Peter Suderman in Slate on Hollywood's Secret Blockbuster Story Formula



Writing in Slate, Senior Editor Peter Suderman looks at the story formula that's taken over Hollywood:

If you've gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You've seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into DarknessBattleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark KnightThe AvengersSkyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has FallenOblivion21 Jump StreetFast & Furious 6).

It's not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It's as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.

The formula didn't come from a mad scientist. Instead it came from a screenplay guidebook,Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. In the book, author Blake Snyder, a successful spec screenwriter who became an influential screenplay guru, preaches a variant on the basic three-act structure that has dominated blockbuster filmmaking since the late 1970s.

When Snyder published his book in 2005, it was as if an explosion ripped through Hollywood. The book offered something previous screenplay guru tomes didn't. Instead of a broad overview of how a screen story fits together, his book broke down the three-act structure into a detailed "beat sheet": 15 key story "beats"—pivotal events that have to happen—and then gave each of those beats a name and a screenplay page number. Given that each page of a screenplay is expected to equal a minute of film, this makes Snyder's guide essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula

Come for the high-concept article idea. Stay for the mind-blowing twist ending! And read the whole thing here

NEXT: Katherine Mangu-Ward on Obama's Transparency Fail

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I thought Slate was considered an enemy by the Peanut Gallery.

    1. This character was never very good to begin with, but now it’s just stale and boring. You tried to spice it up with some racism, but it really didn’t work. Retire it. Work on Lyle for a while.

      1. It’s too predictable to even be annoying anymore.

      2. It’s true. It doesn’t even bother to try to address content anymore. It’s all about trying to point out how libertarians are closet Republicans and therefore hypocrites.

        1. Hand in hand with “BOOOSH!” as a response to every criticism of the Obama administration.

          1. Which is always especially ironic when the topic is a Bush policy that Obama made worse.

        2. Even the spambot can show more insight.

          1. LOL. I earned $6,872 just by reading that comment.

            1. What Scruffy said I had no idea you could earn $89/hr reading HnR comments, but my sister’s brother-in-law cleared $15,231 last month.

        3. I simply pointed out that Slate, HuffPo, and Gawker are despised here every day.

          NEVER do I see the Peanut Gallery comment on the insanity of right-wing sites like the Blaze, Stormfront, Front Page, World Net Daily, and NewsMax.

          1. Nobody criticizes Stormfront because everyone but you is a Nazi. Don’t you realize that?

          2. Who gives Stormfront any credence whatsoever? World Nut Daily and NewsMax are obvious tinfoil hat tripe. The Blaze actually prints some worthwhile stuff if you can sort it out from faux-libertarian crud.

            1. Why the fuck are you responding to it as if it makes a real or valid point? It’s a fucking sockpuppet; ignore it.

              1. Point taken. Now go fondle your mom or whatever it is that you do for fun.

                1. (goes and fondles Nerfherder’s mom)

                  1. Get back in line asshole. There are others in front of you.

          3. The difference is probably because none of us read those sites, so we’re unaware of whatever slop they’re pumping out on a daily basis.

            1. There’s a NewsMax widget on the right. From it I know that they’re pumping out “7 Biblical Truths About Investing” today.

              1. I guess I’ll have to turn Adblock off, because I’m missing these incredible opportunities to make more money by shorting shellfish stocks.

              2. One word: unleavened bread.

              3. All I see is a vast sea of white space. To think, all this time I’ve been a Rethuglican.

            2. What Joe M said.

    2. Re: Palin’s Buttwipe,

      I thought Slate was considered an enemy by the Peanut Gallery.

      No, that’s just you being normally paranoid.

    3. Slate publishes stupid articles. This one included.

      Still love ya, Pete.

  2. Well the forumula sucks ass, because most of the crap coming out of Hollywood today is less interesting that I can ever remember in my lifetime.

    1. Check out some Korean films – OldBoy, Silmido, Thirst

      Most are available on Netflix and much more interesting than the latest Batman flick (which sucked ogre balls by the way).

