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Episode 9 — Why Every Movie Plot Follows Weirdly Specific Rules


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#1 July Diaz

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Posted 03 November 2013 - 10:28 PM

Jason Pargin aka David Wong joins Cracked editor-in-chief Jack O'Brien to discuss three-act story structure and how this formula is used in popular Hollywood blockbusters from 'Star Wars' and 'Jaws' to 'The Matrix'. They then discuss how these structures affect our thinking, the way we tell stories, and how we perceive the major moments in our lives.

#2 Shariq Torres

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Posted 04 November 2013 - 07:02 AM

Loved this episode! Just want to say that in my writing classes and books, they always call screenplays "dramatic shorthand". The format isn't fit to do a lot of things that novels can do (enter character's minds and thoughts) or that live theater can do (the audience's senses aren't hindered by the frame of the camera). That's why for the most part the book is much better than the movie, and the play is more exciting than the film.

I do disagree with one section when it seemed that Jason was boo-hooing the very idea of hope. If someone is at a low point, the hope of something better is the very thing that is driving them to make attempts to change their situation. And let's face it, the attempts to change are the only way that they are ever going to turn thing around; without it, they will just resign themselves to their conditions.

#3 Shariq Torres

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Posted 04 November 2013 - 07:06 AM

Also have to say, everyone should check out How Did This Get Made podcast because they have reviewed a couple of "passion" projects that directors wanted to do that turned out to be complete shit. In the case of Toys, the director had been tinkering with the script for 10+ years. Obviously, the director/actors/crew/etc have to want to do a good job, but if you are too into a particular story, you can't see how the material plays to other folks. And in some cases, don't give a shit as to how it plays to other folks.

#4 hiimderektan

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Posted 04 November 2013 - 10:00 AM

Can someone clarify for me if Gravity has really been spoiled? I was going to watch the movie when suddenly, space vampires?

#5 Shariq Torres

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Posted 04 November 2013 - 02:00 PM

View Posthiimderektan, on 04 November 2013 - 10:00 AM, said:

Can someone clarify for me if Gravity has really been spoiled? I was going to watch the movie when suddenly, space vampires?


The other spoiler was that Sandra Bullock has diarrhea and almost drowns in her shit-filled spacesuit. C'mon man!

#6 Sly Sanders

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Posted 05 November 2013 - 12:58 AM

I'm only 46 minutes in, just about. I'm expecting a big, dramatic moment in about 14 minutes... ;)

I am genuinely surprised that Joseph Campbell's Journey of Heroes (or Hero's Journey) was never namedropped. That's exactly the template they're talking about, the thing pulled from myths and whatnot for hundreds (thousands?) of years. Especially since they mentioned screenwriting 101 - all screenwriting classes mention this thing. Learned a ton here that I never heard in a screenwriting class though (not that I was going into screenwriting, but the Game Design class at the Art Institute included it when I went through there because they cobbled together the first half of the course from other majors). That 60 minute rule especially seems mind-blowing. Definitely gotta check that out! Also, I had no idea Harmon script-doctored Kung Fu Panda. That's one thing he's worked on that I like :D

Also, the blue & orange thing. First off, I love that, because I grew up in NYC and a lot of our teams use those colors. Always seemed natural to me, never knew there was a rather... nefarious purpose behind it all. Maybe there's a subconscious reason why our loser teams like the Mets will always have fans. Or the Knicks, or Islanders, etc. We, apparently, just love those colors. Secondly, not just movies use that stuff. It seems to infect big budget, creatively bankrupt, mainstream video games just as badly. If not worse.
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#7 Shariq Torres

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Posted 05 November 2013 - 09:22 AM

View PostSly Sanders, on 05 November 2013 - 12:58 AM, said:

I'm only 46 minutes in, just about. I'm expecting a big, dramatic moment in about 14 minutes... ;)

I am genuinely surprised that Joseph Campbell's Journey of Heroes (or Hero's Journey) was never namedropped. That's exactly the template they're talking about, the thing pulled from myths and whatnot for hundreds (thousands?) of years. Especially since they mentioned screenwriting 101 - all screenwriting classes mention this thing. Learned a ton here that I never heard in a screenwriting class though (not that I was going into screenwriting, but the Game Design class at the Art Institute included it when I went through there because they cobbled together the first half of the course from other majors). That 60 minute rule especially seems mind-blowing. Definitely gotta check that out! Also, I had no idea Harmon script-doctored Kung Fu Panda. That's one thing he's worked on that I like :D

