6.18: The Hollywood Formula, with Lou Anders

Lou Anders, Hugo-winning editorial director from Pyr books, joins Mary, Dan, and Howard at Dragon*Con for a discussion of the Hollywood Formula. Lou shared this with Mary originally, and she used it to tighten up some of her work. It’s useful enough that we decided to invite Lou onto the ‘cast to share it with everybody else, too.

The formula centers around three characters – the protagonist, the antagonist, and the relationship character. Lou explains how these terms have, in this formula, different meanings than we might be accustomed to.

Among the things that we learn:  The Dark Knight has an antagonist none of us could guess, Die Hard and Stargate are third-act movies, and Howard is criminally ignorant of classic cinema.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald, narrated by Jonathan Davis

Writing Prompt: Using the Hollywood Formula, come up with a protagonist, an antagonist, and a relationship character.

Credit Where Credit Is Due: Lou got the Hollywood Formula from Dan Decker.

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139 thoughts on “6.18: The Hollywood Formula, with Lou Anders”

  1. Where do other elements come in?

    Love interest? Subplots? Etc.

    Do they have corresponding page placements as in a 120 page screenplay? Do they have there own low points, inciting incidents, etc.?

  2. @ Patrick Sullivan,

    Such a story is still about character change. We’re in suspense that he will or won’t change the whole time, just as we are about McFly. So I see your point, these stories don’t have to show change, but at the same time they make character change the central question of the story.

    As Anders explained it, this model is built around the issue of character change–the relationship character expresses the theme, which the protagonist rejects. Then the protagonist changes, accepts the mentoring advice, and reconciles with the relationship character. Or he doesn’t. With Thelma and Louise, like your story above, they fail to reconcile, and it ends in tragedy. But the core was still about this change.

    At least, that’s how I’m understanding it as presented in the podcast.

  3. So Lou Anders (*google alert*), are you saying all Pyr books follow this formula? If not, what are some good examples of books that do?

  4. The question is how do you classify stories with multiple protagonists who are on equal footing with regards to being the star?

  5. The idea that is so mind blowing for me is that the antogonist isn’t the same thing as the villain, or even a negative force. I think, in some of my favorite movies, the antagonist even wins, if I’ve got this right.

    For example, in the old screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant wants his orderly dull life, and Katherine Hepburn, as the wacky lady who upsets everything, looks like she’s the antagonist who prevents that. But, of course, he changes and embraces the antagonist (in this case, literally ^_^). Of course, it could be that Cary Grant doesn’t know that he really wants more excitement, Katherine Hepburn is the relationship character who tries to teach him, and the antagonist is whatever forces keep Cary Grant in his old ways. Or it could be all of this at the same time. ^_^

    @John Brown – yes, there are stories where the main character doesn’t change and has no arc. Sherlock Holmes and other detective stories are pretty good examples. I’ve alway thought that it’s the other characters who have the arc, those directly connected to the crime, for example. I’m always happier when someone comes out of these with a better life, the crime solved and order restored. Or, at the very least, a character has closure.

    But I’ve also seen some things (movies more than books) where the plot felt very awkward, and I found out later that a piece was added to fill in that part of the formula, and I personally wished they’d just left it out. Of course, that’s not necessarily because the formula was wrong, it’s that it was used poorly.

  6. Just listened to this. Awesome. Even more awesome that there’s a Back to the Future debate in the comments. I’ll chip in my 2 cents.

    Marty does change. He used to think his parents were boring losers who never had problems like his, goes back, and learns differently. By the end of the movie, he respects them and understands them. But I think Lou Ander’s breakdown with George as protag works best.

    I guess the takeaway from that is to make sure antagonists, relationship characters, etc. all have convincing, concrete motivations as well.

  7. @Patrick Sullivan — you embrace a static protagonist at your peril, though you do see it particularly in the mystery/thriller genre (Get Carter, most pre-Craig James Bond films). Many pre-Batman Begins superhero films employ an unchanging lead and allow the relationship character to undergo growth instead. Best example: Buckaroo Banzai. “New Jersey” is the character who changes. But this works best when dealing with archetypes (super hero, private dick, gangster) and the danger is that you descend into stereotype or pastiche.

  8. Just for the sake of beeing geeky, from 1953 until 1995the Washington Generals won six games against the Harlem Globetrotters, the last (as one of your other listeners noted) being in 1971 playing under the name of the New Jersey Reds (one of several pseudonyms the team used). The Generals identity was retired in 1995 but the same orginization (basically) went on to play the Globetrotters under the name New York Nationals, although the Generals name has been used again for special occassions. As you were discussing Hollywood forumulas, I guess that justifies dealing loosely with history.

