How to write a four-quadrant story

Article on ideas for writing the Four Quadrant story (related to High-concept).

Taken verbatum from

In the movie business, studios look to maximize the audience for their blockbusters by appealing to the largest audience possible. The default strategy is to make a four-quadrant feature, which appeals to all four of the major consumer demographics – young men (under 25), adult men (over 25), young women (under 25), and adult women (over 25). Assuming you have seen a Pixar film, any summer romantically/idealistically-charged action film, or Oscar-winning historic drama, you know why this strategy works. Each appeals to almost anyone on some level, making it something the papers can talk about to a broad readership and that families can watch after thanksgiving dinner (or equivalent). Every movie studio produces a couple of these a year to ensure a profit, which also called a tent-pole film, upon which the annual financial success of a studio is propped up.

Because so many novels end up as movies, it is worthwhile to consider this strategy for a book. In fact, I would suggest that if you lack substantive writing credits, a four-quadrant story might be just the thing to get your career started. Like movie executives, publishing house editors know how to market a four-quadrant story, and prefer to market stories that resemble historic successes.

Here are a list of things you can employ to create one of these:

  • Family-friendly: a.k.a. Do it like Pixar. Children or child-related things (like toys, cars, robots, etc.) are a fairly universal way to appeal to all quadrants. The majority of young men and women are minors, and adults were once children and often have children of their own. A child protagonist can sell a pretty bland story (Free Willy, Home Alone, 3 Men and a Baby) or enrich a really good story, rocketing it into serious money-making potential (Toy Story, Jurassic Park, The Little Mermaid). Like it or not, we were all kids once, so even the young Harry Potter can appeal to anyone.
  • The parent trap: Do you know why Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back, and Aliens were some of the most beloved science fiction films ever made, even though most children were not allowed to watch them? It wasn’t just the awesome special effects spectacle, though that pulled in the adult male quadrant, it was because Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, Sarah Conner was protecting her son from a liquid metal monster, and Lt. Ripley formed a parent bond with a little girl named Newt. Even though these films were not really family-oriented, they still involved the familial bond, wherein the nurturing aspect of an adult was brought into sharp focus as an act of sublime kindness, or, as with Darth Vader, ultimate evil. Whether we like to admit it or not, the direct bond of parent and child is nearly universal. Appealing to it, even in an R-rated story, is a way to provide your audience with relatable characters and conflicts. Even in thoroughly one-quadrant films (Taken, Twilight, American Pie), adding the parents brings in more people than you would expect.
  • Romance: Another thing we can all relate to is romantic sub-plots. This is the classic action film move, wherein romantic interests are added to strengthen a story that really only appeals to men. History stands behind this one, as classics of horror, mystery, thriller, and adventure always have fine romances in them. If you aren’t going the family route, romance is your next best option. Romance is directly appealing to young women, because in our culture most young women still have to contend with romance as a primary conflict in their young lives, and adults of both genders understand it. So, in a romantic plot, you can win three quadrants with a good treatment of the male and female characters involved. To pull in the final quadrant, young men, comedy in romance is the trusted method. Shakespeare demonstrated how romance and comedy (The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, etc) can be combined to give your romance nearly universal appeal. Young men, who often find romance awkward or even bitter (depending on their luck), are assuaged by the inclusion of comedy because it makes that awkwardness and bitterness appealing. In film-making, the difficulty in making a good romantic comedy is usually finding actors who have good chemistry on camera, but in a novel, you can create this as you like it.
  • Epic Horror: In the modern era of film-making, disasters, giant monsters, epidemics, epic conflicts, and bloody revolutions have become tried and true methods of grabbing up all four quadrants. These include action, tragedy, spectacle, romance, and family in an intense mix with mortal struggle. For example, consider how Downton Abbey was enhanced when world war 1 began, or why a movie like Outbreak was a blockbuster at all. In essence, threats that are universal, as opposed to personal, are universally terrifying and exciting. Assuming the story features young and adult men and women, this kind of story throws everyone into a common struggle, so boundaries dissolve rather easily. Whether or not you liked Jaws, Titanic, Gone with the Wind, or Independence Day, they remain universally accepted successes because of their universal heaviness.
  • Pleasing the Crowd: Why is Avatar the highest grossing film ever made? It wasn’t great. By some estimations, it was barely good. It had romance and spectacle, but not in memorable ways such that people walk around quoting it like The Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Pirates the Caribbean … heck, The Fifth Element had a more memorable single word (Multipass!) than every piece of dialog in Avatar. So what gives? In this case, it is all about the consumer. James Cameron, who directed Titanic, was the creator of Avatar, providing another grand-scale film to appeal to his previous audience. He delivered on something that was implicitly promised, and that is the most important lesson we can learn from Avatar’s example. When you know people want something, why not give it to them? Most major book franchises, from Stephen King to Harlequin Romances, operate on the crowd-pleaser model. Rather than try to fill a gap in the market, exploit something that is already popular. At this moment in cultural history, if you can write young adult novels, you can produce a crowd pleasing story, because the appetite for young adult films and novels is basically limitless right now due to the success of the Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games franchises. In addition, due to a vast aging baby boomer population, stories about older badasses (Taken, The Expendables, The Transporter) are a safe bet. Also, graphic sex has always sold, with varying levels of social acceptance, so the likes of Fifty Shades of Gray and The Southern Vampire Mysteries can attain success with little effort.

I am not suggesting that every story should be four-quadrant – historic war movies are specifically marketed to adult men, and most romantic comedies are marketed for young women. One need only cite the commercial success of The Notebook or Saving Private Ryan to understand how niche films can be profitable. If, however, you enjoy or even have the capacity to write a four-quadrant feature, you may have a greater chance of success with it than things with narrower appeal.

-Forest F. White


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