The secret of The Forrest Gump Formula.

Sometimes I think the success of a movie should be measured not in awards and box office grosses, but in the number of memorable quotes that become pop culture cliches.

If that were really how it was done, then Forrest “Life Is Like A Box of Chocolates” Gump would be the biggest smash of all time.

“Run, Forrest, run,” “Stupid is as stupid does,” and even The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company are just a few of the phrases that could be part of a Jeopardy category dedicated to the iconic film.

As if those quotes weren’t enough . . .  to top it all off, Gump also won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1994 (Happy 20th Anniversary, Gump!).

Some people, however, think FG was one of the weakest Best Picture winners of all time, especially since it best out Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

But win it did.  And I personally think it deserved it and then some.

You all know that I love looking at the blueprints of big time successes in the entertainment industry in order for us to learn how movies and shows were put together.  By examining how properties stand the test of time, we can look to build ours in a similar fashion, and hopefully get a head start on the competition.

That’s why I recommend that every writer and producer read this book, because it is the best formula for script writing I’ve ever seen.

So what was the secret of Forrest’s success?  What was its magic forumla?

There was none.

In fact, Tom Hanks once said, “Forrest Gump breaks every rule of moviemaking.”

As this NY Post article about the movie’s anniversary states . . .

It had no bad guy, was not structured in the typical three-act format and didn’t see the main character undergo dramatic change. The movie simply followed the adventures of a simpleton who somehow ended up lucking his way through history.

This movie and its mammoth success is a great reminder that as much as we should study the formulas of the greats that have come before us, just because your show doesn’t follow the “rules” doesn’t mean it can’t break through.

To paraphrase another quotable movie, “First rule of writing a show . . . there are no rules.”  (That’s Fight Club, by the way.)

One of the first things I hear from a lot of consult clients is, “I wrote this show to only have XX cast members because I know it’s unproduceable otherwise,” or, “I can only have one location in my play in order for it to be cheap enough,” or, “I’m looking to produce a show so I’m looking through old movie catalogs, because it has to be based on a movie to be marketable, right?”

Wrong.  Wrong, and dead wrong.

Why sure, there are recommendations on how to construct a show to work best in our economically driven world, but that’s not what you should think about when writing your show.

Just write the best show you can . . . because if it’s a great show, then it doesn’t matter what rules it breaks.  In fact, your goal shouldn’t be to follow the rules . . . your goal should be to make new ones.

And as Forrest would say, “That’s all have I have to say about that.”


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  • Zach says:

    Even if a movie or play is not successful and noticed upon initial release, so many works grow into “cult classics” as the years go on, while some popular works get forgotten in time. I think being quotable, unique, memorable and beloved means so much more than making money. If only very formulaic projects get produced because they are deemed “less risky”, then storytelling and creativity as a whole will suffer. There’s no surefire way to guarantee success, and making money is not the same as having an impact in the permanent zeitgeist of our culture. Today’s post spawned some interesting thoughts for me. Thanks, Ken!

  • Todd says:

    There’s only one unbreakable rule of writing: Don’t be boring.

  • Claire says:

    No magic formula, but don’t you think there were some indisputable appealing components in the equation:
    – A story of impossible love
    – The extraordinary story of an ordinary but endearing man (which generates empathy and identification with the character among the viewers)
    – An historical scope (Viet Nam war, the emergence of AIDS)
    – Universal, epic and timeless dimension (disability, love, meanders of life)
    – The dialogues and quotes are funny and smart throughout the scenario from beginning to end (a screenwriting prowess)
    – An highly bankable star: back in 1994, Tom Hanks was already flying high after Sleepless in Seattle and Philadelphia releases in 1993.
    I believe Forrest Gump got it all and didn’t really break “cinema rules” for success although it is true that its structure is not typical, there is no “bad guy” and no extensive main character development.
    Having criteria in mind when writing a show or screenplay might be counterproductive and would kill one’s inspiration and creativity but when it comes to world-class success, I actually believe you need to meet some requirements, if not many, at least very strong ones to captivate a large audience. Meaning that you can only expect to be successful in breaking rules if you follow fundamental ones? Are there many counterexamples in the history of cinema?

  • Diverse genres dictate so many ways to tell a story…form does not have to follow function! BUT you MUST HAVE A STORY, something has to happen. And indeed STUFF HAPPENS in Pulp Fiction, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to name just a few brave films who told the story in a non traditional format….numerous other examples, both on stage and on film.
    Gotta find a new way to tell a story as everything old is new again The history of great story tellers, especially those of the great playwrights, respond to their times.
    Be bold…. find the new.

  • Dave Mauk says:

    I beg to differ with the NY Post and Tom Hanks, but Forest Gump most certainly does not break every rule of screenwriting. It doesn’t really break any rules. Yes, it’s unique and eccentric, but it’s a Hollywood (and storytelling) formula all the way.

    First: Yes, Forest Gump does not change. But that’s not the complete rule. When a main character doesn’t change, the rule is everybody else does. (Think “Ameile”, or Chance the Gardener in “Being There”, or “Edward Scissorhands”, or “E.T.”).

    Second: The “typical three-act’ formula is a simplistic, albeit mistaken view of screenplay writing, or story telling for that matter. The actuality is a “four-act formula”. In a first act, the everyday world is shown until something happens (around 25 minutes in film) to “spin” the first act into preparing for something completely different in the second act. The second act is a process on new discoveries, journeys and development. Then hits the halfway point. The third act is where the main character is put through several trials, and sometimes the character is defeated and driven to it’s darkest inner cave, and there’s usually a near death or a real death (of something or someone), either symbolic or real. In the fourth act, the main character has learned all the lessons and now has the answers to solve the initial story problem.

    In Gump, the first act is Gump’s past. The second act is the present, and examines the events surrounding the military. The third act explores Gumps’ future, by moving away from the military and focusing on the rise of Gump’s minor successes; minor because he doesn’t get to keep the girl, because even though he has sex with her, she turns down his marriage proposal and leaves him again. Gump’s innermost “cave” or place of hiding is is the marathon run. In the fourth act, or “how things are changing”, Gump has all the answers to try and solve his problems. He marries Jenny and has a son. Of course, like life, things don’t turn out as he expected, (Jenny dies) but he now has a lasting bond to Jenny through the son they parent, (next best thing). But think about it, if Gump really got Jenny for the rest of his life, Gump would eventually change. So Jenny dies, and Gump moves on, unchanged, which fits right in with his true nature, a simple minded man repeating how his life is like a box of chocolates to yet another stranger.

    Third, there is a bad guy. He’s just not on screen. The bad guy is: Jenny’s sexually abusive father. Think about this- the main struggle of the movie is Gump trying to change Jenny’s mind so that they can be together. Every time he almost gets her to change her mind, Jenny’s father shows up in her and controls her mind, either in the form of an abusive boyfriend, or in a memory, at the house where Jenny was abused as a child. If Jenny’s father hadn’t been a factor in the story, Jenny would have stayed with Gump; Jenny’s father is the wall that comes between the love story until the fourth act. The “bad guy’ is vanquished when Jenny confronts her past.

    Every story is a complete universe and a symbolic retelling of life, told from a unique perspective. Therefore, every successful story has a formula, made up of the same elements as all stories, but in different amounts.

  • Dave Mauk says:

    Additional comment for the above posting- Gump’s first act, the past is Gump’s childhood. The second act is told from the perspective of the present. The third act is focused on Gump’s changes- and the fourth act is the future. Sorry for the mistake! 😉

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