Plot Patterns in Screenwriting
Michael Welles Schock explores plot patterns in films, and explains why the 3 act structure is so successful.
What if I told you Star Wars and The Godfather were the same story? You’d call me crazy, right? Now what if I said both are essentially the same as Die Hard? Crazier still? What if I sweetened the pot with Groundhog Day (1993), Cast Away (2000), Donnie Darko (2001), and The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)?
So, you’re telling me these are not all stories about an innocent outsider who gets swept up into a confusing or chaotic situation: who first responds passively or reactively by merely trying to endure and/or allowing other forces or persons to control his fate, decides at the Midpoint to seize control of the situation, then grows into a far more proactive individual in Act 2B, and has this transformation fully tested in Act 3?
Because from that perspective, they are all the same.
Now, what if I said Chinatown (1974), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Pixar’s WALL-E (2008) were the same? You’d lock me in a nuthouse. That is, until you realize these are all stories about characters who willingly insert themselves into conflicts where they do not rightfully belong, due to the lure of some mysterious person, object, or situation.
Whether it be Jake Gittes and the Water Department conspiracy, Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant, or WALL-E and EVE, a growing obsession with the lure causes the protagonist to meddle more and more in the outside conflict, refuse to extricate himself when the danger becomes clear, and ultimately choose to directly face and defeat the opposing forces, all to finally claim the lure.
How about When Harry Met Sally (1989), True Grit (2010), and… oh, say Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)? What could they have in common?
Nothing. Except a story where fate brings together two or more strangers of conflicting personalities to form a tentative partnership. The characters first attempt to ignore or put up with their incongruities for the sake of harmony, but then find conflict when serious flaws surface around the Midpoint. This leads to a temporary break-up. However, later developments cause the characters to recognize the relationship’s importance, compelling them to reunite and pledge their full loyalty.
These connections are no mere coincidences. Nor are they rare occurrences. These are merely a few examples of a cinematic phenomenon called Plot Patterns.
Large collections of films which outwardly appear to have nothing in common will in fact share a nearly identical structure of plot. The premise may be different. The genre may be different. Style, tone, settings, and characters may be different. Yet when all superficial details are stripped away, the course of the plot is essentially the same.
How is this possible? Well, one must first remember that structure is about shape, not content. It is about the nature of events, when they occur, and how they alter the dramatic situation. The literal who, what, where, and why of these events belongs to content—the substance which fills the structural vessel.
Structure and content are largely independent. However, the pliable nature of storytelling allows these two elements to adapt to one another – that is, the content can be shaped to fit the needs of the structure, and vice versa – to create the appearance of a contiguous whole.
As a result, any premise in any genre may be potentially executed through the same structure of plot. Since viewers focus on a story’s content and rarely if ever the structure underneath, the structural similarities between films go continually unnoticed – by everyone, often including the storytellers who create them.
In 2012, I began what would become an intensive study of over three hundred critically- and commercially-successful American films. Though these films ranged from old classics to recent releases and covered all available styles and genres, I was shocked to discover how nearly every example followed one of sixteen general patterns of plot.
Further investigation revealed most of these patterns could be split into two or more subtypes in which the structure becomes so specific that films come to mirror one another on a near plot point by plot point basis.
Currently, my count of these patterns and subtypes stands at thirty-four. There are likely even more. However, any additional patterns occur so infrequently that none were encountered in my pool of over three hundred films. (Though it may seem like a bit of a tease, there is no room in a single article to explain every one of these thirty-four patterns. Detailed breakdowns can be found in my book Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning.)
However, the most surprising thing about these discoveries was the fact that films which shared identical structures often bore no resemblance to one another in terms of style, genre, or type of dramatic action. Comedies stood side-by-side with psychological thrillers; fast-paced action with intimate character pieces; popcorn blockbusters with Oscar recipients.
If you would like more examples, Spider-Man (2002) follows the same structure as The Graduate (1967); Apocalypse Now (1979) the same as Little Miss Sunshine (2006); Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) the same as the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary (1998). I could go on and on.
Yet despite their superficial differences, these films followed the same rise and fall of events, only in such diverse contexts that their affinities were virtually unrecognizable.
Because of such contrasts from film to film, I find it difficult to believe these collections could have found their identical structures through conscious will or imitation. Though Hollywood is known for its reliance on formula and habit of copying previous successes, extreme differences in premise, genre, characters, and so forth make it absurd to suggest that Die Hard (for instance) was a direct attempt to copy the plot of Star Wars or The Godfather. Or that Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and WALL-E were all modeled on the same formula.
These stories clearly developed separately from one another – yet somehow gravitated toward the same plot structure by their own accord. This is the essence of a pattern.
Formulas are intentional. They are applied from the outset of creation to achieve a planned result.
Patterns, on the other hand, are spontaneous and naturally-occurring. They are a result, not a cause. Our world is filled with naturally-occurring patterns, found in everything from geology to social trends. There is nothing magical about these patterns. Nor do they come about by any intentional plan. Patterns simply exist because multiple separate instances react in the same ways to similar factors of environment.
Yet if plot patterns have formed through a samesuch process, what factors of environment could cause dozens, even hundreds of films – separated by both place and time – created by different artists on different subject matters – to continually conform to the same arrangements of plot?
How does this occur without the storyteller’s knowledge?
