Friday, July 31, 2009

Romancing the Stone - story breakdown

Finishing up this story breakdown - and I just combined it all into one long post.

Romancing the Stone

Screenplay by Diane Thomas
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Produced by Michael Douglas

RTS is a romantic comedy/adventure. There’s not a lot of theme going on here; what this film promises is romance and a fun ride. As you watch it, notice how masterfully the movie delivers on the promises of the genre and premise: a major delight of the movie is in seeing the transformation of Joan, the meek little romance author, into a strong, confident, adventurous woman. There are moments and scenes of romance and chemistry all the way through; and several action/suspense scenes, plus several comedy scenes, in every sequence. If you’re writing cross-genre, like this romantic comedy/adventure, it’s really helpful to watch cross-genre films and note each comic, action, and romantic beat and exactly how often they come, because you should be hitting those beats just as often in yours.

RTS is an especially good example; it’s funny, it’s high energy, and it’s perfectly cast with actors who know exactly what the audience is looking for and how to give it to them.



The movie opens with a story within a story: Joan is writing the climax of her latest romance novel, Angelina’s Revenge. She narrates in voice-over an archetypal Western bodice-ripper, with a bodice-ripped heroine packing a well-placed knife killing the evil bastard who “Murdered my father, raped and murdered my sister, shot my dog and stole my Bible.” We are instantly engaged in the story because it opens on an action scene with obvious jeopardy; it sets the comic tone, and treats us to some beautiful Southwestern scenery. And it introduces us to Joan’s alter-ego – the sensual and intrepid Angelina, and her heart’s desire: the shadowy, hunky Jesse. It’s a complete externalization of the HEROINE’S INNER and OUTER DESIRE – she wants to be that woman and have that man.

[4 min.] As Jesse and Angelina ride off into the desert, we dissolve to Joan in her office, typing “The End” and sobbing her eyes out. Joan is, to put it bluntly, a mess. This is a fine character introduction and great example of how you can use a character’s environment to tell us all we need to know about the character, pretty much instantly: we see her book collages on the wall, her book posters and awards, the state of her apartment, the obsessive (and apparently ineffective) Post-It notes, the sad state of her refrigerator (a hard boiled egg, dozens of vitamin bottles, and cat food). Also, she’s still in her pajamas. Not that any of us would recognize this state of affairs. (All of this is seen under the CREDITS. Nowadays no one has a credits sequence like this – the credits almost always go at the end of the movie, because, apparently, modern audiences are too impatient to sit through them).

[5:22] We see her social life in a nutshell as she celebrates the completion of her book with her cat, Romeo. In a word, pathetic. And there’s another very obvious statement of her desire – she toasts to the book poster – the shadowy silhouette of “Jesse”, and actually says: “Whoever you are.”

7:43 Jeopardy – a different kind of shadowy man in sadistic-looking leather gloves (yes, they do look sadistic) – makes a call from a phone booth. The call wakes Joan up – the man says nothing. This is the first sight we get of the ANTAGONIST: Zolo. He has a copy of one of Joan’s books with her author photo on the back, so we know he’s after Joan. This is also a RUNNING GAG: the book with the author photo. Repetition is a staple of comedy.

(I’ve noted some of these comedy tricks throughout this movie breakdown, but I am absolutely not an expert. It’s crucial to be familiar with comedy tricks and tropes if comedy is what you’re writing, so make sure you learn everything you can, everywhere you can.)

9:14 Joan rushes to her publisher appointment with her finished book. She is not a fashion plate – no makeup, bland clothes. She helps her elderly neighbor up the stairs, and the neighbor hands her a bulky envelope postmarked from Columbia, which Joan doesn’t open.

9:29 Out on the street Joan tries to catch a cab while being pestered by street vendors. She has trouble fending them off. (Important SET UP for her CHARACTER ARC; we’ll come back to this street and these guys in the end).

Meanwhile, the South American man with the ominous gloves is in the hall of Joan’s apartment building, breaking in to her apartment. The janitor catches him and Zolo knifes him. So now we know the STAKES are going to be life and death – and the FEAR starts that Joan will be killed by this guy.

10: 24 Joan in the bar with her publisher (ALLY). Thematic scene here, with the publisher analyzing a line of guys at the bar – all losers or flawed in some major way. This is a typical scene you see in a romantic comedy: the ally’s sole goal in life seems to be to make the protagonist happy. This must be some kind of holdover from all those theatrical drawing room comedies when the ally and sounding board is the servant. In real life, it’s not very believable that anyone would be so focused on someone else’s happiness, don’t you think? Sleepless in Seattle is another example of the ally, Rosie O’Donnell, going way out of her way to effect the protagonist’s happiness with no apparent desire for her own love life. It’s much better writing to give the ally a desire of her own.

In this scene though, that unreality is mitigated by the fact that the publisher is halfway cruising for herself as well and obviously enjoys gutting the hapless line of men.

We get an overt statement of the heroine’s DESIRE: “I know it sounds crazy but I know there’s someone out there for me.”

Now, in this story, unlike in the other two we’ve talked about so far, the inner desire and outer desire are not so far apart. Joan wants the love of her life and she gets him. But her inner need is to come out of her shell and start living her life fully, which is exactly what she does that gets her that love of her life.

The scene serves as exposition: Joan’s sister Elaine is living in Columbia and her husband was recently horribly murdered. This is some deft writing and performance, here; it’s tough to play exposition like that as comic, but it works:

“Did they find the rest of her husband’s body yet?
“Just the one – piece.”

10:33 Nice dialogue cut to introduce Elaine, the sister. Joan says “Elaine always manages”, and we cut to a hotel by the beach in Cartagena, where Elaine is fleeing the hotel but is kidnapped – by a little boy. Again, the scene is played as comic, and it keeps the tone light that the kidnapper is a little kid – we don’t have to worry about anything too bad happening to Elaine, here. I for one am always grateful to filmmakers and authors who let me know up front that I’m not going to be subjected to rape or torture. (Thomas Harris does this very deftly in The Silence of the Lambs).

