Friday, March 14, 2014

Groundhog Day: Full Story Structure Breakdown

In tribute to the great Harold Ramis, here's my full story structure breakdown of one of my favorite movies of all time, the brilliant Groundhog Day.

Written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
Directed by Harold Ramis
Starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell
Running time 101 min.

Groundhog Day is one of my favorite film love stories, with a rare protagonist: an unlikable one who goes through a major character arc because of the crucible of love (and with a little help from the weather gods). Along with being a time loop story, an alternate reality story, and a high-concept comedy, it’s a great example of a male redemption story which also manages to hit all the right love story beats while at the same time completely satirizing those love story beats. It’s an anti-chick-flick story which nonetheless charms the chicks. In fact, I’m pretty certain that Ramis or Rubin, or both, made themselves a list of romantic comedy tropes and set out to mock every one of them, starting with the concept of the MAGICAL DAY — in this case, the least likely magical day you can imagine. Who ever would associate Groundhog Day with love? (But note that it is the closest holiday to Valentine's Day....)



OPENING IMAGE: This is one of my favorite, sly opening images of all time. It’s a shot of very fast moving clouds in a blue sky, with some sort of carnival music underneath. Now, this is a natural image for the story, which is about a weatherman. But I think there’s a lot more going on with this image. Those are very active clouds. I would even say they’re scheming. Yes, I’m from Berkeley and this may be some overanthropomorphizing on my part (or possibly some sort of flashback) — but I honestly think I’m on to something here. I think the filmmakers are deliberately making the weather an antagonist — and mentor — for the protagonist, who has some pretty severe need of character change. Call it weather, call it the weather gods, call it fate — but think about it. There’s no obvious human antagonist in this story. Instead, there is some kind of supernatural force working here to effect the change in surly protagonist Phil Connors.

And the shot to me also recalls the opening image of It’s a Wonderful Life, to which this film obviously owes much. In IAWL, the opening scene consists of snow falling heavily on small town Bedford Falls, with voice-over prayers for someone named George Bailey, which drift gradually upward until we fix on clusters of stars in a night sky. Two of the constellations start to talk about how this is George’s critical night — and we understand there is going to be some heavenly intercession in whatever this George Bailey’s crisis is.

And intercession is exactly what happens with Phil in Groundhog Day, in a more subtle but very effective way.

CUT TO: A news studio, with weatherman Phil Connors doing his shtick in front of a blue screen (basically waving his arms around, a nice visual depiction of the meaninglessness of his job). However, despite his sarcasm and his obvious disdain for what he does — and disdain for his coworkers, too — Phil has star quality (it’s Bill Murray, after all) and he is more than providing the show that the job calls for.

HERO’S OUTER DESIRE: Phil wants out of Pittsburg and onto a major network. One of his first off-camera lines of dialogue is that a major network is interested in him. Yes, have the hero STATE WHAT HE WANTS.

We learn right away that Phil is en route to one of his most despised shoots — up to tiny Punxsutawney to report on the annual Groundhog Day festival (the INCITING INCIDENT — he’s sent off on a job). Going with him are long-suffering cameraman Larry and wholesome, optimistic producer Rita, whom we see first on camera, trying to figure out how the blue screen works. There’s a long close up on Phil’s face as he watches her — it looks like he thinks this woman is a moron. At least, that’s what we would expect him to be thinking. Actually, this is his real CALL TO ADVENTURE (so often in a love story the CALL is seeing the beloved for the first time). And much later in the story Phil confesses to a sleeping Rita what he was actually thinking when he looked at her — it’s a wonderful PLANT.

So they’re off on the road; under the credits we see shots of the big city (relatively), Pittsburgh, then the van drives over a bridge and into snow-dusted mountains with small towns. (The song: “I’m Your Weatherman)." This is the first, more overt INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD moment. Remember that bridges are overt symbols of transition and change.  Out of the city, into a small mountain town. This kind of contrast underscores the feeling of newness and adventure we want to experience in an Into The Special World transition. But a second, more magical INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD is coming...  

