the characters and what they want.  Halfway through Act I, the protagonist must choose to have a story.

Act II is the next two quarters of the story.  Exactly in the middle of this act (and thus the story), the characters stop asking questions and start answering them; reaction turns into action.  Act II ends with the low point.  The characters are at the end of their rope and things look hopeless.

Act III takes up the last quarter of the story.  This is the final battle, the fight from the low point to the finish.  There might be some evil plot twists along the way, but things never look quite as bleak as at the beginning of the act.

That’s the formula.  As you can see, it’s quite precise as to when things happen.  I enjoy calculating when the third act begins and waiting for that moment, and it is exact.  I’ll give some examples.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

I’ll try to keep things spoiler-free, since this movie is still relatively new– but if you’ve read the book, it should be understandable.  The protagonist is, obviously, Bilbo Baggins.  The antagonist, surprisingly, is Gandalf.  Bilbo wants to stay in his hobbit-hole, but Gandalf wants him to leave.  Though the dwarves need a burglar, it’s Gandalf who picked Bilbo in particular.  The relationship character is Thorin, who doesn’t like Bilbo much from the beginning.  Bilbo and Thorin have an argument at the beginning, but at the end they make up with each other.  Halfway through the Act I, the dwarves have left the contract for Bilbo and he makes a choice of whether to follow them or not.  Halfway through the movie, the questions begin to be answered.  This is the council in Rivendell, with Saruman, Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel.  We find out about the Morgul blade, the evil in Mirkwood, and the moon runes on the dwarves’ map.  Act II ends with the low point, wherein Thorin is unconscious while the rest of the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf are hanging off the side of a cliff on a fallen tree.  Things escalate through the final battle until the eagles drop them off on the Carrock, whereupon the relationship character and protagonist resolve their argument.  Here or someplace earlier is when Bilbo decides he wants to stay on his adventure, and thus resolves things with the antagonist, Gandalf.


Just to show that this works for every type of movie, from epic to musical, I shall outline this one too.  The protagonist is Rapunzel, and she wants to see the floating lanterns.  The antagonist is Mother Gothel, who doesn’t want Rapunzel to see the floating lanterns.  The relationship character is probably Flynn Rider.  Their argument is about dreams, and I believe it’s largely unspoken, but they come together in the end.  Halfway through Act I, Rapunzel chooses to leave her tower.  Halfway through Act II, questions begin to be answered, with Rapunzel healing Flynn’s hand.  We hear Flynn’s backstory, see what the hair can do, and see what Mother Gothel is up to.  Act II ends with Flynn supposedly sailing off with the crown and Rapunzel all alone with two thugs approaching.  Then it’s over in a flash and things escalate until Gothel is dead, Flynn and Rapunzel make up, and everything is as it should be.

My third example could be any movie produced in the last fifty years.  Casablanca was the first movie to use this formula because it created this formula.  After that, almost everything follows it.  Find your own.  Dissect your favorite movie using this formula.  It works.

Note: If you would like a dissection of both Casablanca and The Dark Knight, both of those can be found in the podcast to which I linked above.  I highly recommend it.


49 thoughts on “The Hollywood Formula

    1. Very similar indeed, but there is one enormously important difference: The Hollywood Formula is a checklist. It’s meant to be a checklist. This is where the story must be at this exact time. The Hero With a Thousand Faces monomyth is not a checklist, but a generalization. The Hollywood Formula is meant for creating stories, but the monomyth is meant to understand existing ones. George Lucas used the Hero With a Thousand Faces as a checklist, and that’s where many of his worst scenes and ideas were born. For instance, the quote they showed in the movie you linked to– the one about the cave and the treasure– Luke Skywalker goes into a cave in The Empire Strikes Back and finds a treasure: a piece of knowledge that he didn’t understand until the end. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is similar to this formula, but they are also quite different.

      Thanks for the input!

  1. Nice post. It made me think about this little story I’m writing at the moment.

    And EEEEE! *hugs Liam tightly* You used HP as an example! I’m so proud! I’ll brainwash convert you into a fan yet… maybe in a gazillion years. 😀

      1. The Lion King is also similar. Simba is the protagonist, Scar the antagonist, and I’m not entirely sure who the relationship character is. There are at least 4 people who it could be.

      2. I think I have heard that. So, who is the relationship character? Mufasa, Zazu, Nala, or Rafiki? Or are they all that sort of charrie?
        Aren’t all authors copycats? There is only one plot in all of fiction –“Who am I?” (And that was one of the few good parts of that movie)

      3. Oho! Paolini copies George Lucas. Rowling copies mythologies from everywhere, including taking names from Roman, Gaulish, and Celtic heroes. She, too, took from George Lucas, who in turn stole from The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

      4. And the Norsemen stole from other mythologies and nature itself. We could eventually get into religion and existentialism, so let’s stop and say that everyone is a copycat. It only matters whether you copy intentionally (plagiarism) or originally.

      5. Maybe he does deserve incineration, but not for plagiariam. He deserves it for putting four books into a trilogy and then allowing his writing to slip on the metaphorical wet tile-floor.

      6. I’ll try to address everything. I avoided your question on purpose, Robyn– I don’t know who the relationship character is, though it’s probably Timon. No, that isn’t the only plot in all of fiction– that’s the only character plot in all fiction. If you look at Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, you can classify many different stories into four types, but only one of them is “Who am I?”

        Engie: Rowling deserves the same.

      7. How do you figure Timon? He and Pumbaa are almost minor antagonists– like Gandalf in The Hobbit– they encourage him to do what he wants, but it’s in opposition to what should be done. Simba didn’t take their advice in the end, but they followed him… maybe Simba is his own relationship character…

      8. Listen, Robyn, I have no idea. The only thing that made me say Timon was the fact that he’s with Simba for most of the movie. I haven’t seen the movie in a long, long time.

      9. I will. And if I do decide to disect it at a later point, I will report my findings… be it here or on my own eventual blog.

  2. Fab post! It’s odd how you can break everything down into this one little formula, but at the same time, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As long as you can keep the story interesting, I’d say the formula was less important than the, metaphorically speaking, clothes it wears. Because if we broke everything down to formula then the world would be a pretty boring place, and even I might not bother invading it.

    1. I agree. I don’t think we should write by this formula, though it is a pretty interesting road map. I find it hilarious to dissect movies this way, though How To Train Your Dragon refuses to be dissected. What kind of a thing would refuse to be dissected? It’s unnatural.

      1. True. They do make math easier, so long as you can remember them…

        By the way, what happened to the “recent comments” box? 😛

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