the Hollywood formula (part two)

Before I move away from the Hollywood formula, there is another rule that is used for scripts that translates into a guide for novels (in my opinion). What is suggested in terms of content I agree with. The precise nature of when should be more fluid. It will make more sense once I get into it.

This aspect of the formula is a set of instructions that suggests specific moments when certain dramatic points show up in a story. It is recommended as a way to keep audiences (readers) engaged.

Suppose your book has 100,000 words (and each page has 250 words on a standard manuscript format). The Hollywood Formula suggests that on certain pages specific things need to be seen or be present. Use your calculator to change the page numbers depending on your planned book length.

They are:

Page 1: Geography (where the story takes place), tone and personality of story (mood.) And dramatic situation number one begins.

Page 10: The central question that will be explored is asked.

Page 33: Up to this page we need to know what the story is about, whose is the protagonist, who is the antagonist, what is it that each of these want and why can’t they do it at present. Dramatic situation number two begins.

Page 66: Dramatic situation number 3 begins (optional).

Page 100: The main character is challenged, he or she reacts and what is done can not be undone. Dramatic situation number 4 begins.

Page 150: Initial growth of main character. He or she matures in some way or form or learns something useful.

Page 200: Big trouble. The main character commits deeper to what he or she wants. The big trouble can also be a psychological conflict. Dramatic situation Number 5 begins.

Page 250: It looks like all is lost. The main character is just about to give up. Then, an event gives the possibility of solving the immediate conflict and accomplishing main goal. He or she reacts and what is done can not be undone.

Page 297: The main character grows again causing him or her to learn more about life.

Page 300: Great crisis. The main character leaves everything in pursuit of goal. He or she sees the main goal is achievable but there is a last obstacle. This event puts in jeopardy everything attained up to this point. Everything depends on this final moment, it’s all or nothing. Because of the action taken, the main character does or does not attain goal. Dramatic situation Number 6 begins.

Page 350: Introduction to the end. The main character grows again and because of this, learns something fundamental about life. At this point he or she may react again to some situation and what is done can not be undone. In many screen plays, this last dramatic turn is not needed and is optional. Dramatic situation Number 6 ends (optional).

Page 400: The end. By this point you have given the story introduced or promised by Page 33. The ending is closed so the reader is satisfied with the ending.

A closed ending means that whether it’s happy or not, we know what will happen after the book is finished. The closed ending can happen in any of the following levels:

– Story level: What happened before or what happens after the book

– Plot level: The immediate story, what the book was about

– Character level: What the character learned

– Ideology level: Codes of human conduct are questioned or reaffirmed

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the Hollywood formula

I’ll start with an apology for taking so long between posts. Anyway, back to writing…

Following on from my own outline of a structured way to write – and before I go into the 12 steps in depth, I thought I’d present a commonly used way to kick-start your plotting.

If you ever get a chance to read/listen to Lou Anders, I’d recommend you do so. Why? Because he explains the Hollywood formula better than anyone I’ve heard.

Why is it called the Hollywood formula? Because it is commonly used in Hollywood “blockbuster” movies (discovered by accident apparently when reviewing why Casablanca was so successful). It also works well for structuring novels and is built on the concept of three Characters and three Acts. And I’ll use a well known example to illustrate (again Anders’ own example).

Each story has three important characters. Everyone else in the story is an extra.

The Three Characters

1. Protagonist: the main character or hero. The protagonist must want something concrete and tangible – they must have a goal they can achieve. Being happy or rich is not enough. Be happy by dating the girl next door or becoming rich by hacking into a conglomerate’s bank account is good.

In The Dark Knight Batman is the protagonist. And he wants to retire. Sometimes the tangible isn’t what you think it is when you look back at the movie, but Batman didn’t want to take out the Joker at the beginning of the movie, or personally save Gotham. He wanted someone else to do that as he wanted to settle down with Rachel.

2. Antagonist: the character that is directly opposed to the protagonist –stopping them from getting what they want. The antagonist has to be a character (it should never be a force of nature for example). The antagonist might not even know they are working against the protagonist as they could be just working to their own agenda.

In The Dark Knight Harvey Dent is the antagonist. Because he fails to act heroically and save the city, Batman has to step in. The Joker is not the antagonist as he’s not opposed to Batman’s goal directly.

3. Relationship Character: this character has a close tie to the protagonist. They could be more experienced, wiser or have a better understanding of the situation. They do not have to be related, romantically involved, or even on the ‘same side.’

In The Dark Knight the Joker is the relationship character. He encourages Batman to understand he is a ‘freak’ like him and how the city really views him.

If you consider the theme of the story, what the protagonist needs to understand in order to succeed, is expressed either by or to the relationship character. Typically this happens as part of an actual conversation. At the end of the story, this conversation will be revisited. Typically this means the protagonist and relationship character reconcile with each other. This could be as simple as Batman making a joke at the Joker’s expense as he is dangling at the top of the building (before the Joker falls to his death). Batman reconciles that the Joker was right – he is like the Joker in the eyes of the city. And making the wisecrack is his way of acknowledging the fact.