This is the INCITING INCIDENT: an ACTION SEQUENCE that is also the sequence climax – a kidnapping, speeding car, cut to the kidnappers, and getting Elaine on the boat, all with the beautiful backdrop of the Cartagena port. It also sets up the location we will come back to for the climactic BATTLE: that stone fort (or whatever it is!) on the harbor.

15 min. Within this sequence we meet one set of antagonists: Elaine’s kidnappers, Ira and Ralph. They are classic comic characters, one tall and thin, one short and round (a SIGHT GAG - comedy loves contrasts like this). They are city boys from Queens who are fish out of water in this South American country (another classic comedy element). Ira is suave but crazy (that obsession with the gators – SET UP, and RUNNING GAG: “Look at those choppers!”); Ralph is neurotic but actually the more sensible of the two; he knows this whole venture is ill-advised. Again, we don’t have to really worry about Elaine being held captive by these guys, which keeps the tone comic. We learn from a line from Ralph that the two have made a fortune in antiquities. Also the male cousins mirror the sisters; you often find this kind of TWINNING and MIRRORING in comedy and romantic comedy.

15:40 Joan comes back to her apartment and finds it ransacked. Suspense scene – because she should not be walking through that apartment – and classic FALSE SCARE: the cat jumps down on her from the top of the refrigerator. Then another FALSE SCARE: the phone ringing right beside her. All total manipulation, but storytellers do it because it works.

It’s Elaine calling, in a classic and blatant CALL TO ADVENTURE: she’s been kidnapped and needs Joan to fly to Cartagena and bring the treasure map that Elaine’s dead husband sent to Joan (in that envelope that she had with her, meaning Zolo couldn’t find it in the apartment. The treasure map and the emerald it leads to is the MACGUFFIN: the object that everyone wants). Ira is holding a knife on Elaine and Elaine says “They’ll cut me, Joan… they’ll hurt me.”) Big STAKES: Joan’s sister will die like her husband if Joan doesn’t go to Cartagena to ransom her.

17: 36 Joan is packing and leaving her cat with her publisher, Gloria. The publisher is trying to talk her out of going and makes a big point out of how hapless and hopeless Joan is in the real world (set up for character arc). She says, “You’re not up for this, Joan, and you know it.” (See what I mean about just saying it aloud?)

Zolo follows her taxi.


19:20 INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD: Joan arrives in Cartagena. Big location scene and contrast – the crowded bus station. Joan doesn’t speak English and is whiter than white in the scene, a fish out of water. Notice that she passes right by Ralph, who is looking for her, with a copy of a book and her author photo on the back. (RUNNING GAG). A big rule of drama is: “Keep the hero/ine and antagonist in proximity.”

Zolo, in the guise of a helpful businessman, directs Joan onto the wrong bus and follows her onto it. Ralph realizes too late that she’s taken off in the wrong direction.

21:20 Joan wakes up on the bus in middle of the Columbian mountains. It’s gorgeous – we are really in the SPECIAL WORLD now. Joan realizes she’s made a bad mistake, and when she tries to talk to the bus driver to find out where they are, he is not watching the road and runs into a Jeep parked by the side of the road. Hundreds of tropical birds are released from cages in the Jeep.

The other passengers pour out of the bus and start to walk. Zolo tells Joan she should wait – another bus will be along. SUSPENSE and FEAR – and part of the suspense here is that we know more than the heroine. As soon as they are alone, Zolo pulls a knife on Joan and demands her purse (where the treasure map is).

25:38 A man in silhouette appears at the top of a ridge (just like Jesse in Joan’s story) and starts shooting at Zolo. GUN BATTLE – action sequence. The stranger runs Zolo off. (INTRO TO LOVE INTEREST).

27:22 And to top off this action scene, Ralph has been following Joan in that little yellow car (the tiny car is a SIGHT GAG) and Zolo now uses his police badge to commandeer the car and drive him out. (REVELATION: the bad guy is a cop. Also the beginning of a RUNNING GAG about Ralph’s car being stolen out from under him.). This is an extremely important element for a romantic comedy or comedy: the CONVERGENCE OF SUBPLOTS. All of these subplots are operating really right on top of each other and constantly complicating each other – as if the characters are all magnetized and constantly within each other’s magnetic fields.

(And this is a prime example of what I’m talking about when I keep saying you need to break down ten films/books in the genre you’re writing in. This convergence of subplots is one of the games that a romantic comedy or comedy plays with its audience that you are not necessarily going to find playing out so blatantly in other genres, and you need to see how other storytellers handle this element of the genre.)

You could say that the gun battle is the climax of Act One, and I wouldn’t really argue with you. But I think it’s only one of a couple of climaxes to the act, and the next scene really is still part of Act One, so I’ll include the next scene in this discussion.

As Ralph and Zolo drive away, we are left with Joan and Jack at the bus.

Now, in Hollywood terms, Joan is the protagonist, and in a romantic comedy the main antagonist is always the love interest. But Romancing the Stone is different from a Hollywood romantic comedy in that it’s an actual romance, and typically the male and female leads in a romance have pretty much equal weight, and the POV alternates between the female and male leads. (Romance writers, feel free to jump on me if I’m wrong – believe me, I’m not an expert!). So we have both these things going on in this movie: the almost-equal male/female leads, and the love interest as a major antagonist (but Zolo has been set up as such a threat it’s hard to think of Jack as the MAIN antagonist).

Here we have a detailed set up of Jack Colton, his backstory and outer desire. He’s been in Columbia working on a scheme to sell exotic birds to get the money to buy his dream boat (the photo he rescues from the wreckage of his Jeep is an external representation of his drive and desire). We suspect he’s a good guy because he’s selling birds rather than drugs, which he says straight out was another option. And of course we know this is Joan’s prospective true love.

But at the moment, all Jack cares about is that he’s penniless and vehicle-less. Joan wheedles with him to take her to civilization and a phone, and offers to pay. This is a nice scene for CHARACTER GROWTH: Joan actually bargains with Jack and gets the price down – we’re proud of her! And we see a spark of CHEMISTRY as they haggle with each other – very nicely played, and an essential story line for a romance: the growth of attraction. Jack is attracted to Joan when she asserts herself. But not enough to carry her suitcase for her. 30:49

(This is another place you could call the climax of Act One. The CENTRAL QUESTION is very clearly set up: Will Jack get Joan safely back to Cartagena in time to ransom her sister (and before Zolo kills Joan for the map?)

