Formulaic Formulas

There are a lot of people who, when it comes to movies, say there’s a distinct formula to how everything works. Some people blanch at the thought, others say it’s blame for the derivative nature of, y’know, everything.

Well, there is a formula.

Sort of: there are these certain moments you can use to plot the course of a movie’s story. Just about every good story will hit these beats. They may not always be as pronounced as in another film, but they do happen.

Now, this isn’t bad. This isn’t the same plot, it’s the same moments. Campbell outlined this over sixty years ago where he outlined the Hero’s Journey in his Hero With a Thousand Faces. For my purposes (and as a way to prep for homework), I’m gonna be using what Viki King lists in her book How To Write a Movie in 21 Days mixed with what I learnt last semester.

Let’s look at Iron Man. Because I love the movie and I analyzed it for a midterm. As the movie opens we’re introduced to Tony Stark; genius, billionaire, playboy. We’re also introduced to a central theme: Tony’s irresponsibility. Now that we’ve got all that set up, it’s time for stuff to happen, like getting shrapnel in his chest. This changes his life, so what’s he gonna do about it? Tony opts to make his life count and builds the prototype Iron Man armor and breaks out, returns home, and shuts down Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing; thereby crossing the point of no return.

Welcome to Act Two. This is where we spend time dealing more with Tony’s inner workings, figuring out who he is. He builds a new armor, continuously improving it, almost as a symbol of his working on himself. Of course, if this was all that happened in Act Two it’d get boring quick. So we force Tony to recommit to his goal. How? His weapons are still being given to the bad guys. He suits up and fights them, proving that yes: he is Iron Man, he’s done just sitting around. From here things only escalate. Obadiah Stane becomes more obvious in his villainy, leading up to where the worst possible thing happens: Tony loses his Arc Reactor and Stane goes after Pepper. This in turn leads us to the climax: Tony suits up with an underpowered Arc Reactor and fights Stane and wins. So concludes Act Two.

Now we’re tying up lose ends, Tony’s alright and, in a press conference, says that, yes, he is Iron Man. And the movie ends.

We can run Iron Man 3 through a similar break down: Tony’s introduced as an insomniac, the big issue of the movie comes up shortly after (he feels vulnerable; is he Iron Man or is the armor Iron Man?). Then his world changes: the next Mandarin attack leaves Happy Hogan injured. So Tony issues a challenge and his mansion is destroyed, creating his point of no return. Act Two begins with a broken Tony who, over time, rebuilds himself. We soon reach the midpoint where Tony recommits to his goal: he goes to the Florida mansion to continue doing the hero thing. This is followed shortly after by the worst thing possible: Air Force One is attacked, Pepper captured, and Rhody’s armorless. Then the climax at the docks and the resolution at the cliff. See? Still works.

But what about a movie that’s not about fighting bad guys? Like (500) Days of Summer?

Tom’s normal world is introduced by the narrator and the theme is brought up shortly after (what is love?). Then we’re given the inciting incident: Tom and Summer meet. The point of no return comes when they sleep together. From there we build their relationship, culminating in the midpoint where they break up and Tom fights with himself about whether or not go after her. The worst possible thing is portrayed to Regina Spektor’s “Hero”: Tom find out she’s engaged. The climax is Tom looking for work and Summer getting married. The resolution? The talk on the bench and Tom meeting Autumn.

Movies need these beats; without the midpoint Act Two starts to sag and gets dull. Without the worst thing possible happening (even if it’s not earth shattering), the climax loses its potency. We need some semblance of normalcy for the protagonist to leave behind. It all has to happen in some form, scale, or another.

Anyway, with all that done, I now have a quartet of movies to watch and break down. See you next week.

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