We don’t like to think that the things we are entertained by have anything to do with science. You might think that it all happens by chance, but the magic of Hollywood may not be as magical as you believe. Stories in general follow a formula.
This is the case put forth by Christopher Vogler in his book "The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers" and Blake Snyder in his book "Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need." In their books, they explain the structure behind the stories. These books have found in their audiences aspiring storytellers -- individuals who look for the how-to of storytelling.
What good is a film without a great story? Nothing makes a gripping film like an engaging plot. According to Vogler, that comes from elements hidden in plain sight within every story line.
One element in particular of Vogler’s "The Writer’s Journey" that struck me was "The Call to Adventure" and the "Refusal of the Call."
"The Call to Adventure" usually involves a challenge that the hero faces and the price they will pay if they decide not to face it. This element, Vogler argues, must always exist and is commonly found in the first act of the story. The protagonist might recoil at the initial invitation because of the high stakes, the risks and most importantly, the character’s own fears. Part of what makes this so engaging is the tension that is created in seeing the main character overcome their fears, and what will follow once the threshold is crossed.
There are many more elements which Vogler outlines to help build a satisfying narrative including what leads from one act to another. These tools essentially put an entire story building template at your fingertips. Most- if not all- stories and characters adhere to the formulas listed in Vogler’s book, no matter the genre.
Take for example one of Snyder’s movie plots entitled “Monster in the House,” in which he outlines what’s required to make this particular story framework a success.
Those details are listed as follows:
- The Monster -- What is threatening the characters?
- The House -- What has the characters enclosed so that they cannot escape and must fight?
- The Sin -- What rule has been trespassed that has awoken “the monster” to avenge a particular cause?
If your story gives names to each of these facets, you have the makings of an engaging template that has withstood the test of time. This formula should have your audience sitting on the edge of their seat. What’s going to happen? Who’s going to win? Examples of this movie trope in action include "Friday the 13th," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," and more recently "Cabin in the Woods" expertly lampooned this archetype.
Of course, the details, the fluff, the colors of the story are all up to the creator. The characters, their quirks, the details of the house, be it literal or metaphorical, and who or what the monster is can all be used to make your story unique. But, be careful and ensure that you don’t lose focus on the “meat” of the story (the monster, the house, the sin.) Otherwise what you’ll have left is nothing but fluff, and you'll lose your audience.
Any English sentence is written, more or less, with the same 26 letters of the alphabet, yet there are infinite possible combinations. That same concept applies to creative writing; though we have made millions of stories they all follow the same basic storytelling language.
Interested in great filmmaking? Read Snyders’s and Vogler’s books. Consider these ideas; you will find them interesting and maybe you’ll be the one to write the next great classic!