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Have you ever wondered why most Hollywood movies feel… kind of familiar?
It’s because most Hollywood movies follow the same narrative arc, a kind of storytelling model, or formula, if you will.
So what is the “secret” Hollywood Story Arc? What does it mean? Here’s first a brief explanation and definition:
According to the Hollywood Story Arc, every film begins with a protagonist living in a normal world until an inciting incident occurs that shakes them out of it.
They are then given a choice to accept the call to adventure and chase after what they want, and by doing so, enter a new world full of trials and tribulations until they reach a midpoint or false ending.
This midpoint makes it seem like they’ve gotten what they set out for, or at least, a version of it. But they’re not done yet.
After that high point, things turn ugly and start to fall apart. This fall leads the protagonist down to the depths of their darkest despair, facing their lowest moment.
But with that lowest moment comes a second choice – a choice to overcome their flaw, face their foes, and fight for what they want in the story’s climax, leading to an ultimate resolution that shows the aftermath of our character’s change…
…a change for the better, or sometimes, for the worse. Depends on the story!
Sounds familiar, right? Like it could be applied to almost any movie? That’s because it’s the central storytelling model used by thousands of writers and tens of thousands of films.
While every story creates a unique set of circumstances inside the parameters of this formula, this formula sits deep inside the bones of almost every great Hollywood film.
The Hollywood Story Arc is the gears turning the clock’s arms that keep the film’s plot arriving on time.
There are exceptions, of course, but even the outliers know these rules and know how to bend them to subvert expectations in artistically satisfying ways.
The summary above is, of course, only scratching the surface. Let’s dive deeper and break down this Hollywood storytelling arc beat for beat – with real movie examples!
But first, here’s a little more context about the origin story of this iconic formula.
The Hero’s Journey – the origin story of the Hollywood storytelling model.
When we talk about the Hollywood Story Arc, what we’re really talking about is story structure, the organizing backbone of a story’s plot that determines what happens in the story and when.
You should be familiar with how plot works, but if not, check out our article on it here.
As you can learn in our article on how to write a story that works, most modern contemporary film storytelling tends to follow the same basic story structure beats. However, there are plenty of different organizing methodologies you can use to write your own stories.
Whichever structural method you personally use, the origin of all modern film storytelling can be traced back to the popularity of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces and his theory that breaks down all classic western storytelling into the same basic formula:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”The Hero’s Journey. Source: The University of Kansas Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction
Stepping it out a bit further, Campbell actually boiled the above down into 12 recurring plot points that every story follows. They are:
Act One – What Campbell calls “The Departure Act”.
In this act, the hero is called to leave his ordinary world for an adventure but initially refuses it before leaving for the new world.
1. The Hero introduces the ordinary world.
2. The Hero experiences the call to adventure.
3. The Hero refuses the call.
Act Two – What Campbell calls “The Initiation” Act.
In this act, the hero is initiated into the new world, or what Campbell calls the “special world” of the story, and experiences a series of trials and tribulations.
4. The Hero meets with the mentor.
5. The Hero crosses the first threshold.
6. The Hero experiences tests, allies, and enemies.
7. The Hero approaches the inmost cave.
8. The Hero experiences “the ordeal.”
9. The Hero receives a reward (also known as “seizing the sword”).
Act 3 – What Campbell calls “The Return Act”.
The hero returns to the old world as a seasoned champion, ready to claim their ultimate triumph (think Odysseus returning home to reclaim his house from the suitor).
10. The Hero takes the road back home.
11. The Hero is resurrected.
12. The Hero returns with the elixir.
As you can see, this story structure model uses the language of an epic fantasy quest – mostly because Joseph Campbell was drawing from the epic quests of history as his source material.
Other screenwriters have taken Joseph Campbell’s model and recreated it to be more palatable for writers who write in all sorts of genres, simplifying the structure to fewer beats in some variations or stepping it out even further into more beats in others.
For the sake of explaining the Hollywood storytelling model in most basic terms, I’m going to use a generic 8-point story structure.
But keep in mind that you can apply any of the various story structure models we share in the “How to Write a Script That Works” article and still follow the Hollywood storytelling model outlined above (and detailed below).
Let’s dive in!
The Hollywood 8-point Story Arc Explained with Examples.
Don’t be fooled – the primitive cave painting below these words is not actually a relic from an ancient past – it’s just my attempt at drawing something I’ve seen a hundred times in film school!
This is actually the narrative arc of the Hollywood storytelling model.
This arc, and the diagram explaining it, was drilled into my head during plenty of Film Studies and Feature screenwriting classes a hundred times in film school, applied to any and every classic film you could think of.
Nine out of ten times, it could be laid out over the story structure of any Hollywood movie, and the beats would line up exactly as if it was traced over with a pencil.
Each notch on the arc represents a different story beat, which I’ve divided below into 8 sequences to help take you through them. Here they are, alongside some examples of points from some famous films you should recognize.
Sequence 1 – Establish the normal world.
