How To Read A Screenplay (Part 3): Plotline Points and Sequences
There are multiple layers to any story. The more you dig, the deeper your understanding.
I can’t remember exactly how this subject came up on the blog, but it did, and when I asked whether people would like to explore how to read and analyze a screenplay, the response was quite positive. So here we are with yet another GITS series on screenwriting.
Let me be clear up front: I am not suggesting you have to read scripts precisely this way. Nor am I saying if you choose to use this overall approach that you do so in the order presented. These are not steps so much as they are analytical tools which you can use any way you see fit.
I begin with this supposition: There are multiple layers to any story. The more you dig, the deeper your understanding. Moreover there is a special kind of learning you can experience only by cracking open a story and exploring its many moving parts, a knowledge that settles into your gut where you start to develop an innate sense of what works and what doesn’t. From the standpoint of being a professional screenwriter, when often you are working against a ticking clock, either to assess a story and come up with a take to pitch, or do a writing assignment, having that internal sense of story is critical to your success as it can help you feel your way through the process.
So at the very least, I would encourage you to try out these approaches I will be detailing in this series to see if and how they fit with your own writing sensibilities. Look at each as a different ‘lens’ through which you can examine a story, providing a unique perspective and insight into the overall narrative.
Note: This series is not in any way, shape or form an attempt to train people how to be a professional script reader. They have their own approach and I am almost positive would not have nearly the time to go through as many steps as I’m suggesting here. Rather this is for writers who want to learn their craft better.
Today, Part 3: Plotline Points and Sequences.
What can you do with a Scene-By-Scene Breakdown? The first thing is identify the major Plotline points. By doing that, you not only discover where something significant happens that twists the narrative in a new direction, you also determine the beginning and end points of the screenplay’s sequences. [For background on the sequence approach, go here].
Picking up with the scene-by-scene breakdown of Up from yesterday’s post, I have filled in my take on the screenplay’s major Plotline points and sequences.
(Set up, establish initial predicament)
P. 1–3: Newsreel footage of Charles Muntz, “The Spirit of Adventure,” and Paradise Falls. Watched by young Carl Frederickson in a movie theater. Muntz accused of fabricating skeleton of “The Monster of Paradise Falls.” Muntz’s goal: To “capture the beast alive.”
P. 4–7: Carl imagining himself as Muntz, then hears a voice: “Adventure is out there!” From a rickety, abandoned house. It’s Ellie, who is as big a fan of Muntz as Carl is. [She gives him her grape soda pin and says, “You and me, we’re in a club now.”] Trying to retrieve his balloon, Carl falls. Ambulance.
P. 7–10: Carl in his room at night with broken arm. Ellie shows up with his balloon and shares with Carl “My Adventure Book.” [“Cross your heart!”] Her goal: To go to Paradise Falls. [“Only I just don’t know how I’m going to get to PF.”] Carl sees his balloon. “That’s it. You’ll take us in a blimp. Swear you’ll do it. Cross your heart. Cross it!” And Carl’s first word: “Wow.”
P. 10–14: Carl and Ellie’s life together montage. Key plot points: (A) Wedding. (B) He gets a job at a zoo selling helium balloons. © They want to have children, but find out they can’t. (D) Set sights on Paradise Falls, but those plans laid aside due to a series of financial setbacks. (E) Now old, Carl plans to surprise Ellie with tickets to go to PF, but Ellie dies.
The Opening summary: Carl has made a promise to Ellie to take her to Paradise Falls because of her childhood dream of building a clubhouse right next to the falls. Major Plotline Point: Ellie dies. How to fulfill that promise?
P. 14–15: A day in the life. Carl wakes up — alone. Descends the stairs. Breakfast. Cleans artifacts of Ellie. Note: Grape soda pin. [Note: Multiple locks on door to suggest trying to keep the world out]. Heads outside and sits on his porch, revealing his house is surrounded by mammoth construction zone.
P. 15–17: Carl watches construction all around him. “Quite a sight, eh, Ellie,” looking skyward. Mail: “Shady Oaks retirement home.” Conversation with construction foreman where he learns that the Boss will double last offer to buy Carl’s house. Carl: “You can have my house… when I’m dead.”
