The Basic Story Formula: An Effective Template

Most commercial films, TV series, and novels can be boiled down to one simple formula:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict, which = Drama

Let’s break this down into its respective parts.

The HERO, Heroine, or Protagonist is the main character we follow over the course of the story. Their hopes, dreams, fears, wants, needs, and desires become ours as we vicariously follow them throughout the narrative.  They are the character with which the writer wants us to identify with, empathize or sympathize with.  They become our avatar, giving us a role within the story through their eyes and experiences.

Now, that main character wants something.  They need something.  They are after something.  And that something (the GOAL) is what sets things in motion for the character, and in turn creates a series of events that the character must experience and surpass in order to reach the intended goal.

What’s preventing the HERO from achieving their GOAL?  It’s an obstacle, a unyielding force, and foe, a villain, an antagonist…OPPOSITION. Someone or something is causing them problems on their way to reaching their intended goal.  And while there may be a main antagonist for the protagonist to face and defeat, the antagonist will definitely throw plenty of obstacles and other issues the protagonist’s way as they attempt to achieve their goal.

And if you and a protagonist after something and someone or something trying to prevent them from reaching said goal, you will create CONFLICT.  It is through conflict that stories create DRAMA.  All of these elements are important in order to drive the action and events forward in your story, to create suspense, to create tension, and to give your audience a desire to see what happens next.

Pick a mainstream film genre and this formula fits.  Superhero? Yep.  Action?  Definitely. Sci-fi?  You bet.  Romantic-Comedy?  Uh-huh. Western?  Yup. 

I’ll use a recent blockbuster as an example:  Avengers: Infinity War. (SPOILER ALERT!)

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely talked about in an article that Thanos was the true hero of the film. Having that information, and knowing the basic story of the film, we can plug in the following variables:

HERO (Thanos) + GOAL (retrieve all six Infinity Stones to implement final plan) + OPPOSITION (The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy) = CONFLICT (plenty of teams of superheroes trying to stop Thanos from getting all the stones), which = DRAMA (plenty of dramatic and tragic moments befall everyone as Thanos moves toward his goal)

We are following Thanos on his journey.  It’s his character arc that is center stage, and therefore he is the main character of Avengers: Infinity War.  And, as the screenwriters state: “This is the hero’s journey for Thanos,” McFeely explained. “By the end of the hero’s journey, our main character, our protagonist — at least, in this case — gets what he wants.”

So, as you begin to construct your story, try and plug in these basic elements first as a foundation to build on.  Hey, if it works for a film that made $2,046,626,158 worldwide, it’s a safe bet it’s a tried and true formula for creating a strong story.

Writing Tip #3: Genre Experimentation

When I was a student at UC Davis, I wrote a very wacky, very goofy play called The Amazing Inspector Pleaseleeve.  We had auditions in September and the show didn’t open until February, which meant we had about five months of rehearsal.  With a joke-heavy show like this and with lots of rehearsal time at our disposal, the cast and I would pitch new jokes, try new comedy bits, and re-write sections of the script all in the interest of making the show funnier.

But at some point over the course of that five months, I got kinda burned out on jokes, puns, one-liners, and sexual innuendos.  I needed a break from comedy writing in some capacity for my own creative health.

So, while we were working on the show, I started to write a drama-based play, something I had never done before, but felt was a needed antidote to the other project I was currently working on.  And I enjoyed working on it.  It wasn’t about punchlines or zingers, it was about real people and real emotions. 

When we write, we often pigeonhole ourselves into a specific genre.  “I’m a comedy writer;” “I’m a sci-fi writer;” “I’m really good at writing fantasy stories.”  This is what we do because once we find a genre that we are skilled in and can write with ease, why would you deviate from that?  After all, the ideas and stories flow out of you, so why change?

Sometimes, even if just for one story, consider writing in a different genre.  You can still utilize your skills as a storyteller over there, but the challenge may give you a new perspective on your own writing that will only enhance it going forward.

For me, writing a drama was a refreshing change of pace.  I had always been a comedy writer, but a change in genre helped me discover new ways of telling a story.  I couldn’t rely on a punchline to get me out of a scene, I had to find another way for the characters to communicate and grow.  It was an effective exercise that showed me that I could do more as a writer than I had allowed myself to do in the past.

Don’t let yourself typecast yourself as a writer of just one genre.  Experiment.  Consider this: think of a basic premise for a short story.  Now, write that premise as a Western tale, a fantasy story, a horror story, a mystery, or a comedy.  Allow yourself to try new genres and you may be surprised with the results.