    2. I missed ‘Bling Ring’ – the only movie I have been interested in this calender year.

      I think it bombed.

  3. And people wonder why I’ve not watched a movie in the past decade.

    1. Actually, we don’t.

      But some of us envy you.

    2. That’s nothing to be proud of; you’ve missed some great stuff. You’ve also missed some horrible stuff, but, hey; what’s life but risk, right?

      1. It’s not like the schlock movies aren’t usually obvious. Plenty of smaller, better movies out there. And, on occasion, the big ones are decent, too.

    3. You missed The Dark Knight so the joke’s on you.

  4. [screenshot of television showing footage from one of the *Transformers* movies]

    In a world of formulaic plots and predictably boring blockbusters…

    [screenshot of moviegoer yawning, and he doesn’t have a date, meaning it’s a genuine yawn, not a ruse to put his arms around the date]

    …ONE MAN dared to make movies interesting and watchable again…

    [stirring music, we see PETER SUDERMAN at his typewriter]

    Faster than a speeding bullet, SUDERMAN writes the scripts that could change Hollywood forever! But they won’t listen…

    [Producer’s office – a middle-aged bald man throws a script back in SUDERMAN’s face]

    PRODUCER: This won’t play in Peoria!

    SUDERMAN: Screw you, I’ll produce this movie myself!

    Unable to fund his film by conventional means, SUDERMAN is forced to go to the Mafia.

    [An abandoned warehouse. A well-dressed man with a New Jersey accent hands SUDERMAN a briefcase full of cash.]

    MAFIOSO: This movie, “The Constitution of Liberty,” better succeed, because if you don’t repay us, you’re in big trouble – unless you suddenly develop gills…but hey, no pressure!

    Can SUDERMAN bring the masses the entertainment they are clamoring for?

    1. Suderman: Man of Spiel

      1. + 1,000,000 Midi-chlorians

  5. It’s not an accident that the chapter on creating a hero is called “It’s About A Guy Who ? ” not “It’s About A Person Who ? ” And with a young male protagonist, women are literally relegated to the B-plot?the love interest, or “helper,” who assists the male protagonist in overcoming his personal problems. It’s not an accident that Raimi’s megabudget Oz movie featured not Dorothy but a male protagonist.

    Passages like this explain why Slate published the piece. 😛

  6. We can appeal to screenwriters to buck the trend. But why would they? The formula is incredibly useful. Indeed, I relied on Snyder’s beat sheet to write this piece, using every beat, in the order he lists.

    Oh my god I feel so betrayed now!


      1. Don’t get too addicted to it, Suderman. Once you start trying to end every article with a twist, you’ll go the road of M. Night Shyamalan.

        1. You mean he’ll write one good column for his entire life? Yikes.

          1. Hey, Unbreakable was good!

            1. FUCK. YOU.

              1. No gonna happen.

                *Cue intro music* “Cytotoxic is…. UNFUCKABLE.” (Starring John McCain)

  7. The comments over there are the usual nonsense. I see that many of them are bring up TV tropes, as if that is anything other than a shortcut they use to avoid thinking.

    1. I see that many of them are bring up TV tropes, as if that is anything other than a shortcut they use to avoid thinking.

      T.V. Tropes is a fun website that has a lot of disgusting, useless fan boys. It annoys me that the site tries to bill itself as some sort of ‘writing tool’ when all it actually is is a listing of things that happen in other things.

      1. TVTropes: “we’re not a site for bashing things… unless it’s Ayn Rand.”

        Still, I love TVTropes. Except that half of the content is about anime, which gives you a sense of who the contributors are.

  8. Uh, I think Joesph Campbell covered this a few decades ago.

    1. The reference to Star Wars made me think that.

      But I think Suderman’s point is that people other than Lucas are reading this screenwriting book, not Campbell’s works.