They start off in the pouring rain, Joan stumbling on her Italian pumps. And that mousy little beige outfit she’s wearing starts to undergo a transformation as the rain turns it into a clinging knockout of a dress.

Zolo arrives at the local police station and starts gathering a team of men. Now, interestingly, and I would say this is unusual: there’s no TICKING CLOCK attached to the kidnap and ransom demand from the cousins; they seem to be on South American time. But there is a sense of urgency and a time clock associated with Zolo, especially when we see him amassing troops; we know if he finds Joan he’ll kill her.

31:22 Jack gets annoyed at Joan’s dawdling with the suitcase and takes it from her – only to throw it over the cliff. The cliff edge crumbles and Joan takes a wild ride down the muddy slope, followed by Jack, who ends up with his face in her crotch. Another large spark of attraction for Jack, here, it’s and what I would say is the real climax of Sequence Two and Act One, as Jack crows, “Welcome to Columbia, Joan Wilder!” 33:30

(Now that you’ve seen it, what do you think is the Act Climax? The gun battle, which climaxes the action plot? The bargaining for Jack to take Joan to a phone, which starts them off on the road together? The mudslide ride?

The bottom line to me is – it doesn’t really matter. You can go crazy debating the exact moment, but of course in a romance you’re going for multiple climaxes, and that’s exactly what this movie pulls off so well.)



33:50 Ira has lunch with Elaine on his yacht. The roses on the table indicate a possible romance there between Elaine and her captor. (Which is a funny little subplot; true to character, Elaine is instantly attracted to another inappropriate man. Also this seems to run in the family; both Joan and Elaine are attracted to bad boys, Elaine in real life, Joan in her fantasies.

Ralph phones from the police station or military encampment and reports to an enraged Ira that he has he been waylaid by Zolo and his men. Ralph panics when he sees his own mug shot up on the bulletin board and scrambles to pull it down. Ira orders him to get the map, and then rants to Elaine that Joan is being pursued by Zolo: the Minister of Antiquities, the head of the secret police, and a known butcher. (Very deft summation of why Zolo is after the stone and why he has so many military men at his disposal – it all happens in just one line of dialogue. Ira doesn’t explain anything, but we get that Zolo is using his official positions to steal priceless treasures).

35:50 Back to Joan and Jack, who are recovering from their fall. Jack uses his machete (note the size of Jack’s knife…) to chop the heels off Joan’s Italian shoes so she can walk. Suddenly the two are fired upon by Zolo and his men (ATTACK ON HERO/INE). Jack realizes the cops are after Joan and shouts, “Deal’s off!” as they run through the forest with Zolo and his men in pursuit. Jack and Joan run right up against the edge of a precipice, with a raging river below. Jack pulls out his rifle to fire on their pursuers, while Joan tries to cross an ancient, rickety bridge (SUSPENSE, JEOPARDY). The bridge breaks and Joan grabs for a vine, which swings her over to the opposite cliff and lands her safely on her ass. Jack watches, stupefied, then grabs a vine of his own and swings. He falls short, and must scramble up a sheer rock face while Joan dives into her arline bag and finds a mini-bottle of booze.

Zolo and his men continue to fire, but can’t follow.

41:54 Jack chops his way through a field of thick banana palms in the drenching rain. He pauses, exhausted, and when Joan asks if they’re stopping, he hands her the machete. Joan intrepidly slashes forward, while Jack follows from behind, enjoying the view provided by her torn skirt. Joan runs into a decaying corpse and screams; a plane has crashed in the field and what is left of the pilot is hanging out the window. Jack holds her to comfort her (LOVE PLOT).


The two take shelter in the plane, which has a cargo of marijuana. Nice line when Jack asks if Joan has smoked and she says nonchalantly, “I went to college.” They bed down for the night, drinking the pilot’s tequila (a typical scene in a romantic comedy – the potential lovers getting stuck on the road together and getting to know each other, bonding). Jack asks about her sister. Joan lies that she’s here to comfort Elaine after the death of her husband, but Jack finds the treasure map and gets the real story out of Joan (time dissolve so we don’t have to hear it again). He knows now that she’s there to ransom her sister. But Jack says they’re right in the territory detailed by the map; why not go after “El Corazon”, whatever that treasure is, so they can have more bargaining power with the kidnappers? Joan is offended that Jack is only out for himself and goes on a rant about what a real man is (including “dependable” and “trustworthy”, which is a main theme of their love plot). In the middle of it Jack kills an enormous poisonous snake that is about to strike Joan.

49:38 Zolo arrives back at the military compound. (Don’t go too long without showing WHAT THE BAD GUY IS DOING).

50: Back at the plane, Jack and Joan are now very drunk and stoned from the burning kilos of pot. Jack tells Joan about the birds he lost – he was selling them rather than selling drugs. Joan asks him seriously what he really wants, and he tells her about his dream boat; he wants to buy a boat and sail around the world, all by himself. She says, “It sounds lonely,” and they have a moment of big chemistry (LOVE PLOT), but Joan passes out. Jack takes the map and studies it, noting a landmark called “El Tenador del Diablo”, the “Devil’s Fork.” (CLUE).

54:15 Morning, and Ralph wakes up, from sleeping in the back seat of his car (PLANT).

Meanwhile Jack and Joan walk out of the jungle and into a village full of drug runners (which has been set up nicely by the crashed drug plane), who follow them menacingly. Jack is about to pull his gun, when Joan turns and asks the leader where they might rent a car. The drug runner says the only car in the village belongs to “Juan the Bellmaker”.

Jack and Joan knock on the door of Juan’s compound, and are greeted by a gun and the order to “hit the road”. They turn, only to see all the rest of the drug runners amassed, holding guns on them. Then Juan recognizes Joan as “Juanita Wilder” – his favorite author. All the men murmur, impressed. (TWIST, and PAYOFF of the plant from the publisher saying that Joan’s books do well in macho countries, and continues the gag about Joan Wilder’s photo on the back cover of her book.).

