Movie Structure Breakdown: The Shawshank Redemption

Format: Movie

Released: 1994

Written and Directed By: Frank Darabont

Run Time: 138 Minutes

Character: Andy Dufresne

I know I said in my last post that I’m working on a video breakdown for Back to the Future. That’s still the case, but I  recently received some feedback from someone under the erroneous impression that the Six Act paradigm is only applicable to action films. So, I wanted to demonstrate how the Six Actions are more subtly implemented in dramas (which is why they may not be as easy to recognize at first glance) by breaking down everyone’s favorite, least-action-packed prison escape film, The Shawshank Redemption.

Now back to Back to the Future.

ACT ONE: DEALING WITH AN IMPERFECT SITUATION

A character in an Imperfect Situation faces Oppressive Opposition as he pursues an Initial Goal. But when there is a Disturbance to his routine, he faces a Dilemma regarding his situation, and must assume a New Role.

Hotshot banker Andy Dufresne’s adulterous wife is murdered (the imperfect situation) and he is tried for her murder (oppressive opposition) where he tries to prove his innocence (initial goal). But when all evidence indicates Andy is guilty (the disturbance) and it appears he made the decision to kill her (the dilemma) he is sentenced to consecutive life sentences at Shawshank prison (the new role).

Hook: An angry looking Andy sits in front of a house at night, loading a gun and drinking straight from the bottle. We then flash forward to Andy on trial for his wife’s murder.

The Imperfect Situation: Andy’s wife is cheating on him. They have an argument and she leaves him. She is found murdered with her lover the next day. Andy is found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

He takes it about as well as expected.

Meanwhile Red has served 20 years of his life sentence. At his parole hearing he admits to being a changed man, but his parole is denied.

Initial Goal: Andy wants to prove his innocence in his murder trial.

Oppressive Opposition: All evidence indicates Andy is guilty. He is badgered by the prosecution over this.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Disturbance:  Andy’s wife is murdered in a manner that indicates he did it.

Turning Point One – The Dilemma: Start Time: 2 of 138 minutes (1.4%) – Andy is put on trial for his wife’s murder. The trial is overlaid over the fateful night in question where it appears that he makes the decision to kill her. As such he is found guilty.

The New Role: Andy becomes a convicted felon sentenced to life in prison.

Act End: Red’s parole request is denied.

Act Run Time: 7 of 138 Minutes (5.1%)

 

ACT TWO: LEARNING THE RULES OF AN UNFAMILIAR SITUATION

The character Learns the Rules of an Unfamiliar Situation and faces Incidental Opposition in pursuit of a Transitional Goal. But when he receives a Reality Check, he makes a Commitment to his New Role.

Act Start Time: 7 of 138 Minutes (5.1%)

Andy arrives at Shawshank prison (the unfamiliar situation) and must avoid falling victim to violent guards and sodomites (incidental opposition) as he tries to adjust to and survive prison (transitional goal). But when the sisters beat Andy to within an inch of his life and the captain of the guard pays them back on Andy’s behalf (the reality check), the warden offers Andy a job in the library as a front for handling prison finances (the commitment).

The Unfamiliar Situation: Andy is sent to 1940s prison. It’s about as pleasant as one would imagine.

Transitional Goal: Adjust to and survive life in prison.

Incidental Opposition: The guards beat a new inmate to death on Andy’s first day. Andy is targeted by the Sisters and raped. In the butt. This goes one for two years.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Reality Check: Andy is cornered by the sisters on movie night. When he refuses to give them all blowies, they beat him within an inch of his life. While Andy is in the infirmary, the head guard beats the leader of the sisters even worse and has him transferred to a medical prison to serve out the rest of his days.

Poetic Justice.

Turning Point Two – The Commitment: Start Time: 48 of 138 Minutes (34.8%) – The warden does a walk through to toss cells. This is a pretense for meeting Andy, the tax code whiz kid. Shortly after Andy is called into the warden’s office and offered a better position than working in the laundry.

Act End: The warden tells Andy, “Perhaps we can find something more befitting a man of your education.”

Act Run Time: 45 of 138 Minutes (32.6%)

 

ACT THREE: STUMBLING INTO THE CENTRAL CONFLICT

The character stumbles into the Central Conflict and faces Intentional Opposition in pursuit of a False Goal. But when there is a grave Turn of events, he has a Moment of Truth.

Act Start Time: 52 of 138 Minutes (37.7%)

Andy slowly finds himself at odds with the warden (the central conflict) and does his first stint in solitary (intentional opposition) as he begins handling the warden’s ill-gotten gains (false goal). But when prison librarian Brooks is paroled and hangs himself on the outside (the turn) Andy tells Red about the warden’s money laundering scheme (the moment of truth).

The Central Conflict: Andy vs. Warden Norton

False Goal: Handle the warden’s illicit finances. Get the library upgraded.

