Forrest Gump may be one of the biggest anomalies in the history of moviemaking. There’s nothing here to indicate it should’ve worked besides, maybe, Tom Hanks. As a story, it goes against pretty much every rule out there. There is no goal. There are no obstacles. There’s no urgency. No real stakes to speak of. Yet it was the highest grossing movie the year it came out. It won the Oscar for best picture, best director, best screenplay. It was widely successful on just about every level. Eric Roth (who adapted the novel) is a fascinating writer. In his 30 year career, he’s never once written a spec script (until last year, ironically, when he penned a mysterious sci-fi project). He doesn’t seem to have read or studied screenwriting on any level. His approach is very much intuitive. If you look at his body of work (Benjamin Button, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Insider) he appears to eschew structure. His style is more flowy, almost like he’s following the story wherever it takes him, as long as that avenue is interesting. It’s an approach that many screenwriters attempt and fail at, but for some reason it works for him. Of course, some may argue it doesn’t. Forrest Gump is one of the most polarizing movies out there. I think it’s great, but many people absolutely despise it. Either way, it’s such a unique movie that I thought I’d break it down and see if I couldn’t find some cool screenwriting tips from it. Let’s give it a shot…
1) Say it with me: UN-DER-DOG – Forrest Gump reminds us how damn likable the underdog character is. Think about it. Who doesn’t like an underdog? And Forrest is the king of the underdogs. He’s a simpleton. He’s got leg braces. Everyone makes fun of him. He wants a girl he can never have. It’s impossible not to root for this guy. And if you have an audience rooting for your character, you’ve done the majority of your work. Rootforability accounts for probably 80% of Forrest Gump’s success. We just love this character.
2) Take some risks in your screenplay – One of the constants in Forrest Gump is that it takes tons of chances, and risky ones at that. Forrest’s great grandfather started the Ku Klux Klan. His mother prostitutes herself to the principal to keep Forrest in school. These aren’t things you’d typically associate with a “feel good” movie. Therefore it’s one of the reasons Forrest Gump feels different from every other movie out there.
3) But only if you have a great character – I’m all for taking chances. Forrest Gump proves how good a movie can be when you take risks. But if you’re going to take risks, make sure you have one hell of a main character, as he’ll act as a safety net for risks gone wrong. Forrest Gump, love him or hate him, is an unforgettable character. He alone is the reason this script can buck traditional structure and still get away with it. Taking huge story risks with average characters (or even “good” characters) is probably a death wish.
4) CONFLICT ALERT – Remember that if your script lacks structure, there better be some major forms of conflict to drive the drama. Preferably, you’d like one big EXTERIOR conflict and one big INTERIOR conflict. The exterior conflict here is that Forrest loves Jenny, but she doesn’t love him back. The interior conflict is Forrest’s desire to be smart when he’s dumb. These two conflicts drive the majority of the story’s emotional component.
5) If you don’t have a goal driving your movie, make use of “The Dramatic Question” – You all know how much I like character goals. Yet there aren’t any in Forrest Gump. We’re just experiencing Forrest’s crazy life along with him. So, if you find yourself writing that kind of movie, make sure you AT LEAST have a “Dramatic Question.” That’s a question whose answer has large ramifications for your central characters. In other words, it must be DRAMATIC. Here, the question is, “Will Forrest get Jenny?” That’s the only consistent dramatic aspect driving Forrest Gump, and because we care so much about Forrest and Jenny as characters, it’s a powerful one.
6) Look to add a visual element that symbolizes your story – Forrest starts with a feather floating along in the breeze. This feather symbolizes Forrest’s journey, which floats along unpredictably as well, Ferris never knowing where he’s going to end up next. That feather became one of the bigger talking points after the film was released.
7) We despise people who complain about their shitty lot in life and do nothing to change it – We already talked about how likable the underdog character is. Yet another reason why Forrest is so likable is that he has all these disadvantages, yet never uses them as an excuse. He always pushes forward and tries to make the best out of his situation. I can’t stress how likable these people are in both real life and in the movies. If you can write this type of character into your movie, do it. We’ll instantly fall in love with them. (note – while this is true for main characters, it isn’t for secondary characters, like Lt. Dan. Just make sure those characters change by the end of the movie)
8) The “Relationship Save The Cat” Moment – Lots of us focus on the ‘save the cat’ moment for our main character. But in a love story, I think you need a ‘save the cat’ moment for your couple as well. We need that moment that’s going to make us love them together, that’s going to make us want them to be together. To me, that moment comes when Jenny and Forrest hide from her drunken abusive father in the fields. It’s a “them against the world” moment that makes us sympathize and care for them.
9) IRONY ALERT – Irony is one of the most powerful tools in writing. Audiences LOVE IT. And it’s one of the reasons Forrest Gump is so popular. Forrest is the dumbest character in the movie, yet he’s the most successful character by far. This movie doesn’t work without that irony. For example, if Forrest was smart and he achieved all this, we’d be bored because, duh, why wouldn’t he be successful? He’s super-smart.
10) Comedy is your main weapon to combat melodrama – Forrest Gump could’ve been SUPER melodramatic. It has Forrest’s best friend dying on the battlefield, his mother dying of cancer, and the love of his life dying of AIDS. But the film places comedy at such a high premium, that it balances those moments out. Without all the comedy here, those melodramatic moments would’ve sunk this script.