I know all you screenwriting students out there are sick of the word “structure,” but once in a great while I watch a movie that perfectly exemplifies all the rules that are laid out in the thousands of screenwriting tomes at Barnes and Noble.
I use the Three Act Template as my structural model. It’s simple and easy to track, and instead of reading a book about how these landmarks work, I like to watch them in action.
I recently saw “True Grit,” written and directed by my faves The Coen Brothers.
If you haven’t seen the film, SPOILER ALERT!!!!
If you have, here’s how the movie lays out structurally…
Inciting incident —Mattie Ross’s father is killed. She’s determined to get revenge on Chaney, the man who killed him. (See, the protagonist has a simple strong goal. The inciting incident happens on page one—he’s dead. The primary story gets started, pronto.)
Mattie tries to find a fierce man to hunt him down. She hears Rooster Cogburn is the meanest.
She asks Cogburn to help her find Chaney. He refuses.
She tries again, thinks she has a deal with him.
At the appointed time, she goes to meet him to leave, and discovers that he’s left with Le Boeouf, a US Marshall who’s also looking for Chaney. She’s furious that he’s decided to catch Chaney without her.
ACT I Turning Point-- She follows him (bravely riding her horse Little Blackie across a treacherous river) and insists she’s going. LB tries spanking her. Cogburn tells him to stop, and that she can come. The adventure begins.
Follow the trajectory created by the first turning point-- She and Cogburn and LeBouef travel together.
Le Boeuf and Cogburn say they want to bring Chaney to justice in Texas. Mattie says no way. LB goes off on his own.
Mattie and Cogburn travel together by themselves.
Mattie and Cogburn find her dad’s gold piece that Chaney stole, discover he’s joined up with Ned Pepper’s gang.
After walking a long way, the weather turns bad. Cogburn says he knows of a cabin where they can take shelter.
They arrive at the cabin. Two men are already there. Mattie and Cogburn ask about Pepper. One of the men starts to talk, and his partner stabs him. Cogburn kills the stabber. Before he dies, the first stabbed man manages to tell them that Pepper’s gang is coming there tonight.
Midpoint—Mattie and Cogburn wait for them on a high ridge. LeBouef randomly rides up before Pepper’s gang. The gang shows up, lassos LB. Cogburn shoots to save LB. This triggers a big shootout (no kidding, it’s a Western!) The scene ends with Chaney and Ned escaping.
Cogburn knows where they are going. Mattie and LB leave with him to find them.
The Big Gloom—They get to where Cogburn thought Chaney was. He’s not there. LB and Cogburn fight. Cogburn wants out. He says, “I’ve been drawn into a wild goose chase with a harpy in pants and a nincompoop.” Mattie is disgusted with Cogburn, asks to go with LB, but he’s giving up on finding Chaney too. It’s not worth it.
No one will help Mattie go after Chaney. She has to do it on her own. The next morning, while bathing, she runs into Chaney. She manages to shoot him in the side, but is taken captive. Now she’s in the clutches of Ned Pepper’s gang.
Chaney tries to kill Mattie. LB rescues her.
They hear something and look down from their high ridge. Cogburn rides his horse straight into a standoff with Pepper’s gang. It’s 4 against 1. Cogburn manages to kill a couple of guys, but falls off his horse. Ned rides up, is about to kill him, when LB shoots Ned from their high perch.
ACT II Turning Point—LB and M ride down to help Cogburn. Again, Chaney tries to kill Mattie. She shoots him but falls down a hole and gets bitten by a snake. Cogburn tries to suck the venom out, but she’ll die unless he gets her to a doctor.
Race to the Climax—Cogburn literally races on Little Blackie to get her to the doctor. When the horse fails, he must shoot the animal. Mattie is distraught. He runs with her in his arms.
Climax—Cogburn fights to keep going over difficult terrain. He makes it. He has done something he never could have done at the beginning of the movie-- cared for the girl so much that he risked his own life to get her to safety. He falls to his knees.
Brief Resolution—It’s 25 years later. We find out Mattie lost an arm, but is alive. Cogburn travels with a Wild West show. She goes to see him, finds out he died. She has his body moved to her family plot.
What’s truly interesting about this movie is how the main character shifts from being Mattie right up to the ACT II turning point, to Cogburn in ACT III. While Mattie drives the action in the early story, Cogburn is the one who almost kills himself to save her in the end. He’s the one who is transformed.
There are also some amazingly well done expositional tricks at play in this film.
Definitely worth a study!