P. 17–20: Carl watching TV. Knock on door. Meet Russell, member of the Wilderness Explorers. He’s missing merit badge: “Assisting the elderly” badge. His goal: To get the badge in order to become a Senior Wilderness Explorer. Note: “There’s a big ceremony and all our dads come…” Carl sends Russell away to look for a “snipe,” a big bird Carl makes up to get rid of the kid.
P. 20–21: A construction truck hits Carl’s mailbox. Carl accosts a worker, who is trying to help, injuring the worker. Witnesses gather, along with police car, and Boss stares at Carl and his “hand rests on Carl’s fence” [symbolic of intent].
P. 22: Carl summoned to court. Dropped back home by policewoman — “You don’t look like a public menace to me.” Touching the mailbox, Carl asks, “What do I do now, Ellie?”
Sequence 1 summary: To establish Protagonist, exposition, flow of life and inciting incident. We learn about Carl’s life (post-Ellie), primarily his solitude and his pessimism. Inciting incident: Carl assaulting the construction worker.
The Hook summary: We meet two ‘outsiders’ to Carl’s little world — the Boss and his construction crew, who want Carl out of the house so they can bulldoze it and add to their project, and Russell. Major Plotline Point: Carl is to be transferred from his house to the retirement home. As Carl asks, what will he do now?
P. 23: Getting his suitcase down to pack for the move to the retirement home, Carl finds Ellie’s “My Adventure Book.” He hits the “Stuff I’m Going to Do” page, sees the photo on the mantel of young Ellie, then her painting of her clubhouse atop Paradise Falls, considers the brochure for the retirement home, and staring at the painting of PF, Carl crosses his heart — he’s made a decision.
P. 23–24: Retirement home guys show up. Carl wants one last chance to say good-bye to his house. Then balloons. And the house goes airborne. He calls out to the guys, “I’ll send you a postcard from Paradise Falls!”
P. 24–25: Airborne travel montage ending with Carl kissing a photo of Ellie: “We’re on our way, Ellie.” Heading south to South America.
P. 25–26: A knock-knock-knock at the door. Carl doesn’t answer. Then frantic knocking. Carl gets up. It’s Russell. He asks to be let in. Carl relents.
Sequence 2 summary: To create a predicament, establish the main tension and pose the dramatic question of the second act. The predicament is what will Carl do about being forced out of his house? He becomes a balloon house. Will he succeed in getting to Paradise Falls?
The Lock summary: It’s Carl en route to Paradise Falls with an interloper — Russell who will be accompanying him. Major Plotline Point: Carl’s decision to take off with his balloon house.
(Complicating action, rising and descending)
SEQUENCE 3: DECONSTRUCTION TESTS
P. 26–28: Russell immediately gets into Carl’s stuff, curiosity run amok. Carl fantasizes about getting rid of Russell. But Russell is nothing compared to what happens next.
P. 28–30: Storm scenes.
P. 30–32: After the storm, it seems that Russell has miraculously guided the house to Paradise Falls (using his Wilderness Explorer GPS, which he then accidentally flings out the window).
P. 32–35: They descend through the clouds and land — roughly — almost losing the house and their lives. But the clouds part and indeed, they are at Paradise Falls. Looking up, Carl says, “Ellie, we made it.” Note: Russell saves Carl from dying, chipping away at Carl’s mistrust of the boy. When Russell can’t climb to the house to haul up Carl, Carl thinks they’re stuck — so close, yet so far. Then Russell has a suggestion: “We could walk it over, just like a parade balloon.”
P. 36–37: Walking the house. Exposition: Have about 3 days before the helium wears out (ticking clock). Carl lays down rules for Russell’s behavior.
P. 37: Three dogs, led by their pack leader Alpha, chase a mysterious big bird, but the feedback from Carl’s hearing aid drives the dogs away.
Sequence 3 summary: The Protagonist makes initial attempts at solving the problem. They’ve made it to South America within sight of Paradise Falls, but can’t fly anymore. So they decide to walk the house over to PF.
Deconstruction Tests summary: What’s being deconstructed is Carl’s solitude, by virtue of his forced relationship with Russell, and his pessimism, by virtue of his big adventure. Major Plot Point: They have to walk the house to PF.
SEQUENCE 4: TRANSITION
P. 38–39: As they continue to plod along, Russell whines about how tired he is, body aches, bathroom needs. Finally Carl tells him to go to the bathroom.
