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


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.

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.

another fairy tale element: the three fairy godmothers (and the third is the bumbling 
comic relief).

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 

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.


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. 



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. 


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?

- 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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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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jnantz 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.

R.J. 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...?

Russell 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.

Alexandra Sokoloff 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.