6.18: The Hollywood Formula, with Lou Anders

Lou Anders, Hugo-winning editorial director from Pyr books, joins Mary, Dan, and Howard at Dragon*Con for a discussion of the Hollywood Formula. Lou shared this with Mary originally, and she used it to tighten up some of her work. It’s useful enough that we decided to invite Lou onto the ‘cast to share it with everybody else, too.

The formula centers around three characters – the protagonist, the antagonist, and the relationship character. Lou explains how these terms have, in this formula, different meanings than we might be accustomed to.

Among the things that we learn:  The Dark Knight has an antagonist none of us could guess, Die Hard and Stargate are third-act movies, and Howard is criminally ignorant of classic cinema.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald, narrated by Jonathan Davis

Writing Prompt: Using the Hollywood Formula, come up with a protagonist, an antagonist, and a relationship character.

Credit Where Credit Is Due: Lou got the Hollywood Formula from Dan Decker.

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139 thoughts on “6.18: The Hollywood Formula, with Lou Anders”

  1. During the discussion of Casablanca Dan’s microphone went dead. I caught the problem late, but we managed to find a good edit point, and we backed up and re-hashed some stuff. Props to Jordo for killing something like three minutes of dead air and troubleshooting!

  2. Brilliant podcast! Not only that but by breaking down the formula it made me re-think my own writing. When was the last time a podcast changed your writing paradigm?

  3. I predict that this episode will rival Mary’s “writing as puppetry” episode for the number of “this blew my mind” reactions. But don’t let my prediction color your comments. It’s much more interesting to observe my velocity than my position.

  4. While I’ve heard a lot of this stuff before (I’m a big believer in studying screenplay theory to improve my story building) this podcast still put an amazing spin on several things and still managed to get me wondering about a few things.

    It also reminded me I need to give another read through to Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, which actually examines Campbell’s hero’s journey and how it can be applied to the screenplay, as that goes into a lot more detail on things than you guys had time to do in 20 minutes (and thank you for letting it run so much over, every bit of this podcast was worth it).

  5. One of my favorite episodes so far. I love the ‘casts that make you reconsider your characters and your story in new ways. This one actually helped me peg down a problem I knew existed but couldn’t pinpoint.

    Always great to apply something you just learned and get immediate results.

  6. This is really cool but I’m not sure how to apply it to my own stories. The one big take-away that I got was to try to have the three climaxes happen as close to one another as possible. But from what Mary was saying about how applying this formula made her beta reader cry, I think there must be more to it than that. What am I missing?

  7. It is up there with the puppetry episode, Howard. I loved it, listened to it twice in a row, and took meticulous notes. These episodes where you delve into the structures of stories and storytelling are great.

    I have one question for you guys that have been bothering me for a while. Why is it that in your bio photos, Dan and Mary are smiling while Howard and Brandon aren’t? Okay, I think I know why Dan is. After all, he isn’t a serial killer… right?

  8. @K. Bill – Making sure you have all three climaxes and putting them as close together as possible could easily cause that effect. When that is pulled off correctly, the three all augment and amplify each other, significantly increasing the emotional punch of each individually into a more powerful whole.

  9. I both love and hate podcasts like this one. They make me see flaws in my story that I never even knew to look for. Sometimes they’re huge flaws. And while it’s frustrating to realize you’re going to have to make major changes to fix a problem, it’s also an awesome feeling when you figure out the solution and everything clicks into place. Thanks for this, and the many other fantastic podcasts that have given me a new way to look at what I’m writing!

  10. Great ‘cast and a very interesting formula. I agree with Bill Albrecht in wanting to hear the specific example of how Mary applied it. This also makes me realize just how awesome Brandon, Dan, Howard and Mary are for cramming so much information into a fifteen (or twenty) minute podcast every single week. Thanks guys – you spoil us!

    Overall, it seems like the Hollywood formula is all about making and then keeping promises to the reader (or cinema-goer).

    One question – how much importance do you give to any formula or structure? Do you adhere to it strictly in every case? Or do you write the story you want and then use the formula to improve where you can?