Juan ushers them into his house, gushing. (This is a nice extended cameo by director Alphonso Arau). (OPPONENT who turns into ALLY).

58:47 Zolo arrive in the village with jeeps full of men. He threatens an old woman to find out where the gringos are.

1 hr. Juan wants to hang out and show Joan the village. She asks him to take them to a phone. As Zolo’s men surround the house, Juan drives Joan and Jack out in a tricked-out Jeep, and a chase ensues, with Juan speeding over hills and across ditches with Zolo’s men in hot pursuit, firing machine guns at them. (ATTACK ON HERO/INE). Juan loses the men when he jumps the Jeep across a river over which he’s built an automated escape bridge.

(MIDPOINT - action scene, narrow escape. 1:04)



As Juan, Jack and Joan take a breather in a mountain field, Joan picks flowers, looking very sexily disheveled and glowing from their wild ride (more and more like Angelina). Or perhaps that’s just because we’re seeing her from Jack’s POV, and he’s seeing her in a new light after having read some of her very steamy novel.

When he stands, Jack sees a huge tree shaped like a pitchfork and realizes he’s looking at “El Tenador Del Diablo” – the landmark for the treasure. He keeps it to himself. (The issue of his TRUSTWORTHINESS).

1:05 Ralph phones Ira from another town to report that he’s lost Joan again – then sees Joan and Jack walking straight toward him through the town square. Ralph gets off the phone as Joan reaches for it (HEROINE AND VILLAIN IN PROXIMITY, again). Joan calls the kidnappers and Jack goes to get a room in the nearest hotel, where he asks for a xerox machine. (He intends to go after the treasure himself).

Jack joins Joan at the phone, where she reports that Elaine is all right, and the kidnappers will be expecting her on the bus in the morning. She is worried that Ira sounded smug, somehow, and wonders what that means. She gives Jack his $375 – after all, he’s brought her to the phone as they agreed. They both have a moment of reluctance to part, and Jack says – “At least I can buy you dinner.” Joan goes up to the room to shower and we get the sense Jack is angling to steal and copy the map.

1:08 Night now, and the town is lit up, preparing for a party in the square. In the hotel room, Joan comes out of the shower to find Jack has bought her new, pretty clothes. He meets her dressed in new duds himself, and there’s a moment of big chemistry as they look each other over.

More LOVE PLOT as they eat dinner and he gives her a heart necklace he’s bought for her. Meanwhile Ralph is skulking around the periphery of the restaurant. Jack pulls Joan up to dance, and Ralph crawls under tables to get the map. A very large woman finds him under her table and proceeds to beat the crap out of him, while Jack and Joan dance wildly, then kiss, with fireworks bursting in the sky.

1:13 In bed (in a very hot post-coital position; this smartly chosen role catapulted Michael Douglas to leading man status as well as cemented his producer cred), Jack tells Joan he wants to take her sailing around the world. He promises he will. Joan asks him why he hasn’t stolen the map yet – she saw the Devil’s Fork, too. She says she wants to see him on that boat, and is thinking about what he said about getting the treasure themselves for leverage, but if there’s any doubt they have to hand it all over to the kidnappers – Elaine’s life comes first. Jack asserts, “Of course!” and as they start to make love again, he reaches under the mattress to grab the map and drop it back into her purse (his TRUSTWORTHINESS).

1:15 Zolo and his men pull up outside the hotel in the morning. Jack and Joan escape through the hotel window and jump into a car to steal it and get away. Of course it’s Ralph’s car, and he is sleeping in the back seat (PAYOFF, as well as RUNNING GAG about Ralph’s car being stolen out from under him with him in it.). (SEQUENCE FIVE CLIMAX)


1:16 Jack and Joan drive out in the tiny car into more beautiful mountainous fields (LOCATION CHANGE). Unbeknownst to them, Zolo and his men are following, and Ralph is huddled in the back seat.

1:17 Following the landmarks on the map, Jack and Joan find the waterfall, another great visual, and enter the cave behind it, nice mysterious setting. They find the last location on the map, “Leche Del Madre”, “Mother’s Milk” – a pool of white limestone. While Jack digs in the pool, Joan tells him, “You’re the best time I’ve ever had.” Jack looks at her and says, “I was never anyone’s best time before.” They find a cheap statuette, with a priceless heart-shaped emerald inside. Jack takes one look at the stone and says – “We’re in big trouble.” Ralph speaks from behind them, training a gun on them: “Understatement of the year, asshole.” (ALL IS LOST moment).

1:20 Ralph takes the emerald from them and walks them out to the car, holding the gun on them. When Jack insults him, Ralph says “I’m stealing the stone, not romancing it from under her.” Joan replies that it was her idea to go for the stone and Ralph sneers at her, “All the good con artists make you think it’s your idea.” Joan realizes that she’s been duped. (TRUST theme).

Ralph sees Zolo coming across the field and takes off running. Joan jumps in the car and Jack tackles Ralph to get the emerald back. Then somehow mounties appear from the opposite direction and start to battle it out with Zolo’s men (I never have been quite clear on what’s going on, there), while Joan and Jack drive, dodging gunfire again.

Joan drives the car into a river and they ride the rapids, then tumble over a waterfall. They both bail out of the car and land on opposite sides of the raging river. Joan is furious; Jack has the stone and she accuses him of planning all this. “I knew I couldn’t depend on you.” Jack shouts back that she should follow the sunset and go to the Hotel Cartagena with the map, which is what she’s supposed to bring the kidnappers anyway, and he’ll meet her there. “Trust me!”

Zolo and his men appear, firing away, and Jack and Joan go their separate ways.

ACT TWO CLIMAX – with the cliffhanger: Will Jack show up or not?



1: 24 Cartagena, and again, the beautiful visual of the port. Joan walks through the city street, muddy and rumpled, but a completely different woman than the little mouse who scurried out of the bus station a few days ago. She looks like an adventurer (CHARACTER ARC).

