Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Elements of Act One - HARRY POTTER story breakdown

I’ve been threatening to do this for a long time: post story breakdowns so that you can see how all these story elements that we’ve been talking about work in different movies. This is also what I’ve been encouraging you to do with your own master lists of films and books.

I'm going to start by breaking down the first Harry Potter movie because it's often a lot easier to identify these elements in 
a fantasy. But I am going to try doing just the first act and then I’ll switch over to 
CHINATOWN, a completely different type and style of story, so that you can compare and 
contrast how the storytellers handle the same story elements, and then to complete the genre whiplash I’ll break down Act One of ROMANCING THE STONE

First, it would be helpful to go back and reread Elements of Act One

and you also might as well read Elements of Act Two because the "gathering the tools" and "gathering the team" 
discussion is relevant to Act One of HARRY POTTER.

Also, if you haven’t already, read: Why the Three Act Structure?

And if you haven’t made your own master list yet, then I really encourage you to do that, too.

If you want to follow along with this exercise as if this were an actual class, get yourself a DVD of HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, then watch the first act, sequence by sequence, and stop and start where I tell you to. Look for my instructions below in italics.

Let’s get going.

Put your DVD in and watch the first four minutes of the film. Pause at the cut from baby Harry to 
eleven-year old Harry, and then read my notes. Go back and look at it again, if you want!


Screenplay by Steve Kloves
Based on the book by J.K. Rowling
Directed by Chris Columbus
Produced by David Heyman

Running time: 159 minutes


Note the running time of 2 hours and 39 minutes. This means we’re going to have some extra sequences. There are three in Act I, and three in Act II, Part 1. And Act I starts with a Prologue. It must be noted that this first film/book has to set up the entire seven stories of the cycle, which it does brilliantly.

PROLOGUE (part of SEQUENCE ONE, but a clear prologue)

OPENING IMAGE: The owl. Mythic symbol of wisdom, witch’s familiar.

Then we see the medieval-looking wizard – and then witch - walking down a modern street. That wonderful visual sets up the whole premise of the story, that these two worlds coexist.

VISUAL IMAGE SYSTEM begins right away: owl, cat, witch and wizard garb; misty, spooky dark street; the contrast and coexistence of Muggle world and magic world.

It’s a classic hero opening: the baby left on the doorstep. It’s going to be an archetypal story, and a fairy tale. Also this references Moses in the bulrushes: the swaddled child carried out of harm’s way who grows up to be a leader of his people.

INTRODUCTION OF MENTORS: Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid. (RULE OF THREE). This is another fairy tale element: the three fairy godmothers (and the third is the bumbling comic relief). There’s a little Wizard of Oz reference to Glinda’s bubble when Hagrid descends from the sky — then the twist of the motorcycle. But Hagrid is like Glinda to Harry, and Hagrid is also carrying the baby as if he’s Harry’s mother, which he sort of becomes.

The professors discuss why they’re leaving the baby (hints of it, anyway) and that he will grow up to be extraordinary (INTRO OF HERO, FORESHADOWING)

HERO’S WOUND, OR GHOST, OR BAGGAGE: It’s as clear as the nose — I mean, the scar — on Harry’s face, from when Voldemort killed his parents and tried to kill him. We will learn much more about it in Sequence Two, but it’s introduced here in the beginning.

(Wow, and all that is set up in the first four minutes! I swear, sometimes these analyses make me think I should give up writing altogether and just go sell Avon or something.)

Finally, there’s a MATCH CUT from the scar on the baby to the scar on eleven-year old Harry’s face (with title card in between). A match cut is a visual trick that is a lot easier in film (and used frequently), but often works on the page, even if it’s not as high-impact. Works well for time passage, here.


> Okay, now watch the next scenes, and stop at the cut from the pileup of invitations to the dark island (about 12 minutes in) to read my notes.


The Hero is introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD (Surrey, the Muggle World).

Right away, more classic fairy tale elements: we see the poor stepchild (cousin) forced to live in a garret (under the stairs) and do the cooking and cleaning for the horrible family. The two boys, one good, one bad, the bad one constantly after the good one, is a structural parallel to the adversarial relationship between Harry and Voldemort. The themes of TWINNING and DUALITY are very strong throughout the series.

The adoptive family is part of the FORCES OF ANTAGONISM.