The story ends when the protagonist achieves or relinquishes his goal, defeats or is defeated by the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer together these things happen, the more emotional impact the story will have.

Three Acts

The story is broken into three broad parts.

Part 1: in this act the three main characters are introduced and their goals are revealed. We find out the ‘who, when, where, what and why’ of the story. Act 1 ends with the protagonist making a “fateful decision” that will cause the rest of the story to continue.

Part 2: is the main part of the story. The protagonist makes attempts to achieve their goal, while the antagonist works against them. The relationship character may offer support, or become a hazard or complication, ease the situation or make it worse. The act ends with things worse than ever before, what is called the “low point”.

Part 3: in this act the protagonist ‘fights’ their way (literally or otherwise) to the end. It is the final, dramatic conflict that leads to the protagonist either overcoming the antagonist, or failing horribly (if it’s a tragedy).

Each act should take up a specific amount of ‘space’ in your story. Acts 1 and 3 should consist of about one quarter of the story each, while Act 2 should have the lion’s share of half the story.

And this can be broadly mapped across to the twelve steps I talked about before. Next time, I’ll share another method of structuring your story (based on Star Trek and heard on a writing podcast).

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outlining

A handy by-product of this template is that if you are asked for an outline (or synopsis) for your story, you can use the broken down, scene by scene details to put one together quickly.

The alternative is to read the entire novel and make notes about what happens in each chapter as you go along.

Believe me, this accidental benefit is a real time-saver – both in the editing process to ensure continuity is correct and when it comes to submissions.

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notes

I am a great believer in journals. Ideally I keep all my data on a particular novel in one book. Actually I keep the journal in a plastic folder as I typically print off stuff and put it all in the same place.

Sometimes I like to be able to see the data on my screen and I will either create additional documents or extra worksheets in this one document.

This isn’t really part of the template – it’s just what I do.

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word count

I told you I liked to keep track of words etc.

a. The percentage is simply typed in.

b. The manuscript pages are a link:

=‘12 steps in theory’!J2

c. Planned words are a link:

=‘12 steps in theory’!J2

d. Plotted words are a link:

=Plotting!B5

e. Variance is a sum:

=F3-E3

I tend to think of my writing progress in words and percentages. Despite the repetition, I found each section’s word counts useful in different ways.

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the twelve steps (again)

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The steps outlined above are just taken from previous worksheets. Nothing fancy added.

Words

The black cells are SUM cells. I add up all the words from the section above.

Keeping a word count is a huge motivational tool. There is nothing better than keeping up with your word count and I get a buzz each night when I count up how many words I’ve added. Most writers say the same.

Chapter

Ought to be self explanatory as I simply put in the chapter number here.

Total scenes

I always change my opinion on this one. The template shows my approach at the time and I’ll explain it here and also give a second option.

a. List each chapter on one row

Complete a row (line) for each chapter, with as many rows as you need for each section.

b. List each scene separately

This approach takes more time and creates a lot more rows but is better to keep track of what you are doing. Create a row for each scene.

Therefore chapter one could have twenty scenes, hence twenty rows. In addition, each scene may be split into more than one chunk of prose (if you cut away to tell another part of the story and then come back to it).

You need to find out what works best for you. I started with b. but now use a.

This is a good point to note that Row 2 is essentially a sum of the cells below. That way I keep track of scenes completed etc.

Completed

Once I complete a scene, I add it in, to help me keep track of my progress.

Planned pages

You can either link this to the previous sheet or type it in. Once I have built this worksheet, I tend not to go back to previous worksheets, except to modify the overall word count.

Actual pages

I keep track of how many pages of actual manuscript I have written. This tells me if my word count was realistic or not. Some sections have more words than the template suggest and some have fewer.

Expect it and don’t force your story to fit the rules too rigidly.

Proposed words

This is simply the planned pages x 250 or:

=F3*250

Actual words

Similarly, this is simply the actual pages x 250 or:

=G3*250

You can see that word count etc. features large here. It’s as much for motivation as anything else.

POV character

Here you list any or all characters that will be the point of view for the scene. Sometimes it will be the narrator. In the box below, describe the scene.

Setting

Where is the action taking place. This is a useful reminder for continuity.

Timeline

Again, you can avoid continuity if you keep an appropriate timeline. This could be time of the day, day of the week or time of the year. It could be all of them.

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pages and broad scenes

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As you can see from above, this worksheet includes how many pages each section has. Again for the eagle eyed, this is simply:

=‘12 steps in reality’!J2

I have simply linked it to the previous worksheet. This way, if I change the overall word count, it automatically filters through to each sheet.

Broad scenes

Now put each major scene in and try to estimate how many pages each will take. I always start with an arbitrary amount and sometimes it works well and sometimes a scene runs away with me.

How accurately you predict will go up the more you write, but for now it is a useful exercise in breaking the task of writing 400 pages into very small chunks of one to two pages.

Of course, you are likely to need more cells to the right as you look to get all of the major scenes in.

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