In the hotel she calls Ira, who tells her to take a water taxi out to the tower on the port, “All by yourself.” Joan hangs up and calls the desk; Jack has not checked in yet.

Night, with lightning in the sky. Joan takes the water taxi and gets out on the spooky dock. Armed men are watching her as she enters the catacomb-like tower. LOCATION. As Ira’s voice demands the map, Joan demands to see her sister (CHARACTER GROWTH). Elaine stumbles out into the chamber and Joan sets the map down. As the sisters embrace, Ira studies the map, then tells them they’re free to go. (FALSE ENDING)


But Zolo appears with Jack and Ralph captive. (TWIST). Zolo burns the map, saying “They already have the stone”. Joan lies that they dug and didn’t find it, so Zolo drags her out to the gator pit and cuts her to draw the gators. Jack calls to him to let Joan go, and drops the emerald from his pants. He throws it toward the pit, but Zolo catches it – then has his hand bitten off by a gator, which swallows the hand and the emerald as Zolo screams. Jack grabs a gun from his guard and starts shooting, and mayhem erupts – Zolo’s men are shooting, Ira’s men are shooting, Joan grabs Elaine and runs, Zolo pursues with a lethal looking club of wood. Jack goes after the gator and the emerald. Ira abandons Ralph on the dock and Ralph sends the police boat after him (contrast of the bad cousins turning on each other while the sisters stick together).

Zolo confronts Joan and Elaine in a scene recalling the first scene Joan narrated from her book. Joan has a concealed knife but Zolo deflects it and comes after her. Joan screams for Jack’s help. Jack is wrestling the gator, but lets it escape when he realizes Joan is in danger. But Jack has to scale the tower wall to get to her, a deft way to keep the hero active and manly while allowing the heroine to have the FINAL BATTLE WITH ANTAGONIST on her own. (Elaine, of course, has fainted.) Zolo is about to kill Joan, when she grabs the wood spike and hits his wrist stump. Zolo falls back on a lamp and catches on fire, then falls into the gator pit and is devoured. 1:39

Jack embraces Joan, then tells her he has to flee the approaching cops – he’s wanted. Joan is devastated: “You’re leaving me?” And he says, “You’ll be all right, Joan Wilder. I always knew you were.” He kisses her, then jumps the wall into the water.

Joan looks out over the water, devastated. (ACT THREE CLIMAX)


1:40 MATCH DISSOLVE to Joan standing at her publisher’s window looking out, a new, fully blooming woman, as her publisher sobs her eyes out over Joan’s latest book (the end of which she has clearly rewritten so that Jack comes back for her.). Her publisher calls her a hopeless romantic and Joan corrects her: “hopeful romantic”.

1:41 Joan walks down her street, harassed by the same street vendors we saw in Act One, but this time she takes it completely in stride, laughing them off. (Returning to early location/situation to show CHARACTER ARC.). Then she stops on the sidewalk as she sees the yacht parked outside her building. Jack is standing on deck waiting for her, with alligator boots on. (PAYOFF of his and her DESIRE lines. The alligator boots are a great light touch that keeps it all from being too sugary.) He drops the ladder for her to climb up, and he says he couldn’t stop thinking about her; he even read one of her books. She says, “So you know how it ends.” They kiss, and sail off down the Manhattan street. (NEW WAY OF LIFE, and don't we all want it?).

A wonderfully feel-good ending to a perfectly-pitched movie.


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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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Story Breakdown, Second Half

Finishing off the Potter!

Act One is here.
Act Two Part One is here.



SEQUENCE FIVE (or six, if you prefer!)

1: 14 The three kids are eating in the Great Hall before Harry’s first Quidditch match. Snape oozes by to wish Harry “good luck” in a tone that sounds more like he’s saying “I hope you crash and burn”. (RED HERRING). Harry tells Ron and Hermione that he thinks Snape let the troll loose in the school to cause a diversion so that he could get to whatever the three-headed dog is guarding on the third floor. (DETECTIVE VOICING HIS THEORY). An owl flies in and delivers Harry a coveted Nimbus 2000 broom – a gift from MacGonagall. (This is a classic mythic story element: GIFTS FROM MENTORS).

1:15 Going onto the Quidditch field. The next ten minutes of the movie are the Quidditch match, an action sequence (with some mystery clues woven in). This is a great film technique and one that’s especially useful to use around Sequence Five: an action scene keeps the story moving but allows the audience a break from thinking; they can enjoy the visceral ride without having to figure out what’s going on. The announcer kid is way too enthusiastic for my taste, but the constant commentary serves the purpose of letting us know what’s going on in the Quidditch match without making us strain our brains to follow the action.

Then toward the end of the match, Harry’s broom starts to go crazy (ATTACK ON HERO, JEOPARDY) and Hermione sees Snape muttering in the stands and assumes that Snape is cursing the broom and trying to kill Harry (of course the real culprit, Quirrell, is standing right behind Snape in the shot). Hermione runs through the stands (SUSPENSE) and uses magic to set Snape’s cloak on fire. Quirrell is knocked over in the scuffle and Harry’s broom returns to normal, but it looks like Snape is the one who has been foiled. (Continuing the theme of “Who is good and who is bad?”)

Harry snatches the golden snitch (actually, swallows it) to win the match, and enjoys a moment of triumph. 1:23

1:24 The three kids tell Hagrid that Snape cursed Harry’s broom. Hagrid doesn’t believe it for a second. In a series of Hagrid slips of the tongue, the kids learn that there is a secret way to calm the three-headed dog, “Fluffy” (but not the specifics), and that whatever Fluffy is guarding has to do with someone named “Nicholas Flammel”. CLUES, MYSTERY PLOT.

1:25 Shot of snow flying indicates another time passage.

Hermione finds the boys playing Wizard’s Chess, a violent, animated version of the game (SET UP). The boys are staying at Hogwarts over Christmas break, and Hermione charges them with getting into the restricted section of the library to research the mysterious “Nicholas Flammel” (FOLLOWING THE CLUES).