The family heads off to the Zoo for precious Dudley’s birthday, and there’s a shot of the Muggle houses on the block looking exactly the same, same cars parked exactly the same. Great visual of the boring ORDINARY WORLD.  There’s a SET UP when Harry’s uncle warns him “No funny stuff.”

At the Zoo — we start to see the HERO’S SPECIAL SKILLS. The scene SETS UP Harry’s capability of magic, although he doesn’t understand it yet. He communes with the snake (SET UP that Harry is a Parselmouth, a sort of Snake Whisperer, as we’ll learn in subsequent books/movies),  and then in a flash of anger at Dudley, Harry inadvertently makes the glass of the terrarium disappear, releasing the snake and imprisoning Dudley. 

HERO’S DESIRE: he longs for his family. This is very clear in the zoo scene, where Harry bonds with the captive snake and shares that he doesn’t have a family, either. We’ll get more indications of Harry’s desire very soon.

Back at the house, Harry receives THE CALL TO ADVENTURE, or INCITING INCIDENT: the mysterious invitation, delivered by owl. The Call To Adventure is very, very often an invitation, a phone call, a knock on the door. Here there’s a fun twist on the REFUSAL OF THE CALL (per Campbell and Vogler): the hero doesn’t refuse the call, but his uncle does — over and over and over again, with malicious pleasure. Thus follows a delightful comic sequence in which those owls and invitations just keep on coming (because, you know, you can’t refuse the Call of Destiny!). This is really its own sequence within a sequence, with the final exhilarating magical bombardment of invitations. It’s comic, it builds in momentum to a breathtaking rush, and it’s thematic. Just perfect storytelling, and a great example of how to make the Call to Adventure a SETPIECE.  And as so often happens after a sequence climax, there’s a complete change of location to indicate the beginning of the next sequence (even though we’re still technically in Sequence One.  [12:18]

Now we see the family on a remote island in a thunderstorm, still trying to refuse the call.

It’s Harry’s birthday – another mythic and fairy tale element. Alone by the fire, he makes a wish (at midnight! Magic time!) — and Hagrid breaks down the door.

Hagrid serves as a HERALD, here (finally delivering the Call to Adventure in person) and also, obviously,  he’s a mentor and supernatural ally. But do we fully trust him?

Hagrid blusters past the opposition of the uncle and aunt, Harry finally gets to open the invitation to Hogwart’s School, and Hagrid tells Harry his own story: Harry is a Wizard by birth, and his mother was a Witch (it’s a great device of making exposition dramatic and compelling that the jealous aunt rants about her “perfect sister”) and we learn of more of Harry’s GHOST and of the WOUND of losing his parents.

The instantly loving relationship between Hagrid and Harry is another indicator of Harry’s powerful DESIRE for a family and love. The birthday cake is a beautiful, and touching, touch. And note that the cake is cracked in a perfect yin/yang symbol: another indication of the THEME OF DUALITY.

SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX: Harry follows Hagrid out the door and off on his big adventure. And there’s a slight hesitation on Harry’s part before he finally steps through that door — giving the moment the import it deserves. His life will never be the same once he walks through that door. FIRST CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. [18:25]


> Okay, back to the movie, and watch the LONDON sequence.  There’s a lot going on here, so break wherever you feel you need it to catch up on notes! The sequence ends at the train, 34 minutes into the movie.

Great location change: the establishing shot of London.  

Now begins the INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD or CROSSING THE THRESHOLD sequence. This first Harry Potter is an example of mythic structure, where the journey tends to be a very long and involved part of the first half of the story (see The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, as well.) Harry enters the Special World in seven distinct steps — I won’t even argue if you want to say there are eight or nine steps!  But remember, seven is a magical number, and NUMEROLOGY is very important in the whole series.

The scene change to London is the first step.

The sequence starts in a TAVERN, which is often a leaping off point of the mythic journey (remember the Cantina scene in Star Wars? And the Nepalese bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark?). Harry meets Professor Quirrell, an innocuous chap who turns out to be a main ANTAGONIST, but at this point this is a MYSTERY. Note how early we meet Quirrell, though. And the irony that he is the “Defense Against the Dark Arts” teacher.

INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD — Second step: Diagon Alley.  Great PASSAGEWAY as Hagrid rearranges the bricks in a wall and the wall opens for Harry, who steps through in a shot that’s a steal from — I mean, homage to — the famous shot of Dorothy stepping through the door of her house into Oz.

