5 Keys to Writing a Summer Blockbuster
By John Truby
It used to be that summer was the season for blockbuster movies. Now it’s a year-round phenomenon. Hollywood is in the business of selling films to a worldwide audience, which means they are always looking for a script with blockbuster potential.
Most screenwriters think a blockbuster is simply a film that does really well at the box office. Technically speaking, that’s true. But the reality is that a script with blockbuster potential is a very special kind of script, with a number of story elements that studio executives are looking for.
I’d like to point out five of the most important blockbuster script elements, out of about forty that we consistently see in the top money-making films.
Technique 1: The Myth Genre
The first blockbuster story element has to do with the genre you use to tell your story. A genre is a particular kind of story, like detective, action or comedy. When Hollywood was selling primarily to an American audience, executives thought that movie stars were the key to a hit film. But in the last ten to fifteen years, the vast majority of blockbuster films have had no movie stars.
Instead the emphasis has changed to genre films with great stories. For a film to reach a worldwide audience, it must be popular in over 100 different cultures and nationalities. Story forms are instantly recognizable anywhere in the world.
But you can’t just choose any genre if you want to write a script with blockbuster potential. Most writers don’t know that some genres travel well while others don’t. For example, comedies based mostly on funny dialogue don’t travel.
Ironically, the story that travels best is the oldest genre of all, the myth form. Myth is found in more blockbusters than any other genre by far. Add up the box office for the following myth-based movies: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Shrek, Star Wars and Avatar.
The reason myth transcends national and cultural boundaries so well is that the form tracks archetypal characters and archetypal life situations. These are fundamental character types that everyone knows, and life experiences everyone passes through from birth to death.
Like any genre, myth has a number of unique story beats you must learn, and include, if you want to tell the form well. And remember: in blockbusters, myth is almost always combined with one or two other genres, such as action, fantasy and science fiction, that serve to update and unify the myth story for a young audience.
Technique 2: The Hero’s Goal
The single most important element in an international blockbuster is narrative drive, the ability of the story to propel forward at an increasing rate. Narrative drive comes primarily from the hero’s desire line. Desire is one of the seven major story structure steps, and provides you with the all-important spine on which you hang all characters, plot, symbol, theme and dialogue.
Average writers tend to make at least one of the following mistakes when coming up with the desire line: their hero has no clear goal, he/she accomplishes the goal too quickly, or the hero reaches the goal by taking only a few action steps.
There are three keys to a good desire line. First, make it specific; the more specific the better. Second, extend the goal as close to the end as possible. Third, make sure the hero is obsessed with it. Above all, intensify the desire.
Technique 3: The Opponent
As screenwriters, we are taught to focus on the hero, since this character drives the story. That’s sound advice. But in blockbuster films, the opponent may be even more important. One of the great principles in all storytelling is that the hero is only as good as the person he fights. Also, the opponent is the key to plot. And in the last ten years, blockbusters have become more plot heavy.
When writing your script, first make sure you have one main opponent to focus and build the conflict. Then look for ways to intensify the central opposition. Make your main opponent bigger, smarter, more aggressive, more passionate. In writing Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan said, “What was important to me in creating an incredible frightening villain is that everything he says is true and at some level reasonable and also makes sense.” Nolan then used this same approach in The Dark Knight when he created The Joker, one of the all-time great opponents and probably the key element in that film’s huge success.
Once you’re clear about the main opponent, try to come up with one or two secondary opponents, with at least one of them hidden from the hero and the audience.
Technique 4: The Scam
The emphasis blockbuster films place on plot leads to another story technique. And it’s designed to solve a problem that plagues almost all screenwriters: how do you create maximum plot in the middle, where 90% of scripts fail? In blockbuster movies, the hero’s plan is often a scam, or a plan that involves deception.
The trick here is to make the plan more deceptive for both hero and main opponent. When the hero scams, he becomes a trickster character, which audiences love. When the opponent scams, it gives you more plot and makes him/her a more challenging foe.
Technique 5: The Story World
The rise of the videogame along with the ability of special effects artists to realize wholly imaginary worlds has made the story world one of the three or four crucial elements in a blockbuster film. As little as a decade ago, Hollywood didn’t care about story world, because it slows down narrative drive. Special effects were designed primarily to heighten heroic action.
But videogames showed Hollywood the power that comes from having viewers immerse themselves and explore a world in all its facets. And there’s no medium that can do that better than the big screen film medium.
Many screenwriters believe that this aspect of the film is the responsibility of the director and the special effects artists. Wrong. A good story world is written into the script, and it is intimately organic to the story. That’s why you must make sure that every visual element contributes to the story. In other words every element should have story meaning embedded within it.
How you do that is a major story skill right up there with character, plot, dialogue and rewrite. All of the major techniques for creating a rich story world are found in my Blockbuster story development software. The first step is to define a distinct and recognizable arena. Then create a map of the world, with as much detail as you can provide, especially when depicting the central community within which the story takes place. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Avatar were all written by masters of the story world.
If you are serious about succeeding as a professional screenwriter, start with these five techniques and you will be well on the path to writing a script that Hollywood is eager to buy.
Meet the Author: John Truby
John Truby is Hollywood’s premiere story consultant and founder of Truby’s Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 40,000 students worldwide.