In the beginning, there was… nothing.
That’s the gist of the normal world at the beginning of every film – according to the Hollywood storytelling formula, anyway.
It makes sense though, right? For every good story to begin, there has to be a normal world as a starting point for our character to venture out from.
The “status” must start off as “quo.”
Think about the character of Luke Skywalker. Think about who he is and where he is when we first meet him in Star Wars. He’s a bored teenager waiting for something to happen.
Luke’s life on Tatooine is Luke’s normal world – and it’s boring him to death. He dreams of being a pilot like his old friends and his long-dead father.
He dreams of doing anything other than sitting around all the time fixing up old droids for his uncle. As he tells R2D2, “If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet it’s farthest from.”
This is a great starting point for Luke – it’s a classic, as far as Joseph Campbell is concerned. But why is this such a good place to start the first sequence of every Hollywood story?
Why do we need a normal world? Reason 1: so that something interesting can happen.
In case you’re wondering why we need a normal world as a starting point, the best way I’ve heard it put goes something like this:
A good television episode should be a normal day in an interesting person’s life. A good feature film should be an interesting day in a normal person’s life.
There has to be some reason that today is the day this is all happening. In order for your hero to be called to adventure, something different, something out of the ordinary, has to happen.
Maybe interesting things happen to them all the time. In that case, maybe their story would fit the TV format better than a feature film.
Either way, you need to think about why this interesting thing, happening to them on this day, is enough to merit a whole story around it?
Why do we need a normal world? Reason 2: so that we can get to know our hero.
Another reason we need the normal world is to introduce us to who this character is. We need some base reality to relate to this character and identify with them, or at least, identify for them.
What are their goals in life? What are their flaws? What are the obstacles getting in their way? Who are the enemies they can’t stand or the best friends they can’t live without?
Shaun of the Dead is a great example of that, as Shaun’s normal world is flipped upside down by a zombie outbreak. As you can see here, though, Shaun’s at a bit of a standstill when the film starts, living an almost zombie-esque life to begin with.
All this information is great to establish as much as you can in the introduction to the normal world, as it sets the stage (and audience expectations) for what’s to come.
Once this normal world and all the elements therein have been established, it’s time to move on to the next sequence in the Hollywood storytelling model sparked by the Inciting Incident.
Sequence 2 – The Inciting Incident occurs.
The inciting incident is the catalyst for everything that comes after. It might not always be the big moment that changes everything for our character as they set forth on their journey, but it’s the spark that tells us something unusual is going to happen.
In the case of Star Wars, the inciting incident is when Luke discovers the hologram of Princess Leia that pops out of R2D2, informing Luke he needs to find Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Of course, the real inciting incident of Star Wars is the moment Darth Vader lands on Princess Leia’s ship and she records the message above.
But as far as our hero’s journey is concerned (no pun intended), the moment he is disrupted from the normal world is when the hologram appears to him. Without this inciting message, these would just be another two droids to Luke.
Here’s another example from film history – Die Hard. The inciting incident of the external plot is marked when we meet Hans Grueber leading his band of terrorists into the Nakatomi Christmas Party.
Funny enough, another great example of an inciting incident comes from the romantic comedy film When Harry Met Sally, but it’s not the moment you’d expect. See, the inciting incident of the film is actually when Harry and Sally meet for the second time – not the first.
In the film, Harry and Sally meet each other in their “normal world” of college. Sally needs a ride home for the holidays, and her friend connected her with Harry, her boyfriend, to carpool together.
We learn more about each of the two characters through their interactions, and then they ultimately part ways as opposites.
The inciting incident! Harry and Sally end up on the same flight and slowly but surely become friends – even though “men and women can never be friends,” according to Harry.
It’s a great set-up, especially for rom coms that often use the “meet-cute” between the two leads as the inciting incident of the story.
Normally, a meet-cute is the funny and charming first encounter between two characters in a film or TV-show that later leads to a romantic relationship between the two.
But in Nora Ephron’s version (the screenwriter on When Harry Met Sally), the characters have already met. Their meet-cute is them actually meeting again, but at a different stage in their lives. Creative!
Sequence 3 – The first turning point.
After the sequence following the inciting incident, the character is thrust onto a path that leads them towards their first turning point.
This first turning point is a big character moment for your protagonist. It should be the first time they make a choice in the story that is outside the comfort zone of their new world.
Think about the moment in Gladiator when Maximus is offered the opportunity to fight for his freedom and must choose to accept or deny it.
It can be both a physical or a mental and emotional turning point. Still, by first refusing and then accepting the call, there is a genuine moment of character growth – the first step on the road to overcoming their flaws, facing their fears, and going after their goal.
Here’s another good example: Shaun of the Dead again. When Shaun and his roommate Ed first meet a real-life zombie, they refuse to believe in. In fact, they even think she’s a drunk woman from the pub and start messing with her.
It’s only when she tries to bite them and they knock her back onto a pipe that lodges straight through her stomach that they realize this is a call to adventure – a first turning point to change.