In the van, Phil mocks both the festival and impossibly upbeat Rita mercilessly, but still does it with enough Bill Murray charm that we see Rita is amused, and attracted. (Right off the bat we get the DANCE scene — they play well together and Rita is unflapped by Phil’s volleys; she’s able to keep his humor from descending into outright meanness. But meanness is definitely a danger; Phil desperately needs redeeming.)

The crew arrives on Main Street, Punxsutawney, which if you ask me looks exactly like Bedford Falls. Rita has booked Phil into a nice B&B while she and Larry are staying in a cheap hotel. She tells him to “Get some sleep.”

Lights out, and then up on the clock alarm by Phil’s bed (this clock will play a huge role) — clicking over to 6 a.m. for the first time in the film as “I Got You, Babe,” plays. (I have to think this is the Fates having a laugh; they certainly have “got” Phil. But of course, it’s also a love song … ) The whole following sequence — every comic bit, line of dialogue, action and character in it — is the master sequence for all the variations on it that are to come.

• Phil washes up at the sink to the obnoxious patter of the radio jockeys talking about Groundhog Day.
• Phil is scathing to a cheery overweight guest in the upstairs hall.
• Downstairs, Phil mocks the even more cheery proprietress of the B&B.
• On the street, Phil joins the townspeople heading toward Gobbler’s Knob.
• Phil pretends he has no money for the elderly panhandler on a street corner.
• Ned Ryerson, a high school non-friend of Phil’s, recognizes him and tries to sell him life insurance.
• Phil steps in an icy pothole while trying to escape from Ned.
• Phil walks through the throngs of Groundhog Day festival-goers at the Knob (as the band plays “The Pennsylvania Polka”) to join Rita and Larry. Phil does the TV commentary on the groundhog festival: groundhog “Phil” is removed from his cave, consults with town fathers, and sees his shadow. Six more weeks of winter (FORESHADOWING).
• Phil insists on leaving town immediately.
• On the road, the crew hits a roadblock — cars are being turned back because of a big blizzard. (HERO LOCKED INTO THE SITUATION.)
(This is a trope in romantic comedy — the Fates seem to intervene in the form of the weather, forcing the hero or heroine onto a path s/he hadn’t planned for, as we see in New in Town and Leap Year. Groundhog Day takes this and many other romantic comedy clichés and mocks them at the same time as it gets all the mileage it can out of the romance of the situations — which is a big reason the story appealed equally to male and female audiences. Note that the same slightly surreal music from the opening shot is playing under this scene — it’s the Fates stepping in, I’m telling you! I’d also call this the ANTAGONIST’S PLAN. It’s just delicious that the weather has turned into Phil’s opponent. And Phil knows it, as he rails at the roadblock cop: “I make the weather.” (Uh, oh — if I’m not mistaken, this is DEFYING THE GODS. It’s never good when mortals do that …)
• Back in the B&;B, Phil can’t find transportation or even a phone line out of town.
• In his room he tries to shower and is assaulted by icy water; the pipes are frozen.
• He goes to bed. (18:30)


And in the morning, Phil wakes up — to the exact same clock shot, the exact same song, the exact same radio patter. Phil assumes the repetition is a studio gaffe: they’ve put in yesterday’s tape by mistake. (A great rational response to a bizarre situation.) But when he looks out the window there’s very little snow on the ground, and people seem to be headed toward Gobbler’s Knob in droves, just as they did yesterday.

And here’s the second, more subtle, but real CROSSING THE THRESHOLD/INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD: when Phil wakes up in the morning to a replaying of the day he just spent. The filmmakers cue this moment with the shot of the clock alarm clicking over to 6 a.m., while “I Got You, Babe” plays on the radio. It’s a big visual that will repeat and repeat and repeat. The numbers on the clock are like a door, and they usher Phil into the real Special World: a time loop where every day is Groundhog Day and there’s no escaping Punxsutawney, PA.

Out in the hallway he runs into the same portly guest, who asks him the same cheery questions. Phil starts to get uneasy then attacks the guest, demanding to know what’s going on.