  11. @Tony: I disagree with your assessment. I think it’s more like this —

    Dan: Protagonist
    Mary: Antagonist
    Howard: Relationship Character


  12. @Talmage: There is no attempt to unify these photos in theme, background, or even in pose. Mary is by far the most photogenic of the bunch, though, so her photo goes on top. :-)

    (Brandon’s been making noises about getting new head-shots, and I know Dan just got some. Me, I’m sticking with this one because the photographer was John Scalzi, and that’s pretty cool all by itself.)

  13. 4 years of Film school struggling to keep a handle on writing craft and once again, someone I’ve never heard of (Lou Anders) says something and it just clicks.

    No one every equated story formulas to recipes before. *Bang head against wall* *Profanity* If I ever meet you in person Mary, I’ll buy some kind of a thank you gift.

    Another face palm moment. Thanks guys.

    For those curious, this podcast’s discussion represents every single Film Class ever. Imagine discussions like this going on for an hour at a time every day.

    While thinking about Film Theory and writing again, you guys should do an episode on The Genre Cycle. It’s good stuff.

    Now I’m out of excuses and I’m going to go write. :)

  14. @Howard, Talmage:

    Howard, your headshot is perfect. Every time I see it, I imagine you saying “Luxury!”

    But are you certain you don’t have things mixed up? Because from the expression on his face, it really looks like Brandon was the one being photographed by Scalzi. Excuse me, “SCALZI!”

  15. Yes, this is another mind-blowing one. And, sigh, this was the year I had to miss both ArmadilloCon and FenCon. I was regretting not seeing Lou Anders even before I heard this (I use his quote from a previous WE about book covers being like the mating plumage of tropical birds all the time).

    I don’t suppose his lecture might make it to youtube, like Dan’s and Howard’s? (please please please please please ^_^)

    @Howard – so what is it that Dan wants that Mary is actively preventing, and what wise advice are you giving that he ignores?

  16. Wow! Great episode. I’ve been enjoying six seasons and this if definitely my favorite. And not because Lou totally schooled everyone. Because of the formula and all the excellent examples. It really made a lot of sence. Thank you again everyone for ask the work to bring us this excellent content.

  17. @ Bill Albrecht and @George: Unfortunately, the ending that I was referring to is for my upcoming novel and explaining it would involve major spoilers.

    BUT I will say that I think that one reason short stories can deliver more of a sucker-punch emotionally is that, by their very brevity, those three items have to come close together.

  18. I’m trying to figure the formula out for the first Back to the Future movie. It seems like Marty McFly has to be the protagonist, and if so the doc has to be the relationship character, because no one else is aware of what’s going on. But what is it that Marty wants? To get his parents back together?

  19. This episode made me look at my novel in an entirely new way. Thanks for getting Mr. Anders to share this with us.

  20. @Fibonacci: Marty is the protagonist. He wants to get his parents back together, and he wants to be “cooler.” In both of these cases, the person working against him is George McFly, so George is the antagonist.

    I think Doc is the relationship character, yes.

  21. This is a much smoother idea, so much better than the notion of rising/falling action or rigid outlining. With this formula, things are still fluid, but there’s a general pathway to figuring things out.

    This formula doesn’t give us the answers, it gives us the tools to find the answers.

  22. A minor correction for Lou Anders, the Harlem Globetrotters have lost to the Washington Generals. They lost once on January 5, 1971 with a score of 100-99 against them, but the Generals were playing as The New Jersey Reds (it was a time when they tried to pretend that there were more teams so they’d change jerseys between games.

  23. I am kind of floored by this episode…who hasn’t seen Casablanca? :P

    But this is definitely up there with the puppetry…Mary is adept at mind blowing. I especially like the discussion of the films that use the formula but alter it in some way; though I think sometimes this can be for better or worse.

  24. @Howard: “blew my mind” was exactly what I was thinking. Some of this was already familiar but there was just something about the way Lou owned it that made it really sink in. The mind-blowing for me was specifically linked to watching it all click on the Dark Knight example.
    I’m seriously thinking about watching Casa Blanca now—I noticed it was listed as Lou’s favorite movie on his website; hence the touchiness.