P. 39–40: Having handled his bathroom needs, Russell sees some bird tracks. “Snipe!” Then eats some chocolate and woos the mysterious bird. “Giant snipe!”
P. 40–44: Russell appears to Carl with the bird in tow. Naming the bird Kevin, Russell asks to keep it. Carl says no. “Do you believe this, Ellie?” Hearing that, Russell has a ‘conversation’ with Ellie, stating that Ellie said, “To let me.” Carl: “No. N-O.”
P. 44–48: Continuing their trek toward PF, Russell drops chocolates on the ground so Kevin will keep following them. Then a voice: “Hey, are you okay over there?” It’s a dog — Dug. He has a collar that allows him to talk. He mentions his “master” and how he’s been sent out to find the “bird.” Seeing Kevin, Dug asks to take the bird prisoner — and off the four go toward PF.
P. 48–51: The dogs have picked up Kevin’s scent, Russell (“chocolate”) and Carl (“prunes”). They contact Dug via video monitor system, see Kevin and Russell (“Why is he with that small mailman”). Locating Dug’s position on the tracking device, they take off to find and capture the bird.
Sequence 4 summary: The Protagonist makes more desperate attempts to solve the problem. Carl forced to deal with the addition of Kevin and Dug to his group of fellow travelers.
Transition summary: Carl doesn’t even know it, but this group gathering around him is the first step toward a de facto family. Major Plotline Point: Finding Kevin sets off a whole chain of events leading into its own subplot.
SEQUENCE 5: RECONSTRUCTION TESTS
P. 51–54: The Foursome continue their trek, but Carl is having troubles keeping them in line [Note: House crashes against rock wall, breaking a glass window — deconstruction of the house]. Pointing to Dug and Kevin, he says, “I don’t want you here and I don’t want you here,” then at Russell, “And I’m stuck with you.” [Note: Carl fighting the inertia toward bonding with his new ‘family’]. Carl throws a ball for Dug to chase and chocolate for Kevin. Running away from Dug and Kevin. Doesn’t work as the two creatures find Carl and Russell. [Note: Carl tries to challenge the emergence of his ‘family,’ but their allegiance is stronger than his efforts].
P. 54–57: That night, the four prepare to sleep in the rain. Russell fails with building a tent, then confesses he barely has a relationship with his father. “But he promised to come to my Explorer ceremony to pin on my Assisting the Elderly badge. So he can show me about tents then, right?” And now we know why this whole thing was really so important for Russell: Not to be a Senior Wilderness Explorer, but to win the attention of his father. Then Russell asks Carl to promise to take Kevin with them. “Cross your heart?”
P. 57–59: Waking up the next morning, Dug explains that Kevin is calling out to her babies who live in the “twisty rocks.” Kevin departs.
P. 59–60: Then Alpha and the other two tracking dogs show up. They confront Dug asking where the bird is and not getting a satisfactory answer, ‘escort’ Carl, Russell, and Dug back to Muntz’s headquarters.
Sequence 5 summary: New complications force the protagonist into a descending spiral. Being taken hostage has deviated them from the goal of Paradise Falls.
Reconstruction Tests summary: Bonding with Russell signifies a big moment in Carl’s emotional reconstruction. The fact that he makes a promise and crosses his heart evokes the memory of Ellie. In effect, Carl’s heart, which was broken when Ellie died, is being revived through his growing connection to Russell. Major Plotline Point: Being taken hostage.
SEQUENCE 6: ALL IS LOST
P. 60–63: Brought to Muntz’s place, the mood shifts quickly as Carl recognizes Muntz and Muntz acknowledges a fan. Now they are guests.
P. 63–64: After parking his house, Carl and the others are invited into the “Spirit of Adventure.” Meanwhile Dug is put in the “cone of shame.”
P. 64–65: Muntz shows off some of his hunting trophies.
P. 66–70: Muntz insists that he needs to bring back “this creature” to clear his name — and Carl realizes that he’s talking about Kevin. Then Muntz talks about “bandits” who have tried to get the bird instead of him. Not paying attention, Kevin pipes up that the bird looks like Kevin, how he’s domesticated her by using chocolate. Carl attempts to end the conversation, “She’s gone off now” re Kevin. But Muntz isn’t buying it, knows that Carl knows something about the bird. Then Carl sees Kevin through the window on top of his house. Finally Kevin cries out and Muntz sees the bird as well. But Carl has raced away with Russell.