Major SETPIECE sequence. More introduction of the magical world that exists parallel to the Muggle world. It’s also a GATHERING THE TOOLS SEQUENCE — Harry even has a list, and we see him: get money from Gringotts Bank (wonderful setpiece within a setpiece, fairy tale elements everywhere), learn he is very, very rich, lust after a Nimbus 2000 (FORESHADOWING and PLANT), receive an owl from Hagrid (GIFT FROM MAGICAL ALLY), and most importantly, choose a wand.

There is so much VISUAL IMAGERY it would take me days to recount. More owls, books, goblins, caverns, ingots, vaults, apothecary shops.

There’s an INTRODUCTION OF MYSTERY and PLANT here, too: the mysterious something Hagrid takes from Vault 713 (the number is a play on a theme: lucky 7 and unlucky 13. Is it good or bad?). The mysterious something is also a MACGUFFIN (the object everyone wants).

Note that Harry goes in alone for this important scene. Lots of stuff going on here:

- Great character intro with the sliding ladder for Olivander. (Think of all the character introductions so far, each completely unique and wonderful — this is just a terrific film to use to learn this art. Of course, the stellar cast doesn’t hurt. (And can I please just have John Hurt? I don’t know what I’d do with him, exactly, but I really, really want him.)

- More backstory of Harry’s parents.

- The RULE OF THREE is very much in evidence in the wand shop — the third wand is the charm.

- Here is our first indication of the Hero’s INNER NEED (as opposed to OUTER NEED): to use his power for good and become a benevolent leader of the magic world. It is set up strongly in the wand shop scene that Harry could go either way (could that be any more Star Wars?): the feather of his wand is from the same phoenix that supplied the feather for evil Voldemort’s wand (PLANT). It’s also another example of the duality/twinning theme.

- The scene gives us a glimmer of an overall FEAR: that Harry could turn bad.

- And it raises the CENTRAL QUESTION of the overall series: Will Harry use his power for good or evil?  (This theme is mirrored in John Hurt’s portrayal of Olivander: we’re a little uneasy about this man, not sure if he is good or bad. )

That evening (in the tavern) Hagrid refers again to the mysterious something he took from Vault 713. (MYSTERY). We may think here, and again later: “Is Hagrid good or bad?” (RED HERRING.)
Harry asks Hagrid about Voldemort — he’s guessed that Voldemort killed his parents. Hagrid tells him the story of Voldemort’s dark rebellion, and the battle between Voldemort and Harry’s parents.

There’s a MYSTERY and FORESHADOWING here: Did Voldemort die? Hagrid doesn’t think so.

And now we understand some of the STAKES: there’s a powerful dark wizard out there who wants to kill Harry. (An overall FEAR emerges for us now: we’re afraid Voldemort will come after Harry again and kill him. We HOPE Harry will prove to be a strong enough wizard to survive.). And I would say this scene spells out the CENTRAL QUESTION of Book One and Film One: Will Voldemort come after Harry again, and will young Harry learn enough magic to be able to survive another attack?  [31:13]

INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD —Third step: Platform 9 ¾

On the train platform, Hagrid suddenly disappears on Harry, because this is a TEST of the young wizard – can he figure out the mystery of Platform 9 ¾ and find his way into the Special World by himself?

Harry proves to be smart: he hears the word “Muggle” and takes it as the clue it is. But this is also important: Harry is feeling lost, and he instinctively follows a woman who has red hair like his mother and a large family (note in the background just before this: a red-haired mother holding a small child on the platform,  a visual reminder of Harry’s mother holding Harry, as we have been seeing in flashback). These are subtle but powerful indications of Harry’s DESIRE — or OUTER NEED — for a family. And he’s about to get one in the Weasleys, especially Ron.

And Harry passing the test and running through the pillar at Platform 9 ¾ is the SEQUENCE TWO CLIMAX. He leaves the Muggle world altogether at that point (The Hogwarts Express is a wonderful antique train!) and the TRANSITION TO SEQUENCE THREE is the shot of the train going out of the Muggle World and into the forest. Big location change – they’re really going out into the isolated country. Big, gorgeous, sweeping vistas.  (INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD – fourth step.)  [34 minutes]


Inside the train, Ron Weasley comes and asks if he can share Harry’s compartment. (This is the COLLECTING ALLIES or GATHERING THE TEAM sequence — we’ll meet Hermione in a minute, too.)

