Variations on a Formula

Most movies follow the same formula. An underdog hero meets a mentor who leads the hero into a new world where the hero meets an ally who helps the hero. In return, the hero helps the ally. Sometimes the mentor dies, leaving the hero alone to face the villain.

While this formula often works exactly the same, sometimes there are small variations that work just as well. Two Pixar movies actually put a unique twist on the this story telling formula. While Pixar follows the formula, they often switch the characters around.

For example, in most movies, there’s an underdog hero who change over time. Yet in “WALL-E,” WALL-E basically remains the same cheerful optimistic robot he was at the beginning as he is in the end. By the end of “WALL-E,” WALL-E hasn’t changed one bit, but everyone around him has changed including Eve, WALL-E’s mentor.

Near the end of Act IIb, the hero’s mentor often dies or gets seriously hurt. In “Star Wars,” Obi-wan dies. In “Arthur,” Arthur’s butler (the mentor) dies. The typical formula says the mentor should be hurt or killed, yet in “WALL-E,” WALL-E (the hero) gets seriously hurt while Eve (the mentor) has to save him. As you can see in the video below, this deleted scene shows that Pixar actually created the garbage compactor scene following that exact formula where WALL-E survives but Eve gets seriously hurt. But in the actual “WALL-E” movie, it’s the other way around and actually works better.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is another film that alters from the typical story telling formula. Usually the hero faces a series of minor henchmen, then faces a major henchmen, and then finally defeats the villain.

Yet in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the hero defeats minor henchmen and the major henchmen, but the hero’s mentor confronts the villain and defeats him.

Basically, story-telling formulas still work, but they can be twisted slightly by changing the typical roles of the different characters. If your screenplay starts feeling too formulaic, try deviating from the traditional story telling formula. You may be surprised at how your story can feel fresh and new by simply altering this standard story telling structure.

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