P. 70–73: Chase. Dug and Kevin prove to be worthy allies in helping the group escape Muntz’s dogs. Kevin, whose leg was bit by Alpha in the chase scenes, is hurt. She hears her babies’ cry and try to respond, but can’t. Kevin asks Carl, “Can’t we help her get home?” Carl is torn between his goal and Kevin (and Russell’s) goal — but he agrees. “But we gotta hurry.”
P.73–74: Back at Muntz’s lair, Muntz is livid that Carl and the others escaped. They blame Dug — “He helped them escape.” And it is his location signal that Muntz thinks will help them find Kevin.
P. 74–75: With Dug confirming that the pack isn’t following them and Kevin lying in the house with his injured leg, Carl and Russell pull the house in the direction of Kevin’s babies. Russell tells a story about how his father used to take him for ice cream and they would sit on the curb counting red cars and blue cars. “It might sound boring, but I think it’s the boring stuff I remember the most.”
P. 75–77: Hearing her babies, Kevin and the group take off, getting close to Kevin’s home. But Muntz arrives in the blimp and casts a net catching Kevin. Then he sets fire to Carl’s house. Carl has to choose — and chooses to save the house. Muntz takes off with Kevin while Carl douses the flames.
Sequence 6 summary: The main tension is resolved or reframed. Carl’s goal of getting the house to Paradise Falls is compromised by attempting to reunite Kevin with her babies.
All Is Lost summary: Just when success was in sight, Kevin is taken away by Munta, Carl’s house has been damaged, and the group is back on their heels. Major Plotline Point: Muntz takes Kevin.
(Acceleration towards resolution)
SEQUENCE 7: ON THE OFFENSIVE
P. 77: The group is fractured. Russell feels like Carl gave away Kevin, but Carl is angry — he didn’t ask for any of this — and tells off Dug. He sets out to take the house to Paradise Falls, even if “it kills him.”
P. 78: Travel scenes. Even the house is ‘low,’ scraping the ground, underscoring the downer mood. Arrival at Paradise Falls. A pyrrhic victory for Carl with little satisfaction at having achieved his goal. Then an angry Kevin flings down his achievement belt — “I don’t want this anymore” — in effect, denying his goal.
P. 78–79: Carl enters the house. It’s a mess — just like his dreams / goal. Seeking solace, he sits in his chair, next to Ellie’s chair, and pulls out “My Adventure Book”. When he comes to the “Stuff I’m Gonna Do” page, at first he is crushed. But then sees that she filled in the book with photos and memorabilia from her marriage with Carl. Then a message: “Thanks for the adventure — now go have a new one. Love, Ellie.” Picking up Russell’s merit sash, Carl crosses his heart.
P. 79–80: Carl exits to find Russell floating in mid-air, connected to a bunch of balloons. “I’m going to help Kevin even if you’re not.” Using a leaf blower as propulsion, he zooms away. Carl tries to lift the house, but it won’t raise up. Frustrated Carl tosses a chair off the front porch — which gives him an idea. He throws everything inside the house out, reducing the house’s weight so it can fly away.
P. 80–81: Knock at the door. It’s Dug. Carl and he bond once again. “You’re my dog, and I’m your master.”
Sequence 7 summary: Protagonist addresses a new obstacle or objective. Carl heads off to help Russell and Kevin.
On The Offensive summary: Moving from low and defeated, Carl taps into a deeper level of energy to leap into a new adventure. Major Plotline Point: Russell takes off after Kevin, causing Carl to follow Russell.
SEQUENCE 8: FINAL STRUGGLE
P. 81–84: Alpha informs Muntz that Russell is on board. Muntz confronts Russell — who says that Carl isn’t his “friend” anymore. Seeing Carl approaching in the balloon house, Muntz sets Russell on a ramp that opens toward the sky.
P. 84–85: Spotting Russell sliding down the ramp, Carl veers over and just catches Russell in the nick of time. Carl deposits Russell, still tied to a chair, in the house. Russell wants to help save Kevin, but Carl says no: “I want you to be safe.” He and Dug head into the blimp.