Also, the blue & orange thing. First off, I love that, because I grew up in NYC and a lot of our teams use those colors. Always seemed natural to me, never knew there was a rather... nefarious purpose behind it all. Maybe there's a subconscious reason why our loser teams like the Mets will always have fans. Or the Knicks, or Islanders, etc. We, apparently, just love those colors. Secondly, not just movies use that stuff. It seems to infect big budget, creatively bankrupt, mainstream video games just as badly. If not worse.



Yeah, Joseph Campbell's Monomyth comes into play, but I don't see the "threshold guardian" character in alot of movies -- this is the character that sort of mentors the hero leads them up to the threshold of the new world and then is never seen again until the end of the story (or never, if they die). In Star Wars, the threshold guardian is Obi Wan, but who is the threshold guardian in a movie like Elysium? What about How To Lose A Guy in 10 Dates?

I never heard of the 60 minute rule either. I looked at some movies yesterday, and it was freaky how well it was applied. There are so many methods and ways people teach screenwriting, I'm interested in hearing how they explained it to you in your classes. They told us that there should be three turns in a screenplay -- the first turn transitions into what the actual story is going to be about; the second turn raises the stakes/ hero makes a decision; and the third turn closes up the story. First five pages or so should introduce characters and the last five pages or so should act like an epilogoue, giving people a hint as to how the actions in the movie are going to alter the character's lives (for good or bad).

#8 Sly Sanders

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Posted 06 November 2013 - 01:15 AM

View PostShariq Torres, on 05 November 2013 - 09:22 AM, said:


Yeah, Joseph Campbell's Monomyth comes into play, but I don't see the "threshold guardian" character in alot of movies -- this is the character that sort of mentors the hero leads them up to the threshold of the new world and then is never seen again until the end of the story (or never, if they die). In Star Wars, the threshold guardian is Obi Wan, but who is the threshold guardian in a movie like Elysium? What about How To Lose A Guy in 10 Dates?

I never heard of the 60 minute rule either. I looked at some movies yesterday, and it was freaky how well it was applied. There are so many methods and ways people teach screenwriting, I'm interested in hearing how they explained it to you in your classes. They told us that there should be three turns in a screenplay -- the first turn transitions into what the actual story is going to be about; the second turn raises the stakes/ hero makes a decision; and the third turn closes up the story. First five pages or so should introduce characters and the last five pages or so should act like an epilogoue, giving people a hint as to how the actions in the movie are going to alter the character's lives (for good or bad).


Well, first off, good point about the Obi-Wan/mentor character. You're right in that the way they explained it does apply to more movies in general.

Second of all... I don't know if I remember that much from my classes ;) I GRADUATED from college almost six years ago... so I must've taken it, gosh, in 2007? 2006? That doesn't sound right... but it's around there. I do remember learning that Hero's Journey as a sort of graph. You start with a big exciting event (like the Blockade Runner in front of the Star Destroyer), so you should have a large swell right off the bat. Than it settles down and slowly builds the world & action (from C3PO & Artoo walking around on Tatooine all the way up until Han and the group ESCAPE the Death Star), so there's a slow climb. The "All is Lost" Moment where everything just gets more and more hopeless... this causes the curve to take a steep dive (the setup for the Battle of Yavin/The Death Star Trench Run)... which is similar to the "uncanny valley" effect (something far more pertinent to game design, btw). And then you pull up for the big, flashy, crowd-pleasing "Snatch victory from the claws of Defeat!" type finale. But this is all basic, I feel like.

I only remember a little bit more; stuff about a 3-act structure, for instance. But my teacher, who WAS for the Game Art major, did his best to apply it to our career. He was just working with, and adapting, content for another major. So what I learned, again, doesn't quite apply to screenwriting in general. I mean, it's a different timing/flow in a video game. I remember reading a few books on it, and picking up a book called, "The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics" at a local Barnes & Nobles. But I remember learning more from that than the borrowed content from the screenwriting course since - if you think about it - comics/graphic novels and video games have more in common. Both are built from the ground-up to use a combination of visuals & writing to tell a story, for instance. Whereas a script kinda starts the ball rolling, then the storyboard starts thinking out how that script should be visualized... not to mention pre-production in general is it's own thing, etc.