  9. @tam – I haven’t even though about this in relation to Pyr books. It’s a teaching tool I’ve used at writers workshops. I’d say it would be interesting to read Andrew P Mayer’s The Falling Machine in light of this formula though.
    @klimpaloon- you can have a split main–two protagonists acting as each other’s relationship character. Also see Star Trwk Wrath of Khan for an interesting hand-off of the relationship character role.
    @Laurie- I’ve not seen the film but it sounds like the relationship character and protagonist are the same. “Forces” can’t be the antagonist. Weak.
    @MKHutchins–you can build triangles off your triangles. Also, see LA Confidential for a three protagonist film!

  10. Kudos! I started listening in April, got caught up last month, and this is now my favorite WE podcast. I’ve listened to this episode 3 times in these 3 days.

    Let me see if I’ve groked it? Consider the ever-inspiring Joss Whedon’s Dr Horrible (SPOILER ALERT):

    Protagonist: Dr. Horrible
    What does he want: rule the world by getting into the Evil League of Evil
    Antagonist: Penny (!)
    Relationship/dynamic character: Bad Horse’s chorus (!!)
    Theme: Kill someone to be a villian (they sing it twice)

    I have to watch it again: I don’t recall a reconciliation with the chorus (maybe they’re at the party) or the chorus stand in for The Thoroughbred of Sin, and the reconciliation is when Dr Horrible takes his seat at the table with the ELE.

    Have I got it?

  11. I really think I got it. The reason Brand New Day is so emotionally powerful (intense “ah hah” and “oh no” together) is that this is most of the reconciliation. The protagonist is, at this moment, ready to heed the relationship character’s advice.

  12. I forgot to include the Fateful Decision: “A Man’s Gotta Do…”

    He and Penny had their “audible connection” and Dr H. considered leaving the Wonderflonium, but decides to continue pursuing membership in the ELE.

  13. @ Lou Anders : Is there any video or more information on the Hollywood Formula? I was really intrigued by this and I feel that I could really learn more. Is there any video or another place that I can listen to more of your discussion on this topic?

  14. I’m not sure that we should be applying screen writing techniques to novels at all. The mediums are not similar, and I’m resistant to efforts to treat them that way. While both are related to oral storytelling, screen plays find their strength in visual presentation and dialog; while novels are vastly stronger in presenting inner life and narrative.

    I can see the techniques described as being useful for short stories and novellas, where the number of characters are restricted– but where do Game-of-Thrones style novels fit in?

    Note that most of the examples used here have been NOT writing, but movies. I allow that the process may be effective for other writers, I’m afraid to say that I remain skeptical.

    (Which almost certainly means I’ll be trying it out. 😀 )

  15. @Scott
    At the very least, if someone uses the formula in a book it will probably make it easier to end up on the big screen.

    Take Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for example.

    Harry, the protagonist, wants to figure out who the Heir of Slytherin is so people will stop thinking that he’s attacking everybody. Tom Riddle is the antagonist who makes Harry and later Hagrd out to be the Heir. Dumbledore is the relationship character through whom the theme of loyalty is presented and later reconciled via Fawkes. The fateful decision was when Harry decided to disregard Dobby’s warning to stay home. The low point was when Ginny is taken to the Chamber.

  16. @Klimpaloon I don’t think that helps the case any. Books are books, after all.

    Still, I’m going to disagree with Scott. The formula helps books immensely, because it helps you simplify things in YOUR head while you write. Yes, books have far larger casts than films do. That makes these sorts of tools even MORE important.

    Also, consider what Mary said about recipes, only take it one layer of meaning further removed from the story: You have a recipe for making a good protag/antag/theme arc, and this recipe provides helpful elements concerning pacing, and useful examples in easy-to-consume cinema. Now you want to write a series of novels with multiple arcs, climaxes, and themes, and with a cast of hundreds of characters.

    You’re going to use this recipe over and over, varying it here and there. If this is a recipe for Sicilian pizza, your series of novels might be an Italian restaurant. Your possession of a pizza recipe does not require you to open a Dominos franchise.

    Coming back to a single novel, the Hollywood formula lets you better execute on the main arc for the central protagonist. As Mary pointed out, she used the formula’s requirement that the resolutions occur as close together as possible to improve her novel, and increase its emotional impact on readers.

    Be skeptical, but take yourself at your word and try it out. I’ll be surprised if this tool doesn’t prove extremely useful to you as a novelist.

  17. this episode has been the most helpful to me, an animator as far as writing for animation goes. of course, it seemed more focused on screenplay and movies than books. that is probably it. I listened to it twice in a row to make sure I got what was going on, and will likely listen to it several more times in the very near future.
    now I have questions I can ask as I study movies!
    -who is the protagonist?
    -what is their goal?
    -who is the antagonist?
    -what are they doing to stop the protagonist?
    -who is the relationship character?
    -what is the theme they are conveying?
    -when do they come full circle with said theme?

