Blockbusters share a surprising number of common elements.
My goal is to write a blockbuster novel. While I was writing my current work in progress, “The Clarity Rebellion”, I had a problem. Readers liked my book but they weren’t raving about it. I needed to fix that but how?
I came across this great book that proves blockbusters are a lot alike. As I was reading it, I found that many of these concepts were already in my book. I took several months and incorporated more of these concepts into my manuscript and strengthened the ones I already had in there. Then I tested it on readers and there was a difference. They loved it.
There are a number of books analyzing blockbusters. This is the best one I’ve read so far:
by James W. Hall.
These are the notes I took on the book and I’d like to share them with you.
The Main Framework
A SMALL STORY TOLD AGAINST A SWEEPING BACKDROP – This pattern is repeated again and again in blockbusters. Two stories at work. A small story foreground narrative and an epic broad panaramic background narrative. In GONE WITH THE WIND, Scarlett schemes for Rhett’s love while also confronting soldiers, triumphing in the business world, and successfully adapting in the most wrenching social changes America has ever known. The Civil War.
SUPERPOWERS AT WAR – One mafia family against the other (THE GODFATHER), Good vs. Evil with head spinning terror (THE EXORCIST), Man vs. Nature with the biggest shark ever (JAWS), broad examination of corrupt mores and class warfare (PEYTON PLACE). The blockbuster chronicles principle social issues of the era.
The Key Elements
Can the idea be turned into a great movie? A high concept is one that can capture the dramatic energy coiled in a novel by a single catchy phrase.
Must be a unique and creative mash-up of two or more traditional genres.
Once the hook of the high concept is set, new complications and new questions propel the story forward.
The hero must have deep conviction and fervent, stubborn resolve, capable of passions that rise well beyond the normal range of human experience. In the end they must show clarity and intensity of purpose (especially if they waffle at the beginning) and decisive actions. They must have an emotional intensity that makes them commit to gutsy and surprising deeds. They are pushed by the story to their emotional breaking point and beyond and forced to stay at that outer limit of what they can endure.
A reader must have a connection to the hero by understanding and sympathizing with that character. A reader must have PITY and FEAR for a character.
The hero’s intense commitment to his or her cause, while not always pure and selfless, is ultimately a goal most of us find worthy and important.
Lack of introspection – common feature among blockbuster protagonists. They are not self-absorbed or contemplative. Rarely do we go wading into their stream of consciousness.
A powerful emotional bond must be forged between reader and hero, made up of one part pity and one part fear.
Characters show up on the page fully formed. What we learn about them we learn through what they do and say in the now. No time for backstory.
Serious physical or psychological peril shows up in the first few pages and accelerates from there through the novel.
DRAMATIC IRONY – When the audience knows something the characters don’t. If it’s something bad that’s coming for the character, it creates sympathy in the reader for that character.
THE BIG CLOCK – That clock is always running out!
FOCUS ON SOCIAL MOBILITY – racial, gender, and class fairness; the struggles and triumphs of the poor set alongside similar conflicts of the powerful. In other words, they are stories about characters pitted against large forces, not characters in conflict with themselves.
CONTROVERSY OF THE DAY – abortion, gay marriage, church and state, global warming, school prayer, gun control, race relations, immigration policy, capital punishment. Use the loaded language of that subject matter and set up a simple story line that idealizes one side and demonizes the other. Ideally it must express some larger, deep-seated and unresolved conflict in the national consciousness. The Civil War is still usable because race relations are unresolved.
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS took tabloid sensationalism and put characters in place of real actors.
THE EXORCIST – Came at a time when God was proclaimed dead. Challenged the nonbelievers and hit a raw nerve.
JAWS – reenacts a moral sellout of its citizens by its political leaders. Played on American’s mistrust of political authority and it contemporary manifestation.
THE DEAD ZONE – The second coming of the antichrist gets elected. Hmmm.
THE DA VINCI CODE targeted the Catholics with provocative and outlandish claims. Passionate cynics rallied behind it.
SIMPLE PROSE – Raw and simple prose that gives access to all readers.
SIMPLE TONE – Subtlety, ambiguity and intricacy are not a part of these bestsellers. They are sincere and heartfelt. Simplicity of tone. No segregation and no secret handshakes – every reader is on equal footing.
