When developing a screenplay (or series) idea, I’m always looking for what the main problem is. The one big problem that is really hard to solve, which becomes the main focus of the narrative. It should have huge stakes, which are not just internal, but external in character’s life situations.
There seem to be only a few different kinds of problems a compelling story can be based on. In his Save the Cat books, Blake Snyder came up with ten “genres” that I find to be an immensely helpful tool in figuring out if you have a big enough story problem, and developing it. I’ve recently discussed his “Rite of Passage” and “Golden Fleece”. Now it’s time for…
As Blake said, this is the kind of story where it’s about the “one” vs. “the many.” The “individual” vs. “the group.” And I’m not talking about a single hero like Luke Skywalker or Neo from The Matrix fighting against a powerful group. (Those two, according to Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, are “Golden Fleece,” and “Superhero,” respectively.)
Institutionalized refers to the kind of stories where the main problem is that the main character is part of a particular “institution” which creates problems for him or her, and isn’t so easy to just leave.
These don’t tend to be action movies about fighting bad guys. They’re more about being caught in a situation where one can’t really successfully be themselves, and live by their own life and morals, because the group or institution dictates to them who they need to be, or warps them (at least temporarily) with its values and rules.
1. Military Institution
Successful war movies tend to fall into one of two genres, in my view. The first is the “Epic Fleece” subgenre of Golden Fleece, such as Saving Private Ryan, where there is a single huge military mission that the heroes are focused on, with really tangible and personal stakes. It doesn’t tend to work so well to tell a story about a series of battles for a whole army, where the audience is mainly supposed to care about military victory. Focusing in on a small unit with a particular vital task tends to be much easier to make cinematically understandable and compelling. It’s all about that one clear problem, that one clear mission, and why it has to be achieved.
The other kind of war movie is what Save the Cat calls the “Military Institution,” which focuses more on the difficulty of the individual who is stuck in a military situation that is miserable. These are more personal stories, usually anti-war tales, which aren’t about the need for victory over the enemy, but about the suffering of a human being in this system. Think Catch 22, Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket. Sometimes the main character is more of a gung ho type, like the three Tom Cruise movies Taps, Top Gun and A Few Good Men. But at their heart, those, too, are still about the pressures on an individual who is part of a larger military where it’s not easy for him to fit in or find his way. It’s the “Institution” that creates the story problems, one way or another.
2. Family Institution
Like the military, one can’t just leave their family, if they don’t like it. At least, for most people, that’s unthinkable. So instead we have to adjust to their rules, traditions and activities, to some extent. And that can be extremely difficult. When the main problem of a movie stems from the family, and what is required to get along as a member of it, you get movies like Meet the Parents, The Joy Luck Club or Boyz N the Hood (“family” can sometimes go beyond literal blood bonds). The main character in such movies feels oppressed and/or challenged by the other members of the family, and forced to do or endure things as a member of it, while struggling with their own individuality and the seeming mismatch between who they are and who the larger “Institution” of the family is. Sometimes the family is primarily embodied by a single powerful individual, usually a parent, who has some form of real control over the main character. And the main outcome the audience is meant to develop a strong rooting interest around is this: “Will they be able to find their own happy way, that’s true to themselves? Will they find a way to successfully live as part of this group, or find a way to leave it? Will they have to sacrifice who they are as an individual to do that?” The end of the story, in an Institutionalized, dramatizes how those questions get answered.
3. Business Institution
Sometimes the “group” is a workplace of some sort, which the main character works for or is trapped within. It can be a larger industry, like in Boogie Nights, Almost Famous or Inside Llewyn Davis, or a more contained business environment, as in Office Space, Boiler Room or Glengarry Glen Ross. But the basic principles are the same. The main character enters (or is already part of) a business environment that is powerful, that uses him, that seeks to turn him into something that maybe isn’t his highest and best self. Perhaps there are perqs to being part of this business; maybe s/he even sought it out and struggled to break in, only to discover the difficulties (and usually moral issues) later on. Then what will they do? That’s what the story explores.
