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.