Ink-Stained Scribe

A Brief Note on the Hollywood Formula

Ever get to an ending that makes you go:

I think I might have stumbled face first into the holy-grail of endings.

I left my iPhone in the car while I was at work today, so instead of listening to the playlists for Mark of Flight and Hellhound, I've been listening to the Writing Excuses Podcast. I highly recommend this podcast, which includes the lovely Mary Robinette Kowal, whom I met in person this year at Dragon*Con, while hanging out with David Coe, AJ Hartley, and John Mertz.

Now that I'm done shamelessly name-dropping, I guess I should explain that, in two recent episodes, the cast of Writing Excuses discussed something called "The Hollywood Method". I've been doing a lot of work recently on figuring out structure as it pertains to character and motivation, and I found this episode very helpful.

GO HERE to listen to the actual break-down of the formula as described by Lou Anders. I'm going to give a protracted explanation here, and then explain how it's helping me in terms of focusing my characters and helping me to figure out my endings in terms of emotional payoff.

Protagonist is obviously the hero(ine), and obviously needs a motivation more specific than "to be happy".

Antagonist which is the person in DIRECT opposition to the protagonist's needs. IE, the one getting in his or her way. The antagonist may not be the most obvious choice.

Relationship Character: This is the character who accompanies the protagonist on their journey and has some sort of wisdom that helps cement the theme, which is revisited later, during the reconciliation with the antagonist. In film, there is a moment during which the protagonist has a discussion with the relationship character that articulates the theme of the story. This might be too heavy-handed for fiction.

According to the Hollywood method, to create an ending with the maximum emotional payoff the protagonist must achieve their goals, reconcile their differences with the antagonist (in whatever manner the story calls for), and reprise the theme. The closer together the three can happen, the more intense the emotional payoff.

I was having problems with the endings of both The Mark of Flight and Hellhound. I knew there was something wrong, but it was difficult to pinpoint, since I couldn't articulate what was wrong with either ending. This method didn't exactly bring up anything earth-shattering, but it gave me the lexicon (and therefore the structure) to understand whether certain elements of my story were weak, strong, or present at all.

Because MoF is the first in a trilogy, it was a little more difficult--I had to have Arianna start on the path toward reconciling the problems caused by the antagonist getting in her way, but still leave something of a cliff-hanger. I also had to consider both the theme of the trilogy as a whole and the theme of the first book by itself.

Arianna's motivation is to prove her worth by serving her coutnry as a good queen. This is going just fine until Tashda gets in her way by first undermining her to the council, then by kidnapping her and removing her from the possibility of power. Shiro, the slave that helped her escape from Tashda and who in essence represents her relationship to her own country, is the relationship character because he not only accompanies her along her journey, he has wisdom and maturity she doesn't, and is also the catalyst for her making her Big Decision.

My problem was that Tashda's impact on Arianna had disappeared at the end--he was off terrorizing another character, preparing for a war that will surface in the next book. Arianna had to deal with the after-effects only partially. I never actually forced her to deal directly with the issues Tashda caused, and I didn't turn her head in the direction of her path to reconciling those issues. Couple of emotional plot-threads there, flapping in the breeze, and I could see how tying them off would make a better ending.

I've written a new ending scene, and in terms of keeping my MC on track with her motivations (and poised to act in the next book), this new ending is much more powerful. Thanks to the cast of Writing Excuses, Lou Anders, and his film teacher for giving me a way to focus my story.

What are the Protagonist, Antagonist, and Relationship Characters in your WIP? Does your ending add up? If not, can you think of any ways to change this? What do you think of "formulas"? Are they great help with structure, or do you think they hinder creativity and variety?