In Save the Cat, the very excellent screenwriting book by the late Blake Snyder, Mr. Snyder claims there are ten basic movie plots. It’s a rad concept and it just may help you figure out the plot (aka story) for your college essay.
Here are all 10 plots, with examples from both movies and college essays:
1. DUDE WITH A PROBLEM.
What it is: Our hero (male or female) is in a serious situation and needs to find a solution RIGHT. NOW.
Movie examples: From Brave to Braveheart, Finding Nemo to Finding Forrester, almost every film you’ve ever seen involves a hero trying solving a problem. In fact, try to name a major movie in which the main character does NOT have a problem to solve. (Spoiler: you can’t.)
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: make sure The Problem—whatever it is—is clearly established by the end of the first paragraph. And make sure the problem is super clear. While your ending can have an element of ambiguity (i.e. - you choose not to clearly spell out whether the problem was ultimately solved or not), your set-up has to be crystal clear. Otherwise you may lose your audience.
2. GOLDEN FLEECE.
What it is: Our hero is on a quest to find or do something (aka a “golden fleece”). And note that the golden fleece can be either:
a. something specific and tangible (like the pirate treasure in Goonies)
b. something abstract (like Carl’s dream of fulfilling his promise to Ellie in Up), or
c. BOTH specific AND abstract (like Indiana Jones’s search for the Holy Grail, an object that is both a tangible thing and something that grants eternal life)
Also note that the “golden fleece” could either be ancient and epic (like Frodo’s journey across Middle Earth to destroy the ring and thereby destroy the forces of Evil) or more contemporary and mundane (like the four guys in American Pie who vow to lose their virginity by prom night).
Movie examples: All the ones I just mentioned.
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: again, it’s important that the “golden fleece”—whatever it is in your story—is clearly set up by the end of the first paragraph.
Advanced tip: if you choose to have an ambiguous or what I like to call a “poetic” ending—in which you don’t clearly spell out whether you got what you were aiming for or not—make sure you give the reader a limited number of options. In other words, make sure the reader can guess—and even debate!—how things turned out once the credits were rolling. At the end of Inception, for example, the coin either stopped spinning or it didn’t.
For an example essay with a poetic ending, check out the “Dead Bird” essay, and note how this author weaves together not one by two “golden fleeces.” (See if you can spot them.)
3. BUDDY LOVE.
What it is: any film that’s primarily about a relationship, including romantic comedies.
Movie examples: Monsters Inc., Ice Age, Shrek--and note that Shrek is both a romantic comedy AND a buddy movie. #AndinthemorningI'mmakin’WAFFLES!
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: take the term “buddy” broadly—your essay could be about anyone you’ve connected with deeply or learned from. But make sure the essay is about YOU, and not the other person. After all, your grandmother isn’t the one applying to college. You are.
For an example essay, click the “Grandma’s Kimchi” essay.
What it is: a story about how a place, group or community has a huge impact on an individual, and how membership in that group benefits or costs that person.
Movie examples: Monsters Inc., GoodFellas, The Lego Movie
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: you can write about a club, volunteer experience, or most any other community, but make sure the essay is less about the institution/community itself, and more about you, in particular what the costs and benefits of being in/out of that community have been.
5. RITES OF PASSAGE.
What it is: our main character goes through a crucible to discover something really valuable about him or herself.
Movie examples: Star Wars, The Matrix, Stand By Me
Two tips for using this plot for your personal statement:
1. Often the main character (in your essay that’s you) will work for the first half of the story to solve the problem in the wrong way (based on what s/he wants), at some point make an important realization, and then begin to do things in a better way (based on what s/he needs).
2. The “crucible” can be many things--a divorce, moving to a new country, or giving something up--but I’d recommend keeping it to major life changes and not small ones (like passing an academic test or making a sports team--unless of course you can explain why making the team was a rite of passage). Bonus tip: make sure the crucible is clearly set up early in the essay.
For an example essay, click the “Letting Go of Grandma” essay.
What it is: Whereas “Dude with a Problem” is about an ordinary person people in an extraordinary situation, “Superhero” films tend to be about extraordinary people coping with ordinary situations.
