Cinematic Formulas
Commonly used plot devices and how they affect what you see in the movies.


There are all kinds of formulas in the world. There are mathematical formulas, chemical formulas and even formulas for babies to drink. These formulas all have their place, but we're not really concerned with any of these as the purpose of this article is to bring to light an issue that is a little more near and dear to the hearts of my readers. What we’re looking at today are just some of the various formulas that have existed in movies since their inception.

This whole thing all came about because I was telling a friend about the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding and commenting on how nice it was that it avoided using the standard formula for a romantic, feel good type of film. The standard formula for this style of film tends to be as follows…

1. Man meets woman or vice versa. Usually through a chance meeting, but sometimes through a blind date or whatever.

2. Man and woman either have rocky start before they fall in love or they just experience one of those "love at first sight" things.

3. After a whirlwind romance, one of two things happens. The man either does something stupid to tick off the woman and she leaves him. This usually involves either him cheating on her or them just having a general misunderstanding. The other option at this point is that he’s either lied about something in his past or just lied to her about something in general, and when she found out, she left him.

4. Turmoil ensues leaving both the man and the woman completely miserable.

5. The man does something spectacular and romantic to either apologize to the woman or to make it up to her.

6. She forgives him and they live happily ever after…at least until the sequel.

Now, that’s just one example of a typical romantic or romantic comedy type of movie, also known as a chick flick. We've all seen them and I don’t think there’s any of us who aren't at some level at least a little bit irritated that these same formulas are so often used. It’s almost like you’re watching the same movie over and over again except with different actors. Part of the problem with formulas is that it says to the viewer, “We couldn't come up with anything better for you to watch, so have a peep at this recycled crap until we can think of something a little more original.” This attitude and way of thinking not only short changes the viewer, but leaves us all wondering why it seems like there’s almost no originality in filmmaking anymore. Part of the problem is that things have just been pretty much done to death entertainment wise. It’s really hard to come up with an original idea that no one’s ever thought of before and even harder to bring that idea to fruition without it falling prey to the ever present plot formula. Even in a seemingly original screenplay, you'll still be able to pick out elements of formulas that have been used for nearly a century now.

Now let’s look at another relatively standard formula. Horror movies have so many common elements that you can pretty much just make yourself a grab bag of plot elements and mix and match them until you have yourself a horror film. Let’s take this grab bag idea and see how many different plot devices we can throw into it.

Standard Horror Plot Grab Bag

1. One group of oversexed high school or college kids.

2. One or two hero types, either a guy or a girl or both that will actually survive through the end of the movie.

3. At least one really dumb girl who becomes an early victim, usually after being chased and having fallen down at least once.

4. Any one or multiples of any of the following: slashers, monsters, mutants, aliens, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, mummies, zombies, and/or inbred, semi-retarded hillbillies.

5. One or more skeptics who refuse to believe what’s going on until they themselves end up dead. Usually in some particularly gruesome way which will satisfy the audience since the skeptic was probably really annoying anyway.

6. One character that seems to have inside knowledge about what’s going on and how to stop it. Usually no one believes this character until they see people dying in front of them.

7. A raging storm that usually comes along just as the killer and the victims are going to have a chase scene.

8. If the movie takes place in a house, the power will go off at a critical moment. Usually either right before or right after the killer enters.

9. The phones are dead…naturally.

10. Killer uses common items found in most hardware stores to mutilate, decapitate, and otherwise dismember his victims.

11. Monster has huge teeth and claws and usually finds interesting ways to rip its victims apart.

12. At least one person gets impaled on something.

13. There’s either a lake or a forest involved somewhere in the movie. These are good for chase scenes at night and are usually lit by a full moon.

14. There will be at least one scare that was actually nothing, but was thrown in there just to make the audience jump.

Need I go on? Any combination of these elements and others like them will create a typical horror film using a typical horror movie formula.

So where does that leave us now? Well unfortunately it leaves us in a creativity vacuum. There’s really nothing new or original coming out of Hollywood anymore. Even independent film makers become easy prey for an overused formula. They just seem to hide it behind a veil of quirkiness better than most of the Hollywood types do. There are formulas for just about any type of movie you can think of, from sci-fi to fantasy to war films. You can pretty much name any genre you can think of and there will be a definite and definable formula that applies to it. Cinematic comedy though, does have one advantage over every other type of film. Comedy tends to allow its writers a little more freedom to break out of those formulaic boundaries that often constrict most other types of films simply because it doesn't matter what the plot is or what happens in the film, as long as it's funny. Sadly though, most writers of comedy fail to take advantage of this opportunity, which only causes their work to be less humorous and less interesting than it could have been.

One movie that demonstrates the whole horror formula idea just perfectly is the film
There's Nothing Out There, which not only manages to lampoon a huge number of the common horror film plot devices, but it does it in a very knowing and absolutely hilarious way. This movie, more than any other I could name, demonstrates not only what I'm saying here in this article, but it takes these generic plot devices, gleefully points them out and then totally makes fun of them.

Formulas are hard to avoid, and I dare say that in this day and age, with all the ideas that have come and gone, it just may not be possible to come up with a truly original idea anymore. I suppose the challenge at this point, now that all the good ideas have been used up, is to try to mix up the formula elements more and put a different twist on them so that today’s modern films can at least have some semblance of creativity and originality.

I find myself wondering if the average film going audience could actually handle a non-formula film after being conditioned to expect these formulas essentially from the time they were children. Somehow I think your average viewer would probably tend to feel cheated, or even like something was wrong if the formula elements in a film were actually replaced by something more interesting and creative. Something the audience had never seen before. Something that was totally unexpected and imaginative and actually made the viewer think instead of just laying everything out for them in a very simplistic way. Would a modern audience ever be able to appreciate a film that managed to achieve some level of originality and creativity? Who knows? But it’d sure be nice to find out.

- Duane L. Martin -
February 24, 2003


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