The more films I watch, the more I am convinced. The thirty-four common plot patterns of American cinema just might be the dramatic find of the century. Of course, I’m not surprised if most people are skeptical. They just have not seen the mountain of evidence I have. With every new, even marginally-successful motion picture, I find the same patterns again and again. And again. And again and again and again. Films with great plots follow these patterns with almost perfect accuracy. So-so films do it in a so-so manner. Poorly plotted films fail to follow any pattern at all.
Most of the skepticism likely stems from a confusion between pattern and formula. PLOT PATTERNS ARE NOT FORMULAS. Formulas are intentional. They are consciously applied from the outset of creation to achieve a repeated result. Patterns are naturally-occurring. They arise without conscious intent, usually in a manner so automatic and intuitive that the creators themselves do not recognize them. This phenomenon, I believe, is a result of artists repeatedly drawing upon the same sets of social and cultural beliefs. For a brief proposition of how and why this occurs, see this article. Of course, this theory is explained in far greater detail in Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II: Genre, Pattern &The Concept of Total Meaning.
Plot patterns possess an incredible flexibility. While stable enough to perform their basic dramatic and ideological functions again and again, plot patterns can adapt to any given premise or narrative conflict through the highly figurative nature of their constituent elements as well as a wide array of alternatives and variations. This makes plot patterns consistent yet fluid, explaining how they can reoccur so frequently yet continue to go unnoticed by their viewers. Each story is allowed to do what it needs to develop its unique uses of plot, character, and theme upon the narrative surface while retaining the strength and meaning of the structure underneath. In this article, I will continue to demonstrate the plot pattern phenomenon by showing how a random selection of recent films succeed by following, stumble by deviating from, or accommodate themselves through variations upon these hidden narrative structures.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Type 16a: Moral Mirrors. I love a good Moral Mirrors. When done properly (in films such as The Departed, Heat, or Touch of Evil), it can be the most mentally-involving of patterns on all three levels of narrative discourse: plot, character, and theme. The Moral Mirrors contains two protagonists: one a Hero, the other an Anti-hero. In most cases, these protagonists begin their stories by pursuing independent lines of action with their own separate goals. Yet whether the protagonists realize it or not (more often not), these two goals directly oppose one another. This causes the two lines to converge, gradually turning each protagonist into the other’s antagonist.
In Civil War, the idealist Steve Rogers/Captain America performs the role of the Hero, while the pragmatist Tony Stark/Iron Man fills that of the Anti-hero. The Moral Mirrors structure begins with an inciting incident (or incidents) which sets the stage for its protagonists’ eventual opposition, but does not yet begin direct conflict. (A mission-related mishap causes the international community to demand the Avengers subject their actions to government oversight.) In response, one protagonist irreversibly commits to a personal objective midway through Act 1. (Stark takes a firm stance in support of the initiative.) The other protagonist then completes the dramatic setup by passing a point of no return in commitment to a directly opposing objective at the End of Act 1 Turning Point. (Events convince Rogers to rebel against the initiative in order to save his friend Bucky.) In Act 2A, both protagonists pursue their goals independently, often in ignorance of their counterpart. Yet each action has the effect of drawing the two characters into deeper opposition, leading both to finally recognize the threat posed by the other protagonist at or around the Midpoint. (Rogers gives Stark a final refusal to cooperate and then solidifies this antagonism by going fully rogue when Bucky escapes confinement.) This initiates an Act 2B composed of a series of back-and-forth actions between Hero and Anti-hero intended to defeat or undermine the opposing party. This now open antagonism eventually escalates into a direct face-to-face battle in Act 3.