SEQUENCE SIX (or seven)

(You could just as easily say the end of Sequence five is the kids' scene with Hagrid, before the time passage.)

1:28 Christmas morning. Harry has presents from Ron’s mother (FAMILY DESIRE LINE). He also gets a cloak of invisibility with an anonymous note that says it was Harry’s father’s. Another GIFT FROM MENTOR.

1:28 Harry uses the cloak to get into the restricted section of the library. He finds the book on Nicholas Flammel and a horrible face screams at him out of the pages. Harry drops his lantern and runs, pursued by caretaker Fitch and his cat (SUSPENSE AND JEOPARDY).

Then he sees Snape fighting with and threatening Quirrell, saying: “You have to choose where your loyalties lie.” (Appearances deceive). Snape senses Harry’s presence and reaches out for him (SUSPENSE) but Harry gets away.

While he is trying to get out of the third floor (did I point out the number 3 again?) Harry comes across a chamber that is empty except for a large mirror, in which Harry is stunned to see himself with his parents.

1:33 Harry runs back to the house and wakes Ron to bring him to the mirror. Ron doesn’t see Harry or his parents in the mirror – he sees himself as Head Boy, Captain of the Quidditch team, and winning the House Cup (SET UP – Harry will use that boyish vision later when he is being threatened by Quirrell).

There is a dissolve and we see Harry sometime later, sitting cross-legged in front of the mirror, gazing wistfully into it. Dumbledore finds him and explains the Mirror – saying that it shows the deepest desires of your heart. (And Harry’s of course is his family). But there is a danger, Dumbledore warns: men have wasted away from it, even gone mad. “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” So he’s going to put the mirror away somewhere else, and he asks Harry not to go looking for it.

1:36 Another lovely TIME PASSAGE: Harry lets his owl fly in a snowy landscape and the owl soars and comes back to a springtime setting.

This is also a time CHEAT that works well – because obviously months have passed, but we pick up the action right where it left off, with the next step in following the Nicholas Flammel trail. Hermione walks into the hall with a book, saying “I’m such an idiot, I’ve had the right book all along.” (Something like that!). In the book is a passage that explains that Nicholas Flammel is “the only known maker of the Sorcerer’s Stone”, which can make men immortal. Nicholas Flammel is the current owner of the only Stone in existence. That’s what the three kids think Fluffy is guarding under the trap door. (FOLLOWING THE CLUES, DETECTIVE VOICING HIS THEORY).

1:39 The kids go see Hagrid in his hut (at night, when leaving the house is forbidden) and tell him that they think Snape is trying to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone. Again, Hagrid dismisses this as nonsense; he says Snape is trying to protect the stone. He lets slip that he and Dumbledore are the only ones who can get past Fluffy, anyway.

There is a commotion in the fireplace and we and the kids learn that Hagrid is hatching a baby dragon, something he’s wanted for years. He bought it off some stranger down at the pub.

As the baby dragon commences spitting up flames, the kids see Draco watching through the window, and know they’re in trouble now.

The three kids run back to the house, only to be caught by MacGonegal: Draco has tattled. The three lose fifty points each and all four are sentenced to detention; Draco is punished for leaving the house at night as well.

1:43 Fitch escorts the four out to Hagrid’s hut to serve detention. Hagrid is miserable because the dragon has been confiscated and sent to Romania. Hagrid takes the four kids out to the Dark Forest, another stunning visual, all blue and black and eerie trees. Hagrid shows them a pool of liquid silver: it’s unicorn blood. Someone is killing the unicorns of the forest and drinking their blood, and it’s their job that night to find this horrible predator.

Hagrid sends Draco off with Harry (this pairing is thematic, a reference to the good/evil dichotomy of the overall series). The two boys see a fanged, hooded figure crouched over a unicorn. Harry’s scar immediately begins to throb. Draco runs away and the hooded figure comes after Harry (NEAR-DEATH MOMENT) but a Centaur appears and chases the hooded figure away. The centaur explains that it was Voldemort drinking the unicorn’s blood – which will bring someone back from the brink of death but at the cost of being forever cursed. Now Harry and we know that Voldemort is alive and lurking, and will come after Harry. (STAKES and REVELATION)

Now, I’d say that was the climax of Act Two, but it’s a rolling climax; we get a few more revelations before the act break.

1:49 Back at Griffindore, Harry tells Ron and Hermione that he thinks Snape wants the Stone to give to Voldemort (DETECTIVE VOICING HIS THEORY). Harry is afraid Voldemort will kill him (STAKES, FEAR), but Hermione reassures him that Voldemort has always feared Dumbledore, so as long as Dumbledore is around, Harry can’t be touched. (SET UP – of course we know now that Dumbledore is about to leave the premises!)


Another time passage: we see the three kids walking out of their end of term exams. Harry sees Hagrid out by his hut and has a realization: it is all too coincidental that a stranger showed up at the pub with the exact thing that Hagrid was coveting: a dragon’s egg. Harry guesses that the stranger was trying to get information out of Hagrid.

(I have to say this revelation and clue are not handled with much finesse; for me it’s one of the few dissonant moments in the film).

The three kids run out to Hagrid and Harry questions Hagrid about the stranger who sold him the dragon’s egg, whom Hagrid says was hooded, so of course we realize this was Voldemort. Hagrid boasted to the stranger about using music to put Fluffy the dog to sleep.

The three kids now run to find Dumbledore – and MacGonagall informs them that Dumbledore is out of town on urgent business. Harry tries to explain to MacG that someone is going to try to steal the sorcerer’s stone, but MacG says that it’s under control and sends the kids back to their house.

With Dumbledore gone, Harry is vulnerable to attack by Voldemort (STAKES AND JEOPARDY).

Back at Griffindore, the kids start to talk about Snape being the one who will attempt to steal the stone, only to find him eavesdropping menacingly behind them. (RED HERRING, JEOPARDY).

When Snape moves off, Harry tells the other two kids that they will go down the trap door that night. So now we know the FINAL PLAN leading into Act Three and the final confrontation; we all know it’s going to go down when they go through the trap door.