In the breakfast room, a dazed Phil is nicer to the proprietress just from shock.

He is increasingly distressed as he goes to Gobbler’s Knob (meeting Ned again, stepping in the icy pothole) and finds the festivities occurring in the same order. His newscast is considerably less sarcastic, and Rita wonders.

By now sure that the blizzard is coming and he’s trapped, Phil doesn’t leave in the van with Larry and Rita. At the B&B he again phones a travel agent and tries to get out of town some other way; when the travel agent suggests he try again tomorrow, Phil rails, “What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t today.” A nice bit of comic dialogue that also clearly states Phil’s FEAR. (SPELL IT OUT.)

Before he goes to sleep he breaks a pencil and sets it on the bed table. (TESTING THE RULES.) (25:44)

Phil wakes for the third time to the same song, the same radio banter. The pencil is intact, reconstituted.

Phil speeds through the same sequence of events, then at Gobbler’s Knob tells Rita he’s not going to do the show; he’s already done it twice already, and something is terribly wrong. Rita insists he do the show, they’ll talk after. (27:30)

At the diner, Phil tells Rita “I’m reliving the day over and over. I need help.”

Rita thinks he needs a doctor. (So this is the minor, initial PLAN.) Note the stopped clocks on the wall behind Phil, and the bumper sticker that says “The Spirit” behind Rita. In fact, the Tip Top café logo outside on the building is a clock — with no hands.

Rita and Larry take Phil to a doctor. The CAT scan is clean; the doctor suggests a shrink. Phil visits a very young psychologist who has no idea what to do with his problem but suggests they meet again tomorrow.

Phil gets drunk in a bowling alley with two locals. He asks them: “What if you woke up in the same place every day and every day was just the same and there was nothing you could do about it?” The men seem to feel that’s life, in a nutshell. (THEME.) As they leave the bar, the two men are way too drunk to drive, so Phil gets into the driver’s seat of the car and then suddenly takes off, asking, “What if there were no consequences?” One of the drunks answers, “We could do whatever we wanted.” And Phil says, “Exactly.” (PLAN). He races through the town, picking up a police tail, drives on the railroad tracks, barely missing a train, and crashes into a giant groundhog cutout in a parking lot. The sequence ends with the jail cell door closing on Phil … (35 min).

ACT ONE CLIMAX (A comic car chase, crash, SETPIECE.)

… and Phil wakes up in the morning in the B&B bed, to the same clock, the same song. 



… and Phil wakes up in the B&B bed, to the same clock, the same song. This time he is elated, though. Downstairs, he asks the proprietress if the cops have been by looking for him, and when she says no, he kisses her. He announces “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore!” We see immediately his PLAN is to take every advantage of his new situation (and we’re already looking forward to what Bill Murray is going to do with this). (37 min.)

At the diner, Rita watches in disgust as Phil eats a huge spread of various full breakfasts and pastries, and then lights up a cigarette. She quotes Sir Walter Scott, “The Wretch” at him. Phil laughs: “You think I’m egocentric?” Rita replies, “I know you’re egocentric. It’s your defining characteristic.” (THE AWFUL TRUTH, and sets up CHARACTER ARC.) On the way out, Phil stops to talk to an attractive woman diner (Nancy) and asks a series of questions about where she went to high school and her English teacher’s name. We sense what’s coming.

Then next day, Phil finds Nancy at Gobbler’s Knob and pretends to recognize her from high school. She doesn’t know him but is convinced by the details he knows, and impressed that he’s a TV weatherman, and is happy to meet him later.

That night Phil makes out with Nancy in his room, but keeps calling her Rita.

Phil continues to take advantage of his situation; in a montage he uses his foreknowledge of events to steal money from a bank truck, buy a classic car, and seduce more women.


