This is the first part of the Dark Herald’s reprinted series; Textbook Story Movies. Wherein beloved readers, we will examine movies that are damn near perfect…from the perspective of a writer.
This one came up last night when after a long day, Lady Cataline and I flopped down on the couch and went in search of passive entertainment. We were already caught up on Mister Sunshine and frankly neither of us gave a cold wet fart about watching any of the hagiographies praising the newly late John McCain. Finally, Lady Cataline switched the TV over to the nearly forgotten TIVO and flipped through it’s offerings. She gave a delighted, “ah!” when she saw that it had recorded Romancing the Stone.
I gave a small inward groan. If I had wanted an outdated action movie, I would have watched, Predator. But I settled in for an evening of reasonably pleasant boredom anyway.
Then something amazing happened.
As a writer I became absolutely entralled with a nearly textbook example of how to write a story.
Romancing the Stone works with both the traditional Three Act Play and Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, * as nearly perfect example of textbook story telling.
Act I: The Slice of Life
Opening scene is a western. We are clearly at a final confrontation between an attractive but faceless blond woman in the old West and her antagonist, a Western villain. A narrator informs us that that the man is Grogan the somethingest, somethingest, something in the entire west. Grogan grabs the saddlebags and whatever MacGuffin they contain. Then he orders the faceless blond to strip.
While she is pretending to comply with his orders she pulls knife tied to her thigh, and throws it at Grogan impaling his black heart.
Narrator: “That was the end of Grogan. The man who killed my father. Raped and murdered my sister. Burned my ranch, shot my dog and stole my bible.”
The audience is now aware that this film is a comedy although it’s not quite clear what is going on just yet.
The Faceless Blond is pursued by Grogan’s three brothers. Suddenly the love of Faceless’ life, Jesse appears. The Grogan brothers fire at him with pistols and he kills all three with three shots of his Winchester. Note: Never bring a pistol to rifle fight.
The Blond and Jesse ride off together. The End.
The words are written on an actual electric typewriter. Now we meet our real protagonist, who has tears streaming down her cheeks. She reaches for kleenex box and finds it’s empty. She heads for the bathroom to use toilet paper as a field expedient and that roll has been used up. She looks in the mirror and you see it’s covered with reminder post-it notes. She heads to the kitchen and the camera lingers on an award the declaims that “Joan Wilder is the Romance Author of the Year.” She checks paper towel roll and it’s also been used up. She finds a post-it that reminds her to “buy tissues.” She uses that to blow her nose. She celebrates completing her novel with an evening in…with her cat, Romeo.
Honestly you almost don’t need anything more for the first Act. You know just about everything about her that you need to know about her. Successful but lonely writer, who can only live out her dreams of romance and adventure on paper.
Then we meet a swarthy antagonist (1984 was much different world) who is stalking Joan for some reason. He murders a nice old security guard so we know that he is bad and we won’t like him.
Joan receives a mysterious package from her brother-in-law who was recently killed.
First Inciting Incident: Joan gets a phone call from her terrified sister. She’s been kidnapped, if Joan doesn’t bring the map to her kidnappers in Cartagena Colombia, she’ll be killed.
Joan’s world is now shaken up but presumably she can return to it if she simply meets the kidnappers demands.
Second Inciting Incident: This is where Joan has to be forcibly thrust into her adventure.
Joan can’t speak Spanish so she gets on the wrong bus. The bus driver falls asleep and the bus crashes.
Third Plot Point: The Gateway: Joan must now face her antagonist and begin her adventure in earnest. She cannot return to her world now, she is cut off from it.
Bad Guy draws a gun and demands her map, if she hands it over, her sister will likely be killed. If she doesn’t she will be killed, of course if she does she will most likely die anyway. A stranger, silhouetted like Jesse the romantic cowboy from the prelude appears. Bad Guy fires at him. He returns fire and drives him off.
Joan offers to pay The Stranger to take her to Cartagena. He agrees, end of Act I.
Act II Confrontation.
Conflict with the antagonist ramps upward drastically.
Fourth Plot Point: The First Crisis
This incident is reactive in nature. She and Not-Jesse get their backs pushed to a ravine by the antagonist. The only way across is a rickety old bridge. Not Jesse thinks standing and fighting is safer.
Unlike the Second Inciting Incident, here Joan becomes proactive for the first time and crosses the bridge just barely anyway. The last few feet she has to do a Tarzan swing on a vine.
Fifth Plot Point: Midpoint: Usually this is when the hero is at his lowest point but you don’t have to do it that way. Joan and Not-Jesse find a crashed cargo plane providing them with shelter, food, booze and a second hand high from the Keys of Mary-Jane they are burning for a their fire. John now has time to process what she has gone through. Intimacy is now established between Joan and Not-Jesse.
Sixth Plot Point: The Second Crisis
After a brief side adventure Joan and Not Jesse spend an evening dancing and then make love. Joan now thinks she has the relationship she’s been dreaming of all these years. But it’s a lie. Not-Jesse is planning to get the Stone. Then apparently due to the power of sex, he changes his mind and talks Joan into coming along. After they get the stone, Joan discovers his intent to betray her. They are separated by a roaring river. She has what she wanted but has paid a price.
Joan has the map. A way to get to Cartegena and has now grown enough through her adventures that she can try and make the journey without Not-Jesse.
Seventh Plot Point: The Second Gateway: Joan takes a significant risk and meets her sister’s kidnappers on their terms. Note there is considerable risk for Joan in doing this.
Eighth Plot Point: The Climax
This is what the entire story has been building to. The long running fight with her Antagonist comes to a head when he arrives with his troops at the meeting with Joan’s Sister’s Kidnappers. Final Confrontation has begun. Not Jesse tries to kick the Stone into a crocodile pit. Bad Guy catches the stone and laughs believing he has won. And then an oh some random crocodile bites his hand off taking the Stone with it.
Ninth Plot Point: The Resolution.
Joan ends up in single combat with the bad guy whose dialog apes the Western Villain from the prelude. While he is a ruthless killer, he has just had his hand munched off by a leftover from the Triassic Period which frankly is going to put anyone on his B-Game. She more less accidentally wins, by sending him crashing into another crocodile pit.
Bad Guy is dead. Her sister is safe. Joan has won.
Tenth Plot Point: The Denouement.
From the perspective of the three act story this is just an epilogue and can be ignored. The audience usually likes it but it is optional.
Example: Luke has blown up the Deathstar. Han yells,. “great shot kid! That was one in a million!” Obiwan tell echoes in his head that the Force will always be with him. You could have rolled the credits right then. The Medal scene didn’t really do much of anything except wind down the story. (And why didn’t Chewie get a medal?)
Anyway, Joan returns to her old life in New York a stronger and more capable person for her adventures. As a bonus she meets up again with her love interest who has apparently chased down the crocodile, killed it** and recovered the Stone, sold it to get his yacht and then went to find Joan.
Now the interesting thing here is that while the Denouement is unnecessary for the traditional Three Act Story structure it is absolutely essential for the Harmon Story Circle. We will examine Romancing the Stone through that prism nest.
*Yeah, I do know about Harmon and I wouldn’t let that creepy-ass Gamma anywhere near any female in my household either.
**It should be stated that by modern SJW standards, Not-Jesse was a hideous ecological menace and cultural despoiler. Not only did he trap rare South American birds for US pet stores and loot a major ethnological artifact He also killed (and freaking made boots out of the skin of ), one of the critically endangered Orinoco crocodiles.