A typical story formula looks like this. A hero pursues a goal and learns from a mentor, gets help from an ally, and with their help, the hero can defeat a villain.
This is apparent in most movies like “Star Wars” where Luke wants an adventure, learns from Obi-wan, gets help from Hans Solo, and then is able to defeat Darth Vader.
In most stories, the hero changes from beginning to end. In the beginning of “Star Wars,” Luke is a naive farm boy. By the end of the story, Luke has transformed into a far more confident man. Pick almost any story and you’ll see that the hero changes over time whether it’s “The Karate Kid,” “Legally Blonde,” “The Invisible Man,” or “Up.” In most cases, you want your hero to change.
However, “WALL-E” plays with this standard formula of having the hero change. Instead, WALL-E (the hero) remains mostly unchanged from start to finish. In the beginning, WALL-E is a humble, trash-collecting robot. By the end, WALL-E has largely stayed the same.
Since change is so essential in any story, what happens is that WALL-E doesn’t change but his actions change everyone around him. So instead of the hero changing, “WALL-E” changed this story formula to keep the hero the same while everyone around him changes for the better.
Another common story formula is to introduce the mentor to the hero early in the story. In “Star Wars,” everyone mentions Old Ben, the crazy hermit in the desert long before we see him. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero meets his mentor (the apartment handyman) and dismisses him as a nut.
Yet in “Die Hard,” John McClane never meets his mentor (Officer Powell) until near the midpoint of the movie. However, John McClane is trying to contact the police early in the story and when he eventually succeeds, he does meet his mentor.
So story formulas are great guidelines to help you create your story, but sometimes you can play around with these formulas and alter them if they fit your particular story. Watch bad movies and you’ll see they forget about these common story formulas altogether, which can only hurt the tory.
Playing with story formulas can change a story just enough to make it unique. Omitting story formulas altogether is likely to create a poor story, so use story formulas to help you create the best story possible.