Yet Civil War hardly presents a classic Moral Mirrors, for one clear reason. Despite its Captain America title, this is really the third Avengers film. And like its two predecessors, Civil War becomes unusually convoluted due to its inclusion of a large number of supporting characters with their own dramatic subplots. This greatly complicates the use of the Moral Mirrors plot pattern in one key area. In a typical Moral Mirrors narrative, the conflict is not bi-lateral but triangular, involving not only the Hero and the Anti-hero, but also a third character I call the Wild Card. The Wild Card is an independent party of shifting loyalties who at some times opposes both the Hero and the Anti-hero and at other times may form or break alliances with one protagonist against the other. While this role is usually filled by only one or possibly two related characters (such as Frank Costello in The Departed or Joe Grandi in Touch of Evil), Civil War features multiple characters who carry out this function, each adding a separate line of conflict. Bucky, Black Panther, the villain Helmut Zemo, even Natasha Romanoff and other members of the Avengers team can be labeled Wild Card characters. Luckily, the film manages to keep these many separate threads united into a fairly comprehensible narrative. Yet it must be said that, like the other Avengers films, Civil War violates many rules of thumb regarding structural clarity. It succeeds in spite of its convolutions rather than because of them.
Kubo and the Two-Strings (2016)
Kubo and the Two-Strings presents a contrast between the formal compositions of its story and its plot. While Kubo’s story (the material seen and heard by the audience) takes on the form of a quest, its plot (the physical arrangement of dramatic developments) finds shape through a pattern not usually associated with quest stories, Type 6a: The Destructive Beast. Home to such examples as The Terminator, The Bourne Identity, and No Country for Old Men, the Destructive Beast features a protagonist relentlessly pursued by a malevolent entity (the “Beast”) which will not stop until the protagonist is killed, captured, or ruined. This usually creates a narrative patterned by repeated sequences of attack and escape. Yet while Kubo’s three-act development does adhere to this pattern—the story’s “Beast” (the Moon King and his two evil daughters) always attacks at the proper moments, with outcomes that alter the narrative situation in ways similar to other Destructive Beasts (see this article for details)—Kubo’s tone feels much different than other examples because the content found between attacks dwells far more upon the quest elements of the story. This shifts attention from a mere flight from the Beast to the objectives that must be achieved to defeat the Beast. As a result, the Beast is not a constant figure of menace, but takes a back seat to the quest, only arriving to attack at the plot’s key turning points. For this reason, Kubo’s drama feels far more relaxed and lacks the constant fear and tension found in other Destructive Beasts.
Kubo contains another variation on the Destructive Beast. Typically, the protagonist forms an alliance with a “Sole Companion” character after the Beast’s first direct assault at the End of 1st Act Turning Point. This Sole Companion soon becomes the one and only character the protagonist can depend on as the story unfolds. Kubo follows suit, matching its hero with his protector Monkey. Yet in this case, the “Sole” Companion does not stay sole, as Kubo collects two more companions in Act 2A, turning the Sole Companion into a group of characters with different traits and abilities. Yet Kubo returns to standard form at the End of Act 2B when, as usual, the hero is cut off from his companions. He then faces a choice: either continue running from the Beast (a path which will lead to failure) or finally confront and defeat the Beast all alone.
The Revenant (2015)
Type 12: The Vengeance Narrative. As I mention in Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II, the Vengeance Narrative is the simplest and most formulaic of the thirty-four common plot patterns. Yet this potential drawback is compensated by a far greater flexibility in terms of where and when key structural events can occur. This allows what are essentially very similar plots (for example, those found in Gladiator, Kill Bill, The Crow) to still appear different as they unfold. The Revenant takes this flexibility to its extreme. This two-hour, thirty-one minute drama is extremely front-heavy, with a long setup and an Act 2A that by itself takes up over an hour of the total run time. This pushes the Vengeance Narrative’s key structural events much later in the film than usual. While the inciting incident arrives at 26:00 minutes, the vengeance-worthy action does not occur until 49:00. The hero’s resurrection and decision to pursue vengeance (an event which usually occurs no later than a quarter of the way into a film) is pushed back to 55:30. The pattern’s Midpoint event (in which the target of vengeance becomes aware of the protagonist’s intentions and takes counter-action) arrives even further behind schedule, not until 1:59:30. This is followed by the End of 2B reversal at 2:16:00—giving the film only a fifteen-minute Act 3. As you may surmise, this makes the structure extremely lopsided, as the film cares to expend far more time on the story’s early obstacles than the direct battle between the protagonist and his betrayer. This resulted in fairly predictable audience responses. Lovers of art films (known for their patience with slow-developing narratives) tended to praise the film. Viewers with more mainstream tastes responded less enthusiastically, as they felt impatient waiting for the direct hero/villain conflict to finally kick the action into high gear.
