The movie formula and how to modify it

The movie formula and how to modify it

Aug 12, 2016, 10:56:53 PM Entertainment

Within every genre, there is a basic structure that the generic films follow. In order to make something 'original', you need to tweak the structure in a way that nobody else has done yet, or done recently. Here are some basic structures for various genres and some ways to alter them to be less predictable.


When it comes to romantic stories,  most of them can be boiled down to Romeo and Juliet. It goes something like this: Boy meets girl. There is an instant attraction, they flirt and get on for a short amount of time, then something happens and they realise they can't be together. They separate but are thrown together by circumstance and have to spend time together. They forget the reason they can't be together and are really happy for a while. Then the reason they can't be together comes back and screws it all up, everyone is sad. They then come together dramatically, either deciding that the reason they can't be together is a stupid reason so screw it, or they resolve the reason and now they can be together. Most Romance stories do not end as tragically as Romeo and Juliet because that would just make everyone depressed and nobody wouldn't go back to watch the film.

It's a good structure and that's why all the great romantic stories follow it, intentionally or otherwise. It's a balancing act between conflict and romance. You get hooked immediately on the couple and then you get them taken away from each other, rinse, repeat, and you can have your happily ever after in the end. Or not, depending on the story.

Titanic follows the formula beautifully. Jack is poor, Rose is rich, they like each other but can't be together. Throw in the added conflict of Rose's fiancé and top it off with the sinking of the Titanic and you've got yourself a really great Romeo and Juliet story on a ship. 

Deadpool also follows this structure, because Deadpool was a romance. Deadpool ... was a romance. *sigh* Deadpool should not have been a romance... I mean come on, at least make it a romance with Death. 

Anyway, Wade and Vanessa meet and they fall in love. Then Wade gets cancer and searches for a cure, so now they can't be together. They get forced back together when he needs to go save her, shit goes down and eventually it all works out. It's the same structure with different gags, a different tone, different plot, but at the core of it, every romance can be boiled down to Romeo and Juliet.

So how do you shake things up? Well, you mess with one or more of the elements. Here's some examples of what can be changed and a film where it was changed.

  • Boy meets girl? How about boy meets boy. - Brokeback Mountain (2005)
  • Boy meets girl? Maybe boy meets robot? - Her (2013)
  • Boy meets girl? Or Lion meets lion? - The Lion King (1994)
  • Couple can't be together? What if they can? - Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
  • Couple ends up together? What if they don't? - *Anything I put here would be a spoiler*
  • Couple meet and fall in love? Throw in some more couples! - Into the woods (2014)
  • Make the story short enough for your audience to to stay awake through? Nah! - Les Miserables (2012)

Sure, it doesn't have to follow any kind of structure, it can be whatever the filmmaker decides. But with so much content in the world, everything is really just a variation of something else, and Romeo and Juliet, possibly the greatest love story ever written, is not a bad thing to be a variation of.


Honestly, I don't watch comedies. I like rom-coms, I like spoofs, I like horror comedy, I like musical comedy, but I hate straight up comedy. I haven't seen many comedies but can't I just skip this section, it's a major genre. So, instead, I'll be making it up as I go for this entire section, forgive any potential inaccuracies that come from this method. With that in mind, let's continue.

Comedy seems to be putting incompetent, yet (apparently) lovable idiots in situations that could be worked out much faster by anyone else, but these special characters find the most complex and unnecessary ways to do things. Now let me go and find some comedies I've actually seen to give you some examples.

Ted. I have seen Ted. So Ted is about a teddy bear that comes to life because a kid wished it, but then the kid grows up and novelty wears off. The teddy bear, Ted, adopts a similar lifestyle to his buddy John as they hang out and smoke weed. Ted also starts dating and somehow this complicating Johns life or something. Funny things apparently happen in the midst of this. I feel like regular people's lives would be less complicated by this teddy bear since it would likely taken off for experiments as soon as they decided to tell the whole world, like they did. Not to mention it would be a confirmation that magic exists, which is kind of a big deal. They just replaced the regular, obnoxious, annoying dude in comedies with an annoying and obnoxious teddy bear. I guess I just have no sense of humour, it's my loss.

