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The Hollywood Formula

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This is not a formula in the way a lot of people think of one, as having a negative connotation. They think "formula Hollywood movies" means Strictly Formula, the same cheesy things over and over again. What we're talking about is a recipe for Emotional Torque. Hollywood has a formula that has been developed over almost 100 years of cinema to get maximum emotional value out of every scene of a film. When you learn the formula, you can use it to shape your own works, in any medium, to get that reaction from the audience.

A Hollywood Formula story follows the interactions of three characters through the Three-Act Structure.

  • The Protagonist — the person the story is about. He or she is a person who wants a goal. The goal must be something concrete, definable, and achievable. Rather than "I want to be happy" or "I want to be rich", but rather, "I want him to fall in love with me so that I will be happy." "I want to win the game show that I'm going to be on so that I will be rich." "I want to rob the casino of the guy who's dating my ex-girlfriend, so I can be happy and rich."
  • The Antagonist — the person who places obstacles to the goal in the path of the protagonist. This does not mean the bad guy. The antagonist's goals are in some way opposed to the protagonist, and they are the one who is blocking the protagonist's journey.
  • The Relationship Character — the person who accompanies the protagonist on their journey. Typically, they are someone who has been there, done that before, and they have wisdom to communicate to the protagonist, and the protagonist isn't hearing it. The theme of the story, what the protagonist needs to understand in order to succeed, is expressed either by or to this character. In many cases, this happens as part of an actual conversation. At the end of the story, this conversation or expression of the theme will be revisited, and the protagonist and this character will reconcile with each other.

The story ends when the protagonist achieves or relinquishes his goal, defeats or is defeated by the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer together these things happen, the more emotional impact the story will have.

  • First Act; beginning at 0% of the way through the story; Introduces the characters and their goals. At 10%-15%, the protagonist faces a fateful decision, a choice, and how they answer determines whether or not there is a story.
  • Second Act: begins after 25% of the story has been told. Starts piling on the problems. Typically a story has been raising questions. At about 50% it begins to answer them.
  • Third Act: begins after 75% of the story has been told. The beginning of the third act is the low point—the furthest the protagonist can possibly get from their goal. At Climax the protagonist confronts the antagonist, reconciles with the relationship character, and claims success or failure in his goal. Then we have Denouement; loose ends are wrapped up and the story reaches its conclusion.

Three-Act Structure is much more malleable than the character roles in this formula; for instance, Die Hard can be analysed as breezing through the first two acts to bring John McClane to his low point as quickly as possible. See also The Hero's Journey, which is a similar structure, focused on the plot and its events rather than the characters and their goals.

Summarized as accurately as possible from Writing Excuses, where it was described by Lou Anders, who himself recounted the version by Dan Decker, whose profession is teaching it to screenplay writers so they can make better films and to film executives so that they know what to look for.

Compare Cast Calculus, Central Theme, Emotional Torque, Pacing Problems, Three-Act Structure. If you're looking for Hollywood-style mathematics, try E = MC Hammer.


  • Casablanca is the Trope Codifier. note  The antagonist is not always the villain: Rick isn't even aware of Laszlo's interest in Ilsa, and as a Resistance leader he's a hard man to dislike. The villains, if any, are the Nazis, but they merely create the situation that makes the story necessary (without the Nazis, Laszlo wouldn't have been taken to a concentration camp, meaning Ilsa wouldn't have gone to Paris and met Rick, etc., etc., etc.)
    • Rick Blaine (Bogart) is the protagonist. He wants Ilsa to stay with him, but gives up at the end of the film.
    • Louis Renault is the relationship character. His theme is in the line "No, you don't. You're still a patriot."
    • Victor Laszlo, hero of Europe, is the antagonist. He wants to flee the Nazis and take Ilsa with him.
  • Thelma & Louise
    • Thelma is the protagonist. Her goal is to escape, ultimately through suicide.
    • Louise is the relationship character. She and Thelma share the Main role and act as relationship character to each other.
    • Hal Slocumb - the only decent male character in the film - is the antagonist, because he wants to save them from suicide.
  • The Dark Knight
    • Batman is the protagonist. He wants to not be necessary to Gotham and to retire, and ultimately gives up on his goal.
    • The Joker is the relationship character. "Don't pretend you're like them. You're not like them, even if you'd want to be. You're a freak. Like me!" The reconciliation occurs when Batman answers the Joker's question - "Do you know how I got these scars?" "No, but I know how you got these." He tells a joke and accepts his role as the Dark Knight.
    • Harvey Dent is the antagonist. He impedes Batman by succumbing to the easy decisions and generally failing to be the white knight for Gotham that Batman wants him to be, even before he becomes Two-Face.