      1. You wouldn’t know that Lucas reads, given that his typical dialogue has more wood than Noah’s Ark.

        1. More wood than your mom gets?


          1. More wood than Warty beats out every day.

    2. I think the difference is the level of detail. Campbell dealt in broad strokes, not minute-by-minute, uh, minutiae.

      1. But you could probably map it pretty easily onto a “beat sheet”.

        All right everyone, break out your copy of Hero With a Thousand Faces. We’ll crowd source this and the proceeds can go toward skipping the next subscription drive.

        1. My “beat sheet” has less Joseph Campbell and more Naomi Campbell.


      2. I don’t know about that. When I started reading about screenwriting in the 90s, there was a pretty standard formula in place*. Maybe Save the Cat emphasizes a few more of the beats, but “the protagonists reach the lowest point 30 minutes before the end” is not a new concept.

        *Inciting incident by page 10, second act by page 30, lowest point by page 60, etc.

  9. It’s a wrestling picture!

  10. In more good news, James Cameron has finished the scripts for Avatar 2 and Avatar 3.

    1. Mother of God, I hate hippie science fiction.

      1. Silent Running wasn’t that bad. It had the mechanical Ewoks.

        1. I suppose if you like bunnies with your bad dialogue and contrived plot, it wasn’t that bad at all.

      2. Why do you hate the environment so much?

        1. Trees can’t hold laser pistols or move things with their minds, they’re useless to me.

          1. They can totally mess up Isengard, though.

            [disclaimer: Ents aren’t trees, yes, I know]

            1. [disclaimer: Ents aren’t trees, yes, I know]

              Please don’t attract the Tolkien Geek Army.

            2. Neither was Harold but a bunch of later day druid weirdos worshiped the poor sap.

            3. In the extended edition of Towers, the trees go to Helm’s Deep and take care of all the orcs that ran away from the battle.

  11. More summer movies need to break out of the tired mold like Armageddon did in its day. It wasn’t three acts. It was one long, gloriously epic act.

    1. I’m expecting some hot-shot firefighter flicks next year.

      1. 1) Please let Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio and several other of that ilk play the firefighters.
        2) Please let there be a horrible accident during filming.

        1. “Wait, who swapped the water tank for a fuel tank?”

          “Good news, the insurance payout beats the estimated grosses.”

        2. DiCaprio can actually act. I suggest Hayden Christensen as a replacement.

          1. Why would you want to kill off the world’s most abundant source of poorly executed fake angst?

            1. It’s only so he can come back as a fire-scarred evildoer with extraordinary mental powers.

  12. The popcorn has too much butter to begin with and then I see people pouring on even more. That bothers me.

  13. The new Superman movie seemed to think the formula was 5 minutes of good intro, followed by 2 hours of boring ‘action’ involving an invulnerable guy getting punched.

    And not even giving us any alt-text along the way.

    1. That movie SUCKED. I’ve never liked the Superman character anyway. He’s invulnerable, he’s perfect, he might as well be a Jewish carpenter that doesn’t preach. No character flaws = BORING.

      1. No practical weaknesses (save PLOT DEVICE) makes for a character who we can never feel to be in any peril.

        1. It’s odd that a children’s cartoons manage to convey Superman better than the live action stuff ever did.

        2. Superman (Green Lantern) = no practical weaknesses and no vices. This is why Marvel characters make for better stories.

        3. His weakness (besides kryonite of course), is generally being outsmarted in well-done versions.

        4. He has to resist the urge to massacre the evil and stupid?

      2. His heart is vulnerable…to love.

        1. …choke… …gasp… …vomit

        2. I guess it’s time for a reference to the classic Niven essay “Man of Steel/Woman of Kleenex.”

          1. The true science of Superman.

            1. This was somewhat addressed in Hancock.

              1. And in Mallrats.

                “The only he could bang regular chicks is with a kryptonite condom. That would kill him.”

