The Lego Movie and the Science of Storytelling

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows characters Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, left, and Batman, voiced by Will
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows characters Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, left, and Batman, voiced by Will Arnett, in a scene from "The Lego Movie." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Lego Movie is a blockbuster in the making. Can you see why? It's not just because of the artistry. Can you see beneath the artful facade to the scientific matrix of storytelling?

Storytelling science began when Aristotle wrote his famous Poetics a couple thousand years ago. It heralded the beginning of scientific inquiry to unearth the reasons why some stories captured great interest while others did not. Aristotle's observations were not merely a exacting inquiry into narrative, they were also an inquiry into the human experience. He identified enticing genres, engaging plots (e.g. why we sympathize with fallen characters), the importance of surprise elements, exciting character types, compelling heroes' goals, and the resultant emotional effect they have upon audiences. When you view The Lego Movie in the context of Aristotle's success criteria, the film checks all the boxes. Believe it or not, its storytellers hit many of the same notes as did Aristotle's favorite author, Homer.

Recent story engineers discovered other engaging storytelling elements. Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey outline a powerful series of events that have proven to enthrall audiences. The narrative should begin, they say, by immersing the audience into the hero's world, having the hero receive a call to adventure, making him first refuse the call, allowing him to then meet a mentor who convinces him to follow the call, and so forth. It's the same engineered structure used in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Lion King and many other blockbusters. How does The Lego Movie measure up? It aligns perfectly. Check, check, and more checks. This is the science of storytelling.

Many screenwriting books add a time-based storyline blueprint. More science. Ideally, they say, Act One is the set up that reveals the premise, runs about 30 minutes, and ends when the hero accepts the challenge. Act Two should run about 60 minutes and includes a series of challenges that the hero must meet in order to achieve his goal. Act Three should ideally run another 30 minutes and this is when the action mounts further and the pivotal conclusion occurs. This time-based storyline blueprint has proven over time to be critical because each Act is segmented in a way that keeps the audience's attention, making the story not too long nor too short. Family friendly films and comedies are ideally a tad shorter. The Lego Movie includes three acts in 95 minutes. Check, check, and more checks.

My own 30+ years of audience research details the elements that must go inside the three acts in order to maximize audience appeal. For my latest book, Creating Blockbusters, I polled 400 audience members and asked them such questions as the goal they want their heroes to achieve in a narrative. Interestingly, they chose goals that perfectly aligned with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: Physiological survival, safety, love & belonging, esteem (e.g. self-esteem, achievement), and self-actualization (i.e. being the best you can be). More science. After all, great storytelling is about the essentials that motivate mankind. My research also revealed that narratives that address all levels of the hierarchy tend to have the greatest audience appeal. This is achieved in blockbuster films like Avatar and Frozen and now The Lego Movie. Check, check and more checks.

My audience research also revealed that audience appeal is maximized when the hero faces multiple types of challenges in the same story, such as struggles against evil, struggles with friends and acquaintances, struggles with a higher power, and struggles within one's own family. In that context, The Lego Movie aligns with the same successful techniques employed by the classic It's a Wonderful Life. Other ways to capture broad audience appeal include inserting both sophisticated humor such as wit and irony for adults to enjoy along with more physical humor that children can enjoy, having icons that bridge generations, including masculine and feminine cues, inserting elements of contemporary culture, and adding a dash of marketable artistry by inserting newsworthy storyline elements. Once again, The Lego Movie hits every note, not just subtly, but in a big way. Check, check, and more checks.

Audiences may look at The Lego Movie and see only the art. Ha! Those who know better see beneath the art to the science of storytelling. It's akin to the character Neo in The Matrix who eventually comes to see the real world beneath the facade. This is not to say there is no art involved. There is plenty. Like a good alchemist, the master story builder selects all the right ingredients based upon scientific observation, then artfully mixes them in just the right proportion to maximize audience appeal. Many great story engineers have done this naturally; Homer, Steven Spielberg, John Lasseter, Stephen King, James Cameron, and Walt Disney. Others toss mud against the wall, thinking that the storytelling art has no scientific guidelines. They more often fail. When they succeed, they find it impossible to repeat their success because they never saw beneath their art to the science. They never saw the storytelling matrix.

The success of The Lego Movie is science first and foremost, masterfully brought to life with artistic flair. How do we know this? Because Aristotle told us so over two thousand years ago.