Ex Machina (2014)
Type 16b: False Friendship. Like the Moral Mirrors, the False Friendship centers upon a dynamic between a Hero and an Anti-hero. Only in this case, the characters begin in an amicable partnership. Yet, as we see in the pattern’s other examples (such as Training Day, Fight Club, The Master), conflict slowly develops within this relationship, eventually turning into direct antagonism in the story’s later stages. The source of this division lies in the fact that the relationship is not really one between two friends, but between a master and an apprentice. The oft charming, impressive, or powerful Anti-hero wishes to mold the Hero into a loyal slave who will unquestionably submit to his or her warped personal philosophy. The Hero initially accepts this role, yet later finds the Anti-hero hides darker intentions. This creates a schism between the pair. The plot structure then splits into two potential paths near the end of Act 2B. In Celebratory or Cynical narratives (in which things end well for the Hero: Training Day, Fight Club), the Anti-hero momentarily regains the Hero’s allegiance. But this is only a trick by the Anti-hero, followed by an act of betrayal. This forces the Hero to confront and defeat his or her one time mentor and friend. In Cautionary or Tragic narratives (in which things do not end well for the Hero: The Master, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), it is the Hero who chooses to betray the Anti-hero. While the Hero usually comes to regret this decision in Act 3, the die has been cast and cannot be reversed, leading the Hero to an ignoble end.
Ex Machina follows the latter path. Shocked by the secrets he uncovers in Act 2B, the Hero Caleb decides to betray the Anti-hero Nathan so he may help the automaton Ava escape. Yet Caleb finds out too late he has been tricked. Unable to reverse his betrayal, Caleb can do nothing to stop Ava from killing Nathan and abandoning him in the isolated compound to an unknown, though certainly undesirable fate.
Another Vengeance Narrative. Remember how I said the Vengeance Narrative is extremely flexible in terms of its placement of key events? Deadpool proves this again, but in a much different way. The first half of Deadpool is presented non-linearly, opening with an extended sequence which would more traditionally occur just before the film’s Midpoint. We are then given flashbacks to provide the skipped-over setup, Act 1, and early Act 2A events. When these sequences are rearranged chronologically, we again find the tried and true Vengeance Narrative structure: 1. The hero is betrayed/unfairly victimized by the villain. 2. The hero is left for dead. 3. The hero resurrects in a changed form. 4. The hero secretly pursues a plan of vengeance in Act 2A. 5. The villain learns of the hero’s intentions at the Midpoint. 6. The villain takes counter-actions, creating an escalating contest of wills in Act 2B. 7. A reversal of power allows the villain to steal control of the situation. 8. A final battle which climaxes with the hero ultimately choosing between justice and vengeance and meeting the consequences. (Compare the climactic moments of The Revenant and Deadpool to see two different responses to this final decision, creating significant contrast in their thematic resolutions.)
