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Secrets of Blockbuster Movies - Part IV - Deep Structure

By John Truby

Secrets of Blockbuster Movies Part IV

Writing for Hollywood requires more than a good premise and strong storytelling ability. You also have to write what Hollywood wants to sell.

In today's entertainment business, that means a script with blockbuster capability. If the buyers don't think your script will appeal to a massive worldwide audience, they won't buy it.

What may surprise you is that the elements that buyers think will appeal worldwide are found in the deep structure of a script.

DESIRE LINE
One element essential to good storytelling is a strong desire line. The main character wants something very specific and with great intensity. This desire line serves as the spine of the story.

In blockbusters, this desire line is almost always positive; the hero wants to solve something or create something of value. In 'Star Wars,' Luke wants to save the Princess and restore the Republic. In 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark before the Nazis use it to become invincible and take over the world. In 'Forrest Gump,' Forrest loves Jenny and wants to marry her. In 'Outbreak,' the hero wants to defeat the virus and save the town.

The reason this is an important element is that the desire line is the track on which the story train rides. The desire is one of the ways the audience identifies with the hero. Through the hero, the audience invests its time in the goal. So the more positive it is, the better.

To be honest, the positive desire line is not very predictive of a smash hit movie. Like the happy ending, it is also found in most of the films that make no money at all. Its presence alone won't guarantee a hit. A better way to look at this element may be: avoid the negative desire. For example, getting off drugs. A negative desire line in a movie virtually guarantees it will not be popular with audiences.

22 BUILDING BLOCKS
Another crucial element found in blockbusters is that they invariably hit all 22 building blocks of a great script. The 22 building blocks are the single most powerful tool for creating stories that I have ever encountered. That's because they are the key dramatic steps of a story in the approximate best order they should occur.

The 22 building blocks are not a formula for writing, the way, for example, that genre is. They are nothing less than the underlying grammar of drama. The 22 building blocks never tell you what to write. They tell you how to SEQUENCE what you write for the most dramatic effect.

Blockbuster movies almost always hit all 22 steps, but, and this is an important caveat, they follow the steps in a unique order. This points up a key lesson for writers. Use the 22 steps to give your story a tight structure, but be flexible. Each story is different. The point is not to write so that you can show off your structure. The point is to use structure to bring out the best in your original story.

REVEALS
A third characteristic of blockbusters has to do with the reveals. A reveal is a surprising piece of new information given to the hero. Hit movies typically have 7-10 major reveals.

Notice this is quite different from average scripts that have only 2- 3. One of my big complaints about the so-called '3-act structure' is that it says you should have 2-3 'plot points' (which, in reality, are reveals). If you have only 2-3 'plot points,' you have a lousy plot. And there is no way you can compete with a writer whose script has 7-10.

PLAN
Another story technique found in many blockbusters, especially comedies, has to do with the plan. One of the seven basic story structure steps, the plan is the strategy your hero will use to defeat the opponent and reach the goal.

In blockbusters, the plan is usually a scam, which is a strategy that relies on deception. Scams are extremely popular with audiences.

First, because they highlight the trickster qualities of your hero. You may recall from one of my earlier articles on blockbusters that the presence of a rogue/charmer/trickster hero is probably the most important characteristic of hit movies.

Notice that the scam is not a single trick your hero plays on the opposition. It is a campaign of trickery, a complex sequence of tricks that surprises not only the opposition, but also the audience.

And therein lies the second reason audiences love scams. A scam gives the story more plot. The more that is hidden away, the more reveals and surprises the audience gets to enjoy.

STORY STRATEGY
One of the most essential blockbuster elements has to do with the overall story strategy. Hit movies usually start by establishing a real character, then thrusting him into a unique situation and world.

The rationale for this strategy comes from the nature of the film medium itself. Film is the medium par excellence of making fantastical worlds real and detailed. Also, to compete with television, film must give audiences a reason to leave the house.

By starting with a 'real' character, the story gives the audience a character they can identify with. They say to themselves, 'that's a regular person just like me.' Once the audience is hooked, the story takes the hero and the audience to a world, realized in magnificent detail, that they cannot experience in real life or in any other medium.

This is one of the main reasons why straight dramas are rarely blockbuster hits. Dramas give us real characters, but they don't take us to fantastic worlds. The movie 'Forrest Gump' appears to be an exception to this rule. Here is a drama with a real main character (with less than average intellect). But Forrest also goes on a fantastical journey where he encounters or contributes to every major event of the last 40 years of American history.

DIFFICULT PREDICAMENT
A more complex blockbuster element has to do with putting the hero in a difficult predicament. The predicament is a very precise story tool and is usually misunderstood. Although connected to the opposition in the story, it is really a technique that comes out of the desire line.

The difficult predicament isn't simply some trouble your hero finds himself in. You place the hero in a predicament by creating a second desire line. The first desire line, the main track of the story, is what your hero wants. The second desire line, introduced in the early to middle part of the story, must be in direct conflict with the first desire line. In other words, if the hero goes after A, he will lose B. If he goes after B, he will lose A.

The reason this technique is found in so many blockbusters is that it is a great way to put extreme pressure on the hero throughout the picture. And that's a big deal. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the three secrets that determine the success of the middle of a hit film are: pressure, pressure, pressure.

This brings up a related element of smash hit films. They put the hero in early and constant danger. Even though your main character should be driving the action, he or she should be under relentless attack.

There are a number of ways you can intensify the attack on the hero. One is to increase the number of opponents, so that you get a machine- gun effect where one opponent after another blasts away at the hero.

Another is to use the technique called 'stacking.' Stacking is where you shove everything forward. You keep cutting out scenes in which the hero is not under assault.

Obviously, using all the blockbuster elements mentioned above won't guarantee your script will sell. But they will certainly increase your chances considerably.

If I were to summarize the keys to being a working writer in Hollywood, I would say, first, learn all the structure tools so that you can execute as many of these blockbuster techniques as possible. Second, specialize in one or two genres so that you become known as the best in your form. Finally, exercise the discipline and put in the practice necessary to master your craft.

If you follow these tried-and-true techniques, I believe you will be a working writer in Hollywood.

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.