Ron recognizes Harry (he’s famous) and says “Wicked!” about Harry’s scar (Another thematic reference: “Is he good or is he bad?”) Harry impulsively buys the whole cart full of candy to please Ron, showing his generosity. The candy is magical, which is a lovely conceit by Rowling: what would be the coolest for kids?

While Ron tries unsuccessfully to work magic on his pathetic familiar, Scabbers, enter Hermione, a little tornado. [36:29] There’s an instant set up of the love/hate relationship between Ron and Hermione, and you can see a Star Trek kind of dynamic starting between the three: Hermione is all superego, like Spock, Ron is id and emotion, like Bones, and Harry is the ego, balancing the messages of the two polarities, like Kirk. So now, the triumvirate is complete, and they arrive at Hogwarts’ station.


38:00 - Hagrid meets the train and is the guide into the truly magical night world of Hogwart’s: this is a huge, magical visual, the torchlit boat ride across to the castle of the school (remember — make the INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD scenes count!). The filmmakers take their time with this entrance to give us a complete sense of awe: we are experiencing the school along with the kids. And it’s a visual reference to the River Styx: the world we’re entering is not entirely human.

[39:00] McGonagall meets the first-years on the stairs (another fabulous visual, and I’d say it’s the sixth INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD STEP) and informs them that they will now be “sorted” into the four houses of the school, which will be like their families (THEME: Harry’s desire for family). Good and bad behavior by individual students will earn or lose points for their houses (The good and bad theme again, and a big SUBPLOT: an overall desire and competition to win the House Cup. Again, Rowling is just a genius at balancing adult themes with kid themes in this series). Keeping the kids on the stairs before letting them into the school builds anticipation as well as creating another INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD step.

[40:00] And then we have the INTRODUCTION OF SECONDARY OPPONENT: Draco Malfoy. I think every kid is familiar with this sociopathic little prepster. Draco disparages Ron and warns Harry to avoid taking up with the “wrong sort.” Harry replies coolly, “I think I can tell the wrong sort for myself, thanks.” And we see Harry has made a new enemy. Again, this is a kid-sized conflict to balance the much more complicated overall conflict with Voldemort. (FORCES OF ANTAGONISM.)

INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD, step seven: The students are led into the Great Hall, another dazzling set, with the ceiling bewitched to look like the night sky, as know-it-all Hermione points out.  

Dumbledore makes a speech, warning the first years that the third floor is strictly forbidden (SET UP) as is the Dark Forest (SET UP). We meet Fitch, the caretaker, and his cat. Fitch looks monstrous but really is a protector of the students. (THEME of appearances deceiving, who is good and who is bad?)
And then the climax of Sequence Three: the Sorting Ceremony, in which a grumpy talking hat determines which students belong in which houses. Hermione and Ron go to Griffindore (note the “dore,” aligning the house with Dumbledore). Draco goes to Slytherin, and even if we couldn’t tell by the name, Ron whispers to Harry that “There never was witch or wizard gone bad that didn’t come out of Slytherin.”

Then it’s Harry’s turn, and the hat has trouble: clearly Harry could go two ways (THEME). The hat is inclined to send him to Slytherin: “You could be great, you know, and Slytherin can help you get there.” Harry whispers over and over, “Not Slytherin” — it’s a big suspense moment… and the hat acquiesces and sends him to Griffindore. This scene is a miniature of the conflict in the series: Harry will have to make choices about his path over and over. And also we see that Harry has control over his fate. Dumbledore toasts Harry’s choice.

I’d say this is the true climax of Act I, but the act goes on for a little while longer, first in celebration as a huge feast appears (clearly appealing to kids!) and we meet the ghosts of Hogwart’s.

[48:00] The prefect (Ron’s brother) leads the kids back to Griffindore and we see the constantly moving staircases (SET UP) and the living paintings.

[49:00] Harry cries, alone with his owl, in the privacy of his room. A lonely hero moment that paints him a little like a Messiah. (And note this technique for manipulating emotions: We are much more apt to feel strong emotions such as grief, fear and loneliness when there is an animal in the scene. Animals bring out our own vulnerability.)