      3. It doesn’t have to suck. Hacks just make it suck, most of the time. I liked the first two Reeves movies well enough.

        1. The first one was decent because Reeves is eminently likable, Hackman makes a good villain, and the story was almost goofy comedy. Not to mention that Margot Kidder was completely underrated in those films. It was the humor that made them entertaining. Making them serious was the worst thing you could do.

          1. Superman is a joke.

          2. The humor is from the Salkinds, who produced the movie. They did the same thing with the Michael York musketeer movies.

            1. You can’t say Michael York with thinking of Logan’s Run, and you can’t think of Logan’s Run without thinking of Jenny Agutter.

              1. You can’t say Michael York with without thinking of Logan’s Run, and you can’t think of Logan’s Run without thinking of Jenny Agutter.

                1. “Let’s get out of these wet clothes.”

                2. The Last Remake of Beau Geste

                  That’s the movie I most associate him with starring in.

          3. Hackman made that movie.

            Miss Teschmacher: Tell me something, Lex, why do so many people have to die for the crime of the century?
            Lex Luthor: Why? You ask why? Why does the phone always ring when you’re in the bathtub?
            *Why* is the most diabolical leader of our time surrounding himself with total nincompoops?
            Otis: I’m back, Mr. Luthor!
            Lex Luthor: Yes, I was just talking about you.

            1. Hackman has made a lot of movies. I’ve always liked him.

              1. Hackman hamming it up gave the right amount of lightness to the film. Yet he was still a convincing bad guy.

                1. But the best Luthor was still Lyle Talbot.

        2. It’s been long enough since I liked a version of Superman that I’m not sure if it was just because I was 9.

          1. I saw the first one not too long ago. It’s a good movie.

            1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Reeves version. Haven’t seen West as Batman either.

              1. The old Batman series is great campy fun. You should watch a few episodes, just to see what it was about.

                And I recommend the first Superman movie, which I think is a decent film.

                1. Best villains: Lord Fog and Lady Pea Soup.

                  Or King Tut.

                2. The old Batman series is great campy fun. You should watch a few episodes, just to see what it was about.

                  Today you have the distinction of being the commentor most worse than Hitler.

              2. I didn’t know they allowed 12 year olds on the internet.

                1. The most recent of any West Batman or Reeves Superman is 26 years old.

                  1. The most recent of any West Batman or Reeves Superman is 26 years old.

                    That reminds me, I need to get a fresh bottle of Just for Men.

  14. Hollywood, where every month tens of millions of dollars are dumped into projects and products that unambiguously suck, yet the industry is considered robust.

    Screw piracy, how many jobs has CGI cost Hollywood? Model makers, set designers, stunt men, etc.

    Movies are the only experience where one can spend money and say “I went to it expecting to hate it” and not be considered insane. You can’t do that with restaurants or concerts.

  15. From The Player:

    They didn’t love the movies the way he did. They asked, “Why does Hollywood make such awful movies, why must it pander to the lowest common denominator, why does it persist in making movies that demean us all?” They liked movies from Europe. They couldn’t enjoy an American action movie, but let the Japanese copy a Western and they tripped over themselves adoring it. Creeps. Film buffs. Pear-shaped morons with their shirts buttoned to the collar, whining about the cinema. Their fucking cinema was subsidized by government television stations; it was all a European scam to pretend to America that someone else had real culture. And their precious little negative stories failed over here the way they failed over there. Griffin saw it all as a giant circle jerk, phonies with prissy taste, with their Saabs…their precious European taste and their precious taste for old movies, against the big virile American public, those millions who create the movie stars, who demand polish, who demand emotional roller coasters, big laughs, big explosions, big tears.

  16. Hollywood, where every month tens of millions of dollars are dumped into projects and products that unambiguously suck, yet the industry is considered robust.

    Well they WERE considered robust until they had 4 megabudget flops in a row. A few more of those and I don’t know how much longer some of these studios will last.

