Secrets of Blockbuster Movies - Part II

Posted by John Truby on

Don't be fooled by the notion that no one knows anything. Buyers may not know if a particular script will make over $100 million, but they have a pretty good idea of certain major story characteristics found in most blockbuster scripts.

The top professional screenwriters -- the ones who get all the jobs -- know what they are, too.

While the vast majority of screenwriters are off pounding out their simple three-act scripts, top screenwriters are using fundamentally different techniques.

Three-act structure is designed to give you the same script everyone else is writing. Plus it tells you nothing about what Hollywood wants to buy. So using the old three-act structure paradigm virtually guarantees failure.

Blockbuster techniques are story structure elements that Hollywood wants to see. That doesn't mean you are writing 'bad' or pre-fab scripts when you use these techniques. Many blockbuster scripts are extremely 'well-written' in the classic sense of the term.

Blockbuster techniques simply allow you to be more attuned to the popular audience you must serve if you want to sell your material.

One of the most important blockbuster elements is what I call the 'double track line.' Hit films always have a character line and an action line, or, to put it another way, a personal story and a case to be solved.

The character line, or personal story, refers to some kind of struggle the hero must go through to make a character change and grow as a human being.

The action line, or case, involves the trouble the hero must deal with to save the day.

The audience wants to see both of these lines play out over the course of the story. Having only the personal line gives you a 'character study.' Having only the action line gives you a 'plot piece.' Neither will be a popular success.

Caution: some writers try to write a hit film by going strictly for the action line. They figure they'll cut out the slow personal stuff up front where the hero's weaknesses are expressed and go right to the non-stop action. They've just made a pact with the devil. While they may gain some speed up front, they have just blown the payoff of the movie.

The audience doesn't care that much about a hero temporarily saving the day unless it is accompanied by permanent personal change. The personal line is what makes the action matter. If you strip the guts out of your story, the best action scenes in the world won't make any difference.

Let's look a little more closely at character.

In blockbuster movies, the hero is almost always a rogue, charmer or trickster character. I cannot overstate the importance of this element in smash hit films.

There are hundreds, even thousands, of possible heroes in a story. Yet in the vast majority of blockbusters, the hero is some kind of trickster.

This blockbuster element originated long before film. The trickster is found in cultures all over the world going back to the oldest stories on record. American movies have been especially adept at showing this character in many guises.

What makes a rogue/charmer/trickster character? First, and foremost, he is someone with great confidence. The 'con-man' comes from this quality. Audiences the world over love seeing someone brimming with confidence. A confident person goes through life walking on air.

The trickster also has a way with words. He is the most verbal of all characters. In the mouth of a movie star, the glib words of the trickster are especially sweet.

Invariably, the trickster uses his ability with words to accomplish a scam. A scam is a plan that involves deception. The plan is one of the seven major story structure steps found in every story. The more the hero's plan uses deception, the better the audience likes it.

Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray almost always play a rogue/charmer/trickster. Han Solo is one. So is Indiana Jones. So is the kid in 'Home Alone.'

Most screenwriters know the importance Hollywood places on a 'high concept' premise as the basis for a blockbuster film. What most writers don't know is the fallacy of the high concept.

A high concept premise is a story idea with a fun (and marketable) twist. The problem with high concept is that it gives you only two or three great scenes when the twist occurs. The rest of the movie is often a complete bore. Which is why most high concept scripts are dismal failures at the box office.

Blockbuster films are usually based on a high concept, but they also extend the high concept through theme and opposition.

Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world, as expressed through your characters. Blockbuster writers find the moral problem at the heart of the high concept and then play out the various possibilities of the problem in the body of the story.

The way they play out those possibilities is through the opposition. The opponent is another of the seven major structural steps in any good story. A blockbuster writer looks for the deepest conflict inherent to the high concept and fashions a group of opponents who can force the hero to deal with this conflict.

A perfect example of this blockbuster technique is 'Tootsie.' There have been scores of 'switch' comedies in Hollywood history where someone switches places with someone else. They're all 'high concept,' and they almost all fail.

'Tootsie' was a switch comedy that was a huge popular hit. Why? Sure, it was fun seeing Dustin Hoffman walk down the street the first time dressed as a woman. But the reason the movie was a smash hit was that the writers found the key moral theme -- how a man treats a woman -- inherent in the fun twist of a man dressing as a woman. They then created a number of opponents who could highlight the different ways a man treats a woman by the way each attacks the hero.

One of the simplest blockbuster elements has to do with the stakes, or consequences, of the hero's action. The audience must care whether the hero succeeds or fails to reach his goal. That is true for any piece of writing.

A simple rule of thumb for blockbusters is: the bigger the stakes, the bigger the hit. If you are going to get a vast number of people out of the house to come see a movie, you must make it an event. National or international consequences to the story do just that.

For example, what's at stake in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' is nothing less than Nazi takeover of the world. In 'The Lion King,' it's the kingdom. In the 'Star Wars' movies, it's control of the universe and the future of the Republic. 'Forrest Gump' appears to be just a small personal tale, but it also tracks American history of the last half century.

You can't understand what makes a blockbuster movie without looking closely at genre. I have long believed that the first rule of Hollywood is: it doesn't buy and sell writers, directors or even stars; it buys and sells genres.

Genres are the lifeblood of Hollywood. Bad writers don't bother to study the genre they are working in. Average writers study their genre and hit every beat, just like the other writers working in that genre.

Blockbuster writers hit all the beats of their genre, but they twist each one so that the story seems original. The reader gets the pleasure of the genre beats, but also the pleasure of surprise and creativity.

I'll talk about more blockbuster elements in future articles. You don't have to consider these elements if you only want to write a good script. But if you also want the best chance of selling your work in today's Hollywood, these techniques are crucial.

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