    @Tony: I got a hardy laugh out loud on your post.

    @Dan: You are super clever.

    @Lou: I want more. Also I loved how you quoted the Dark Knight like deep emotional poetry—awesome.

    @Fibonacci: The goal might be in the title

  25. This was up there with the “edit your old crap” episodes as far as how informative and interesting it’s been. This spoke to me more than the puppetry episode, but Howard’s right that they’re in the same league.

    I’m trying to break down my current project into these 3 characters, and I can’t do much without combining people.

    This becomes even more interesting when, as was attempted in the podcast (albeit incorrectly, according to Lou), the setting becomes a character as well. The problem is that the world is a boring character, since it has no motivations. The sea is not good or evil – it just is.

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  27. @Dan Wells: You’re right, and I actually figured Biff was the relationship character starting about two minutes after I posted.

    I’m having trouble articulating WHY, however. I guess that’s because for me “Back to the Future” never had a theme. Not until right now, when I’m thinking about it. “Make brave choices because they’ll lead to a better future” is all I’ve come up with.

    Now… how does Biff articulate that theme for us? Is that how we show that he’s the relationship character?

  28. I’m not convinced that Biff makes sense in that role, but this is probably because it’s been too long since I watched the movie.

  29. Gentlemen and Lady,

    You are terrific! Truly. I have been listening to all of your shows and I can’t get enough. The humor that is contained within the episodes, the wonderful insight and goodies within the writing craft you give are all superb. Writing Excuses wouldn’t be the same without you.

    I am writing this to let you know that this episode is fantastic – probably my favorite so far. Lou does a great job of describing the formula and I just think the whole show was great. Thank you all for being what I listen to day in and day out. I load my iPod by the season. Well done.


  30. To me, The Hollywood Formula was the best episode of Writing Excuses (never mind the technical problems). I listened to it five times in a row, have adjusted my most recent work according to the Lou’s formula and improved my novel tremendously. Thank you ever so much for your great podcast and please, please, get Lou Anders back on the show!!! Herzliche Grüße aus Deutschland.

  31. @Howard: I think Biff is the relationship character because he articulates (through his actions) the theme of the movie (no pun intended) “Don’t need money, don’t need fame, don’t need a credit card to ride this train…that’s the power of love.”

  32. @Howard Tayler I agree that Back to The Future doesn’t really have a theme from the point of view of Marty as the Protagonist. The closest I can think of for the RC is Doc because they have a conversation at the beginning of the movie about…stuff I can’t remember, but has to do with pursuing goals and they have a conversation at the end of the movie that recapulates it with Marty asking about the space/time continuum and Doc going, “What the hell…”

    I consider Marty to be the Relationship character and George the Protagonist because Marty has no character arc in the movie at all. He behaves at the end exactly the way he does at the beginning and even though he does have a goal of getting back to the future, it’s kind of incidental and straight forward. Marty’s struggle is Man vs environment. He didn’t have to learn anything or do anything different to accomplish that goal.

    Back to The Future’s Antagonist is actually Lorraine, Marty’s Future Mom. Lorraine’s goal of wanting Marty in a way that makes him curse Oedipus is diametrically opposed to Marty’s Goal of wanting his parents together in the future AND against George’s goal of wanting Lorraine.

  33. This is a great podcast. Lots of good insights about story clarity. A fab technique to use to express a theme, as well as a way to show character change.

    At the same time, Anders’ Decker model, and the discussion in the podcast, seems to perpetuate a myth. The myth is that the most powerful stories require that a character change. They require relationship characters, as defined: mentors who expresses the theme.

    The idea that there’s only one species of story that’s the most fit for the selective pressure of the American consumer fiction environment, or even the popular fiction environment, flies in the face of reality.

    None of Lee Child’s books really do this. There’s very little that’s themey in them. And Reacher does not change in any significant way in most of these books. And yet they’re very powerful for what they do. And make a lot of money. There are a great number of mysteries that don’t do this–feature no character change or mentors helping the protagonist to change. They please large audiences and make a lot of money. Larry Correia’s MONSTER HUNTER action comedies, as far as I can tell, don’t have anything like this. And yet they thrive in today’s commercial market.