Comedy, to me, feels like a series of really annoying things happening in extremely unlikely circumstances that rely on the characters not behaving like regular people and constantly missing the obvious solutions. So how do you make that original? Gags and Gimmicks. That's all they seem to do, just make up some new gags, an unusual gimmick and you got yourself a brand new comedy.

Sure, they could add a compelling plot, in depth characters, meaningful relations, just something different. But that's too much like work and doesn't attract the same audience, and why should you mix things up when so many people keep coming back for the same thing over and over again? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.


*In order to get the most out of this section, I recommend reading it in a deep, dramatic, cinematic voice*

Action is all about a protagonist getting the job done. He will possibly have a rough and tough back story which is the reason he probably no longer does this stuff, or something vague like that. But then he has to come back. There is a thing that needs doing and he will do it. He will achieve the thing. Maybe he'll be tempted to stray from the path, but he will come back and he will finish the job. He'll likely get beaten down, unable to continue, his spirit broken and his body probably injured in some way. But then a thing will happen and he will rise with new purpose and he will complete the objective, probably killing some bad guys in the process. He will do the thing, everyone will celebrate and he will hug the person(s) who helped him through it that we all forgot was probably the reason he was doing the thing in the first place. 

Action is all about a simple plot that gets fleshed out with the epic battles and races against time and serious faces, cars and guns. Testosterone fuelled special effects and practical stunts are the beating heart of this genre.

*Deep, dramatic, cinematic voice*

Batman. Batman has a job to do. Batman has to defend Gotham. Enemies try to be bad and Batman has to stop them. Batman. 

Robocop. Robocop has a job to do. He must defend the city. Bad guys try to be bad and Robocop has to stop them. But Robocop also has his own personal turmoil to deal with in between beating up bad guys.

How do you make something with a simple plot original, while maintaining your core audience? 

  • Exciting, new special effects
  • Exciting, new practical stunts
  • Exciting, new settings
  • Exciting, new characters
  • Exciting, new music

Basically, don't focus too much on the actual plot, focus on literally everything else and give a new reason why the protagonist can't achieve this thing every easily. Tweak the formula, don't rewrite it. All the films I am about to list are all very much "there is a thing that needs doing, and I will do the thing while beating up dudes" kinds of films, but they all have something about them that makes doing the thing harder. Be it evil-ish, robot future (The Termination), memory problems (The Bourne Identity), you're alone in space (Aliens), there's not a lot of information to go on and it's very time sensitive (Taken) or maybe your enemy just happens to be the entire government and you are a slave (Gladiator).

Find new ways to make things difficult for the poor guy trying to trying to do the thing, and then flesh it out with violence some pretty tragic back stories and you've got yourself an action movie.


To make an adventure film, you're going to need:

  • Several meaningful characters
  • An objective
  • Point A
  • Point B
  • Travel
  • Lovely scenery
  • Some obstacles
  • engaging dialogue
  • Solution

Grab your characters and start them off at point A. You're going to want to sprinkle some scenery in here, but don't use it all yet. Next, add your objective. This can be anything you want as long as it is compelling for the characters. You want to introduce the idea of point B, but don't mix it in yet, just set it to the side until the end. Throw in about 1/3 of your engaging dialogue to get the characters ready and then set them on their way with the travel. Travel can be physical movement or you could use a lighter, metaphorical substitute, which takes place within the characters.

You'll want to use most, if not all, of your travel at this point. You'll also want to use a lot of your scenery, but not all of it, and another 1/3 of your engaging dialogue.  As you mix in these ingredients, be sure to throw in some minor obstacles, but save the biggest for the end. Add some more travel, scenery and dialogue, mix thoroughly. Now you're ready for the end. Add point B and throw in the last obstacle, combined with the last of you scenery, then add in the solution. This will break down the obstacle, smoothing the mixture. Finish it off with the last of your dialogue and your adventure film is ready to serve!

