‘Save the Cat’, by Blake Snyder breaks down movie structure in a very basic, yet effective way. I wanted to break down ‘Legally Blonde’ because it has a structure that is near perfection.
There are other amazing structures you can use, and I’ve had friends (who are award-winning/big name screenwriters) swear by the ‘Mini-Movie Method’ by Chris Soth and ‘The Nutshell Technique’ by Jill Chamberlain.
However, they’re all kind of the same thing: they take you along the dramatic tension, on a journey through a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Here’s a general summary of the script’s TENT-POLE MOMENTS. You can go through the script or the movie (usually about 1 minute per page), and see how beautifully these moments fit into the structure, and how seamlessly they work together to create a compelling narrative story.
Opening image (p.1)
Something that POPS that sets the tone and shows us how things are now (so we can compare how they’ll differ at the end!)
We simply see the back of Elle Woods’s head. We don’t know who she is, but we know she has perfect blonde hair. The song ‘Perfect Day’ plays.
Theme stated (pg. 5)
We hear a character say something related to the theme(s) we’re exploring.
Elle outsmarts the clerk who is trying to rip her off, which brings up the theme: small-minded people may underestimate you, but brilliance comes from the inside, not the outside.
Catalyst (pg. 12)
The story is launched because something BIG happens that makes the hero WANT something.
Elle Woods gets dumped by Warner.
Debate (pg. 12–25)
The hero debates whether or not they can do the thing they need to do to get what they want. A question is asked that makes us uncertain about the hero’s ability to get what they want.
Elle and her sorority sisters practice for the Harvard Law exam. Can she get in?
Break into act 2 (pg. 25)
We leave the old world and enter the new world. We’re stepping into an antithesis world where the characters are funhouse mirror versions of the characters in Act 1.
Elle goes to Harvard! Her new allies are an outspoken woman, who couldn’t give a damn about vanity, and a goofy genius instead of her sorority sisters.
B story (pg. 30)
Most time, it’s the love story (which doesn’t have to mean romantic love). This storyline carries the theme of the movie.
Elle meets Paulette at the nail salon where she’ll find a safe place to vent and the courage and strength to be independent.
Fun and games (pg. 30–35)
This is where the promise of the premise of the film is delivered. This is why we came to see it. The stakes are still relatively low.
A Barbie in law school: Elle, a spunky sorority girl who tries to fit in at staunch Harvard Law. She tries to get Warner back. That is her GOAL.
Midpoint (pg. 55)
This is often a false high or a false low, the character either got what they wanted (but something’s still not right) OR the character thinks they’re at their lowest low (but there’s still hope left). The Midpoint changes the entire dynamic of the film. The stakes are raised and we get back to the story.
Elle is humiliated by Warner’s new girlfriend and realizes she needs to rise to the top of her law school class to be taken seriously. She focuses on her academics and earns a prestigious internship. This is a false high, because Elle’s goal is still to win Warner, not to actually be a good lawyer because she believes in herself.
All is lost (pg. 75)
The “place where mentors go to die”, this is where an old way of thinking or the old world goes to die. Sometimes there’s a WHIFF OF DEATH, usually just something subtle that hints at death, that occurs here.
Elle is great at her internship, but she’s hit on by her professor, leaving her doubting herself and without a mentor.
Dark night of the soul (pg. 75–85)
The darkness before the dawn, this is where the character admits their own humanity. They’re beaten and they know it.
Elle doubts herself. She’s going to move back to California and drop out. Elle doubts she deserves to be at Harvard Law at all.
Break into act 3 (85)
New motivation is birthed from all the conversations discussing the theme in the B story. The A story and the B story intertwine as our hero passes all the tests in both! In Act 2, the hero conquers the villains in descending order.
Elle cries at the beauty salon, saying she’s a joke, when her female law professor turns around (A story and B story intertwining!) and encourages Elle, stating that Elle DOES belong in the world of law.
Hero triumphs in the A and the B and there’s a new world order.
Elle is a fantastic lawyer, wins the case using her Elle Woods skills, ditches Warner when he begs for them to get back together, and is nice to an antagonist, Warner’s new girlfriend, who was just insecure. She has won the day!
Final image (110)
The opposite of our opening image, to see how much has changed.
Elle gives a speech about the importance of:
- having a sense of self
- knowing that first impressions aern’t always correct
- having faith in yourself
Those are the themes and the message of the movie. We see the face of a smiling and complete Elle (instead of the back of her head), finally understanding who she is. She now knows herself. “Perfect Day” plays!
I use this structure when I’m looking to write a script. I always OUTLINE first, writing out these tent-pole moments (they’re called tent-poles because they hold the movie up!) before I even think about writing.
Happy writing, and don’t forget: Elle Woods says, have faith in yourself!
I say it too.