1:53 Night. As the three kids sneak out of Griffindore, Neville tries to stop them, determined not to let them get the whole house in trouble again (an unlikely but charming GUARDIAN AT THE GATE). Hermione waves her wand and paralyzes him (IMMORAL ACTION by main characters).

The three use the invisibility cloak to sneak up to the third floor. Fluffy is sound asleep, lulled by a bewitched harp. The kids assume Snape is already inside. They have to move Fluffy’s paw off the trap door and in so doing the beast wakes up and lunges. The three kids jump down the trap to escape, and find themselves engulfed in Devil’s Snare, a strangling vine. Hermione remembers that Devil’s Snare hates the light and gets first Harry and then Ron out by using her wand to break through to sunlight.

Note that all of this is a classic set of Act Three circumstances: the three young hero/ines arre STORMING THE CASTLE, encountering a SERIES OF OBSTACLES AND TESTS, and using GIFTS given to them by mentors (the invisibility cloak, the knowledge from their classes), and their own natural talents to overcome obstacles, pass tests, and move on to each successive level.

The obstacles and tests continue as they enter the next chamber, which is swarming with flying keys. Harry must use his flying talents to catch the correct key, a large, old-fashioned one.

2:00 The next chamber is huge, and inside the three kids find a gigantic chessboard. The chess pieces are animate and prevent the kids from crossing; Ron realizes they must play the game to advance. Ron, the chess genius, plays out the game, with Harry and Hermione and himself as living pieces. To win the game, Ron sacrifices himself so that Harry can go on (“You’re the one who has to, Harry.”) Ron is felled by a Bishop, and Harry wins the game. He leaves Hermione to tend to Ron, and Hermione tells Harry he can do it.


FINAL BATTLE – and John Truby also refers to this step as “The Inmost Cave”, which is literally true in this film.

In the next chamber Harry is stunned to find not Snape, but Quirrell, standing in front of the mirror. Now Harry realizes that Snape was trying to save him with a counter spell during the Quidditch match; it was Quirrell who was trying to kill him. (REVELATION) Quirrell unwraps his turban and we see that he is two-faced (THEME) – Voldemort has been living in the back of his head as a parasite. (Don’t ask me how this works; it’s still a mystery to me). (TRUE NATURE OF OPPONENT REVEALED). Voldemort orders Quirrell to use Harry to find the stone, and Harry looks into the mirror and sees the stone in his own trouser pocket. He lies and tells Quirrell he sees himself winning the Quidditch cup (PAYOFF of the scene with Harry and Ron looking in the mirror).

Harry makes a run for it with the stone, and Quirrell conjures a ring of fire to block all exits. Voldemort tells Harry: “Join me and live”, and tempts him with what he wants most: “Together we can bring back your mother and father.” He also voices the counter-theme: “There is no good and evil; there is only power and those too weak to use it.” These are all powerful temptations that reflect the overall themes of the series.

Harry refuses and Quirrell tries to attack Harry, but every time he makes contact with Harry another part of Quirrell’s body crumbles to powder, until he collapses.

The shadowy Voldemort flies at Harry in a rage, then flies out of the chamber. Harry collapses.

2:14 Harry wakes up in the school infirmary, surrounded by presents and flowers. Dumbledore comes to see him and explains that Harry was able to destroy Quirrell because Harry’s mother sacrificed herself to save him, the ultimate act of love, and that love is in Harry’s very skin. (GIFT FROM PARENT).

2:17 Ron and Hermione are waiting outside for Harry, and the three joyfully reunite.

2:18 And then the finale is the Great Hall scene, the closing ceremonies of the school. (This is a very typical step in mythic structure: the ceremony and awards. Think of the end of The Wizard of Oz and the first Star Wars. Most movies end very quickly after the final battle but a story with mythic structure often has a long epilogue like the one we see here.). Slytherin has won the House Cup, but at the last moment Dumbledore awards a final set of points: 50 to Hermione for application of her lessons, 50 to Ron for the best chess game ever played at Hogwart’s, 60 to Harry for bravery, and 10 to Neville for having the courage to stand up to his friends.

The decorations in the hall magically change to Griffindore colors as the House Cup goes to our heroes. And the wizard and witch hats fly in the air as Draco gnashes his teeth. (DEFEAT OF SECONDARY OPPONENT).

2:21 The three kids are ready to board the train back to the ordinary world. Harry says it’s not really going home, and looks back at his real home: Hogwart’s. Harry runs to say goodbye to Hagrid, who suggests that he might keep his cousin in line by threatening magic. It’s not allowed to work magic at home, but Harry’s cousin doesn’t know that.

And the train pulls out of the magical land as Hagrid strides back toward the castle. (CLOSING IMAGE).

Upcoming events: (see here for dates)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Life is a pitch meeting

I spoke to a college screenwriting class last night, and I realized something that I guess I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve never actually put into words.

Life is a constant pitch meeting.

There were about a dozen kids in this class. Okay, not all kids. I talked for about forty-five minutes, my whole story of breaking into the film business and what the job is really like and how it’s different from being an author, all the usual, and the rest of the two-hour class I was just taking questions.

Out of the whole class, only five of the students asked questions, although more did answer when I asked them questions to draw them out. And out of those, only two people actually voluntarily told me what they were working on, in detail. And those were two out of the three who continued to ask questions throughout the class.

Guess which students I remember from the class?

If I were an executive handing out jobs or assignments, guess which ones would get the job?

Not only that, but these two guys caught my attention from the very first moment they walked into the class. They are attention whores. One walked in with a Nerf – Uzi, it looked like, in violent neon colors. At the slightest prompting he pulled that puppy out of his backpack, loaded a clip of Nerf bullets with awesome efficiency, and fired several lethal rounds into the whiteboard at the front of the class. It was a thing of beauty.

The other shuffled in, collapsed into his seat in a posture of abject and total martyrdom, made sure everyone could see the bruise under his eye, and proceeded (again with the most minimal prompting) to tell a tale of being assaulted by his girlfriend over the weekend. She subsequently harassed his roommates and was arrested by the cops.

Now THOSE are entrances. THOSE are characters.