A good comic has the art tell a certain part of the story - you don't need the sentence, "I'm leaving!" if the artist draws a character walking out the door during a fight with another character, right? Just as the action in a game can - and should - move a story forward without needing a redundant cutscene or a triggered line of dialogue. And both storytelling mediums don't have to be squeezed into a certain length to be satisfying, like with movies here.

I remember looking at scripts, and OUTLINING the story for a game in detail, with tons of visuals naturally. Still, I think I wrote 30+ pages before ever adding in visuals. Alas, the class had to be cut short, so we didn't actually get to any serious writing. Well, I'm sure for some classmates, just coming up with an outline was a brutal amount of work, but I'm pretty decent at writing so I didn't mind. But I didn't actually write any scripts. Sorry I can't remember more :P

I can talk a little more about scripting/localizing duties for Japanese cartoons aimed at kids though! At least, from bad companies that hire college students to write stuff for them on the cheap. I may have only had a tangential brush with screenwriting, but I am close to two people who made it their careers. My roommate for most of college is now a director of short films & music videos, and I picked up a ton from him. My sister too majored in it at Tisch School of the Arts in NYU. It's through connections such as these (won't say which), that I ended up ghostwriting at least 2 episodes of an anime aimed at kids that came out a few years ago. I thought it was neat and was roughly familiar with the property (plus I assume the process is similar for localizing Japanese games). However, I shouldn't speak about it because a) I assume there were NDA's in place, and... I kinda forgot what it was called :P I remember the "Umbrella series" property, but cannot remember the name of the specific offshoot.

Here's an analogy: It wasn't Dragonball (I wish it was, but it was before I went to college), but it would be like knowing I wrote for a Dragon Ball show, but forgetting if it was for an episode of Dragon Ball, DBZ, Dragon Ball GT, or Dragon Ball Z: Kai -- that's what I'm talking about.
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#9 Johnny Unusual

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Posted 06 November 2013 - 01:58 AM

Great episode. Really looking for the next episode about alternate movies. I like that kind of stuff.
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#10 pfchangs

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Posted 06 November 2013 - 01:06 PM

About the question of whether the Hollywood timing structure is intrinsically what we want from movies or just what we've learned through decades of movies like that--I think it's definitely the latter, because of Bollywood. The average Bollywood movie is like 2.5 to 3 hours, with an intermission halfway through. And Bollywood movies are as popular in South Asia as Hollywood movies are here.

#11 Shariq Torres

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Posted 07 November 2013 - 09:08 AM

View PostSly Sanders, on 06 November 2013 - 01:15 AM, said:


Well, first off, good point about the Obi-Wan/mentor character. You're right in that the way they explained it does apply to more movies in general.

Second of all... I don't know if I remember that much from my classes ;) I GRADUATED from college almost six years ago... so I must've taken it, gosh, in 2007? 2006? That doesn't sound right... but it's around there. I do remember learning that Hero's Journey as a sort of graph. You start with a big exciting event (like the Blockade Runner in front of the Star Destroyer), so you should have a large swell right off the bat. Than it settles down and slowly builds the world & action (from C3PO & Artoo walking around on Tatooine all the way up until Han and the group ESCAPE the Death Star), so there's a slow climb. The "All is Lost" Moment where everything just gets more and more hopeless... this causes the curve to take a steep dive (the setup for the Battle of Yavin/The Death Star Trench Run)... which is similar to the "uncanny valley" effect (something far more pertinent to game design, btw). And then you pull up for the big, flashy, crowd-pleasing "Snatch victory from the claws of Defeat!" type finale. But this is all basic, I feel like.