Deadpool’s nonlinearity is a pretty neat trick, seeing how audiences would have likely found the chronologically-arranged plot too predictable. Additionally, this delaying of the story setup not only starts Deadpool with a huge bang, but acts to engage the audience with elements of mystery and surprise which would not have been present if all details had been known beforehand.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Fury Road has plenty of structural problems, the first and foremost being its weak protagonist. “Weak” because we are never certain who the real protagonist is supposed to be. The title character spends the entire first act as a passive nonparticipant. When he is finally allowed to act on his own, his hero charisma amounts to little more than grunting and gesturing like Koko the Gorilla. It is the Furiosa character (Charlize Theron) whose actions actually drive the narrative. Yet she is never allowed to step into the center of the protagonist spotlight. As such, when the two join forces, we get a Who’s the Boss? scenario where it remains unclear who is supposed to be in charge of the story. Of course, the film does intend Koko—sorry, I mean Max to be its protagonist, despite its mishandling of the character in the first act. This claim is fully supported by the film’s choice of plot pattern.
Fury Road uses Type 8a: The Quest. In The Quest (Saving Private Ryan, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Children of Men), a protagonist (willingly or not) must escort a macguffin to a far-off place, or journey to a far-off place to retrieve such a macguffin. While this first seems to be a simple task, the protagonist encounters major complications at the end of each act which continually demand the character extend his or her involvement beyond previous expectations. With each complication, the protagonist grudgingly chooses to escalate his or her level of dedication and push into deeper and more dangerous territory, slowly turning a reluctant protagonist into a selfless hero willing to sacrifice anything to see the mission to its end. Likewise, Fury Road’s plot centers upon an effort to safely transport a group of macguffins from Point A to Point B. (Specifically, Furiousa seeks to smuggle the villain’s slave brides to a place where he can no longer reach them.) In Act 1, Max is dragged into this scenario unwillingly. Once freed to take his own actions at the late-occurring End of Act 1, Max wants nothing more than to end his involvement and leave the situation behind. Yet circumstances prevent this. He has no choice but to accompany Furiosa and the brides to their final destination. With their fates now intertwined, Max must dedicate himself to defending this band of refugees from their pursuing enemies.
True to all other examples of The Quest, Max faces his second major crossroad halfway through Act 2B (again, this turning point occurs late, as it usually arrives at the story’s Midpoint) when the mission reaches what appears to be its end—at least in terms of the protagonist’s direct involvement. Only this end is not as it first seems. A second, even more unexpected complication creates a dilemma which compels Max to extend his involvement once more, this time at an even greater threat to life and limb. (The heroes reach the Many Mothers, an army Furiosa expects to protect them in the safe haven she calls the Green Place. Yet they find the Green Place no longer exists and the Mothers are too few for protection.) Given the option to leave, Max heroically chooses to remain with the group, devising a plan to lead them straight through the enemy forces to the promise of safety on the other side. Just like all other films of the Quest plot pattern, Act 3 begins with the onset of a final battle through which the formerly unwilling hero must prove his now full and selfless dedication to the mission despite the extreme personal sacrifices will demands.
American Sniper (2015)
American Sniper is not only based on a true story, but adapted from an autobiography written by the very hero it depicts. Adapting from an autobiography rather than a novel presents certain difficulties for a screenwriter. The first is the challenge of shaping a long series of loosely-connected chronological events into a discrete narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end, unified by a single Story Spine. The second is the limited freedom the screenwriter holds when it comes to reinventing or rearranging events into a dramatic 3-Act rise-and-fall without overly violating the historical truth behind them. American Sniper manages to overcome these difficulties and at the same time find a skeletal plot pattern by playing up the role of the protagonist’s enemy rival Mustafa. By developing this rivalry into a thread that builds in intensity over the course of the film, American Sniper follows Type 9b: The Voluntary Snowball.
The Voluntary Snowball is marked by a protagonist who willingly embroils him or herself deeper and deeper into a conflict – which he or she may otherwise avoid – due to a growing obsession with the lure of a “Siren.” This lure can take many forms: a mystery the protagonist is irrationally compelled to solve (Chinatown), an object the protagonist will do anything to claim (Raiders of the Lost Ark), a romantic obsession (Blue Velvet, Brazil, WALL-E), or a nemesis the protagonist feels an absolute need to defeat. American Sniper uses this last form of Siren. In nearly every key moment of Chris Kyle’s experiences in combat, Kyle is continually defeated or frustrated by Mustafa’s appearance (in body or at least in the mention of his ghostly name). Taunted by this Siren, Kyle is motivated to continually escalate his activities until the rival is finally hunted down and defeated.
