Wednesday, January 18

Story Structure and The Hollywood Formula

Story Structure and The Hollywood Formula
Okay! I had planned to write about the structure of an episode of Supernatural just for fun, because I’m a huge fan. I’ve rewatched the series from the start and noticed many things I completely missed the first time around.

And I still want to do that! But in the process of researching that post I discovered a slightly different way of looking at story structure that I hadn’t known existed! Yes, I’m a happy story nerd. :-)

So, instead of talking to you about the structure of an episode of Supernatural, I’m going to quickly introduce The Hollywood Formula, tell you a little bit about it and sketch out how it differs from other ways of looking at story structure.

Update: My next book

I’ll come back to The Hollywood Formula in a moment, I just want to give you all a quick update on the book I blogged during NaNoWriMo. At the moment I’m spending all my time finishing it and am glad to report it’s almost done! If I keep up my current pace everyone subscribed to my newsletter will receive an announcement in about a week (around January 25th). My plan is to make the book available to my newsletter subscribers for free as a thank you for reading my blog. :-)

I’m not sure how I’ll make the book available. Perhaps I’ll make a .mobi file available offline and you folks can go download it. It would be a limited time offer, but I’d make the book available for three or so days so everyone who wants to should have ample time to download it.

Another way I could get the book to my newsletter subscribers would be to run a promotion through Amazon and offer the book for free. It might be easier if you downloaded the book from Amazon since that way you’ll have access to it forever, even if you delete it from your electronic device! Also, if I update the book, you’ll be able to download the updated file for free regardless of what it's currently selling for.

What do you think? Any particular preference?

Okay, enough of that! Now let’s take a quick look at The Hollywood Formula.

Where The Hollywood Formula is From

The Hollywood Formula, this particular permutation of it, was created by Dan Decker and outlined in his (wonderful!) book Anatomy of a Screenplay. I first learned about it through That website helpfully pointed me to one of the episodes (season 6, episode 18) of a podcast I love, Writing Excuses. This one was helpfully entitled The Hollywood Formula. It is excellent, I highly recommend you download it and give it a listen.

The Hollywood Formula: A Summary

In what follows I do my best to answer two questions. First, just what is The Hollywood Formula? Second, how does it differ from other structures, structures such as the Monomyth?

1. Nuts and Bolts

The Hollywood Formula has to do with screenplays, but can readily be adapted to a novel. Here, though, I’ll present it as I heard it.

Keep in mind that this formula is based on a two hour film where one page of screenplay takes one minute. This comes out to 120 pages.

Act One: Pages -> 1 to 30
Act Two: Pages -> 31 to 90
Act Three: Pages -> 91 to 120

Pages 1 to 10: Introduce the three main characters. 

When the characters are introduced show what they want.

Characters to be introduced: 

The protagonist: 

- The protagonist has a concrete goal/objective. The objective could be a person (e.g., the man/woman the protagonist wants to marry), it could be an object (the grail, a championship, etc.). Two things need to be the case: (a) The objective must be easily understood. (b) The objective must be visual.

- The first person to make a decision in the story. Note that this decision isn’t perfect but it does characterize the protagonist. It will be a ‘yes or no’ decision. Also, the decision should result in the character doing something that goes against what readers know about the nature of the protagonist. For example, a shy girl stands up to a bully to save the boy she likes. The idea is to (a) show what the protagonist wants as well as (b) how badly she wants it.

- The protagonist’s motivation is either (a) redemption or (b) growth.

The antagonist: 

- The antagonist places obstacles in the protagonist’s way. If the antagonist achieves his goal then the protagonist cannot and vice versa.

- “In order to identify the Opponent in a movie, you must first identify the Main Character, and the Main’s Objective. Only then can you ask why the Main Character can’t get his or her Objective. The answer to that question is: the Opposition.” (Dan Decker, Anatomy of a Screenplay)

The relationship character

- The relationship character accompanies the protagonist on her journey.

- The relationship character has wisdom to communicate to the protagonist. She’s been there, done that. This character generally has experience the protagonist lacks.

- The relationship character is the person TO WHOM or FROM WHOM the theme of the film is articulated. Either the relationship character will state it themselves or a secondary character will state it in conversation with the relationship character.

Pages 11 to 13: Fateful Decision

The protagonist must make a choice. This is where the protagonist receives the Call to Adventure.

Pages 1 to 60: Protagonist Asks Questions

At page 60 (the Midpoint Crisis) the protagonist stops asking questions and starts answering them.

Pages 60 to 90: Protagonist Answers Questions

Page 90: Protagonist’s Lowest Point

The protagonist has gone as far from her goal it is possible for her to be.

Pages 90 to 120: The journey from the low point to the end.

This more-or-less maps onto the Race to the Finish.


At or around the Climax three things must happen:

  • The protagonist achieves his goal.
  • The protagonist defeats the antagonist.
  • The protagonist reconciles with the relationship character.

Note: The closer these three events are to each other the more emotional impact the story will have.

2. How does The Hollywood Formula differ from other structures?

I’ll have more to say about this when I have more time and I’ve done more research, but from what I’ve seen so far, THF is much more character centered. Most story structures tend to group the protagonist and antagonist together, something which makes all the other characters feel secondary. With The Hollywood Formula, in contrast, we have three main characters. My first impression is that this makes a lot of sense because the relationship character (e.g., Donkey in Shrek) is clearly an essential character for telling the story.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending Dan Decker’s excellent book, Anatomy of a Screenplay. Here’s a quotation: “A mainstream American screenplay tells a story, about a character, in search of an objective, in the face of opposition, with an underlying theme, in a clearly defined genre, and has an emotionally satisfying resolution.”

That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

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