    I absolutely love Anders’ insistence of a CONCRETE goal to make the protagonist happy. Incredibly clarifying. I love the clarity he brought to THE DARK KNIGHT. I think the idea of the relationship character, when a story calls for that, and the expression and reconciliation of theme are great techniques.

    But I don’t see evidence that this is THE model of story telling best-suited to the selective pressures of modern audiences. There are a lot of species of story “structures” that thrive with today’s audiences.

    Ultimately, I think the most helpful insights Anders shares for writers is to (1) make sure we understand the concrete thing the protagonist wants, (2) the person who will be throwing obstacles in the path, and (3) if it’s a story that features change, to think about including a relationship character who will express theme etc.

    BTW, I think Anders’ observation that having the protagonist victory and theme reconciliation close together makes sense for stories that feature character change as the KEY to the protagonist achieving his or her goal. It makes sense because readers want to be in suspense. And if the one main and final obstacle holding the hero back is his theme issue, his belief, then it seems that suspense would be drawn out most when that final obstacle is only removed at the climax.

  34. @ Dan, Howard, & Fibonacci:

    I find it hard to believe that Biff is the relationship character. It feels forced.

    Marty’s stated objective is to get back home, to not be wiped out of existence. To do that Marty has to fix the whole mom and dad screwup he caused by getting hit in front of Mom’s house and making her like him. He needs her to fall in love with McFly. That’s the concrete goal.

    Marty is, in many ways, his own antagonist. Further complicating this, the character who changes is McFly, not Marty. Marty is expressing the theme of standing up, of not cowering, etc.

    If you look to the beginning of the film there’s another objective–have a happy family. The McFly’s are all losers. The thing Marty wants is for his dad to stand up to Biff. To be a man.

    Kind of like Batman wanting Harvey Dent to become something. So it’s like the DARK KNIGHT as Lou read that movie. But I don’t remember any scene where Biff gives McFly the key. It’s Marty who gives it to McFly when they’re setting up the fake save–“No, Biff, you get your damn hands off of her.”

    I think this shows that a successful formula often doesn’t fit all stories–some holes fit round pegs, and some fit square ones. I think we make a mistake when we try to impose readings on stories just to fit the formula.

  35. Thanks everyone for the positive comments. @Fibonacci:, Dan, Howard: regarding BACK TO THE FUTURE, I respectfully disagree.. With the caveat that I haven’t seen the film in over a decade and a half, I’d say you could make a case for George McFly as the main. What does he want? The girl. Who is trying to stop him? Biff the antagonist. Who is the relationship character? The one trying to teach him to be more assertive? The one who has literally BEEN THERE BEFORE. Marty! and what is the resolution with both antagonist and relationship character, when he punches Biff! That’s the punch that changes everything and it’s not delivered by Marty–he’s been shoved away and is offscreen for it.. It’s George!

    Now, you could argue “split main” with a second triangle of Marty, Biff, Doc. In which case Marty is trying to alter time, and the reconciliation is when Doc–who believes in the sanctity of time–peeks at the letter and wears a bullet proof vest!

  36. Another interesting film, in terms of playing with the formula, is Michael Douglas’ FALLING DOWN. It’s interesting in that the lead is NOT the protagonist.

  37. Holy cow! This has to be one of the best episodes you guys (and now gal) have done!

    My compliments to the discussion. It truly made me think about my own writing, and I think changing and adding just a few sentences made the book I just finished even better.

    Thanks for all the hard work that goes into this show!

  38. @John Brown – I don’t see why a changing protagonist is required for this system of story building to work. The struggle can be to not change (the formerly violent person who swore pacifism struggling with that in the face of horrible odds, for example) and their trials and tribulations could fit within this context, with the relationship character supporting them in their desire to remain unchanged, while the antagonist is the one creating the pressure to do what they don’t want to (violence in my example).

  39. Sorry to repeat all that’s been said before, but this was the best episode ever. Took loads of notes

    We’ve all heard/read about the three act structure, but Lou really makes it compelling and brings it back to the characters and their motivations. Brilliant.

    Must share with my writing group.

    Food for thought.

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