End Act I.

So have I left anything out?

  -- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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Jake Nantz said...

Wow. I've seen the film enough times (okay, too many) that I didn't need to watch it to follow right along with you. Most of the stuff I recognized once you pointed it out, but would never have thought of it on my own. But the family images, and the trick with vault 713...man, never in a million years would I have gotten that stuff.

God bless ya for doing this, Alex. Just phenomenal stuff.

Bobby Mangahas said...

Alex, thanks for the breakdown. Like Jake, I've seen HP few times, so I could follow. But it's really nice to see the theories you've been teaching put into practice. I think I'll try this with RAIDERS at some point.

Gayle Carline said...

It's amazing to watch a movie and know it's affecting you, but until you break down the symbols and the archetypes, you don't realize how the layers all add up to give it that punch.

I only have one question: the story of one character being pulled by both Good and Evil is an old one, but I'm wracking my brain for The Myth that serves as the cornerstone. It can't be Adam and Eve - that didn't turn out so well for Good. Is it Greek? Norse? Shakespeare? Where did we get the idea that, although man can be born with a leg in each world, he can chose his destiny?

Ok, that was, like, four questions, but you get the idea.

Gayle Carline

BT said...

Yet another great post.

I think you missed one bit of foreshadowing. At the zoo when Harry speaks to the snake, it foreshadows his ability to speak parseltongue which is thought to be an ability of those on the dark side of magic - another hint at the possibility of Harry being good and bad. It is also a plant for way later in the series.

You said you were going to do the same with Chinatown and RTS, but I was wondering if we could look at something darker, maybe break down a horror flick - how about a classic like Dracula or Frankenstein - or something more modern like The Grudge or The Unborn? Would it be wrong to suggest breaking down The Harrowing...?

Anonymous said...

This was a great post. I'm a screenwriter and I've been looking for books and blogs that use step-by-step examples (I don't know why they're so hard to find) and this is exactly what I've been looking for. Now, I am probably one of five people who hasn't seen any Harry Potter movies, but I really enjoyed the breakdown. I look forward to more.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Jake. Yeah, I only saw the film when it first came out, so I was really surprised and pleased at how strong the family desire was throughout the movie, and how layered the imagery was. It was really fun to watch it and see how superbly done everything was (my God, setting up a series AND an individual story in 30 minutes? It's amazing.).

And such an unexpectedly great example of all these story elements!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

RJ, RAIDERS is a perfect movie to break down. I always learn something new from looking at that one..

Gayle, that is an EXCELLENT question about the first myth of man pulled between good and evil. Unfortunately I have no idea what the prototype is, though I'm sure you're right, there must be one.

Maybe someone else here will know.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

BT, I have to confess I haven't read past the first book or movie (I know, I'm a heretic) so I figured the snake talk was a set up for something (and Slytherin House, too - I mean, please, SLITHER?) but I didn't know how it plays out in later books.

But it's interesting, isn't it, how something that is important just FEELS important in a story?

As far as a darker example, I don't think I know any darker movie on the planet than CHINATOWN, but I will be happy to break down SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. There's not all that much to see in THE GRUDGE or the UNBORN, but you can learn volumes about any genre from the perfect structure of SILENCE.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Russell, I'm glad it's helpful!

There probably aren't more examples out there because it's exhausting to do. But really worth it.

Tea Lady said...

This is brilliant, Alex. Thanks so much for doing it. And I for one, cannot wait to see your Chinatown breakdown. What a great script, and on my list of films I can see over and over.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

A question on desire.

Harry has an outer desire for family.

Does he recognize that? Does he ever state that? Do others recognize and/or state that?

And if he has a separate inner desire, the same questions apply.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe Harry states that desire in words, but certainly there is practically a whole sequence detailing this desire, in the second act, when Harry stumbles upon the magic mirror which reveals, what else, your heart's desire (as Dumbledore says specifically). What Harry sees in the mirror is himself with his parents.

Harry becomes addicted to the mirror and Dumbledore keeps finding him sitting for long hours in front of the mirror, and Dumbledore says something to the effect that you can't live in dreams to the exclusion of living your real life.

I would say you rarely get a more graphic depiction of outer desire and its pitfalls than that!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Tea Lady!

I completely agree about CHINATOWN. I never get tired of it.