I don’t know if either of those guys can write worth a damn; I don’t know if they’ve got the drive and dedication to do what the job is, but I would give them a chance to show me more, just because they’re standouts - and because in two hours I learned so much more about them and their writing than I did about anyone else in the class. They moved themselves to the top of the theoretical list just by being forthcoming. They put the spotlight on themselves.

Furthermore, the guy with the nerf Uzi draws and writes comic books, and the guy with the out-of-control love life is writing a wacky romantic comedy.

Do we see the pattern here?

They were ILLUSTRATING the kinds of writers they are, in clothing, props, actions, and their entire personal presentations. They were pitching their writing with everything that they did last night. And oh, do film executives love visual aids. Who doesn’t?

At twenty-two or whatever, these guys already have it down.

In screenwriting, because so much of the job is pitching, you have to stand out for simple job survival. Film executives will take six or seven or ten pitch meetings in a day. OF COURSE you have to have a great story to tell, but you equally have to make sure they’re actually awake enough to pay attention.

It’s a lot the same if you’re an author. The more interesting character is going to get more attention from the media (essential for our job survival). You will get more attention from your publisher if they sense you will get extra attention from the media. That’s just reality.

Take a look at successful authors you admire. There’s something beyond their amazing writing, isn’t there? They’re also fascinating people. They have star power in person. You can always find them in a crowded room.

Now, that is not at all to say that you can’t make a bestselling career as a recluse. It’s happened throughout the ages. Great writing finds a spotlight, even when the author can’t. But I suspect it’s a lot harder to make a career that way, especially these days.

Even though I wasn’t handing out jobs in that class last night, I am a highly connected industry professional who was right in front of them, at their disposal, for two hours. That’s an opportunity that doesn’t get handed to most people every day. There is no reward for being shy in that situation. You need to milk an opportunity like that for all it’s worth.

But the fact is, the Universe is ALWAYS handing us chances to get exactly what we want. It’s a matter of whether or not we’re prepared enough, professionally and emotionally, to TAKE the chances we’re given.

Sometimes we’re just not ready.

Those two guys I’m talking about didn’t know who I was or that I was going to be in class that night. They didn’t put on those little performances for me. They are clearly people who are ALWAYS performing. But the point is, you never know when someone who can help you is going to be watching, or who might take an interest in you and your career simply because you’re interesting.

II you are ready… and that’s a big if - you need to put yourself out there so that people can see who you are. You need to talk passionately and specifically about your work. My friend and literary idol Margaret Maron calls it “sparkling”, and Margaret truly does. You have to sparkle.

I know a lot of us have just been out there at conferences, it’s the season. Think back over your conference experiences. Did you make the most of the HUNDREDS of opportunities that presented themselves to you over the conference weekend?

You aren’t ever going to be on all the time, let’s just be realistic about that! But were you on most of the time? Did you talk passionately and specifically about your newest projects so that editor or agent on the sidelines of the group made a mental note (“Read that author” or “Keep track of that person”).

Did you sparkle?

And if you didn’t, do you maybe not present yourself at full power because somewhere inside you don’t feel ready?

I think that’s an important question for all of us to consider, and regularly. Because when it feels like we’re being held back, it’s usually something inside US that is putting the brakes on.

So those are my questions for the day, and also – who are some examples of authors who sparkle, for you?


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.

Amazon US

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Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

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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.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thriller award for "The Edge of Seventeen"!

Just returned from crazy breakneck weekend – Thrillerfest in NY, where my story “The Edge of Seventeen” from THE DARKER MASK anthology won the Thriller award for Best Short Fiction!

ThrillerMaster Award: David Morrell
In recognition of his vast body of work and influence in the field of literature

Silver Bullet Award: Brad Meltzer
For contributions to the advancement of literacy

Silver Bullet Corporate Award: Dollar General Literacy Foundation
For longstanding support of literacy and education

Best Thriller of the Year:
THE BODIES LEFT BEHIND by Jeffery Deaver (Simon & Schuster)

Best First Novel:
CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing)

Best Short Story:
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN by Alexandra Sokoloff (in Darker Mask)

Thrilled to be in that company - and very happy to be the estrogen in the lineup.

Then straight on to do signings at ALA, the American Library Association conference in Chicago.

And I have to say Chicago was as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it, ever – absolutely stunning weather, which I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say about Chicago before. I could almost have been lulled into living there if I didn’t know what happens around November. Or in July, actually.

On all fronts, a great week.

Headed into a couple of weeks of signings and interviews while doing revisions on BOOK OF SHADOWS and at the same time I have to sort out everything and, oh yeah, get back to blogging.

Not much that looks like vacation there, but I’m not complaining.

Here are some upcoming events if you’re in the Raleigh/Durham area:

July 20, Charlotte, NC, Gastonia, NC
Radio Interview, WSGE FM
Randy Walker, Host
6:00-6:30, EST

July 22, Durham, NC
The Regulator Bookshop
Reading, signing
Wednesday, 7 pm

July 27, Cary, NC
Barnes & Noble Mystery Book Club
Book discussion, signing
Cary Commons
760 SE Maynard
Monday 7 pm

THE UNSEEN - interview on North Carolina Bookwatch
Date TBA

August 29, Durham, NC
Barnes & Noble, New Hope Commons
5400 New Hope Commons
Durham, NC 27707
(919) 419-8290
Saturday, 2 – 4 pm

And some things in So Cal, too:

August 10, San Bernardino, CA
Feldheym Library, Kellogg Room
Book discussion, signing
6-8 p.m.
555 W 6th St
San Bernardino, CA 92410-3001
(909) 381-8201

August 15, Riverside, Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands, CA
Barnes & Noble
Signings at Riverside, Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands stores
Saturday, times TBA

Barnes & Noble Booksellers
27460 Lugonia Ave
Redlands, CA 92374

Barnes & Noble Booksellers
11090 Foothill Blvd
Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91730-3821
(909) 980-5586

Barnes & Noble Booksellers
Galleria at Tyler
3485 Tyler Street, Riverside, CA 92503
(951) 358-0899