Six years ago, I stumbled upon the first hints of a cinematic phenomenon I still quite frankly find amazing. Under their surface, wide collections of Hollywood’s most successful and well-loved feature films; despite extreme differences in style, premise, content, or genre; appeared to follow identical patterns of plot. These were not broad or general patterns like the vague and unwieldy 3-Act Restorative Structure, but very specific patterns where films mirrored one another on a sequence-by-sequence, event-by-event basis. Digging into a closer analysis of hundreds of films, I found this was no rare occurrence. Every well-plotted American film (of traditional three-act form) fit snugly into one of these patterns. The faults of mediocre films could be traced to where they strayed from these patterns. On the other hand, poorly-plotted films followed no pattern at all. Soon, every new film had me at some point jumping from my seat, triumphantly shouting “Type 2b!” “Type 8c!” “Type 15a!” Most amazing of all, these plot patterns seem to arise naturally on their own accord, without the knowledge of even the artists who create them. All in all, I have identified thirty-four common plot patterns of American cinema, detailed for the first time in my most recent book Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning. Together with the Unified Narrative Structure presented in Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I and the contributions of genre, protagonist psychology, and artistic specialization, the plot pattern phenomenon provides a key part to our comprehensive understanding of how cinematic stories function and communicate meaning.
But enough prologue. Over the last few months I have gotten some rare free time to catch up on films I missed in theaters. Needless to say, each new film continues to confirm my findings. Yet still, nearly every one teaches me something new. Considered one at a time, each instance reveals in greater detail the strength and versatility of their pattern (or in some cases, patterns). Plot patterns are not rigid or restrictive, but highly flexible and capable of serving practically any premise. (As I have always said, structure must adapt to the needs of the story, not the other way around.) Every new example gives fresh evidence of how plot patterns can be bent (and the consequences of being broken) or reveals creative alternatives and variations which may be used to match a strong structural foundation to an original premise. Here follows a selection of nine films with an analysis of their use of plot pattern.
Type 5c: The Exploiter. The Exploiter is one of the least common American plot patterns. Luckily, Nightcrawler give another instance to add to the examples There Will Be Blood, The Social Network, and Bowfinger used in UTN Part II. Like these films, Nightcrawler centers upon a morally-dubious protagonist (Louis Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal) selfishly pursuing an opportunity which requires him to continually lie, cheat, and manipulate others for personal gain. Success in this endeavor requires the continued loyalty or unwilling (or unwitting, depending on the case) compliance of two key supporting characters: the Close Comrade and the Dupe. In Nightcrawler, these roles are served by Louis’ “intern” Rick and TV executive Nina. (Though unlike other Exploiters, it is unclear which character serves which specific role. The functions of the two roles seem to be shared between Rick and Nina, as Louis treats them both as the Close Comrade or the Dupe depending on the situation.)
Nightcrawler’s plot however is missing a few common structural events found in other, more successful Exploiters: 1. The loss of the vital Close Comrade/Dupe near the Midpoint; 2. The protagonist’s efforts to replace or regain control over the lost character; and 3. The return of the lost Comrade/Dupe at the end of Act 2B. While Nightcrawler remains a serviceable narrative, these missing complications leave Act 2B one-dimensional. Since Louis’s ambition faces only a singular threat, the conflict seems simpler and far easier to overcome. Thus, the drama does not intensify as greatly as it would otherwise, keeping Nightcrawler’s final sequence from being as powerful a climax as we normally expect.
Type 11a: The Social Reformer. Typified by films like Braveheart or Erin Brockovich, the Social Reformer pits the weak and oppressed against a tyrannical authority; usually to address a social issue or themes on personal rights or freedoms. Boxtrolls shows that the content of such stories need not always be so serious. Despite being a lighthearted Family Adventure, this animated feature follows the Social Reformer pattern to a tee. Act 1 establishes the oppression or unfair treatment of a disempowered group of individuals by a Force of Tyranny (though a rolling setup rather than a single inciting incident). The protagonist takes notice of this, and at the End of Act 1 Turning Point voluntarily chooses to become the group’s champion. In Act 2A, the protagonist promotes this cause by forging alliances with more powerful individuals and encouraging the oppressed peoples to unite under a common front. With success, the protagonist makes his or her first major direct assault upon the Force of Tyranny at the Midpoint. This arouses the wrath of the Force, leading to counter-actions which weaken or completely destroy the protagonist’s alliances by the end of Act 2B. With the pattern’s common theme of “united we stand, divided we fall,” the protagonist can only hope to defeat the Force by reforging these crucial alliances in Act 3.
