Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Plot & Structure Analysis - Notting Hill

When I come across a book or a movie that I like, I immediately want to analyze what they did right. I want to learn from it, but also appreciate the clever use of tried and true techniques. It takes creativity and ingenuity to write yet another love story, while at the same time keep the story fresh.

A tool I use to study effective structure is from James Scott Bell's best seller "Plot & Structure." Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, it's wise to consider the major scenes of your story and how they sustain the story starting with the first sentence all the way to "The End."

Quick Refresher

The foundation this model is built on is that stories follow the three act structure: Beginning (Act I), the long middle (Act II), and the end (Act III).

Mr. Bell argues that a novel's structure is held together with a well thought out initial disturbance and two doorways of no return leading to grand finale. 

Early in Act I, we come face-to-face with a disturbance. This is where the lead's normal life is altered (it can be a change, trouble, etc.)

Act I ends when we arrive at the first Doorway of No Return. This is the transition into the confrontation of Act II. The key is that it must be a doorway of no return. If the lead can say, "Screw it, I don't care anymore," then there's no real conflict. It needs to matter, greatly. And turning back needs to be impossible (physically or emotionally).

Throughout the second act, the stakes need to rise. It needs to build up to something drastic which makes the resolution or winning even more critical than ever before. Act II is the longest portion of the story.

This leads us to the second Doorway of No Return. Like the first one, it's a kick in the pants, with no choice but to enter the doorway. This propels us into the final battle, the confrontation, the do or die section of the novel. This second doorway drives us directly into Act III, the waging of battle.

Finally, with the end of Act III comes the final battle and resolution. Then there's the aftermath where the story leaves a lasting impression, or a resonance.

The book has plenty of samples and clarifying explanations. But with this high level refresher in mind (because I know that you've read the book and if you haven't you can win it -- see my contest), let's see how it works in the real world.

Applying The Model

I like real examples. I need to see it. More importantly, I need to do it on my own to internalize it. Although on the surface I get it, concepts never really sink in until I apply it to things that I understand. For illustration (and educational) purposes, I will apply it to a romantic comedy, Notting Hill.

Notting Hill -- Starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant

SPOILER ALERT -- If you haven't seen the movie, I will be giving away key plot points and the ending. You really should watch it. It's a fun movie.

The Hero - HG
The Heroine - JR

The Disturbance

HG is a not-so-successful book store owner (they only sell travel books--clearly, he has not been following the industry trends). In walks the biggest actress of the time. He immediately recognizes her, but does his best to be low-key about it. Is this the disturbance? Sure, a mini disturbance no doubt. But the real one is coming.

A couple of funny scenes later, she buys a book and leaves. He's a bit taken by the surreal nature of the experience, but moves on. HG leaves the store to buy coffee and juice. On his return he runs into JR spilling the juice all over her. Major disturbance.

First Doorway of No Return

She's a mess, but as luck would have it, he lives across the street. She needs to change so she agrees to go there. She changes, he apologizes, they laugh, she leaves. All's sort of back to normal, right? But you can see that trouble is brewing. They stare a little too long, smile a little too easily. But she's gone. Done... maybe not.

Doorbell rings. It's her. She forgot her bag at his home. She grabs it, they stare at each other and... she kisses him! No friendly kiss on the cheek. This is the real deal.

Is this a kick in the pants? I don't know about the rest of you, but if a world-famous actress, who's the hottest thing on the planet, kisses you in a passionate moment, chances are things will not be the same for you. You have slipped down the rabbit hole. THE FIRST DOORWAY. This is a key point. He's a regular guy, going through the motions of life and the biggest celebrity has suddenly kissed him.

Escalation of Stakes

We're in Act II now. She leaves but the very next day calls him. More funny scenes ensure (otherwise, it wouldn't be a romantic comedy). She joins him as his date to his little sister's birthday. This is a classic scene that you must see. After dinner they take a walk and enter a private park in Notting Hill when she has an emotional moment, realizing that people do sometimes love each other forever. They kiss again and they fall for each other.

But all's not well.

Turns out, she has a boyfriend (another famous actor). And when he shows up in London, HG understands that he was silly and naive to think that an average bloke like him, would ever have a chance.

She leaves, he's broken hearted. Things are not the same for him. He is damaged. This is the escalation of conflict.