    Thank You!

  18. @Bryan — Try Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder for a book about screenwriting. Not exactly the same as Lou’s, but I think you’ll see similarities.

  19. Chipping in with everyone else, loved this podcast. I think it’s a great way to distill (or even just brainstorm) your story to its core elements and then you can expand from there. A good tool for those of still learning the craft.

    @John Brown:
    I think this is only one type of approach to creating stories, and may or may not be applicable depending on what you’re trying to do. I think where it’s most useful is not in terms of what today’s audiences go for, but for those of us still learning to write and creating the stories FOR those audiences. It provides an easy framework to help focus our stories as we build them. Once we become better at it, we can branch out into some of the other structures as you mentioned.

    @Scott
    Absolutely this approach can be applied to novels, or any other stories, I think. Movies are just easy examples to cite that most everyone is familiar with, and it’s obviously worked and become a staple in Hollywood for years now, but I don’t think that means these tricks are unique to screenwriting. As for the application for large fantasy series ala Game of Thrones, these are not usually told as a single story. You have several characters and plotlines going all at once, as Howard alluded to, but each one is its own story to which you can apply the formula, then tie them all up at the end (typically).

    Here’s my prompt:
    http://temporalsword.dyndns.org/blog/?p=118

  20. Robert McKee’s Story was the textbook I was assigned for screenwriting in college….but it is the driest read on the planet.

  21. @Howard Tayler:

    Mostly, I’m concerned about writers who take formulas (ANY formula) too much to heart, and try to apply it to all stories ever.

    Because it relies on embodied protag/antag/relationship characters, there are instances where the Hollywood Formula fails to develop potent stories– for example, milieu or event stories, where conflict is borne not of character interaction but external, impersonal force. (Grapes of Wrath; The Giver; The Divine Comedy; My Side of the Mountain)

  22. Just wondering: How does Slice of Life fit into this?

    Doesn’t Slice of Life often break most of the rules about story in the first place?

    @Scott Most of the time I take formulas, try them then rip out their heart and play with them. Formulas do have the risk of being, well, predictable and formulaic, but even there is comfort in a sonnet or villanelle. Or knowing that cake is sweet. What the ingredients exactly will be, you don’t always know.

    What at least the American population wants in a story is the same kind of thing as the man you don’t remember the name of but recognize. Familiar, should know it, yet strange and it bugs you for weeks until you remember what the name is, yet hits you with OMG, why didn’t I remember (come up with that.) And a tad resentful if someone remembers that person’s name before you and goes and spoils it.

    Artists shouldn’t act as robots in the first place… questioning is a good idea and experimentation makes our bread and butter.

  23. @Scott Roberts: If that’s your concern, that’s probably what you should have originally expressed. What you said was “I’m not sure that we should be applying screen writing techniques to novels at all,” and that’s what several of us set out to refute. We SHOULD be applying these techniques.

    What you’re expressing NOW is irrefutable: “I’m concerned about writers who take formulas (ANY formula) too much to heart, and try to apply it to all stories ever.”

    That concern crops up any time we talk about formulas, and it’s valid. It is not, however, an invalidation of formulas, or the practice of applying a formula for one genre or medium to the act of creating art in another.

  24. Whenever people complain about formula my thought these days is “violate them if you want, but make sure you understand the formula first.”

    It’s sort of like grammar, with a good reason you can violate grammar rules and make it work, but you better know the rule you are breaking and why if you want the effect you create to match what you want.

    Understanding why a formula is doing something lets you violate it to create a different experience for the reader than the one these formulas engender by default, but if it is not the one you are shooting for, you’re screwed.

  25. It’s interesting to think about formula. Now that the Hollywood Formula has been explained I can see it in so many movies, and in books.

    One eludes me though. I’m thinking of the often filmed, never really captured, Dracula. What are people’s thoughts about how the formula applies?

    I can’t decide who is the protagonist, antagonist, and relationship character. That could be because the book is a series of first-person narratives.

    That might be why, despite all the attempts, a great movie has never been made of it.

  26. DennisDDuquette: I would suggest that the fateful decision in Dr. Horrible comes much later. Spoiler alert:

    Horrible is torn about being, well, Horrible for most of the show (even if he doesn’t realize it) and he isn’t really asked to -sacrifice- something for his goal until the Evil League of Evil demands that he kill someone to gain admittance. You can see him make the fateful decision in “Brand New Day” when he commits to killing Hammer.

  27. Dammit, I can’t resolve a concrete desire for my protagonist in my current project. That, or my protagonist is the character I thought was my antagonist and my relationship character is relating to the wrong person.