P. 85–87: Carl and Dug head through a tunnel and find Kevin. But Alpha deposits a bevy of guard dogs there. Inspired by Dug chewing on a tennis ball on Carl’s walker, Carl throws a ball down the hall which the guard dogs chase, then Carl locks them out. He frees Kevin.
P. 87–88: While Muntz tries to decipher several dogs crying out for help on the blimp intercom system, Kevin hops in his chair out to the front porch of the house — “I want to help.” Russell barely saves himself by grabbing onto the front porch hose. Then Muntz sees him and sends out three dogs in airplanes to attack Russell with bullet-darts.
P. 88–91: Carl, Dug, and Kevin are stopped by Muntz, who locks Dug out of the room with he and Carl. Dug chased by Alpha and other dogs. Muntz and Carl fight. Just when Muntz is about to slice Carl with his sword, Dug slides onto a control that sends the blimp tumbling sideways, knocking Muntz off his feet. Carl almost falls out, then he and Kevin climb onto the outside of the blimp onto a wall ladder, pursued by Muntz.
P. 91–92: Dug chased by Alpha and other dogs, but Dug get Alpha trapped with Cone of Shame and his voice device messed up as before. The other dogs laugh at Alpha’s voice, then Dug becomes the new alpha dog.
P. 92–93: Seeing Carl and Kevin in danger on the side of the blimp, Russell pushes himself to climb the hose, then as the dog planes zero in on him, he points and yells, “Squirrel!” The planes crash into each other.
P. 93–95: Dug opens a hatch and appears on the outside of the blimp, joining Carl and Kevin. Russell appears with the balloon house. All aboard — then Muntz shows up, shooting a rifle, bursting some balloons, causing the house to drop onto the blimp. Carl grabs hose to stop house from falling off edge of blimp while Muntz blasts his way into the house. Carl tells Russell and Dug to hold onto Kevin, then waves chocolate, causing Kevin to fly (with Russell and Dug) over to the blimp. Muntz leaps after them, but his foot catches in balloon strings, and he plummets to his death.
P.96: Safe on the blimp, Carl watches his house float away and disappear into the clouds. Russell says, “Sorry about your house, Mr. Frederickson.” Carl responds, “You know, it’s just a house.”
P. 96–98: Kevin reunites with her babies. Carl and Russell co-pilot the blimp away into the sky.
Sequence 8 summary: Resolution. Loose ends are tied up. Kevin subplot resolved. Muntz taken care of.
Final Struggle summary: Carl’s ‘family’ works together to defeat the Antagonist. So Carl achieves Russell’s goal of saving Kevin and reuniting her with her family. Major Plotline Point: Carl et al save Kevin.
P. 98–100: Russell stands in line with other Wilderness Explorers as he’s about to receive his final merit badge. He looks up expectantly, hoping his father will show up — then Carl appears: “I’m here for him.” He awards Russell the “highest honor I can bestow — the Ellie badge,” the grape soda badge Ellie gave Carl the day they first met. Russell shows it off with pride to his mother, who is with Dug, and all the other dogs in the back join in the celebration.
P. 100–101: Carl and Russell sit on the curb in front of Russell’s favorite ice cream place (that he mentioned earlier), counting red and blue cars. Then into the clouds where we see Carl’s house, which has landed in Ellie’s dream spot atop Paradise Falls.
The Denouement summary: Carl fully embraces the role of substitute father to Russell and in so doing cements his revitalization as a person. And the house atop Paradise Falls fulfills his original goal. But Carl doesn’t know — and doesn’t care. He’s found a new adventure: A life as Russell’s paternal figure.
When you get to the point of breaking down a script into major Plotline points and sequences [if it is a sequence type structure], you have exposed much in the way of its structure, but not all of it. There is the External World [Plotline], but there is also the Internal World [Themeline]. The best way into that world is to delve more deeply into the characters which is what we will do tomorrow with Part 4: Subplots, Relationships and Character Functions.
Reminder: This is just one approach to analyzing a screenplay. Everyone is different and has different needs, either personally or per project. If you resonate with any ideas here, feel free to use. If not, feel free to lose.
For Part 1: The First Pass, go here.
For Part 2: The Scene-By-Scene Breakdown, go here.
Part 4: Subplots, Relationships and Character Functions
Part 5: Metamorphosis
Part 6: Themes
Part 7: Style and Language