And change in 3… 2… 1… zombie smash!
Sequence 4 – Learning the new world.
After the call has been fully embraced, the character then thrusts themselves into the new world.
This process of learning the new world can look in many different ways; according to Campbell, learning the new world requires the help of a scholar-like figure to show our character the ropes.
Think Obi-Wan Kenobi explaining the Jedi and the force to Luke in A New Hope:
According to the Hollywood storytelling model, another part of learning and adjusting to the new world comes when the character faces their first real series of trials and tribulations. Whether it’s fun and games or training for their first fight, it’s a great sequence to have some fun with.
Think about how in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne returns home at the beginning of Act 2 and starts setting in motion the things he’ll need to become Batman, like finding the Bat cave and taking down some small-time gangsters in Gotham.
This is a pretty common storyline for the first sequence in Act 2, particularly among superhero origin stories. You can replicate outside of the hero genre in many different ways.
Training montage or not, keeping the world of the story expanding throughout this sequence is key to keeping the story feeling original and exciting as you reach…
Sequence 5 – The midpoint.
The midpoint is the false ending. It’s when your protagonist thinks they’ve made it, or there’s a light at the end of the table, and it all comes crashing down around them.
In the best-case scenario, the midpoint should mirror the end of the film. The character should have a version of what they want, but not what they need.
Or, just when the hero thinks they’re out of the woods, something happens that complicates things even more (sometimes called the midpoint complication).
For instance, in Saving Private Ryan, the team ends up finding Ryan around the midpoint of the film – the only problem is he wants to stay and fight with his comrades.
Success can be its own enemy – or the enemy could get stronger just when you think you’ve escaped, like in Alien.
However you construct your midpoint, think about how you are mirroring your ending, or at least playing with the expectations of your ending.
Try to be as creative as you can in how you do it, whether in subtle ways that make sense on a second viewing or in flashy, in-your-face ways that make it seem like the film is over – until the complication that leads to…
Sequence 6 – Things fall apart.
This is the sequence when everything starts to go downhill for the lead. They got what they wanted, but not what they needed, and now they are paying the price for not solving their real issues.
Think about when, after finding the soldier they need to rescue but he refuses to leave his other men behind, our heroes must now have to defend the destroyed town against that entire tank unit in Saving Private Ryan.
Or how things go from bad to worse in Star Wars. Our heroes have just rescued Princess Leia and escaped from the Storm troopers through a quick and easy escape hatch. There’s just one problem – the hatch is actually a trash compactor, and it’s trash day, baby!
Sequence 7 – The second turning point, and the lowest moment.
As the characters continue their descent, the second turning point comes around.
The second turning point is what an early screenwriting professor of mine at Santa Barbara City College named Jon O’Brien coined as the “pop-eye” moment, where the character stops and says, “I’ve had alls I can stand, and I can’t stands no more!”
This lowest moment is like the dark night of the soul. It’s rock bottom. It’s the exact place emotionally our heroes have to get to change truly.
In The Dark Knight, a film that’s largely regarded as one of the best superhero movies of all time, Batman faces his lowest moment when The Joker makes him choose between rescuing his lover Rachel or the hero cop Harvey Dent.
But it turns out that he’s been tricked, and when he goes to rescue Rachel, he finds Harvey waiting for him. He’s left with nothing left of Rachel but ashes…
A dark “knight” of the soul, if you will…
Sequence 8 – The climax and resolution.
If you’ve studied narrative literature in school, Climax and Resolution should be two fairly familiar concepts to you, and thus they shouldn’t need much explaining.
As a quick refresher, the climax of a story is when the rising central conflict comes to a decisive head, and the main character must make a dramatic moment of decision to get what they want.
The resolution is the conclusion, detailing the aftermath for the character after the cathartic events of the climax.
As you can see from the diagram above, the climax and the resolution are technically two separate notches, or beats, on the story arc. However, I’ve lumped them together for this example since they often are combined or vary in respective screen time.
By that, I mean a climax can take anywhere from two minutes or ten, while a resolution can be a single scene or a whole sequence of its own, depending largely on how much is left to be said about the characters and what they’ve learned at the end of their journey.
For instance, a film like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly has a long and drawn-out climactic final battle – but the resolution itself is relatively short.
After the results of the gunfight, our hero rides off into the sunset, like so…
Your own climaxes and resolutions can be entirely up to you. The only things to keep in mind are this: does your climax resolve the story’s central dramatic tension?
Does it answer the central dramatic question you set out to ask? If not, you may need a longer resolution to tie up loose ends and pay off all the elements you set up throughout the story.
At the end of the day, how you choose to resolve your story is entirely up to. Choose wisely…
And that’s it! That’s all you need to know to follow the Hollywood storytelling model to tell your own stories.
If you want to learn more about different structural tools you can use to outline your own stories using this model, check out this piece on How to write a story that works.
Otherwise, good luck with your writing, and reach out if you have any questions!
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.