Now Phil turns his attention to Rita. He sabotages the van so he can get Rita for a whole day, and in a series of scenes, he takes several days — or maybe weeks — in a row to learn a great deal about her and refine his seduction story, feigning that her favorite drink is also his, that he wants the same lifestyle that she does, even learning to quote French poetry. (This is a wonderfully comic takeoff on the standard GETTING TO KNOW YOU scene and apparent cosmic synchronicities of romantic comedy — it’s all a complete game to Phil.) 

(43 min.)

Rita is suspicious of his attention (proving she’s the right person for him) but over a series of dates (actually, the same date) she starts to warm to him. Finally they have a genuinely beautiful night, with a spontaneous snowball fight and some real chemistry, even dancing in a gazebo.

Phil manages to charm Rita up to his room (54 min.), but there he becomes too aware of the rapidly ticking clock and comes on too strong. Rita is suddenly certain this has all been some kind of setup, and slaps him.

The next night Phil runs through the same sequence, trying to recreate the same magic, which of course he can’t. He becomes increasingly manic and desperate (with a hilarious takeoff on the GOSH, WOULDN’T WE MAKE GOOD PARENTS trope of romantic comedy) and Rita slaps him again.

Cut to a montage of slaps.

Phil finally walks home in the dark, past a lineup of ice sculptures of human-sized groundhogs (EXTERNALIZING HIS OPPONENT — or what he is coming to think of as his opponent. Also groundhog Phil is Phil’s DOPPELGANGER).

This is the MIDPOINT — a big, big defeat. 58 min.



In the next days we see Phil starting to crack. He gives increasingly offensive newscasts on the festival. The alarm clock looms larger and larger and Phil destroys it again and again. (Great EXTERNALIZATION OF OPPONENT.) He’s given up.

(Also note that it is a very common technique in romantic comedy, as well as other genres, to open the second half of the film with a montage, to show passage of time, progression, or as here, that the protagonist is stuck.)

Rita is clearly concerned about him, sensing an emotional break. Phil in fact becomes convinced that this is all Phil the groundhog’s doing and kidnaps the other Phil (after bidding Rita an emotional goodbye: “Remember that we once had one beautiful night together.”). After a police chase, Phil drives into a quarry and drives the car off a cliff; it explodes, killing both Phils. But the next morning Phil wakes in bed again, whole. (1.05)


There follows a series of suicide attempts, none of which take. (A whole VISIT TO DEATH montage!) A devastated Rita identifies Phil at the morgue; Larry is delighted to comfort her. (1:06)
In the diner, Phil desperately tries to talk to Rita again. He takes her around the diner and tells her everything about everyone in it, and everything that’s going to happen. Then he tells her everything he knows about her. Then he writes down exactly what Larry is about to come in and say, which Larry does. Rita finally believes him. She says she’s going to spend the rest of the day with him as an objective witness to see what happens. (1.10)

Back in Phil’s room, they bond while tossing cards into a hat on the bed. Phil is a master at it — he’s spent the last six months learning how. Rita asks, “This is how you spend eternity?” (A nice nudge toward Phil’s eventual revelation.) Phil says the worst part is that tomorrow she’ll wake up and not remember any of this and treat him like he’s a jerk again. Rita says he’s not a jerk, but Phil admits “I am a jerk.” (CHARACTER GROWTH.) Rita says the situation might not be so bad: “Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. Maybe it’s not a curse.” She snuggles up to him at midnight — then hits him when he doesn’t disappear. He says it doesn’t happen until 6 a.m. (even Phil’s MAGICAL HOUR is warped) — and asks her to stay. Platonically.

Phil reads poetry to Rita in bed as she falls asleep. Then he confesses to her that he thinks she’s wonderful. “I’ve never seen anyone that’s as nice to people as you are. The first time I saw you something happened to me … I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don’t deserve someone like you, but if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.” 

An interesting image here — the ice on the window looks like the eye of God, watching, and seeing Phil's growth.

But at 6 a.m. the song plays, and Phil wakes up in bed, alone.  (ALL IS LOST) (1:15)



But something has changed, after all: it’s Phil. He goes through the next day only doing good for others. (Essentially, being as nice to people as Rita is.) He brings coffee and pastries to Larry and Rita at the shoot, and suggests a new camera position — but only if Larry agrees.