That’s also complicated.
But I will give you a hint. Don’t expect any foreign films to fit into my list of thirty-four common patterns. This collection is exclusive to the American cinema alone. Why? Because every world cinema creates its own plot patterns. While some may appear similar to American varieties, most contain clear differences or are entirely unique to their country of origin. This suggests the origin of plot pattern is cultural. More specifically, each plot pattern acts as a dramatic expression of one or more of its culture’s core principles of belief.
Core principles of belief are themselves a heady topic. It must then suffice to say that core principles are the most basic values, ideas, and concepts of belief at the foundation of cultural identities.
As the inarguable “truths” of each culture, core principles give the people a common frame of mind through which they may view the world and evaluate all things. Storytellers who occupy the same culture will share many, if not all, of the same core principles of belief. Thus, acting individually, a culture’s many storytellers will continually create narratives which explore or endorse the same ideas or beliefs again and again.
While these stories may follow different paths in terms of dramatic content, or focus on countless specific areas of concern, they all develop and resolve their conflicts according to the same concepts of “truth.” In other words, these many stories continually point back to the same core beliefs to state *this* is true, and *this* is how people should behave.
Yet this in itself does not explain the highly specific patterns of plot found in our world cinemas. For while many storytellers may base their works on the same idea or belief, the general art of storytelling allows for a multitude of forms and methods to express such things.
However, such possibilities meet significant restrictions in the feature-length film. Unlike other story mediums such as the novel, the cinema’s unique qualities and limitations force narrative discourse into much tighter boundaries. Examples include the cinema’s dependency upon audio/visual communication, the necessity of dramatic conflict, and the feature film’s surprisingly limited 90-150 minute length.
Because of these impositions, cinematic stories must be tailored to fit their physical environment. Some forms and structures are far more effective than others. Some methods engage the audience more strongly or communicate more clearly. Indeed, the entire field of screencraft can be considered a search for the best ways to match story material to the cinematic medium.
This explains the ever-present support for the tried-and-true 3-Act structure. Thousands of examples have proven this structure to be an effective way to tell a 90-150 minute story within the confines of cinematic discourse.
If we take this one step further, we may propose that for every idea or belief, there exists an ideal method to express it through the feature-length cinematic form. In other words, out of all possible arrangements of plot and character, one will deliver the underlying message in the clearest and most dramatic manner.
Every attempt at screenwriting is a search for this most effective arrangement—and in the case of plot patterns, storytellers find it.
As it turns out, there is nothing cosmic about plot patterns. They are not rooted in some Jungian concept of a collective consciousness or anything of the sort. They are merely the result of ideological repetition met with an unchanging narrative form.
Because core principles of belief hold such importance to every culture, storytellers will create narratives upon the same principles again and again. Since the factors of the cinematic environment never change, the “perfect” ways to express these principles through plot and character never change either.
The most skilled of screenwriters find these perfect arrangements – not intentionally, but in the simple effort to tell the best possible story. Many like-minded screenwriters follow suit, and – if they are equally skilled – find the same ideal structures through their own accord.
Plot patterns can thus be considered perfect narrative archetypes, each tailored around a particular core principle of belief. They occur so frequently simply because storytellers routinely use the same cultural beliefs to address their stories’ issues.
While every individual story may make different choices in terms of premise, genre, style, or tone, their narratives inevitably gravitate towards these archetypes simply because such arrangements prove time and again to be the most effective ways to communicate ideological messages through the cinema’s particular properties of plot and character.
In conclusion, plot patterns can be truly considered a naturally-occurring narrative phenomenon. Like patterns found in nature, plot patterns have not formed intentionally. Instead, they are the result of many separate instances responding in similar ways to the same repeated factors of environment.
Do all American films adhere to one of my thirty-four plot patterns?
No, they do not.
Do all successful films? (By successful, I mean that the film fares well both critically and commercially.)
All signs point to yes.
I have found that the most highly-revered of films (titles such as The Godfather, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, or Casablanca) follow their patterns most closely. The weaknesses of lesser films can often be traced to points where they stray from their designated pattern.
In further contrast, films which lack any clear pattern usually do poorly. Adherence to a plot pattern certainly does not guarantee success – a film may still fail for many other reasons. But with the exception of nontraditional films which use alternative or experimental structures, the evidence strongly indicates that plot patterns serve a definite role in a film’s ultimate audience response.
Of course, this all provokes additional questions. Why do audiences respond so strongly to plot patterns? What are the thirty-four common plot patterns of American cinema? What core principles do they express and how to do they do it? Why does American cinema follow these patterns and not others? How do they compare to the patterns of other world cinemas?
This is certainly too much to delve into here – and dare I say, even more than I can conclusively relate. For though I dedicate much of Screenwriting and The Unified Theory to the details of the plot pattern phenomenon, I admit it remains an absolute newborn in the field of narrative theory, and thus may require many years of investigation.
However, it seems quite clear that such discoveries hold a greater use and significance far outside the tiny realm of screencraft. By revealing connections between narrative and culture, plot patterns may be used to understand our societies, how they evaluate problems, and the way they promote ideas and beliefs. Thus by examining cinematic narratives, we may better grasp the ideological structures of the worlds in which we live; and in turn, create stories which more adequately serve our social and cultural needs.