BIG BIGGER BIGGEST – Grandness of scale is reinforced with superlatives.
“The world’s most famous painting”
The longest building in Europe”
“The most famous piece of art in the world”
Blockbusters are often books about America and Americans. They are ordinary American folks from humble roots who have answered some resounding call and risen beyond their limitations to impossible heights.
AMERICA AS PARADISE
An idyllic baseline is often established. A paradise in which characters are tragically alienated from and in some way struggling to get back to. (Eden)
Eden always has a snake. Slavery is the snake in Gone with the Wind.
For Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER, murder lurks in the hillsides of Sicily. Dangerous Eden – both beautiful and wild with danger. Michael Corleone has a few weeks of Eden with his new beautiful (Eve like) wife in Sicily before she gets killed.
A bite from the apple. In Scout enjoys her Eden as a place of creativity, naivete, and gender equality. When the trial of Tom Robinson, Scout’s Golden Country comes to an abrupt and ugly end. Her innocence dissolves and her childhood comes to a close. The lingering memory of her golden country defines her character thereafter.
THE GOLDEN COUNTRY
The “golden country” is either a splendid natural location or a wild and secret place, where some form of innocent sensuous idyll took place. It becomes nostalgic and wistful as the character loses something crucial from that time.
In JAWS, the beach town is at first portrayed as paradise. Then the skinny dipper is eaten and paradise ends. The sheriff wants the mayor to go public about the shark but the mayor senses economic catastrophe and continues to perpetuate a hoax. That the town is still an eden and the appearance of the finned snake has not appeared.
For Brody and others like him, Amity is the golden country. For the mayor, Amity is the golden opportunity. Nature is a commodity to be merchandised. Tourists from the city will put the Islander’s secret place under siege. The shark is killed but what’s been lost is the innocent belief that what is beautiful is also benign. The islander’s golden country has become a bygone yearning for innocence.
In PEYTON PLACE, Eden is a secret place, an unharvested bit of woods. Allison goes there to bask in the ecstatic glow and calming effect of nature. 25 pages later, Allison walks her best friend there and Selena refuses to go into the woods. Selena reveals to Allison that this is where boys bring girls at night to make out. Naive Allison has unwittingly chosen lover’s lane as her golden country. In its irony and dark realism, the scene is a paradigm for the entire novel. She returns later with a lover, a bookish boy who fails to arouse her. She goes on a quest to meet a boy that has a sensuousness. Later she’s cruelly deceived by him and learns of all the darkness in Peyton Place. In the end she returns to the same place for solace. It doesn’t have the same power it once had. But it is enough.
THE SNAKE OF GREED
THE FIRM starts with the couple in law school living in a two bedroom apartment making love and eating takeout after the protagonist lands a great job. (an uncomplicated simple life) He is tempted by the snake of greed throughout the book and this beginning scene is the baseline for which he begins to long for as his life goes off course. In the end, they are expelled from the false garden of Eden and start afresh in their new golden country, with a new improved simple life with a white house on the beach, making love and drinking rum.
People have an innate desire to improve themselves. These books either give nuts and bolts facts about submarines, tell you how to survive Hollywood, give you a peek behind the doors of a law firm, make outrageous facts about how Jesus was married. These books satisfy the need to be instructed and informed, to emerge from the novel with a wider understanding of some grand or esoteric subject matter.
Blockbusters often expose the inner workings of at least one secret society. They give us a privileged glimpse into a secret society. The mafia, opus dei, shark fishermen, exorcists, small-town cliques, Broadway superstars, southern aristocracy.
A secret society is any group that for one reason or another has isolated itself from the rest of the world by creating a collection of rules, rites, sacraments, or cover behaviors that reinforces its separation from the larger population. The group is exclusive, usually powerful in some domain, with its own initiation rituals and its own sense of justice and duty, sometimes it’s own language, and even its own criminal code.
Exotic chants, rites, prayers, a specialized lexicon, rules of authority and hierarchy, incense-drenched ancient ceremonies of worship and formal acts of obedience all play roles.
Blockbusters often portray the triumph of a righteous individual over the often dehumanizing prejudices of a secret group.