Movie examples: Frozen, Twilight, Spiderman
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: if you happen to be inordinately good at something, or several things, one way to bring up your “superpower(s)” in a way that won’t sound like you’re bragging is to use your accomplishments as a kind of straw man, essentially saying “I may be X, Y and Z, but all those things don’t truly describe who I am,” and then let the reader know who you are beyond the accomplishments.
Caution: this can feel gimmicky if not done with care.
For a great example, check out the “Punk Rock Philosopher” Essay.
7. OUT OF THE BOTTLE.
What it is: someone makes a wish and ends up getting much more than s/he bargained for.
Movie examples: Aladdin, Groundhog Day, The Nutty Professor
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: it’s important to note that this doesn’t have to be a “magical” something, but simply a catalyst. Think about it: was there a time when you wished for X, thinking it would solve your problems, but once you got X you realized that the problem wasn’t that you needed X, but actually you needed to realize Y (something completely different)? Or was there perhaps a time you embarked on an adventure thinking it would end up being kind of magical and fun, but ended up finding experiencing something completely unexpected?
For a college essay example of someone (in this case, a chicken) who wishes for one thing and ends up getting much more than he bargained for, check out one of my favorite essays, the “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road” essay.
What it is: A mystery needs to be unraveled, but in this case the WHY is more important than the WHO. In other words the criminal’s motives are more important than his/her identity.
Movie examples: The Maze Runner Series (Why are we here?), The Harry Potter Series (Why did he do it?), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Why did he do it?)
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: consider setting up and even solving the mystery as your hook, to grab your reader’s attention. Then immediately after that raise a question about why it happened, as a kind of double-hook. This one’s tricky, and I’ve only seen it done once in college essay, but it just so happens to be my favorite essay ever.
To read that essay, click here.
9. MONSTER IN THE HOUSE.
What it is: there’s a “monster” (an evil someone or something) and a “house” (a confined space) and the main characters have to escape from or kill the monster, either literally or metaphorically.
Movie examples: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Goonies
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: Broaden the notions of “monster” and “house” in your essay. For example:
The “monster” in your essay could be a particularly undesirable trait (such as laziness, self-doubt or X), that the main character (you) discovered and then had to overcome.
The “house” (or confined space) could be a time constraint. In other words, you had to “kill the monster” (find the “treasure” or overcome the obstacle) by a certain deadline. Note that in Goonies the “deadline” is the bad guys finding the kids. (Bonus tip: in screenwriting parlance, the technique of introducing a deadline is called a “ticking clock,” and raises the stakes.)
Here’s an example:
The FIRST Robotics Competition design deadline was two weeks away when my Chilean cousins came to visit me in St. Louis. I hadn’t seen Carmen or Alexia in three years, but they understood I was busy: spending afternoons with my team and nights in my room doing homework. I could hear them laughing downstairs, playing Monopoly late into the night, drinking leche con platano and eating empanadas. It wasn’t until Carmen’s mom got sick and they had to go back a week early that I started to feel very anxious. Was I nervous about our submission or feeling guilty? When we were dropping my cousins off at the airport, Alexia gave me a hug, a big smile, and genuinely wished me good luck, not once mentioning my absence. I wanted to cry. I chose my work over my family and blew off my cousins completely. On the car ride home, I begged my mom to let me go visit them during Spring Break, not caring about my previous plans to visit Silicon Valley. Not only did we become best friends that week, but I practically talk to them every week, thankful they forgave my selfishness.
10. FOOL TRIUMPHANT.
What it is: the “unlikely hero” story in which a normal (or unqualified) person gets in over his or her head and ends up achieving something awesome.
Movie examples: Lego Movie, Elf, Wreck-it Ralph, Kung Fu Panda
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: establish early in the essay how unqualified or underprepared you were for whatever you ended up ultimately achieving.
Examples: I’ve never actually had a student use this structure! Be the first, and email it to us.
Here's video that features Five College Essay Questions Counselors Should Be Able to Help Their Students Answer.
Short attention span like Dory?
Here's a YouTube playlist with 1-minute answers to questions I get asked all the time.