4. Mentor Institution
Similarly, you often find one specific powerful boss or teacher figure who the main character has a growingly difficult relationship with, as in Whiplash, The Devil Wears Prada or Training Day. Again there might be some perceived benefit, at least initially, to working under this person, but that doesn’t last too long. Things go south pretty quickly. And the main character has to figure out who are they going to be, and if they are going to stand up to this mentor/institution somehow. And at what cost?
Key structural elements
Save the Cat tells us that every Institutionalized has not just a “Group” that the main character is part of, but also a “Choice” they have to make, which usually involves some “Sacrifice.” Sometimes they end up sacrificing their individual identity to the institution, which can be bittersweet, at best, as in The Godfather or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Other times, they do something to hurt the group and leave it, but this also comes with a big personal sacrifice of some kind, as in Goodfellas or Wall Street.
Structurally, the “choice” and the “sacrifice” usually come during the third act climax. Up until that point, the main character is very much in the institution, and it is getting worse and worse. (Culminating in an “All is Lost” moment late in Act Two.) As far as the first act goes, the Catalyst moment can either be entry into the Institution for the first time (probably the most common), or discovery of a problem with the institution, or of a potential plan to fight the institution. In rare cases it might be the discovery of the institution itself, which the main character doesn’t enter until the beginning of Act Two.
As with all genres, the pressure of the main story problem has to be great, and has to be the focus of virtually every scene, as the main character struggles against it in an active way. Something forces them to deal with this now, and there is no escape. It is a pressure cooker of conflict and difficulty. And it builds to a point where they have to do something about it, in the end.
5. Issue Institution
One other subgenre Blake placed within Institutionalized deserves special mention, because it has ramifications beyond just this genre. The “Issue Institution” is the “ensemble movie” — the movie where you don’t have a single main character, but have multiple “main characters,” each with their own specific story problem, with its own beginning, middle and end. These multiple stories are intertwined, and they all tend to have something to do with a particular “Issue,” as in Crash, Traffic or Love Actually. (The sense of “individual vs. the institution” is less in these; the problem is more the “issue” they all grapple with, as opposed to a particular group or powerful person.)
I see a lot of scripts where the writer didn’t tell the story subjectively through a single main character’s point-of-view. Instead, we seem to look objectively at a bunch of different characters, and have no strong personal bond with any one person (where it’s all about their problem, how they feel, and what they’re trying to do to solve it). This can be a fatal issue with a script.
This “objective group” perspective is not what I mean by an “ensemble” approach. One still has to do the work of getting the audience inside a particular main character, and making them care deeply about them, as they actively address their main story problem, where virtually every scene is focused on what they’re doing now in the face of their conflicts. (Which have to keep evolving over the course of the story.)
You just have to do it multiple times, for each character who “gets a story.” So we end up with multiple “stories” within a particular movie. Think about The Big Chill, The Breakfast Club, American Graffiti or The Hours. There are multiple “main characters,” each with their own story problem/goal. And at any given moment, we’re with one of them, as that problem/goal is developing, and they’re wrestling with it in some way.
By the way, this is how virtually every episode of television works. It’s rare to focus on just one main character, for an entire half hour or hour. Multiple stories are the norm.
Speaking of TV, these genres weren’t meant to apply to television, but I teach a TV writing class where I note how different series really do focus on problems that stem from a situation similar to one of these ten types. Institutionalized shows would be ones where the main problem/conflict for the characters comes from the particular institution they are part of. As in The Sopranos, 30 Rock or M*A*S*H.
As with all the Save the Cat genres, Institutionalized deals with a particular kind of difficult situation that any human being can relate to on a primal level. We all can identify with the challenges of finding our way around one of these kinds of “Institutions” (or “Issue”). And that’s what makes these kinds of stories resonate.
If you have an idea for a story but it isn’t quite working, maybe at its heart, it could be reshaped so that the central conflict fits this genre. That’s the beauty of this tool – it helps one to find the best way to tell a particular story so that has a chance to resonate with a large audience.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.