New “Study” Gets Plot Structure Completely Wrong
By David Outten
A recent study by the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont claims to reveal six basic “plots,” which they also refer to as “emotional arcs.” This however is untrue.
First, and most importantly, it confuses the two major, distinct aspects of movies and stories, which are plot and character arc.
Dr. Ted Baehr, founder and publisher of Movieguide®: The Family Guide to Movies and Entertainment, has been teaching scriptwriting and filmmaking for more than 30 years, based on his book HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL), as well as more than 40 years of research and analysis.
Hollywood does indeed have script structure models that have served the industry nearly since its inception which are based on the teaching of Plato and Aristotle. Oddly, the Vermont study’s findings claim the two most popular “emotional arcs” are fall-rise-fall and rise-fall. This would be like finding out the sun rises in the west! The idea that the most successful stories end with a fall is bizarre. Audiences expect their heroes to go though astounding struggles, including falls, but rarely does a popular movie end with a fall. Audiences want the hero to win in the end. They want good to prevail over evil and justice to triumph over injustice.
Successful Hollywood scripts and movies usually focus on perfecting one plot. They include subplots that strengthen the core plot. They also include character “arcs.” The protagonist or hero, the antagonist or villain, and the supporting characters have arcs. They begin one way and are impacted by the plot in ways that result in change. It’s vital to have conflict and emotion, but “emotional arcs” determined by key words will never take the place of the basic structural elements professional Hollywood filmmakers want.
Scriptwriting instructors may each have slight differences in their suggested plot structure “beats,” but they basically follow the following path.
In Act I, the protagonist is introduced in their “world.” Something is troubling them and/or their world. Often, it can be something they lack or something that’s been taken away from them. They’re then presented with a call to a quest. They usually choose to join the quest. In Act II, the quest involves conflict but the hero is making progress. He meets someone who joins the quest. Together, they make progress. Then, at the midpoint of Act II (and the movie), the tide turns. The dark forces (or antagonist) put the protagonist in graver and graver danger until the protagonist is in utter despair. Finally, in Act III, the protagonist or hero recommits, regroups and faces the climactic struggle. Through this struggle, the hero has been changed. He wins the day, and the movie ends with the hero in his “new world.” The audience becomes attached to the hero and feels tremendous emotion in the struggles the hero faces and great joy in the hero’s final success.
Whether a comedy, a romance, an adventure, or science fiction, Hollywood looks for stories with this basic structure because they’re the most popular with audiences. The Vermont study found one “emotional arc” the researchers called “steady rise.” Don’t try selling such a script to Hollywood. We’d all like our lives to be a steady rise, but it doesn’t happen. Movies are built on “turning points,” whereas a steady rise or “steady fall” have no turning point.
Movieguide® has studied word analysis on scripts in an attempt to measure the amount of sex, nudity, violence, and vulgarity in a script. This only works with vulgarity because you can simply count the number of each bad word. When you try to find violent words, you get things like, “He shot through the door like a bullet.” In this case, “shot” and “bullet” have nothing to do with violence, only quickness. The difference between a great script and a bad one would be very difficult to determine computing any combination of words.
Many beginning scriptwriters want to tell a “good” story about a good person. Their grandmother was sweet, and they want to make a movie about her. As a result, however, they don’t grasp the importance of conflict and turning points in entertainment. Even a romance movie is never “a couple falls in love and lives happily ever after.” Something must always challenge their relationship and getting to the happily-ever-after becomes a quest, but audiences do want the end to be happy.
The idea that the two most popular “emotional arcs” end on a downer goes against common sense. Do you want Captain America to lose at the end of each movie? Do you want romance movies to end in divorce? Should Dory learn her parents are dead, and she’ll never find them?
Movieguide® wants to encourage the production of great movies, whether the scriptwriters are Hollywood pros or first-timers. Year after year at the Movieguide® Awards, Dr. Baehr presents his Report to the Entertainment Industry. One theme he always includes is that, “Great movies are stories well told, have a positive world view, and are spiritually uplifting.” “Stories well told” is the structure that goes all the way back to Aristotle. The “positive worldview” is that a story plays out in a world where good, as God specifies it, is preferable to evil. Finally, “spiritually uplifting” is that the story winds up encouraging a positive transformation in the hero and the view toward the Good (including God, Jesus Christ, biblical truth, kindness, honesty, bravery, integrity, repentance, forgiveness, ennobling sacrifice, beauty, etc.).
A really great story profoundly entertains while showing the hero’s character acquires moral strengths. In the 2015 Disney movie CINDERELLA, Ella is taught by her mother to pursue courage and kindness. In the face of tremendous struggles, these qualities win the Prince’s heart. The movie ends with Ella forgiving the stepmother who tormented her. Imagine the movie ending with the Prince choosing someone else, and Ella trapped in her attic room for life, living among the cinders and ashes. Even the writer of such a story wouldn’t buy a ticket.
Movieguide® has conducted analysis on the movies that have been coming to your local multiplex theater for the past 30 years. Each movie is given codes for its worldview and assorted content elements (language, violence, sex, nudity, etc.). This is then compared to box office results. This analysis shows that audiences profoundly prefer movies with biblical moral values and little to no foul language, sex and nudity. Violence is pervasive, but general audiences get turned off when it becomes gruesome.
This research has changed Hollywood. In 1987 seven of the Top Ten movies were R-rated. This year there’s only one, and last year there were none. Also, four of the Top Ten this year are animated family films. In 1987, Disney didn’t have a single animated movie in the top ten. Now, most of the major studios have animation departments and all seek to make big adventure movies promoting biblical values like courage, integrity, honesty, and freedom.
If you’re interested in making successful movies it would be wise to study Movieguide®’s Annual Report to the Entertainment Industry analysis and read HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL) rather than the findings of the Vermont study. Also, Dr. Baehr offers a HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL) filmmaking seminar that goes into depth explaining both the art of scriptwriting and the business of profitable filmmaking. The very best script structure will not help you unless you grasp the business side of Hollywood. You need to know how to get a movie made, distributed and marketed if you expect to see your story wind up in your local theater.
Editor’s Note: A long-time editor at Movieguide®, David Outten created the software used to generate Dr. Baehr’s Annual Report to the Entertainment Industry. He also has taken Dr. Baehr’s class and has written and sold movie scripts. He has done extensive research on scripts and understands how difficult and unreliable word pattern analysis is for grasping quality scriptwriting.
For more information on HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL), or your wallet for that matter, please read the book by the same name and take the class! Please contact Movieguide® about both:
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