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!
AND THE SORCERER’S STONE
Screenplay by Steve Kloves
Based on the book by J.K. Rowling
Directed by Chris Columbus
Produced by David Heyman
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
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.
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, McGonegal, and Hagrid.
RULE OF THREE –
another fairy tale element: the three fairy godmothers (and the third is the bumbling
Strong 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 him (hints) 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 11-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 sequence, and stop at the cut from the pileup of invitations to
the island (about 12 minutes in) to read my notes.
SEQUENCE ONE (cont.)
The Hero introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD (Surrey, the Muggle World).
Right away, more classic fairy tale elements – 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 adoptive family is part of the FORCES OF OPPOSITION.
Leaving the house – there's a shot of the Muggle houses on the block all looking exactly the
same, same cars parked exactly the same. Great visual representation of the boring, ORDINARY WORLD.
At the Zoo – we see Harry's capability of magic, although he doesn't understand it yet. He
communes with the snake and then makes the glass disappear.
HERO'S OUTER 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.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE, or INCITING INCIDENT (or INCITING EVENT): The mysterious invitation, delivered by
owl. The Call To Adventure is very, very often an invitation, a phone call, a knock on the
Here there's a fun twist on the REFUSAL OF THE CALL (per Campbell and Vogler):
the hero doesn't refuse it, 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 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.
Now we see the family on a remote island in a thunderstorm, still trying to refuse the call.
It's Harry's birthday – (at midnight! Magic time!) another mythic and fairy tale element. He makes a wish – and Hagrid breaks down the door.
Hagrid serves as a Herald, here (finally delivering the call to adventure in person) and also,
obviously, a mentor and supernatural ally.
Hagrid blusters past the opposition of the uncle and aunt, Harry gets to open the invitation
to Hogwart's School, and Hagrid tells Harry his own story: he is a Wizard by birth, and his
mother was a Witch (great device of making exposition dramatic and compelling by having
the jealous aunt rant 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,
SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX – Harry follows Hagrid out the door and off on his big adventure.
CUT TO LONDON
Okay, back to the movie, and watch the LONDON sequence. There's a lot going on here,
so break wherever you feel you need to to catch up on notes! The sequence, and Act
One, 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.
The sequence starts in a TAVERN, which is often a leaping off point of the mythic journey
(remember the Cantina scene in STAR WARS?). Harry meets Professor QUIRREL – an
innocuous chap who turns out to be a main ANTAGONIST, but this is a MYSTERY. Note
how early we meet Quirrell, though. And the irony that he is the "Defense Against the
Dark Arts" teacher.
Harry enters the special world in four distinct stages, which makes the first act a little
longer than most filmic first acts. But that tends to happen with adaptations of books,
especially adaptations as faithful as this one. HARRY POTTER is also 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.
It also must be noted that this first film/book has to set up the entire seven stories of the
cycle, which it does brilliantly, so it can be forgiven for running long in the first Act.
INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD - First step: Diagon Alley
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 (wonderful setpiece within a setpiece, fairy tale elements
everywhere.), learn he is very very rich, lust after a Nimbus 2000 (FORESHADOWING and
PLANT), choose an owl, 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 – is it good or bad?). And there's a question of whether Hagrid is good or bad, here, too.
THE WAND SHOP SCENE - lots of stuff going on here. (25 min.
in) Note that Harry goes in alone for this important scene.
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
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 talk of Harry's parents, here.
The RULE OF THREE is very much in evidence in the wand shop – the third wand is the
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 Voldemort's wand. (PLANT.)
It 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) 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 his 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 Harry be able to
survive another attack?
INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD – second step: Platform 9 ¾
On the train platform, Hagrid suddenly disappears on Harry, because this is a TEST of the
young wizard – can 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 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 ACT ONE
CLIMAX. He leaves the Muggle world altogether at that point and the TRANSITION TO
ACT TWO is the shot of the train going out of the Muggle World and into the forest.
34 minutes total
for Act One.
So what have I missed? Questions?
Previous articles on story structure: (all also linked at right hand side of blog under WRITING ARTICLES).
Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method
Screenwriting - The Craft
What's Your Premise?
What is High Concept?
Why the Three Act Structure?
Elements of Act One
Elements of Act Two
Elements of Act Two, Part 2
Elements of Act Three, Part 1
Elements of Act Three, Part 2
What Makes a Great Climax?
Visual Storytelling Part 1
Visual Storytelling Part 2
Creating Suspense, Part 2
Fairy Tale Structure and the List
What Makes a Great Villain?
Villains: The Forces of Antagonism
Plants and Payoffs