I only remember a little bit more; stuff about a 3-act structure, for instance. But my teacher, who WAS for the Game Art major, did his best to apply it to our career. He was just working with, and adapting, content for another major. So what I learned, again, doesn't quite apply to screenwriting in general. I mean, it's a different timing/flow in a video game. I remember reading a few books on it, and picking up a book called, "The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics" at a local Barnes & Nobles. But I remember learning more from that than the borrowed content from the screenwriting course since - if you think about it - comics/graphic novels and video games have more in common. Both are built from the ground-up to use a combination of visuals & writing to tell a story, for instance. Whereas a script kinda starts the ball rolling, then the storyboard starts thinking out how that script should be visualized... not to mention pre-production in general is it's own thing, etc.

A good comic has the art tell a certain part of the story - you don't need the sentence, "I'm leaving!" if the artist draws a character walking out the door during a fight with another character, right? Just as the action in a game can - and should - move a story forward without needing a redundant cutscene or a triggered line of dialogue. And both storytelling mediums don't have to be squeezed into a certain length to be satisfying, like with movies here.

I remember looking at scripts, and OUTLINING the story for a game in detail, with tons of visuals naturally. Still, I think I wrote 30+ pages before ever adding in visuals. Alas, the class had to be cut short, so we didn't actually get to any serious writing. Well, I'm sure for some classmates, just coming up with an outline was a brutal amount of work, but I'm pretty decent at writing so I didn't mind. But I didn't actually write any scripts. Sorry I can't remember more :P

I can talk a little more about scripting/localizing duties for Japanese cartoons aimed at kids though! At least, from bad companies that hire college students to write stuff for them on the cheap. I may have only had a tangential brush with screenwriting, but I am close to two people who made it their careers. My roommate for most of college is now a director of short films & music videos, and I picked up a ton from him. My sister too majored in it at Tisch School of the Arts in NYU. It's through connections such as these (won't say which), that I ended up ghostwriting at least 2 episodes of an anime aimed at kids that came out a few years ago. I thought it was neat and was roughly familiar with the property (plus I assume the process is similar for localizing Japanese games). However, I shouldn't speak about it because a) I assume there were NDA's in place, and... I kinda forgot what it was called :P I remember the "Umbrella series" property, but cannot remember the name of the specific offshoot.

Here's an analogy: It wasn't Dragonball (I wish it was, but it was before I went to college), but it would be like knowing I wrote for a Dragon Ball show, but forgetting if it was for an episode of Dragon Ball, DBZ, Dragon Ball GT, or Dragon Ball Z: Kai -- that's what I'm talking about.


For a little while, I lived with a friend from high school who was in L.A. doing the struggling screenwriter thing. I didn't stick with it, he did, and is in pre-production for a film he wrote. Can't wait to see it and scream my ass off when his name shows up in the credits. The little I know about screenwriting comes from him and hanging around those UCLA extension classes.

You're right about comics an video games -- they have the visuals front and center, while in a movie, the visuals are tacked on after the words are written. And I even remember my friend saying that no one wants a script that has heavy visuals; they want a script that is a good read. The director is going to put together the visuals and add that stuff in during rewrites. If you think about it, the screenplay is a very rough draft of a movie -- all of the other elements come together on set where I'm sure there are quick changes made here and there to account for the actors portraying the character, the director, the location where you are filming, and the technical limitations of special effects. Its a crazy dynamic with alot of cooks in the kitchen, which is why a lot of movies aren't that good (I'm hoping my friend's movie bucks this trend though).

With comics and video games there are less cooks in the kitchen, but not necessarily less people working on the project. Like, the game producer doesn't have to listen to the creative input of the senior tools programmer. No one cares to hear about their ideas on the game's theme. Just make sure the asset pipeline is working, dude. The writer and the artist don't need to listen to the inker's story ideas. Just make sure those cross hatches are good, dude.

#12 Shariq Torres

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Posted 07 November 2013 - 09:12 AM

View Postpfchangs, on 06 November 2013 - 01:06 PM, said:

About the question of whether the Hollywood timing structure is intrinsically what we want from movies or just what we've learned through decades of movies like that--I think it's definitely the latter, because of Bollywood. The average Bollywood movie is like 2.5 to 3 hours, with an intermission halfway through. And Bollywood movies are as popular in South Asia as Hollywood movies are here.


Three hours with an intermission?! That's like a play, almost. I also like that in the rural parts of India, people treat the new releases as really big deals. Everyone gets dressed up and goes to the theater, flirt with each other, catch up with people in the other town across the way. Its like a big party.