Two other traits (among many others) mark this film as a Voluntary Snowball. The first is the fact that the story’s first turning point is not the inciting incident. Like other films of the pattern, the first turning point is an initiating event that does not yet establish the story’s main conflict, but rather motivates the protagonist to pursue some tangential objective. (Reports of terrorist attacks in Africa motivate Kyle to join the Navy SEALS.) This allows us to learn more about the protagonist and his or her situation through an active setup rather than the inactive setups found in most other cinematic narratives. The story’s actual inciting incident comes at the second turning point (Kyle is sent to his first tour in Iraq). Second, in the Voluntary Snowball, the protagonist is always given options or opportunities to remove him or herself from the conflict with no further consequences. However, the protagonist chooses each time to not only continue but escalate his or her involvement due to a growing obsession with the Siren. In Sniper, Kyle is given the option of refusing another tour of duty each time he returns home. Yet he willingly returns to Iraq again and again because the call of his Siren will not let him rest.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
This is not a recent film, but after seeing it a second time I thought I’d use it to round out this article since it makes use of a pattern we have not yet discussed. Silver Linings follows Type 4a: The Resistive Wounded (one of the two “Healing Narratives”), a pattern shared with Good Will Hunting, Sideways, and Ordinary People. In these stories, the protagonist carries a “wound” stemming from past trauma. However, the protagonist refuses to face this wound or even admit it exists no matter how much damage it does to his or her current life. Lining’s protagonist Pat, suffering from bipolar disorder, has been psychologically scarred after witnessing his wife Nikki’s sexual infidelity. Unable to move on, Pat is certain that if he tries hard enough he can get back together with Nikki and everything will return to what it once was. Since the protagonist cannot heal until he or she is forced to recognize the wound, the story requires the intervention of a Healer Character. Enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). As usual, this Healer carries emotional issues of her own, and through their interaction both characters are eventually led to greater well-being.
The Resistive Wounded begins with a “soft” inciting incident in which the Healer takes notice of the protagonist’s problems and resolves to help. Yet the protagonist is initially reluctant, and refuses to cooperate until the end of Act 1. Though now on board, the protagonist refuses to take the Healer’s efforts to help seriously in early Act 2A, requiring the Healer to step up the pressure. This leads to a minor breakthrough at the Midpoint. Things improve for the protagonist in Act 2B. It seems healing is finally starting to begin. Yet a misstep or unexpected development sends the protagonist into a full relapse at the end of Act 2B.
For the most part, Silver Linings follows this pattern—with the exception of a significant failure in its second half. Specifically, the film slides off-pattern in Act 3 in a contrived effort to force the film into a tired and cliched romantic resolution. In a proper Resistive Wounded, the protagonist suffers a full relapse at the end of Act 2B. It seems the wound has gotten the best of the character and he or she is doomed to eternal misery. This low point sets up the situation that will drive the drama to its conclusion in Act 3. Yet in Linings, Pat does not suffer such a relapse—only a minor incident from which he immediately recovers. In place of the relapse, the film tries to substitute an issue related to Pat’s father—material from a subplot completely outside of the protagonist’s Story Spine. Instead of propelling Pat’s drama forward, this only shoots it sideways. Also, with no need to get Pat back on the right track (because he is still on it), Act 3 incongruously shifts focus onto Tiffany, turning Pat’s wound into a secondary concern. The story does not give Pat’s healing the climactic resolution it deserves, preferring to brush it off in favor of the same “true love was right in front of you the whole time” resolution we have seen in a thousand Romantic Dramas before.