Phil reads by himself in the diner and finds he’s enjoying himself. He signs up for piano lessons. He learns ice sculpting. When he runs into Ned on the street, he pretends to be in love with him, and Ned flees. Then one night he finds the homeless man passed out on the street. He takes him to the hospital and refuses to accept it when the old man dies. In the next days he feeds the homeless man all day long, but he always still dies (another VISIT TO DEATH and revelation — it’s not overtly stated, but Phil’s next actions show that he’s changed again; he’s feeling his own mortality, which sparks a drive to do good deeds).




(I think this whole next sequence counts as the FINAL BATTLE.)

The next morning at the Knob, Phil does a groundhog report so eloquent that all the other stations turn their cameras on him. Rita is so impressed she wants to have coffee with him, but he turns her down, saying he has “errands” to do.

Phil rushes through the town doing good deeds: saving a kid who falls from a tree, changing a tire for three elderly ladies, performing the Heimlich Maneuver on a man choking in a restaurant. And this obviously isn’t the first time …

That night there’s a big charity party. Larry tries to hit on Nancy, then Rita comes in, looking for Phil. Phil is the man of the hour, playing smoking hot boogie with the band while all the townspeople dance. When he sees Rita, he plays a romantic flourish, and then comes down to dance with her. As they dance, townspeople come up to thank him for all he’s done. Rita is stunned … then wants to know exactly what’s going on. Phil wants to tell her, but they’re interrupted as Phil is pulled up onto the stage for the charity auction. Rita outbids all the other women bidders to get Phil alone. As they leave, Ned comes up, bursting with happiness because Phil has just bought every insurance policy available. (This is giving all the supporting players their FINAL BOWS, an important element in romantic comedy.) (1.33)

In the park, Phil sculpts a beautiful ice carving of Rita. She’s overwhelmed. He tells her, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now because I love you.” (CHARACTER ARC) They kiss, and it begins to snow. (CLIMAX — and A BLESSING FROM THE WEATHER, I think!)

CUT TO: 6 a.m. Phil wakes to “I Got You Babe” … and then the radio guys go on to argue about the song, a completely different patter. Phil realizes Rita is beside him. (1.35) A dazed Phil asks her “Why are you here?” and Rita says, “I bought you. I own you.”

Phil goes to the window and sees the town blanketed in snow; the time loop has been broken. He gets back in bed and kisses Rita, and as they begin to make love, we see, faintly, the eye of God in the window again.

RESOLUTION AND NEW WAY OF LIFE: Phil and Rita come out of the B&B to a sparkling white day. Phil says, “It’s so beautiful! Let’s live here!” They kiss again, and Phil amends, “We’ll rent first.” The arch of the gateway in front of them looks like a bridal arch, and Phil lifts Rita over the fence like a bride as they go out into the world.  (Romantic comedy very often ends with a wedding or, as we see here, a symbolic suggestion of a wedding).

Of course, there’s a CUT TO those clouds for the credits, and a great song, “It’s Almost Like Being In Love.” (Which starts, “What a day this has been … ”)



If you find these story breakdowns helpful, you can find more in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks. Different breakdowns in each book.

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II,  available in e formats and as pdf files.

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (a Number 1 Amazon Bestseller in Mystery Writing) - $3.99


Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II - $2.99
(Even more story structure material than Book I, and more story breakdowns, too!)

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

(Includes full story structure breakdowns of ten films of all genres.)


Unknown said...

Great article, you bring accross the charm of the movie very well.

Since you are an expert in the genre, I want to ask you two questions:

Do you know any great examples of the "keeping or regaining love" type. As a romantic subplot in other genres, I really enjoy this type. But I can't remember any movie, they all seem to be about "finding love". Except one, which brings me to question 2.