    1. This was supposed to be in reply to Jeff.

    2. That’s a bit strong I thought Zod was very good but the movie was definitely not as good as I thought it was walking out of the theatre. And I thought it was very mixed then. Superman has always been too super and making him a boring Ken Doll didn’t help. Guess I’d be the same if I had to grow up in Kansas (BARF).

      Next Superman movie: make SM the proglodyte psycho he was in the very first comics. Make Zod a chauvanist bigotted against humans who nonetheless takes it upon himself to stop SM.

      1. This was also supposed to be a reply to Jeff.

      2. I read a book that came out with the original Superman film. Totally unrelated to the plot of the movie, but I thought it was kind of interesting. It’s fairly hokey and had religious undertones, but it had an intriguing take on Luthor, where he was almost a good guy, just opposed to Superman. And they’re forced to team up, which is just a good idea all by itself.

      3. make SM the proglodyte psycho he was in the very first comics.

        Wouldn’t be difficult to pull off, considering Clark’s occupation.

      4. In what arcane ethical spectrum is it acceptable to make a Superman movie that leaves viewers unsure how they feel about it?

    3. Wasn’t limiting it to this summer. Hollywood complains that is mortally wounded, but does not act like it is trying to recover. It dumps more money into producing shittier product. But the movie/DVD/distribution machine still makes a ridiculous amount of money on something it knows is shit.

      Imagine Chrysler filing bankruptcy, then hiring the top engineers and spending Rolls Royce levels of R&D money to make Mr. Bean’s car, only louder and with brighter paint.

      1. I think the Lucas/Spielberg predictions of industry upheaval are coming true before our eyes. “Pacific Rim” might break even, but “White House Down” isn’t looking very good, and of course “The Lone Ranger” is an obvious disaster.

        Interestingly enough, Michael Bay seems to see it coming, too. He threw in as a producer for the $3 million “The Purge,” which has made 25x its money back, and while his “Pain & Gain” cost $46 million to make, it’s well in the black, too.

  17. I take it no one wants to see Fast & Furious 27: The Flaming Oil Change of Death?

    1. Tried to watch the last one recently because Suderman or Loder said it was good brainless fun. Ugh. The last Die Hard was my idea of brainless fun.

      1. I felt the opposite way. A Good Day to Die Hard tried to be more political than it should have, where as 6 Fast, 6 Furious (after the 2nd one, they all take that moniker with me) had fast cars, faster women, and big explosions. And enough plot twists to keep me interested even though I should have seen every single one of them coming.

  18. A really good book on screenwriting is Bill Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. Excellent book with very good insights about Hollywood (“Nobody knows anything”), and it’s still valid in most respects. I highly recommend it.

    For those that don’t know, Goldman has written a lot of good movies, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, The Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, Misery, etc.

  19. …with a young male protagonist, women are literally relegated to the B-plot?the love interest, or “helper,” who assists the male protagonist in overcoming his personal problems. It’s not an accident that Raimi’s megabudget Oz movie featured not Dorothy but a male protagonist.

    I’d have thought that the reason the protagonist in Oz was males would be because the protagonist was The Wizard of Oz, who was, uhm, A MALE.

    1. Check your privilege! Some *man* from Kansas tricks the two most empowered Womyn in Oz, with the help of that self-hating Stepford Wife, Glen or Glenda or whatever her name is…ooh, if I could find Glinda I’d just scratch her eyes out!

  20. Cf. The Thrill of It All, a movie which made fun of TV writing, but the shoe could easily have been on the other foot. The guy in charge assures that audiences won’t notice every show is alike (just with different costumes and settings), but children watching TV call every turn.

  21. Someday scientists will find a way to distill 9/11 allegories into gel form so screenwriters can just jerk off with them directly instead of dragging the viewing public into it.

    1. Too soon!

  22. When I first saw Surrogates I thought to myself “It’s a total clone of I, Robot!”. And indeed it was despite many of the themes being diametrically opposite each other. But Surrogates was originally a graphic novel, so I’m wondering if “I, Robot” (the movie, not the book) stole from it first.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.