What I’ve Learned About Storytelling From Forrest Gump

Being obsessed with the Toy Story series growing up, Tom Hanks is one of my all-time favorite actors. From Toy Story to Saving Mr. Banks to Big, Hanks always steals the show and makes movie magic. But, there’s one film in particular fans worldwide relate to and hold dear to their hearts: Forrest Gump.

Today, I’ll share what this classic Americana film has taught me about the art of storytelling.

Lesson 1: How to Pace a Staggered Timeline

Spanning the course of three decades, Forrest Gump covers a lot of ground. It’s no wonder that the movie ranks in at a screen time of 2 hours and 22 minutes. But, the film never hits dull moments. How did the filmmakers manage to cram thirty years worth of Forrest’s life into one movie?

Cut Out Filler Scenes

While working on the first drafts of The Crush, I feared the book would end up being encyclopedia-length due to all that needed to happen. It was originally going to be a standalone that included ten or more years of Emery’s life. I soon discovered this wasn’t the way to go, and broke it up into a trilogy. This was easier to work with, but The Crush is still over 400 pages, including the years 2008-2011. It would’ve been longer if I left the filler scenes.

Taking Forrest Gump into consideration, I decided to mimic its storytelling model: Each scene should focus on a specific plot point. Each scene should include an action or decision that directly impacts the character’s arc progression.

How Forrest Gump Plots Wisely

For example, Forrest Gump begins by introducing viewers to Forrest’s childhood. Four pivotal things happen then that build the foundation for his future:

  1. Forrest sits next to Jenny on the bus and makes his first friend.
  2. Forrest is called stupid and replies with “stupid is as stupid does”
  3. Forrest runs from bullies, creating a love for running
  4. Forrest discovers Jenny comes from an unstable home

Each of these founding scenes set up plot lines that viewers follow for the rest of the film. In each subsequent scene:

  1. Forrest builds friendships with Jenny and future characters
  2. Forrest disproves the stigma that people think he’s stupid and will never amount to anything
  3. Forrest runs on the football field, in the military, and on a cross-country quest
  4. Forrest battles Jenny’s demons alongside her

Think about it… how many scenes (if any) don’t include these four plot points?

Lesson 2: How to Mix Innocence with Reality

Forrest Gump is one of the most innocent fictional characters I know of, despite being introduced to a plethora of harsh situations. How were the writers able to pull this off without Forrest losing his innocence?

Characters Need Founding Principles

To counteract their fears and misbeliefs, characters need firm core beliefs as well in order to be impactful. In Forrest’s case, he believes in God, as shown when he talks with an unbelieving Lieutenant Dan. The scene is very subtle, as Forrest often is when he speaks, but the message is clear. He said “I’m going to Heaven, Lieutenant Dan”, right after Lieutenant Dan rattles off the Gospel message.

Because of his belief, I feel that is one of the main reasons Forrest is hesitant to partake in certain activities, such as drinking with Lieutenant Dan, or sleeping with Jenny.

A Character’s Belief System Rules Their Life

Does your religion (or lack of religion) influence the way you see the world? My relationship with God sure does. Christians are supposed to do their best to abide by the Ten Commandments, though we do slip up from time to time. Nevertheless, we know we are forgiven through our belief in Jesus.

The same goes for fictional characters. If we want to strive to write relatable, character-driven stories, we should start the character creation process by giving them concrete beliefs, whether they come from a knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of what is moral and what is immoral. From there, their beliefs (and misbeliefs) will shape the story from their point-of-view.

Lesson 3: How to Write Impactful Friendships

It’s no secret that Forrest Gump is a friend to anyone he meets, but how did the writers manage to pull at our heartstrings each time Forrest formed a new friendship?

Founding Qualities of Friendship

I’m not saying you can’t write about frenemies or backstabbing friends, if that’s the route you’d like to pursue. Those can actually be very interesting. However, if you’re aiming to write a genuine friendship, the two characters’ relationship needs to include the following:

  • Mutual Support
  • Selflessness
  • Willingness to drop anything to help

Crafting Friendship Give and Take Ratios

Of course, stories also get very juicy when one half of the friendship gives 25% to another’s 75%, and the former lower contributor at last redeems himself and ends up 50-50 with their friend.

Take Jenny for example. At first, she’s 50-50 with Forrest, but as time goes on and she falls to the temptations of the world, she begins to stray from Forrest. This is when she falls to the 25% effort (or possibly lower) and Forrest takes the reins to keep their friendship going. Eventually, when Jenny contacts Forrest to let him know he’s the father of her child, and they get back together, the relationship bumps back up to 50-50.

Forrest’s relationship with Lieutenant Dan also follows a similar arc, though it’s mostly negative at the beginning. At first, Lieutenant Dan tolerates Forrest, then comes to hate him when he saves him from dying in the Vietnam War. Again, eventually, Forrest grows on him and they become good friends.

How to Make 50-50 Friendships Impactful

A perfect depiction of the above friendship qualities remaining at the 50-50 state (which is what most authors tend to write) comes from… you guessed it, Forrest and Bubba.

Forrest and Bubba are two peas in a pod from their first meeting, becoming inseparable friends through their deployment to Vietnam. When they are ambushed on the warfront, Forrest runs away from the attack, and when he finally reaches safety, his first thought is that Bubba isn’t by his side. So he RUNS BACK IN, risking his life, for the sake of his best friend. Even though Bubba isn’t the first soldier he finds, he continues to run back in to search for him.

When Forrest at last finds him, Bubba is severely injured and on death’s doorstep. Still, with attacks blazing from behind and above, Forrest risks it all to move Bubba to safety so he can die in some semblance of peace. Forrest’s parting sentiments in the scene are:

Bubba was my best good friend. And even I know that ain’t something you can find just around the corner. Bubba was going to be a shrimping boat captain, but instead, he died right there by that river in Vietnam.

Forrest Gump, 1994

Guys, it rocks me to. my. core. And then Forrest goes on to fulfill Bubba’s dream and… *cries into a lake of tears*

So, you see, to write impactful friendships, we need more than witty dialogue or scenes with the characters hanging out. We need to SHOW, not tell, the essential qualities of friendship in action.

Let’s Recap!

Forrest Gump has taught me the following about storytelling:

  • Lesson One: How to Pace a Staggered Timeline
  • Lesson Two: How to Mix Innocence with Reality
  • Lesson Three: How to Write Impactful Friendships

Talk to Me, Arrowheads!

What is your favorite aspect of Forrest Gump? Has the movie taught you any other lessons on writing?

Gah, I had the best time writing, researching, and rewatching scenes from Forrest Gump for this post! It truly is one of the greatest films ever made. ❤

Aim high, stay strong, and always hit your mark.

-Allyson 😀

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As an author and blogger, my goal is to teach writers that there is a way to write realistic, thought-provoking, redemptive Christian fiction that honors God while not sugarcoating the realities of the world. 

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