Second Doorway

Some months later, out of nowhere, she shows up at his house.

She's distrught. Pictures taken of her when she was younger have hit the rags -- nude shots. He takes her in and comforts her. She's a mess but in a short period of time, he gives her peace, comfort and more importantly friendship.

Later that night, they make love. The next morning, she asks if she can stay with him longer. He says, "Stay forever."

That's the SECOND DOORWAY. He's in love. He wants her to stay with him--forever! There's no turning back now. Impossible.

Lights Out

We're in Act III now. And you know what that means--something's got to go wrong. And that's when the Fit hits the Shan. The fairy tale doesn't last long.

In fact, it lasts, about 25 seconds in movie time. The paparazzi find her at his home and take pictures of them in their underware.

She pops a fuse, blaming him, saying that he will get all the benefit of the exposure, while she will regret it forever. This breaks his heart. She goes diva on him and storms out (typical celebrity).

It's all bad at this point. Months pass. He's in a state of depression. This is appropriate for someone who has entered through the second doorway. He had it all... for a few seconds, but still had it all, and now she's gone.

He then hears that she's been in London filming a new movie. He needs to see her (emotional death is at stake if he's not with her), so he goes to visit.

She's a bit distant but invites him in. As he watches them shoot, he hears her tell a co-star that she doesn't know why he (HG) showed up. HG finally gets it. He leaves without saying a word.

Final Battle

The next day, she shows up at his bookstore. This is another classic scene. He turns her down when she asks if they can try again. She explains that she didn't want her co-star to know what was really going on in her life. But as far as HG is concerned, his heart can't take it anymore. He needs to have a clean break, because he's certain that she will break his heart again. She leaves with a classic gut-wrenching scene. "Remember, that I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." She walks out and he's left there planted.

But a romantic comedy must have a happy ending, right?

He calls his friends and recounts what happened. As he explains the whole thing to them, it dawns on him that he was a "daft prick" and got it all wrong.

The chase is on.

They're trying to find her before she leaves the country. They finally find her at a press conference where she's explaining that she will take a break for some time and leave London immediately. The last question, goes to the gentleman in the pink shirt. Yup, it's HG. He asks her to take him back in front of the press, and of course, she does. A true knockout ending. Done with brilliance.

The aftermath

We see a montage of scenes from red carpet appearances together, to their wedding, to the final scene where they're in the same private Notting Hill park where she learned to believe in everlasting love. They're on a bench. He's reading a book. She's laying her head on his lap while caressing her tummy -- she's pregnant.

Everyone--even the mega-stars and bookstore owners--deserve happiness.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has been helpful. Try it. Pick a movie, TV show, or a novel and see if you can identify these scenes. When they're done well, they make the story world believable. And the more you do it, you'll get a better feel for what makes for convincing scenes that move the plot along.

I have a separate journal for this type of analysis.

Do you also analyze your favorite movies and books? Do you dissect them to see what made them great? How do you do it? What do you look for? Do share.

Fight the good fight!


  1. Great analysis. JSB's book is worth reading and re-reading. And well, I adore this movie so that helps. Her return scene (her I'm just a girl speech) is the emotional peak.

  2. Now I have to go watch that movie, but I do this all the time. Maybe not this in depth, but I'm always looking for the major turning points and the all is lost moment (and annoyingly point them out to my family). I once analyzed Romancing the Stone scene by scene. Enlightening, but exhausting! ;-)

    Good stuff, Ara!

  3. Debra, thank you for visiting. That return scene always gets me. Her forced smile, while trying to hold back the avalanche of emotions is inspired!

    Gwen, you crack me up :) Love Romancing the Stone! Another classic. I haven't seen that in years. I wonder if Netflix has it for a quick fix! )

    I saw an interesting tweet from JSB late yesterday. He found his original notebook of 100 movies that he analyzed for plot & structure. He then followed up by saying that after the 20th analysis he had the breakthrough.

    Thank you both!

  4. All right, all right. I'll go analyze some more. If I get a divorce out of this I can blame you, right? ;-)

  5. Gwen, let's think about this. Your husband is in the USAF. That means he can hurt me. If I cause the divorce, that means he will hurt me. Okay, forget this silly analysis business. It's not that insightful :)

  6. LOL, it's not his military status you need to worry about, it's his black belt in Tae Kwon Do. ;-)


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