CITY vs COUNTRY
The fish-out-of-water story line.
Often there is an exodus from countryside to city or vice versa creating the fish-out-of-water character. If it is from countryside to city, agrarian values play a part in whether the hero succeeds or fails. Red state vs. blue state, working class vs. corporate elite, virtuous vs. decadent, bible pioneer spirit vs. corrupt city.
Urban life is often portrayed as mythic proving ground.
Money is in the city. Values are in the country.
The sheriff’s wife in JAWS has an affair with a dashing city guy. She realizes her mistake but the damage is done by the long shadow of the corrupted city falling on the small town. (she was born in the city and moved to the cultural deprivation of Amity. She finds herself bored but in the end embraces the values of the country.)
When THE EXORCIST begins, Father Merrill is relaxing in the pastoral countryside monastery where he is summoned back to the city to battle the devil. Although in the end, it takes the combined efforts of a country priest and a city priest to defeat the devil.
In THE DA VINCI CODE, country people can’t be trusted and there’s an evil lurking in the rural hillsides. City folk are our only hope. Leigh Teabing, the villain, lives in the country in a castle.
Bestsellers use the tremors of the fault lines between the city and country.
Many bestsellers feature religion in prominent ways, consistently critiquing orthodox religious practices and the dangers of zealotry.
The bible has consistently been a bestseller.
Religious themed books have sold so well, they have their own separate category.
Books like “LORD OF THE RINGS”, “CELESTINE PROPHECY”, “THE DA VINCI CODE”, “THE ROBE,” and “BEN HUR” have based their success on their spiritual themes. “THE SHACK” or “JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL” have done incredibly well with their quasi religious overtones.
These novels portray a character with spiritual doubt. The authors all challenge religious thought often ridiculing religious hypocrisy. They focus on the worldly consequences of religious practice rather than its spiritual aspects. In other words, secularism.
AMERICAN DREAM/AMERICAN NIGHTMARE
Rags to riches stories as well as the foiling of this national myth.
- VALLEY OF THE DOLLS – Beautiful talented young women who journey off to the big city to find fame and fortune but find instead tragic hollowness and unimaginable perils of that dream.
- In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, even an 8 year old girl in a tiny racist town can change the course of events.
- In JAWS, even a small town cop can go out to sea and help destroy a great white shark.
- In GONE WITH THE WIND, even Scarlett, a spoiled girl-child with few worldly skills beyond coquetry, uses those skills to full advantage. She manages with ruthless determination to flourish as an entrepreneur and then save Tara from the Yankee invaders and carpetbaggers. She does it by hard work and getting her hands dirty. Immigrant narrative of her father – starts with nothing and works her way up
The message for the American Dream is that hard work and fair play will be rewarded.
AMERICAN DREAM CYNICISM
In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, a black man is accused of murder but everyone in the courtroom knows he’s innocent. Justice is not even close to being just.
Bestseller heroes are rebels, loners, misfits, or mavericks. They don’t fit in worth a damn and that’s one of the reasons we love them so much.
Most are teetering on the brink of flat-out rejection of conventional society and are ready to embrace an individualist isolation from the customs of the mass culture.
A maverick is extreme. A maverick rejects the general status quo and will not be branded by it’s white-hot iron of normalcy. A maverick is a drop out, a nonconformist, a misfit. In short, a maverick is fully independent of the herd, an individual who acts without regard to others’ opinions or rules.
Scarlett from GONE WITH THE WIND and Scout from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are two very dissimilar mavericks. Scarlett is defiant out of selfishness and romantic delusion. Scout is a natural-born questioner of authority, an innocent seeker of the honest truth. But they are similar in that both are self-sufficient and brave. Both characters win our respect by remaining unbranded, using every means at their limited disposal to butt heads against the pressures of convention. They fact that they are female southerners and subject to additional social demands and pressures makes their independence more triumphant.
In THE DEAD ZONE, Johnny wants to lead a normal life. That’s all he wants. In the end, the only one that can save the world is a genuine maverick, a man willing to take the most extreme act of individualism one can imagine, sacrificing his own life to save millions of others.
