It's the first Wednesday of the month, and you know what that means .... Insecure Writer's Support Group posting around the blogosphere. I've been a part of this group since it started a couple years ago and I can say there isn't a more supportive and uplifting writing community out there.
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I took a blogging break over the last six months or so, but I knew I wanted to come back for IWSG Wednesday because you have all been there for me over the years, and I want to be there for you.
BTW .... for some reason Blogger likes to eat my comments on your blogs. On some blogs it's no problem and my comments append, and on others, I comment repeatedly and nothing happens. So if anyone knows WHY this happens, please let me know so I can fix it.
Alright, let's get to it.
Today I'm breaking down the structural beats of the widely loved film, Shawshank Redemption. It's based on a Stephen King novel, and after hearing so many people say this is one of their all time favorite films, I had to get in there and dissect it. I confess, I love it, too. It's an epic story of redemption. The stakes are high, and things continue to get worse and worse, until our main character is hanging by the last thread of his sanity. And we love watching him come out on top in the end.
Here's the breakdown using the Save the Cat method on story structural beats:
A 1940s car in a gravel driveway of a middle class suburban home. Inside the car is Andy Dufrane (played by Tim Robbins). Old timey music is playing on the car radio. Andy has a look of distress on his face. He reaches for a gun from the glove box, holds it. Then takes a drink of liquor and focuses on the house in front of him. We never see what happens next.
(Does your story have an opening image that sets the tone for the entire story??)
We jump to a courtroom trial with Andy on the stand. The prosecuting attorney recaps the events that got him there. Andy’s wife had a lover and Andy allegedly shot and killed both his wife and her lover in cold, meditated murder. We hear both sides of the case, from the lawyer and from Andy’s testimony, but we are unable to determine if he’s guilty, and it’s an era before forensic science could prove a case. Andy is stoic and un-remorseful, giving him a look of guilt.
(Perfect example of leaving the audience with questions and wanting to know more)
Regardless of Andy’s claim to his innocence, he is doubly sentenced to life in prison, stating the theme that offenders go on to receive their punishment, pay their debts, so that justice is served. Freedom is taken away from those who commit a crime.
(This theme provides a delicious twist of irony in the end)
Andy is sent to prison for reform. Welcome to Shawshank.
We cut to Red (played by Morgan Freeman) and he is sitting in front of a parole board trying to prove he has been reformed. He tries to convince them he’s no longer a danger to society. He is rejected. Perhaps justice is not blind, or perhaps Red simply does not deserve freedom.
BREAK INTO ACT II:
Red is back in the prison yard and we are introduced to him as the narrator of Andy’s story. When he narrates Andy’s arrival to Shawshank, Red says none of the inmates expected Andy to last. A breeze would blow him over, Andy was so withdrawn. No one believes he will make it past the first night, much less, to ever see his freedom again.
Andy needs help from Red, since Red is the man who can get things. He asks Red to get him a poster of Rita Hayworth and a rock hammer (a foreshadowing of what’s to come/plant in the story.) This is where their friendship begins.
We are also introduced to the warden and the warden’s rules. He stands for two things: discipline and the Bible.
FUN & GAMES:
This is where we see what prison life is really like. Caged lowlifes, criminal hierarchy, beatings and hounding. We see an inmate break down into tears on his first night, daunted by the finality and severity of this punishment. We also see what Andy is made of on his first night, and he never sheds a tear. Is it because he is truly remorseless? Or because something stronger resides inside him?
Andy’s having trouble with the "sisters," and he’s having trouble making friends. Red warns Andy to grow eyes in the back of his head. Red confesses he likes Andy and values their friendship.
Andy’s sculpting rocks now, admitting he’s a rock hound (another plant/foreshadow), and even remarks that tunneling out of prison with a rock hammer would take 600 years.
The warden demonstrates his surprise inspections (more foreshadowing.)
We also see how paraphernalia is moved in and out of prison under the guards’ noses.
