Malcolm Gladwell discusses the idea of using a formula to predict hit movies. He interviews a smart lawyer who reviewed movies and screenplays and came up with a system that assigns dollar values to scripted movie scenes. For example, a hero's moral crisis in an early scene may be worth $7 million, a gorgeous red-headed eighteen-year-old female lead who scores well on her likeability ratings may be worth $3 million, and a bonding moment between the male lead and a four-year-old boy may be worth $2 million. I'd really like to learn more about their ratings, but they're tight-lipped about the whole thing because they're trying to sell their process to powerful, insecure movie executives.
[Digression] Edgar Allen Poe came up with a similarly reductive argument about assigning values to art, deriving a twisted sorite to determine the best subject of a poem. Basically, his line of reasoning went like this: a poem should elevate the soul; the poem that most elevates the soul deals with tragedy; the greatest of tragedies is death; the most tragic deaths are those of women; the most tragic death is that of a young woman -- a beautiful young woman. Ergo, if you want to write a great poem, don't pick a middle-aged man or an ugly young woman as your subject, and for damn sure don't let them live when the poem ends. Write about the death of a PYT, make sure it rhymes, and you're golden. Either that, or write about black birds with one-word vocabularies. [/Digression]
I suppose one approach to this formula is to write a sarcastic blog entry, but I'm in a more somber mood since I live in Seattle and all. So I'm going to discuss my favorite storytelling conceits. Of course, I should skip the obvious ones, because they're obvious: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. iPod cords. I'll also skip Revenge, which is too easy, and Falling in Love, which is the same as Man vs. Nature.
Moral Dilemma That Involves Revenge - I know I said I wouldn't mention Revenge, but that got me thinking about good types of Revenge. First, here's the kind of revenge plot that bugs me the most: (1) bad guy does something very bad, (2) good guy chases bad guy and catches him near the end of the movie, (3) good guy doesn't kill bad guy outright because he's good, (4) bad guy tries to kill good guy anyway, (5) good guy gleefully kils bad guy, restoring the moral order. I prefer Hamlet's perverted revenge, or the great revenge scene in Minority Report in which the Tom Cruise character confronts the guy who seems to have kidnapped his child.
Low Person Faces High Person - A lowly peasant confronts the king. Aron meets Cathy in East of Eden. Dorothy meets Oz. Jane Eyre meets Rochester. Gandalf confronts Saruman. Elizabeth chats with Lady Catherine.
Escape - If this were a top 5 list, Escape would go at the very top. Whether it's physical escape (Papillon, Cool Hand Luke), psychological escape (Five Easy Pieces, Office Space, The 40 Year Old Virgin), or some other kind of escape, I'm hooked.
Full Frontal Nudity - I like any plot twist that causes one or more attractive women to remove their clothing. Peepholes are especially effective.
Mystery Solving - I can imagine a story with someone solving a mystery while escaping capture. As the mystery unfolds, the protagonist realizes he must seek revenge, and only a new love interest can dissuade him.