Boxtrolls however contains two interesting details which help us gain a more flexible understanding of the Social Reformer pattern. First, Social Reformers typically contain a vital character role I call the “OverBoss.” Played by Robert the Bruce in Braveheart and Erin’s employer Ed Masry in Brockovich, the OverBoss is a person of greater social power whose support the protagonist needs to grant his or her cause the necessary strength, resources, or legitimacy. In Boxtrolls, this function is served by the little girl Winnie, daughter of the city’s highest-ranking nobleman. This shows that the OverBoss need not be a character of actual power or authority, but merely a person with the knowhow, social standing, or resources to further the protagonist’s cause in ways the protagonist cannot. (As a result, I may have to rename the “OverBoss” to something more inclusive.)
Second, as explained in UTN, success or failure in Act 3 depends on the protagonist’s will to take the actions necessary to reforge lost or broken alliances, for the powerful Force of Tyranny cannot be defeated without a united front. Yet unlike examples such as Erin Brockovich, Boxtrolls’s alliances do not reform through the protagonist’s direct efforts, but behind the scenes and on their own accord—leading to the hero’s last-second rescue when his fate seems doomed. While this provides the Family Adventure with an equally acceptable conclusion, it may be accused of the dreaded deus ex machina. Thus, such an alternative is dramatically weaker and may be considered implausible in more realistic narratives.
The Big Short (2015)
Despite the aforementioned rarity of the Exploiter, we find another example in The Big Short. Yet Short appears much different than Nightcrawler due to its use of a multi-narrative structure. Short alternates between three separate and independent storylines, each with their or own protagonist (or protagonists). Nevertheless, these narratives all follow the Exploiter pattern; albeit in a simplified manner—simplified because each are allotted only a third of the film’s overall screen time and thus must limit themselves to only the pattern’s key events.
When we disentangle the three storylines and view them individually, the repeated Exploiter pattern becomes plainly obvious. Each begins with the protagonist(s) discovering an opportunity which, if exploited properly, may lead to enormous personal gain (all our heroes separately realize they have a chance to cash in on a mortgage industry on the verge of collapse). Yet the morally-questionable nature of this opportunity demands secrecy and some underhanded double-dealings. Like other Exploiters, the protagonists’ plans require the support of a Close Comrade and the unwitting compliance of a Dupe. In the Mark Baum (Steve Carell) storyline, Mark partners with the Close Comrade Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). In the Charlie Geller/Jamie Shipley (John Magro/Finn Wittrock) storyline, the dual leads gain the help of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). (It should be noted however that the Michael Burry (Christian Bale) line lacks a Close Comrade—yet this thread is granted the least dramatic development as well as the least amount of screen time.) Yet while the Close Comrades are different, all the protagonists seek to exploit the same Dupe – presented in Short not as a singular character, but more abstractly as the entire corrupt mortgage industry as a whole (everyone involved in this industry thus functions like as single collective character). This shared Dupe unifies the storylines (one of the greatest challenges of a multi-narrative film) since every action/reaction from the Dupe mutually affects all three plots.
To return to plot structure, the protagonists’ initial actions culminate in an End of Act 1 Turning Point which marks the exploitative venture’s official launch. (The protagonists invest all their money in their surety the mortgage industry will fail.) This venture appears to advance quite well in Act 2A, only to hit a major roadblock at the Exploiter’s Midpoint (the aforementioned event missing in Nightcrawler)—the loss of control over the Dupe. (The mortgage industry lies to investors to cover-up its failings, blocking the protagonists’ once certain path to success.) This incites the protagonists to desperate actions to save their flailing ventures in Act 2B. Yet (in perfect conformity with the Exploiter pattern) the Dupe “returns” at the End of 2nd Act Turning Point (the mortgage industry is forced to admit it is going down the tubes), sending the protagonists into an exploitative frenzy in order to achieve their goals before time runs out.
As explained in Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I, a multi-narrative film ends with multiple climactic resolutions. This grants the thematic message greater depth and detail, as it allows the audience to compare and contrast the fates of multiple characters (and the choices which led to such fates). In other words, multi-narratives like The Big Short encourage viewers to evaluate the story’s central ideological issue from various angles and draw conclusions between them. Also, Short adds ambiguity to its resolutions (through structural devices also detailed in UTN Part I). Each protagonist achieves only a bittersweet victory at a great physical or ethical cost. Through these combined elements, Short intentionally avoids a clear-cut thematic message, preferring to leave its central issue open for continued reflection and debate.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Type 10b: The Overreacher. This one was a bit tricky to identify (largely due to its nonlinear structure composed of three separate storylines). However, the pattern became obvious once I located the true source of the film’s conflict.