What do you think of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", the Brangelina movie? While the acting, pacing, filming and editing and the whole mise-en-scene are action movie, it is at it's core - theme and plot, dialog and character interaction - a romantic comedy of that unusual type. Maybe that's why it was not too successful? I love that movie, not the least because the pair's discussion during the interrogation scene reflects my male parenting experience so well. And the movie ends with a really beautiful DANCE, turning about back-to-back each dual-wielding automatic weapons, firing at the world full of foes ...

Rhonda Lane said...

Thank you, Alex, for this educational, informational tribute. So nice to have it compiled, all together like this.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Timothy - the "love is better the second time around" plot was a staple in 30's and 40's romantic comedy - my favorite being the great Philadelphia Story. A much more recent version of this theme is Sweet Home Alabama. A lot of my workshop students seem to like it - I think it's pretty trite.

I have to admit that I'd rather stick needles in my eyes than watch the Mr. and Mrs. Smith remake, but I understand other people have different tastes! :) The end of the movie sounds like a ripoff - I mean homage - to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You're always welcome, Rhonda!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

PS - also to Timothy - if what you're actually asking is are there great rom coms with happily married partners, well - the Thin Man series, for sure!

Unknown said...

Hi Alex, you read me, thanks for reminding me of the wonderful Thin Man.

Regarding "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", for starters, I didn't watch it as a remake, never having seen the Hitchcock (?) movie. And I can certainly understand your view. The end of the movie is indeed Bolivian Army Standoff. IMHO the beauty is that it's not only a (or the only?) proper resolution for most "against the system" plot, but also doubles as a DANCE showing the bliss the couple has reached.

Now I'll put my tongue in cheek so you can stay away from the needles.

Please practice safe moviewatching!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Timothy, lol! Fine, I'll step away from the needles. I tend toward the dramatic...

Gary said...

I hope you are well. I have a couple of questions that I am hoping you can help me with. I have read your Screenwriting Tricks For Authors book which was fantastic, but there are a couple of things I still haven’t been able to figure out and would love to hear your thoughts on. The three questions are below.

1. Below I have put my character’s outer want and inner need. However, does the outer ‘want' have to specifically be the external story line for the hero? I believe you were saying in the book that the outer want can be anything, such as Clarice’s want for job advancement in Silence of the Lambs (SOTL), which in this instance would not be the story's external storyline which is that she hopes to "catch the killer”. Can the hero’s want be completely unrelated to the main want of the external storyline?

My hero’s outer want: To do everything the same as able-bodied people and to play the typical hero.
My hero’s inner need: To be himself and help people.

My outer story line is the hero and a group of people heading out to a dead city to discover what happened to their missing fathers. The hero has a disability. My concern is that the external storyline could be partly summed up as ‘To find out what happened to their fathers”, so I’m unsure if that should be his want rather than “To do everything the same as able-bodied people and to play the typical hero.”

I hope the above makes sense and any clarification would be great.

2. You mention that ideally the inner need can only be obtained by sacrificing the outer want. Would this imply, from my story example above, that he could only "be himself and help people” by stopping his attempts to “do everything the same as able-bodied people” / playing “the typical hero”?

3. Last question. You mention that at the midpoint, they have to make a change of plans to get what they want because things occur at the midpoint which turn everything on its head and locks them in to a course of action. Even though they need to change their plans, does their original story question (goal) set at the beginning of Act Two have to remain the same throughout?

For example, in my story, if they set off to the dead city to find out what happened to their fathers, and then at the midpoint discover their fathers were killed while trying to obtain a cure for a virus plaguing the population, is this changing things too much? At the beginning of Act Two, the PLAN for the heroes was “to find out what happened to their fathers at the city", but then after the midpoint, the PLAN becomes “to obtain the cure their fathers could not”. The original story question of ‘find out what happened to their fathers” was answered at the midpoint. I’m not sure if this is allowed or if the original story question needs to be maintained throughout, with the plans obviously being allowed to change.

Perhaps in my case above I would need to delay the answer of what happened to their fathers until the act two climax if I need to keep the original set story question?

Hopefully my questions make sense, and I really appreciate you taking the time to read this.

Any help you can give me would be absolutely fantastic and very much appreciated.


Anonymous said...

