For the past 4 months, I have been meeting weekly with four of my friends and my wife to develop a screenplay. That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but it has been a really great process. Three members of our group have screenwriting experience, so the rest of us are playing catch-up.
It has been fascinating to learn about the elements that make up a good story. Dan Harmon, the creator of NBC’s Community, has written pretty extensively about these elements. Here are the basics:
- A character is in a zone of comfort,
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- Adapt to it,
- Get what they wanted,
- Pay a heavy price for it,
- Then return to their familiar situation,
- Having changed.
I really like that this is not a prescriptive method that tells you how to hit certain “beats” to manipulate an audience into liking your movie. These are universal story elements that you will find in everything from the great American novel to 3-minute stories at The Moth. They follow a circular pattern that basically symbolizes death and rebirth. Each element is also linked to the element on the opposite side of the circle.
Now for some graphic design. I basically just cleaned up Dan Harmon’s graphic to make it a little less ugly.
I was really skeptical of this theory, because I hate formulaic plot-lines. My favorite movies have tons of unexpected twists and sometimes leave me feeling like I’ve been kicked in the stomach. But every good movie follows this pattern. Great movies create separate story circles for each character and layer them in surprising ways.
Late last night I decided to map out the movie, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Not only did it follow the pattern perfectly, but Wes Anderson even inserts scene headings like “Mr. Fox has a plan” to indicate key events in the story. On paper that sounds like a terrible idea, but it works so well. If you haven’t seen the movie, the following graphic contains spoilers.
It would be interesting to correlate these events with the timeline of the movie to get a better sense of pacing. Next week I’d like to make an infographic about Fantastic Mr. Fox as a case study. What are some elements you’d like to see? Color and illustration for sure, but what else? Should I make icons to represent the elements? Should I make circles for other key characters?