In the Overreacher, an ambitious yet highly-flawed protagonist creates conflict by refusing to abide by the wishes of a far more conservative “Power of Approval.” Instead, the protagonist constantly demands this Power give more than it is willing to allow. (In Unified Theory of Narrative Part II, I used Scarface, 500 Days of Summer, and Patton as examples. In Scarface, Tony Montana both rises and falls by constantly challenging the authority of his superiors in the world cocaine syndicate. In Summer, Tom continually demands more commitment from his dream girl Summer than she is willing to give. In Patton, General Patton creates increasing friction with the military chiefs of command by refusing to follow orders in favor of this own path to glory.) In all three of The Imitation Game’s story threads, protagonist Alan Turing; alienated from others by a combination of his brilliance, social ineptitude, and the taboo of his secret homosexuality; remains a stubborn nonconformist in worlds which demand strict conformity to narrow-minded norms and expectations. In each case, Turing refuses to adapt or fully cooperate, demanding the Power of Approval allow him an absolute freedom of action.
In the first half of the Overreacher pattern, the Power of Approval initially, though quite reluctantly, yields to the protagonist’s determination. Yet the Power eventually feels pushed too far, punishing or rebuking the protagonist at the Midpoint. The Power then grants the protagonist a second chance in Act 2B. How the protagonist responds to this second opportunity will decide his or her fate. If the protagonist learns from the previous downfall and achieves a proper compromise with the Power, he or she is rewarded with a more acceptable level of happiness and success. Yet if the protagonist refuses such personal growth and reverts to his or her flawed ways, the Power of Approval turns on the protagonist once more, handing out a final crushing defeat. The Imitation Game follows the latter path. Turing once again refuses to adapt to expected (albeit close-minded) behavioral norms, ultimately compelling authorities to punish him in spite of his heroic achievements.
Unlike Scarface or Patton, The Imitation Game’s conclusion seems harsh and unfair. This is because Scarface and Patton are constructed as Cautionary narratives while Imitation Game presents a Tragic narrative. In a Cautionary narrative, a protagonist is rightly punished for clinging to a quality the audiences considers harmful or wrong. Yet in a Tragic narrative, the audiences feels sympathy towards—and even approves of—the protagonist’s qualities. However, these supposedly “positive” qualities prove to be the protagonist’s undoing, as he or she exists in an ethically-backwards world which rejects what the audience considers “good” and rewards its opposite. (See UTN, Part I for more information on the Celebratory, Cautionary, Tragic, and Cynical narrative types.) Since Game’s audience is led to feel sympathetic towards Turing and see the good in his “flaw,” his defeat is found unjust. The result is social criticism. What we believe to be good or right is not always rewarded in reality. As a result, Tragic narratives like Imitation Game argue the need to recognize social faults and press for change.
Jane Got a Gun (2015)
A fairly paint-by-the-numbers Type 14b: Coming Together. Because of its predictability, Jane failed to hold my interest and I stopped watching around the 40-minute mark. Granted, this prevents me from giving a genuine critique of the film, as I am unable (and do not care to) to conclude whether Jane’s lackluster success came from its predictability or its failure to stick to the Coming Together pattern from beginning to end. Either way, this film shows that the use of a plot pattern does not by itself guarantee success. Patterned films are most successful when audiences cannot readily perceive their pattern. The old Hollywood saw “Give me something familiar, yet different” definitely applies here. While every film demands a strong structural foundation, a lack of novelty in terms of external elements (such as the story’s premise, characters, and the nature of individual events) will allow the bones of the structure to poke through, causing the audience to compare the film to other obvious examples of the pattern and apply that hated label “formulaic.”
The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Yes, despite all the hype, it took me over a year to watch the Avengers sequel. And once again my instincts proved to be correct. Plot pattern? None. This, and other reasons, is why Ultron is so cluttered, confused, and fails at times to even make sense. The first Avengers movie (2012) did follow a plot pattern, Type 14b: Coming Together. (Actually, it features a combo pattern; beginning as Type 13: The Big Mission and then making a transition to the Coming Together at the End of Act 1 Turning Point; but that is too technical to get into here.) While not a perfect film, the adherence to an established plot pattern allowed the first Avengers to overcome many of the problems which usually dog such a high-concept tentpole with a huge ensemble cast. Yet Ultron falls into all the traps the first Avengers managed to avoid. Without a plot pattern to guide it, this overstuffed sequel fails to find sufficient direction or clarity in practically every significant area, from story structure to character development to the expression of theme.