If you want to personalise this recipe, then feel free to switch out any of the ingredients with variations of your own, be creative!

For a winter evening, throw in a dash of romance for that extra warmth. Decorate it with your very own alternative universe if you're looking to impress. If you're feeling really daring, throw in some death and misery, just a pinch or a whole bucket, it's up to you! 

Always remember, the music and settings are as important as the meal itself!


Someone/something kills off a group while they try not to die. That's it, that's a horror right there. That is A Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, Friday The 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, The Cabin In The Woods, My Bloody Valentine etc.

Okay, you got me, most of those are more like slashers. Here's what a horror is:

Something/someone tries to kill one or more people and takes an extraordinarily long time to do it. That's Sinister, Psycho, The Blair Witch Project, Insidious, The Ring, The Grudge, Jaws, The Silence Of The Lambs, etc.

If you want to make a horror, then here are the components you can play with and what you can do with them:

  • Victims/survivors - How many, Their personalities, Their relationships, What they look like, How they react etc.
  • The Killer - What are they, How many, Motive, Kill method, Appearance etc.
  • Location - The woods or not the woods, Availability of help, How they came to be there etc.
  • Deaths - Be creative!
  • Plot - This is a horror, what plot? Okay, you can have a plot, but it can't be too complex unless you're trying to make more than just a horror, which is fine too but be aware that you'll have to maintain it with consistency.

And that's it. That's the basic things that make up a horror, play with those elements and try to find a combo that isn't exactly the same as 500 films before it.


30% plot, 30% character development, 30% emotion, 10% lighting.

This one is less structured because it is all about the plot, and the plot can be anything. I guess if I had to write a structure for it then it would be: 

Character > Dramatic thing > Reaction > Win or lose.

But the fact that they are less obviously structured does not make it any easier to make something original, in fact, I would say it's the hardest genre to do anything in. It's also very difficult for it to be coherent, there's no real template to follow. Everything else is "This, this and this. Fill in the blanks.", but drama gives you nothing like that, and there's a creative freedom that comes with it but that's a double edged blade. 

Romance = There's two people, they like each other, this is a romance film.

Comedy = This setting is funny and light, this is a comedy film.

Adventure = This is a journey with a goal, this is an adventure film.

Action = Did you see that badass fight scene? This is an action film.

Horror = Those people are getting killed, this is a horror film.

Drama is not so straightforward. Drama is complex. Drama can be sad, or happy, or scary, or innocent, or brutal, or confusing. It can be all those thing separately or in a single film. Drama is people, reacting.

All the genres go hand in hand, you have rom-coms, and zom-coms, and action/adventure, comedy/horror, romantic/horror (a personal favourite of mine, not often seen), romanti/action, etc., and then all the other genres which I was not going to write about because this is already very long. They all go together, but drama touches the most of them because it is so diverse, so complex. 

I love drama, it's incredibly emotive. You can't tweak the structure because there is no universal structure, but this means that you can make absolutely anything. You can make something as deep and meaningful as 12 Years A Slave, or you can make something as clever and powerful as Boyhood. Make something as lonely as Gravity, or as crowded as 12 Angry Men. Mix in horror (Jaws) or love (Casablanca) or both (Let The Right One In). Make the settings as simple as Room In Rome, or as vast as The Lord Of The Rings. You can do anything with drama. It doesn't have to be one thing.

So there you have it, the basic structures to a few genres and what to change to make something original. Yes, I know it's more complex than that and I'm not saying film makers work off a template when making films, that actually sounds like a terrible idea. But in our world of remakes and sequels, it's hard not to notice all the similarities between every film ever and every other film ever. But once in a while, a film comes along. A very special film. A film that is like no other film. I live for those films. But while I wait for them, I love a good slasher jam packed with cliches too.

So, what's your favourite standard formula film? 

- Magpie

Published by No go

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