    Either way, it probably explains why my first lot of beta feedback was that the whole thing feels emotionally very flat. Thanks, guys – brilliant cast 🙂

  28. Writing Excuses Gang –

    This podcast has become one of my favorite. It’s rich with information and allows for motivation in creating one’s own story that follows the formula. Thank you for that. Great cast.
    -Levi

  29. The analysis of The Dark Knight is pretty eye opening. I’ve heard some of this formula before, especially with the 3 acts and their proportions, but I don’t think I understood the protagonist/antagonist relationship very well until that analysis.

    If nothing else, it is worth looking at your story to see if you have the three characters and they work in the way described. If something is not working, the problem may be that you either don’t have these characters, or they aren’t pulling the weight they ought to.

  30. This is wonderful, but I’m still not entirely convinced that the ‘relationship’ character is essential for every story. I just don’t see how most of these examples would be any different if you took the relationship character out.

  31. I must agree that I have found this episode to be the most informative of the entire podcast. If I could compress a paradigm shift into 19 minutes, I could do no better than Lou Anders’ presentation of the Hollywood formula. I listened to the episode for the first time today, and three more times since the first. It also represents the best writing advice for new writers I have ever had from a single source, and this is someone who has taken creative writing classes in college, read numerous books on the craft, and listened to Writing Excuses and other writing podcasts for years.

    Wednesday is date night for Mrs. Benjamin and I, and we tried our mastery of the formula against several well known movies. How about just a sample:

    Superman (1978)
    Protagonist: Superman
    What does he want?: To use his powers to save lives.
    Antagonist: Jor-El
    How does he obstruct the protagonists’ goal: His advice in the form of, “You are forbidden to interfere in human history.
    Decision Point: When Superman seeks out the truth behind his alien ancestry
    Relationship Character: Jonathan Kent
    Theme Conversation: In the cornfield before Jonathan dies, he tells his son that he always suspected he was meant for something great
    Climax against the antagonist/Full circle with theme: Superman flies into the sky after Lois Lane dies, and is confronted with the spectral images of Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, who replay their advice to the protagonist. Superman resolves his conflict with Jor-El by literally changing history by altering time.

    Thoughts?

  32. This is one of those episodes I listened to several times and took copious notes on. Great cast thanks guys! This along with Dan’s 7 Point Story Structure is helping my outline my novels so much faster and better now!

  33. First things first: awesome podcast, my favorite so far. My first thought after listening to it was to try to figure out how the formula applies to Back to the Future, my all time favorite movie. At first I couldn’t figure it out and when I read the comments I saw many interesting ideas that got me thinking further.

    Now I think I understand it and the formula works *perfectly*.

    – Protagonist: Marty, of course, the movie is obviously Marty’s story, no need to complicate things.
    – Marty’s goal: Change history (change it back so that he gets born and change it so that Doc lives)
    – Fateful decision: The conversation with Strickland. It happens at precisely the timing predicted by the formula. Strickland tries to warn Marty that Doc is dangerous and that he should stay away from him. If Marty had agreed he wouldn’t have traveled back in time and there would have been no movie. But also Marty says “History is gonna change” symbolically committing to his goal even though he cannot know how prophetic his words are.

    – Antagonist: George McFly, he’s the one who is diametrically opposed to Marty. Marty will get in a fight rather than let people think he’s chicken, George is a coward. Unless Marty can convince George to stand up to Biff, he won’t succeed and he will disappear. Biff is just an obstacle not the antagonist.

    – Relationship character: Doc, of course.
    – Articulation of the theme: Doc has said “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything” we don’t see the conversation directly but we learn that in Jennifer and Marty’s talk. And at this point Marty doesn’t really believe it, he thinks maybe his father is right and maybe it’s best to give up on his music and avoid disappointments.
    – Additionally, it has already been mentioned in previous comments that Marty and Doc disagree about whether one should know in advance about future events and that is also resolved at the end.

    Resolution: Marty uses Doc’s words of wisdom to convince his dad to stand up to Biff putting history back on its tracks. Doc changes his mind about knowing the future and that saves him. At the end, George ceases to be an antagonist, he’s become a self-confident published science-fiction novelist and he is the one that revisits the theme at the end instead of Doc. Marty also has been changed, he has overcome his doubts. The movie is really about the power of self-confidence.

    Anyway, that’s my take on it and I feel the formula is really the structure of the movie. I’ve watched this movie dozens and dozens of times and now I understand it on a whole new level and that feels kind of amazing. 🙂

  34. Best Episode EVER.

    Have him back ASAP.

    The man was teaching SO MUCH that we can hear the rest of you learning.

    Great choice for a guest. More of this please.

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