For the past few decades, Type 2a: The Summoned Hero has been so overused in the comic book, sci-fi, and fantasy genres that it has become a tiresome cliché. I am sure you are all familiar with it: A seemingly unextraordinary protagonist is plucked from obscurity to take on an incredible role; the hero is assigned a mentor, initiated into a fantastic new world, undergoes training; etc, etc, etc (The Matrix, Men in Black, Kung-fu Panda, Wanted all abide by this formula, to name only a few memorable examples (the less said about the many more mediocre examples, the better).) While Ant-Man follows this same old path, it deserves credit for injecting a bit of freshness into the pattern through some artful manipulations in its first act. In a typical Summoned Hero, the plot begins as follows: 1. An outside power selects the protagonist for a heroic role. 2. Upon meeting the mentor, the protagonist is given some form of test. 3. The protagonist proves his or her potential by passing this test, ending Act 1 with an official invitation into the fantastic new world. 4. The mentor fully initiates the fledgling hero into this world. Ant-Man however rearranges some of these sequences and delays the revelation of key information, adding elements of surprise and mystery to an otherwise predictable series of events. First, we are not initially told protagonist Scott Lang has been selected for greatness. Then, Lang’s test (the burglary of Dr. Hank Pym’s home, arranged by Dr. Pym himself) unfolds without Lang or the audience knowing this is indeed a test. Ant-Man then reverses the order of the next two events. Initiation precedes invitation. (As Pym plans, Lang puts on the Ant-Man suit without first knowing its power, throwing Lang into shock and bewilderment.) All this mystery is then resolved at the End of Act 1 when Pym finally reveals himself as to Lang and demands he accept the intended heroic role. Ant-Man then keeps us guessing in its second half with more complications and reversals than typically found in other Summoned Heroes. Through such alterations, Ant-Man surpassed industry expectations; giving us something familiar and yet somewhat different, helping it stand out from the more rote and uninspired films of the same pattern.
The Martian (2015)
Speaking of new twists on familiar patterns, lets talk of The Martian. The Martian fits into Type 9c: The Long Perilous Road (a pattern it shares with the likes of Apocalypse Now, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Finding Nemo, Little Miss Sunshine). The Long Perilous Road fits into a wider family of plot patterns I call “The Literal Journey.” Yet The Martian is the first case of a Literal Journey I have ever encountered which does not actually contain a literal journey! But then again, it kind of does.
In The Martian, Astronaut Mark Watney’s journey is not one over distance, but one over time. Stranded on Mars, Watney must find ways stay alive for four full years before he can find hope of rescue. Just like a physical journey, this temporal journey has a beginning, a destination, and a long stretch of unknown dangers in between. Once we stretch our idea of what a “journey” may mean, we see that The Martian’s plot structure is virtually identical to every other Long Perilous Road. The inciting incident gives the protagonist a pressing reason to take the “journey” (Watney is left stranded on Mars). The end of Act 1 marks the journey’s official launch (Watney refuses to accept his doom and dedicates himself on finding a series of means to stay alive for the next four years). Like the pattern’s other examples, Acts 2A & 2B take on an episodic structure where each sequence begins with an obstacle or challenge which threatens to bring the protagonist’s journey to a premature end. The protagonist overcomes this by the sequence’s end, allowing the journey to continue. Yet as soon as this is accomplished, a new obstacle or challenge incites the next sequence. Step by step, hurdle by hurdle, Watney pushes further down his road, advancing ever closer to his final destination.
The second act of a Long Perilous Road ends with the journey reaching its destination. Focus then shifts in Act 3 to the achieving the goal or objective that first motivated the journey. (In Little Miss Sunshine, the Hoover family reaches the beauty pageant. In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard arrives and Colonel Kurtz’s compound and must now find a way to kill Kurtz. In Finding Nemo, Marlin finally gets to Sydney and must figure out how to rescue his son.) The Martian again stays true to this form. Act 2B ends with the four years passed and the rescue ship arrived. Act 3 then focuses on the pursuit of the great reward which incited Watney’s long journey: the opportunity to finally leave Mars.
Of all films covered in this article, Creed’s use of plot patterns is most complex. Yet complex does not necessarily mean better. In fact, the more complicated a structure, the more difficulties it brings. Fortunately, Creed manages to retain its narrative focus and gets through its structural obstacles relatively unscathed.