BAD GUYS CLOSE IN:
The sisters attack. Sometimes Andy gets away, and sometimes he doesn’t. The first two years in prison Andy suffers multiple assaults from them because prison is no fairy tale world. The attacks become routine and Andy often shows up with fresh bruises. But Andy makes a name for himself when he offers to help the head guard with his taxes. Soon the warden hears of Andy’s skills and takes advantage of his financial wisdom. Andy makes friends by trading his services for two six packs of beer for his fellow inmates on the roof, and this wins him favor with the others. At one point, Andy is beaten within inches of his life and put in the infirmary. This ticks off the head guard so he beats down the sisters and has them moved to another prison. Andy is now free from them, but also, now under the scrutiny of the warden, as he’s working in his office keeping his books and crunching his fraudulent numbers.
ALL IS LOST:
We see a clip of lifetime inmate, Brooks, being released on parole now that he’s an old man with no family left and nowhere to go, only a measly job of bagging groceries. He ends up hanging himself because he can’t handle the real world. This shows us what prison can do to a man, what it takes away from him, even after he’s out.
For Andy, we learn through a new inmate, Tommy, that he truly is innocent. Tommy tells of a man he was once in a different prison with, and how that man confessed to killing some banker’s wife and lover, and getting away with it because the law tried and convicted the banker. When Andy presents this new information to the warden, the warden refuses to acknowledge its legitimacy and throws Andy in solitary confinement for insubordination.
(Perfect example of how important information is withheld from the audience until well past the mid point)
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL:
The warden keeps Andy in solitary for a month—the longest anyone has ever been down there. The warden has Tommy, the only witness to Andy’s innocence, shot and killed in the prison yard to prevent his prized possession and financial advisor, Andy, from having his case reopened. Andy is given solitary another month so that he has uninterrupted time to consider the warden’s leniency. The warden threatens to throw Andy in with the sodomites and burn down the prison library that Andy worked so hard to build, if Andy doesn’t give up his quest for a new trial. Here, Andy remembers loving his dead wife while she was alive, but also driving her away with his lack of emotion. Prison has opened his eyes to who he was, but he can’t let it take away who he is, or who he’s meant to be.
Red is rejected by the parole board once more, after serving thirty years of his life sentence.
BREAK INTO ACT III:
Andy dreams of life outside prison. He’s different after solitary--quieter, broken, but not beat. He talks with Red about a place in Mexico called Zihautanejo and encourages him to visit it someday. They both know it’s a pipe dream, but it represents freedom. Freedom that Andy craves, and Red fears. Andy tells Red if he ever gets out, to look for a rock wall near a big tree and there will be something buried beneath a black rock there. This leaves Red worried of what dark plans Andy may have. Suicide, perhaps?
Andy comes up missing at role call one morning. Red and the other inmates are nervous. Inside Andy’s cell, we see no body, nor any sign of Andy, only his rock sculpture collection, and poster of Raquel Welch. The alarm sounds and the warden sends for Red, to question him.
We see the chain of events leading up to that moment. A rewind of images: Andy shines the warden’s shoes in the warden’s office that day, but puts them on his own feet instead of leaving them out for the warden. He deposits the warden’s papers and money into the safe, but it’s not like it should be. A bigger plan is already in place from years of mail correspondence the warden has no knowledge of.
In his anger, the warden throws one of Andy’s rocks at the poster on his prison wall on the end block, and it bounces and echoes in the distance behind it, alerting him, and Red, that foul play is afoot.
Andy’s tunnel is revealed, as well as the way Andy crawled through the wall and through a sewage pipe, eventually making it to freedom in a ditch on the other side. Prison allowed an innocent man the perfect crime. Andy was able to tunnel out in under twenty years. All the money handling he’d done for the warden was placed in an account under someone else’s name—all part of Andy’s grand scheme—one that he’d already gotten new fake IDs for while biding his time in prison. Money to keep him well provided for, for the rest of his life.
At last, Red is granted parole from the board.
What freedom feels like. Andy on a white sand beach, sanding a boat. Red strolling beside the pristine ocean waters to be reunited with his friend. Fade into panoramic of beach. What freedom looks like.
So tell me, are you a fan of this story? Why or why not? Do you find it helpful to break down stories into beats to improve your own writing? I use these beats when plotting and it's become a tried and true technique. Is there a film you'd like to see me breakdown? Feel free to share in the comments ...