Have you ever seen the movie UNFORGIVEN, starring Clint Eastwood and written by David Webb Peoples? Even though westerns aren’t really my “genre,” I love this film. It has great characters, a gritty dusty setting, and deep and complicated themes about violence and the mythologizing of the west. I think it’s one of the best screenplays ever written.
And its structure is incredibly simple.
In previous blogs, I’ve written about the Eleven Step Story Structure model developed by my colleague Jule Selbo, and explained in her book Gardner’s Guide to Screenplay: From Idea to Successful Script. The Eleven Steps is super smart, because it uses the main character’s goal as the engine to drive the narrative.
In this structural model, the protagonist wants something, goes after it, hits obstacles, and in fighting to achieve the goal, transforms.
Let’s see how UNFORGIVEN breaks down using the Eleven Steps. I’m using the production screenplay, linked below, for my analysis. The main character is Will Munny, a former badass outlaw turned teetotalling farmer and sole caregiver to his two young children.
SET UP: At the beginning of the movie, in the town of Big Whiskey, we see Delilah, a prostitute, get cut up by a client and his friend at Greely’s bar. When the men are caught and Little Bill, the local sheriff, barely punishes them, Delilah’s fellow prostitutes are outraged. They pool their money and create a reward for whoever will kill her attackers.
1. Character’s Overall Want/Need and Why—Will Munny’s overall want is to provide for his children. He loves them very much.
2. Character Logically Goes For It—We see Will trying to be a farmer, and raise pigs to support his kids.
3. Character is Denied— The pigs are dying, his children are starving.
4. Character gets a Second Opportunity to Achieve the Overall Want— A young kid has heard about Will’s legendary past as an outlaw and tells Will about the reward. The two of them can go find the guys and kill them and get the money. Will would be able to support his kids.
5. There are Conflicts about Going After the Second Opportunity—It’s dangerous, he could die and leave his kids parentless. And it also goes against the vow he made to his wife before her death, that he would never kill anyone again. He can’t even shoot straight or properly mount a horse. He tells the kid no.
6. The Character Decides to Go For It Anyway—When Will sees that his children will not survive without the money, he rides to pick up his friend Ned (played by Morgan Freeman) and they take off. They meet up with the kid and agree to split the reward money three ways.
7. All Goes Well— They ride together, getting closer to Big Whiskey, and we find out more about Will’s history. We also find out that Little Bill has proclaimed that no one will be killing anyone over this reward in his town.
8. All Falls Apart—(This is usually a series of events that builds to a low point for the main character) Will gets beaten up by Bill, becomes sick and almost dies. He, Ned and The Kid kill one of the guys who attacked Delilah and it’s awful. The young man dies a slow and torturous death. Ned can’t stand it and quits, heads back home. He’s captured and tortured by Little Bill. Munny finds out Ned is dead, propped up in a coffin with a mocking sign outside of Greely’s. It’s his fault his best friend is dead.
9. Crisis— (This is the step where the main character has to make a decision)—Munny takes a drink of whiskey, decides to kill Little Bill.
10. Climax—Munny rides into town, enters Greely’s and in a phenomenally skilled shootout, kills Little Bill and practically everyone else in the bar. He’s become the outlaw he once was.
11. The Truth Comes Out To Make Things Right— He rides home, and when his son asks if he killed anyone to get the money, he lies and says no. The truth is, he doesn’t want to be bad.
This film is about so many things. The bogus mythologizing of the west, the true horror of death, and the journey of one man from good to bad back to good for survival.
I’ve attached the link to the screenplay here. Read it. It’s brilliant.
Take action! If you are outlining your movie or novel or memoir, can you use the Eleven Steps to create your structure? What does your main character want? What action does he or she take to get it? How are they denied? How can they get a Second Opportunity? How does it all go well? How does it all fall apart? How can they be given one last chance to make a decision where they can vanquish the bad guy?
What I love and admire about the screenplay for UNFORGIVEN, is that it delves deeply into the intense human themes of redemption and evil.
And it does so through a story structure that is simple, elegant, and focused on its main character’s desire to take care of his children.