You might be wondering what is exactly is so complex about Creed. The first act ends when Rocky Balboa agrees to train Adonis (Johnson) Creed, right? Then, the Midpoint occurs when Rocky collapses halfway through the film. Right? Well, yes and no. These events constitute the major turning points of Rocky’s arc, not the arc of the story’s protagonist Adonis Creed. Though it has the appearance of a single story, Creed actually contains dual narrative arcs: one assigned to Adonis and another to Rocky Balboa. Each of these arcs follows a separate plot pattern. This is fairly unorthodox, and in many cases might court disaster. Luckily, there is enough compatibility between Creed’s two patterns to meld their events together into what seems to be a single cohesive narrative.
Rocky’s arc is the simpler of the two, so this is where we shall begin. When viewed independently from material exclusive to Adonis, Rocky’s arc follows the structure of Type 2c: The Returning Hero. The Returning Hero begins with a character of former greatness who has abandoned this role or faded into irrelevance. Events then compel others to ask the hero to step back into his old shoes. (Adonis begs Rocky to train him. Rocky politely refuses.) The hero relents by the end of Act 1, marking his official return. (Rocky agrees to mentor Adonis.) Yet the hero struggles with this comeback, either due to recently-developed flaws or an inability to adapt to a changed world. (Rocky does not put his whole heart in this venture. He believes he has already lost everything worth living for and the future holds little promise.) At the Midpoint, a major mistake, failure, or complication threatens a premature end to the comeback (Rocky learns he has cancer), forcing or compelling the flawed hero back into his former isolation (Rocky decides he will give up and let the cancer kill him). Yet in this darkest moment, the character finds the will to transform into a new kind of hero, one with the greater strength or virtue to overcome his problems. (Adonis convinces Rocky to reverse course and fight on.) This gives the hero a new lease on life, leading him to victory.
Let us now look at the primary arc belonging to Adonis Creed. To complicate our analysis further, Adonis’s plotline uses a combo pattern (see UTN Part II, Chapter 5). In a combo pattern, the story first follows one plot pattern, but then at some point transitions to the structure of a completely different pattern. Adonis’s story starts in the mold of Type 5b: The Ejected. In The Ejected, a restless protagonist pursues a great personal ambition he or she believes will bring joy or meaning to his or her less than satisfying life. Yet the protagonist fails to recognize certain truths about him or herself or the situation, causing the character to initially pursue this ambition in self-defeating ways. This leads to a crushing failure at the end of Act 1 which “ejects” the protagonist from his or her former world. (In Creed, Adonis rejects his identity as the son of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, driving his desire to gain recognition by his own merits. This misplaced pride and anger motivates Adonis to try to prove himself prematurely, embarrassing him in a sparring match against a legitimate heavyweight contender. Humiliated, Adonis decides he must leave the comforts of home to seek a lonely new path in Philadelphia.) Now lost in the wilderness, the ejected protagonist seeks out friends and allies (usually characters just as troubled as the protagonist) to help him find his way (Rocky Balboa and the musician/future girlfriend Bianca). Caught between his still-burning ambitions and a refusal to accept the truths which hold him back, the ups and downs of Act 2A compel the protagonist to make a Great Compromise at the story’s Midpoint. (Adonis is offered a shot to prove himself against the heavyweight champion, but only if he accepts the identity he despises by fighting under his father’s name.)
In a typical Ejected, the Great Compromise leads to failure in Act 2B; either because the choice is foolish or ill-planned, or because the protagonist sabotages this path by reverting back to the flaws suffered in Act 1. Creed however takes Act 2B in a more uplifting direction by making the sudden transition to the structure of Type 1a: The Reluctant Hero. The Reluctant Hero (seen in films as diverse as Star Wars, The Godfather, Donnie Darko, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin) contains a Midpoint where a formerly passive or reactive protagonist finally chooses to take charge of the story situation, thereby seizing control of his or her life. The protagonist must then mature into a more confident and self-reliant hero in Act 2B before meeting the ultimate test which makes up the whole of Act 3. Creed’s second half adopts this same pattern. Adonis has spent his life running from his dead father’s legacy because he secretly fears he is not worthy. Yet by agreeing to fight under Apollo’s name, Adonis seizes control of his destiny, eventually embracing rather than avoiding the ghost which has haunted him for so long. As usual with the Reluctant Hero, the beginning of Creed’s Act 3 marks the launch of an ultimate test (Adonis’s championship fight) through which the protagonist proves his transformation and overcomes all he once feared.
(More to come. Stay tuned.)