A reader forwarded a link to this structural analysis of Big Fish, which attempts to break down my screenplay down into five plot points:
Third act twist
It’s always strange seeing your work dissected by others, especially when they’re trying to fit a specific template with unfamiliar terminology. (I’ve never used or seen the term “first culmination.”)
In this case, I can’t disagree with the report’s overall accuracy — events in the script do happen on the pages listed — but I’m not convinced it’s a particularly helpful exercise.
What might be more useful is to compare what this report describes with what I actually intended when writing the screenplay.
It’s been three years since Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) last spoke with his father Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), but he flies back home to see his dad, who is dying of cancer. Will enters his father’s bedroom and asks his dad to tell him the true version of the stories Edward has told all his life.
One could argue the inciting incident is really the fight at Will’s wedding, since that provides a point of focus for the conflict and sets up the central dramatic question: How can this father and son reconcile?
But as I pitched it and wrote it, I really did consider that first aborted bedside conversation as the inciting incident. The cancer diagnosis provides a ticking clock, and refines the question by adding urgency: Can this father and son reconcile in time?
LOCK IN (End of Act One)
In one of his stories, the young Edward (Ewan McGregor) leaves the small town of Ashton along with Karl the Giant; however, early on in their journey, they reach a crossroads: the longer, safer route and the shorter, more dangerous one.
Big Fish has two parallel stories: Edward in the past and Will in the present.
Edward leaving Ashton feels like the end of the first act (a character goes on a journey), but it doesn’t have much to do with the central dramatic question (father and son reconciliation). For example, if we omitted Spectre altogether, the Will-and-Edward plot line could be largely the same.
As I was writing it, I considered the witch’s eye a more significant moment. Young Edward learns how he is going to die, a detail that impacts both the storyline in the past (Edward no longer fears death) and the present (Edward is now dying).
FIRST CULMINATION (Midpoint)
[Edward works] at a circus for free under the condition that the ringmaster, Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito), will tell him one thing each month about his dream girl [Sandra Templeton].
I would agree that the focus of the middle of the movie is Sandra. I’m not sure which moment in the romance I’d single out as the most important, but the daffodils scene is a strong contender.
The movie is much more of a romance than Daniel Wallace’s novel, which didn’t have the circus, the war or most of the other obstacles on the path to true love. We spend a lot of time on Edward’s quest to find Sandra.
In the present day storyline, Will suspects his father has been cheating, and may have found proof. Both father and son have achieved goals — but they’re further apart than ever.
MAIN CULMINATION (End of Act Two)
Back in present day, Will is cleaning out his dad’s office and sees a document about Jenny from Specter. Thinking this is a woman in which his dad had an affair, Will drives to Specter and meets Jenny.
I always think of the end of the second act as “the worst of the worst,” the moment at which sucessful resolution seems absolutely impossible.
To me, that moment comes when Will learns his father has had a stroke. Jenny Hill has just told Will that his father has been faithful to his mother. Will would finally be able to have a conversation with his father about it — but because of the stroke, he can’t.
THIRD ACT TWIST
At the hospital, Edward […] wakes up, saying that this is how he dies but panics, unable to tell the story. Will then takes over his dad’s storytelling and begins telling an amazing fantastical story of how his father will die.
I agree that this is the crucial moment. Will has to create one of his father’s stories on the spot.
Also, I’d argue that this “how I go” moment shows how important the witch’s eye moment really was.
In early drafts of the script, Will didn’t tell the story directly to Edward, but rather told a similar story to Edward’s friends at the funeral. I’m eternally grateful to my smart producers for convincing me to try it at the bedside. That simple shift had a huge impact.
Does any of this matter?
Not really. I can’t even agree with myself which plot points should carry which labels, so it can’t be that important.
Far too often I see aspiring screenwriters struggling to make the great movies they see in their heads fit into proscribed templates. So I’m officially giving you permission to stop. Relax. You’ll be fine.
Theory is theory. Writing is real, and really hard sometimes.
It’s worth learning enough about dramatic theory so you can ask smart questions about your work — “How can I make things worse for my hero?” is always a good one — but you’re not required to answer every question or tick every checkbox.
And remember: If so-called experts really knew the secrets, they would be writing movies rather than selling books about writing movies.