I’ve lacked in my posts thanks to an accelerated Accounting class during this summer session. I would not advise anyone who already has a full time job, kids, wife and other commitments to take Accounting as an accelerated class = lots of work, every day!
Between homework and other life commitments, I’ve been catching my share of movies and TV with the family. The following list is by far not complete in any sense, but I’ve noticed some common trends for what makes popular TV shows and movies.
1. The story needs anywhere from 5 to 9 ‘main’ characters, who all have different temperaments and/or desires.
- TV Show, Castle: we have Castle, Det. Beckett, Martha, Det. Esposito, Det. Ryan, Alexis and Dr. Parish. All of these characters are protagonists, but all have very different personalities and goals.
- Movie, Avengers:we have Ironman, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, Black Widow, Agent Coulson, Agent Hill, Nick Fury and Selvig as our protagonists.
2. One central location where most of the interactions happen, with no more than one or two additional locations.
- TV show, Stargate SG-1: we have the US government base hosting the stargate device and the one new location they travel to each episode.
- Movie, Alien franchise: each movie pretty much takes place in a single location (spaceship, colony, prison, etc).
- Movies like James Bond purposefully break this mold and try and travel to five or more locations throughout the movie. Adventure and action stories tend to be the exception, when a common plot device is adventuring to exotic locations.
3. Romantic involvement. . . whether some of us writers like it or not. Not only having a romantic storyline, but a forbidden love storyline is common.
- TV Show, Vampire Diaries: this show plays with forbidden love a lot, as the human protagonist is drawn to the vampires in the story and visa versa; regardless of the danger this means for the human and/or vampire characters.
- The movie and book, Twilight: if you’ve ignored it till now, its all about forbidden love.
- Every TV show has a romantic involvement, except maybe Stargate SG-1. I think after ten seasons there may have been one hinted at relationship, but for the most part SG-1 is the one exception to every other show I can think of. Thus, even if writing romance into a story isn’t someone’s ‘thing’, it is an expectation of most popular shows / movies / books.
4. Humor goes a long way to drawing in the crowd. I’m not talking specifically about comedy shows or movies. Humor is similar to romance, in that there are few exceptions that don’t’ have a comic relief characters or comedic scenes.
- TV Show, 24: this is a very serious show. But the writer’s mix in some humor with the character Chloe and/or her husband Morris that make you like the characters more and able to take a breath between the non-stop suspense.
- The book and upcoming movie, The Martian: is another serious and life-threatening story with plenty of humor interspersed throughout.
5. Conflict. Conflict. Conflict. Whether external (aka the Bad guy) or internal (man vs himself), it is the conflict that drives the story and gives the viewer/reader something to cheer for.
- Movie, Interstellar: the conflict is the Earth is dying and killing crops and people. The next conflict is the environment of space, time and gravity that works against our protagonists.
- Almost every video game, even Minecraft, has elements or a distinct storyline that is all about conflict and drawing the player into that conflict.
6. People have secrets! This is tied to conflict, but I’m calling it out separate because it’s a easily plot tool to setup future conflict and drive moral decisions on the part of the characters.
- TV Show, Arrow: is chalk full of people keeping secrets from each other. We as the audience may have more information for certain characters, which heightens the drama, as we watch the character(s) work to reveal or keep some secrets secret.
7. A bit of mystery. Not the same as secrets per se, but there is often a macro plot where our protagonists are being impacted by external forces and they may not know why or who.
- TV Show, Kyle XY: this show starts off with a mystery of who Kyle is, why he has no memories and how he can learn new things super fast.
- For a non-stop action movie like, Mad Max Fury Road: there is still a bit of mystery in this movie. The audience is not told till a bit later in the movie why Furiosa has left the expected route (happens within first 5min of movie) and is racing toward a completely different destination, nor what that destination is.
These are a few elements that seem to be requirements (aka the formula) in many TV shows and movies. As a writer, I shouldn’t look at this list as a burden or something being ‘forced’ on me, but an opportunity to add layers and depth to my story and characters.
Keep on writing!