Intentional Opposition: Andy crosses the warden and does his first stint in solitary.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Turn: Brooks is paroled and kills himself when he can’t adjust to life on the outside. Andy receives a shipment for the library including records. He locks the warden’s office and plays opera over the loudspeaker.

It really gets the crowd moving.

When he gets out of the hole, he tells Red and the guys that hope is what keeps him alive. He gets Red a harmonica as a reminder.

Turning Point Three – The Moment of Truth: Start Time: 81 of 138 minutes (58.7%) – Andy tells Red about his money laundering for the warden and who Randall Stevens is. He also tells Red that his work for the warden allowed the library to built and helps get inmates their diplomas.

Act End: Andy tells Red he works cheap and that’s the trade off. The siren rings for new prisoner delivery.

Act Run Time: 32 of 138 (23.2%)

 

ACT FOUR: IMPLEMENTING A DOOMED PLAN

The character implements a Doomed Plan and faces Self-Inflicted Opposition in pursuit of a Penultimate Goal. But when an unthinkable Lowpoint occurs, he pulls himself together and discovers a Newfound Resolve.

Act Start Time: 84 of 138 Minutes (60.9%)

Andy takes young Tommy under his wing (the doomed plan) and brings the warden’s wrath onto himself (self-inflicted opposition) while trying to help Tommy get his life together (penultimate goal). But when the warden has Tommy killed to keep Andy incarcerated (the lowpoint) Andy has an unnervingly cryptic conversation with Red and decides to implement his escape plan (the newfound resolve).

The Doomed Plan: Andy takes a shine to Tommy and tries to help him get his life together.

Penultimate Goal: Andy begins helping Tommy get his GED so he can get a job and go straight when he gets out.

Self-Inflicted Opposition: When Andy goes to the warden about Tommy’s revelation, he makes the mistake of telling him he won’t say anything about the money laundering. He is subsequently thrown in the hole for 2 months.

You can smell him through the screen.

Meanwhile, Tommy is killed by the guards.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Lowpoint: Andy tells the warden about Tommy’s revelation. When the warden doesn’t want to listen, Andy calls him obtuse and the warden flips out on him. When Tommy reveals he knows the person who really killed Andy’s wife, he is killed to silence him about Andy’s innocence.

Turning Point Four – The Newfound Resolve: Start Time: 100 of 138 minutes (72.5%) – Andy is released from his 2 months in the hole. He reveals his true self to Red who tries to console him. Andy tells him about Zihuatanejo, Mexico and where he wants to live the rest of his life. Red tries to talk him out of dreaming like that.

Act End: Andy tells Red “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” He makes Red promise to visit the hayfield in Buxton.

Act Run Time: 23 or 138 Minutes (16.7%)

 

ACT FIVE: TRYING A LONGSHOT

The character tries a Longshot and faces Ultimate Opposition while trying to accomplish the Ultimate Goal. But just when it seems All is Lost, he makes a Final Push against the forces of antagonism and either succeeds or fails.

Act Start Time: 107 of 138 Minutes (%)

Andy implements his 20 year escape plan (the longshot) and must climb through sewage (ultimate opposition) to escape the prison and live free (ultimate goal). But when Andy’s buddies think he killed himself (all is lost) he is revealed to be missing from his cell the next day at roll call (the final push).

The Longshot: After 20 years of planning, Andy implements his escape plan.

Poetic Justice.

Ultimate Goal: Escape from Shawshank and live free.

Ultimate Opposition: Andy must escape the inescapable prison, steal the warden’s money and escape into Mexico without being apprehended.

Turning Point Catalyst – All is Lost: Andy’s buddies discuss his mental state and Haywood admits he gave Andy a six foot length of rope. That night, Red wonders if Andy is killing himself in his cell.

Turning Point Five – The Final Push: Start Time: 110 of 138 Minutes (79.7%) – The next day at headcount, Andy is missing. The warden is furious.

The moment you realize you’re fucked.

 

Act End: After Andy’s grand escape, Red confesses, “I guess I just miss my friend.”

Act Run Time: 18 of 138 Minutes (13%)

 

ACT SIX: LIVING IN A NEW SITUATION

Having accomplished (or failed to have accomplished) the Ultimate Goal, the character is shown living in a New Situation.

Act Start Time: 125 of 138 Minutes (91%)

Red fulfills his promise to Andy and the two friends meet in Mexico as free men (the new situation).

The New Situation: Red has another parole hearing where he tells it like it is.

In Morgan Freeman’s velvet baritone.

He is surprisingly granted parole. Unable to adjust to life on the outside, he contemplates killing himself, but remembers his promise to Andy, follows Andy’s trail and meets him in Mexico.

Act Run Time: 13 of 138 minutes (9.4%)

To learn more about six act structure, purchase your copy of “Actions and Goals: The Story Structure Secret” today!

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