THE GODFATHER. Michael Corleone, the war hero and Ivy League boy who will always be an outsider to the mafia, becomes the maverick leading the mavericks.
Dysfunctional family life are common in blockbusters. Affairs, divorces, missing parents, etc.
Stress events that ratchet up the drama. Death of a spouse, death of a close family member, pregnancy, change in residence, sexual difficulties, etc.
GONE WITH THE WIND and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS are part romance novel, part critique of romance novel and both of these stories strip bare the hopeless, swooning fantasies of their heroines.
Family tensions and parental legacies underpin critical events in these stories. A crew on a submarine is a family. In THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, family is at the root of the soviet protagonist’s rejection of the Soviet way of life. The hero never knew his father and was deeply alienated by his mother. The hero pours his love into his wife but she dies from Soviet medical negligence, plummeting him into despair and driving his motivations. This underpinning provides the human counterweight to all the overt action of the story. The first thing the Soviet hero asks the American commander is if he has a family. We all have the urgent human need for domestic relationships.
Missing fathers, mothers or wives propel most of the characters to greater attainments. Scout’s mother died of a heart attack when she was two. It prepares a child for the wrenching passage to adulthood. Scout has three surrogate mothers. They drift away, leaving Scout to fend for herself and learn how to break the ties on parental protection and become fully independent.
- A rape charge is at the center of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
- In THE DEAD ZONE, John Smith and Sarah Bracknell are about to have sex when a violent car crash sends Johnny into a coma for 4.5 years. They have sex after he wakes up and it becomes a watershed event. It cauterizes their wounded hearts and allows them to let go of their romantic past. Sarah returns to her husband and Johnny goes on to use his energies and his psychic powers to capture a sexual predator then on to his self sacrifice moment.
- JAWS opens with two dope smoking, partying people having sex on the beach and the girl being attacked right afterwards. The puritanical insinuation is that there is a backlash against the counter culture decadence. The erotic undercurrent moves through the entire novel.
- THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is a sexual awakening for Francesca. She’s changed radically by the end. An erotic possession not unlike but gentler than THE EXORCIST. Idea of the transformative power of sex.
- Two opposing moral forces at war: America’s prudishness vs. It’s rebellious and rule-breaking spirit.
- Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene – one sex scene that changed everything in THE DA VINCI CODE
- Emotionally Charged
- Full of Familiar Character Types
- Fun to Read
- Excessive sentimentality
- A small story set against a sweeping backdrop
- Written in earthy, simple, earnest, transparent prose with high concept plots and a minimum of backstory or psychological introspection
- People with burning emotions that drive them to commit bold and decisive actions
- Their motives are clear, precise and easy to sympathize with
- Early on, the hero is way over their head – stirs reader’s sense of pity and dread
- Threat of danger happens quickly in story
- Relentless pressure of time increases the stress on the character
- Hot Button – Explores a controversial or divisive issue of the day – an issue rooted in some larger national clash
- Images of nature or wilderness that are idyllic are described in regularity. (Eden)
- Bestsellers assume a didactic role and are full of facts and information. They teach the reader as they entertain. These novels plunge us into exotic worlds and give us the road maps for how one would flourish or survive within them.
- Each novel features some form of secret society. The heroes penetrate and expose the workings of these clandestine groups and battle to neutralize their corrosive effects.
- Heroes often move between rural landscapes and urban centers, a journey that dramatizes a clash between agrarian values and the cultural norms of the city.
- Conventional religious beliefs and practices are often the object of criticism in these novels.
- Either celebrate or harshly critique some of America’s most cherished myths. The notion that the poorest and most disenfranchised among us can achieve prosperity, material wealth, and personal freedom is frequently glorified and also as frequently mocked as false.
- Rebels and loners and mavericks all play the leading parts in these novels. These outcasts struggle mightily against the pressures of conformity and conventionality often risking their lives to do so.
- Broken families are spotlighted in each books and their faults, eccentricities and neurotic group dynamics threaten the well being of the heroes and heroines and force them to find remedies or methods of escape.
- Sexual incidents play pivotal roles. The story’s outcome is frequently dependent on the hero or heroine coping with the result of some extreme sexual act.
Jaws cover art by Roger Kastel