I'm devouring every word of your blog. Your insight is amazing and your posts are so interesting. You've been a huge inspiration to me as I work on my YA novel.
"Groundhog Day" is also one of my favorite movies of all time.

I wanted to ask if you would consider doing a structure breakdown of the movie "National Treasure." Not sure if it's in your interest area, but if so, I'd love to see your breakdown of that movie.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Gary - I'll try to answer your questions, but let me see if I'm understanding this.

----1. Below I have put my character’s outer want and inner need. However, does the outer ‘want' have to specifically be the external story line for the hero? I believe you were saying in the book that the outer want can be anything, such as Clarice’s want for job advancement in Silence of the Lambs (SOTL), which in this instance would not be the story's external storyline which is that she hopes to "catch the killer”. Can the hero’s want be completely unrelated to the main want of the external storyline?----

First of al, the inner and outer desires can be whatever you feel they are - these aren't rigid rules, just observations on what generally happens/works! Clarice's desire at the beginning of Silence of the Lambs is for advancement, but as soon as Catherine is abducted her desire becomes very personal and urgent: to save Catherine's life. And "to catch the killer/save Catherine's life" is the central story action and drive of the film.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

It sounds like "“To do everything the same as able-bodied people and to play the typical hero.” is your hero's inner desire.

Now, you also have a group desire: "to find their fathers" - but I can't tell from what you've said if your hero is also looking for his father. If so, then it sounds like you might be playing with some ambivalence on your hero's part - maybe he starts out faking a concern for his father and but inwardly wanting to prove himself able-bodied, but as the journey progresses, he realizes his father means more to him. But I don't know if that's where you're going from what you've given me.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

-----2. You mention that ideally the inner need can only be obtained by sacrificing the outer want. Would this imply, from my story example above, that he could only "be himself and help people” by stopping his attempts to “do everything the same as able-bodied people” / playing “the typical hero”?-----

I'm sure I never said that the inner need can ONLY be obtained by sacrificing the outer want!!!! Again, these are only observations about how story patterns often work.

The question I think you need to ask yourself is, "How is your hero WRONG about what he wants in some way?" Because it seems like you're wrestling with a story in which your hero becomes the hero he wants to be in a way that he wouldn't have predicted - that has more to do with other people than himself. And yes, that would likely mean him sacrificing some kind of glory to help someone else.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

And as for number 3: Of course the PLAN can change radically at the midpoint. Yes, you have a huge defeat at your Midpoint - their fathers are dead. But thematically and metaphorically, they are still "finding their fathers" by carrying on their fathers' work. Do you see what I mean? It's a new, exciting and meaningful plan.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Also, Gary, you may want to look at An Officer and a Gentleman for a great example of a selfish hero growing enough to sacrifice his own self-interest for the sake of the team (and becoming an officer before our eyes in a wonderful climactic scene).

But overall, it sounds like you're on the right track with an exciting story.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Jenny! Thanks for commenting - I'm so glad the posts and books are being useful to you.

National Treasure, hmm. I have to admit I'm not a big Nicholas Cage fan. I generally only break down movies I really love or that make a very clear point for my readers. It's just too much work!

Anonymous said...

great article! thanks:)

Stacy Chbosky said...

Hi! This article was great. I would love to hear your thoughts on the Act 2 Climax / Break into 3 for Groundhog Day. Because you list the "All Is Lost" / Act 2 climax as Phil waking up alone after falling asleep with Rita... but then there is another whole sequence (Sequence 7, including Phil being kind & the old homeless man dying) before Phil "breaks into 3" with his eloquent newscast and spate of good deeds. I always structure my stuff Save the Cat style, with All Is Lost going directly into Dark Night of the Soul then directly into Break Into 3. But Groundhog Day doesn't do that -- it has a lot more breathing room -- and it's genius. So I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about the space that can exist around Act Breaks. ps I just bought your book :)

Lionel Nashe said...

I'm rewatching the film now and making notes, to get a clear grip on the structure. This is a very nice write-up. Just what I was looking for.