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Plot break down: Good Will Hunting

In my ongoing quest to understand film script plot structure, I’ve broken down the plot of Good Will Hunting. My notes are my interpretation of the story. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck surely didn’t break it down exactly as I did, but my version will still give you a functional understanding of film structure. If you look at my break downs of Avatar or Back to the Future, you’ll notice the formats are slightly different. This is partly because I’m experimenting to find the best way to break movies down, but it’s also because there is no one right way to approach structuring a plot. The trick is to find a method that works for you.

For example, Good Will Hunting has 83 beats. Avatar has 101 beats, and Back to the Future has 39. I define a “beat” as an action sequence where a character engages in a conflict or opportunity. The sequence always includes a setup, catalyst, response and outcome. The conflict is usually between two characters, but as my break down of the first episode of the Twilight Zone shows, the conflict can be between the hero and the absence of other characters.

One thing that is consistent in all three of these movies is that about every 10 beats there’s a major conflict that changes the course of the plot. I refer to these 10-block chunks as Acts. Using this formula, Good Will Hunting has 8 Acts, Avatar has 10, and Back to the Future has 5. I refer to the final beat of an Act as the “threshold beat,” because once the hero crosses the threshold, there’s no going back.

In my breakdown of Back to the Future, I divided the storylines using the traditional “A-story, B-story and C-story” method. In my analysis of Good Will Hunting, I divided the beats into “quest chains” instead. I define quest chains as a series of beats in which a character is trying to accomplish a goal. Using this formula, Good Will Hunting has 11 quest chains. For your convenience, I’ve included a summary of the Acts, quest chains, and main characters at the beginning of my break down.

I only pasted my notes on the first two Acts of Good Will Hunting to this web page, because the whole document is 40 pages long, but you can download a Word document of the entire break down by clicking the link below. If you use the “find and replace” function in Word, you can change the names and tweak the story to make it your own to practice story structure.

View the original script on IMSDB.com

Download a complete Word document of the Good Will Hunting break down

Download a complete PDF document of the Good Will Hunting break down

CHARACTERS

Hero: Will

Hero’s signature strength: Genius

Hero’s signature flaw: Won’t leave his comfort zone

Hero’s life goal #1: Stay in a state of arrested development

Hero’s life goal #2: Be genius

 

Hero’s antagonist: Lambeau

Hero’s mentor: Sean

Hero’s best Friend: Chuckie

Hero’s love interest: Skylar

One-off bad guys:

Clark: An opponent who thinks he has more of the hero’s signature strength than the hero does, but the hero proves his mastery of their signature strengths is greater.

Judge: An authority figure who has the power to punish the hero for his signature flaw and is in a position to be swayed by the Antagonist.

Bobby Champa: An opponent the hero wants to fight, who is tailor made to receive the wrath of the hero’s flaw.

 

QUEST CHAINS

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development. (61 beats)

Quest chain 2 : Lambeau wants to find the next big genius (14 beats)

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends (25 beats)

Quest chain 4: Will and Skylar want to fall in love (31 beats)

Quest chain 5: Sean wants to stay in a state of arrested development(19 beats)

Quest chain 6: Will wants to stay out of jail. (30 beats)

Quest chain 7: Will wants to use his genius (10 beats)

Quest chain 8: Will wants to meet with Lambeau for math mentoring (8 beats)

Quest chain 9: Will wants to meet with a therapist for life mentoring (20 beats)

Quest chain 10: Lambeau wants to exploit Will (9 beats)

Quest chain 11: Will needs a real job. (18 beats)

 

ACTS

Act 1: Beats 1-12

Introduce all the main characters and give them each a strength, flaw and goal.

Act 2: Beats 13-22

The antagonist hunts for the hero while the hero meets his love interest.

Act 3: Beats 23-30

The antagonist traps the hero, and the hero fights back.

Act 4: Beats 31-39

The antagonist recruits a mentor for the hero, whom the hero rejects while getting closer to his love interest.

Act 5: Beats 40-51

The hero pulls away from the quest he should be on, but he’s no longer satisfied with his old life.

Act 6: Beats 52-59

The hero applies himself to his quest but pulls away again when he starts to make progress.

Act 7: Beats 60-73

With pressure mounting, the hero rides the fence and is even less satisfied with his old life. His allies finally help him overcome his signature flaw.

Act 8: Beats 74-83

Denouement

 

BEAT 1

Summary:

Will and his friends sit at a bar telling jokes and laughing.

 

Beat Functions:

Prologue

Introduce the hero

Introduce the hero’s goal

Introduce the hero’s flaw

Introduce the setting

Introduce the hero’s allies

Demonstration of character

Metaphor for the hero’s life

Begin Quest chain 1.

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 1: Introduction

 

BEAT 2

Summary:

Will is reading books at home while waiting to get picked up for work by Chuckie.        .

 

Beat Functions:

Introduce hero’s signature strength (Genius)

Introduce hero’s signature weakness (Won’t leave his comfort zone.)

Introduce hero’s home

Introduce here’s life goal #1 (Stay in a state of arrested development.)

Introduce hero’s life goal #2 (Be genius.)

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 2: Demonstrate how the hero is accomplishing his goals (Self-study and working a menial job)

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 1: Introduce Will and Chuckie’s routine

Quest chain 7: Will wants to use his genius

Step 1: Prologue

 

BEAT 3

Summary:

Lambeau challenges his students to solve an advanced math problem.

 

Beat Functions:

Introduce the antagonist

Backstory/setup of Quest Chain #1’s  inciting incident

Begin Quest chain 2.

 

Quest chain 2 : Lambeau wants to find the next big genius

Step 1: Introduction

Quest chain 7: Will wants to use his genius

Step 2: Antagonist creates an opportunity for the hero

 

BEAT 4

Summary:

Will and Chuckie goof around at their favorite hangout spot and make plans to go to a Harvard bar.

 

Beat Functions:

Begin Quest Chain 4.

Character development

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 3: Will’s normal life

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 2: Will’s normal life

Quest chain 4: Will and Skylar want to fall in love

Step 1: Prologue/setup to meeting Skylar

 

BEAT 5

Summary:

Sean sits on his roof looking morose, avoiding going to his college reunion.

 

Beat Functions:

Introduce the mentor

Establish mentor and antagonist as foils of each other

Begin Quest chain 5.

 

Quest chain 5: Sean wants to stay in a state of arrested development

Step 1: Introduction

 

BEAT 6

Summary:

At his class reunion, Lambeau’s students tell him someone has solved his math challenge.

 

Beat Functions:

Progress Quest chain 2

 

Quest chain 2 : Lambeau wants to find the next big genius

Step 2: Setup Lambeau discovering Will

Quest chain 7: Will wants to use his genius

Step 3: Will has used his genius secretly

 

BEAT 7

Summary:

Will and his team goof off and see Bobby Champa, a person who beat up Will in the past. (metaphor for Will’s father)

 

Beat Functions:

Setup to Will’s arrest

Demonstrate Will’s flaw (misplaced anger)

Introduce a little of Will’s backstory of abuse

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 4: Show will’s flaw holding him back

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 3: More of Will’s normal life

 

BEAT 8

Summary:

Lambeau tries and fails to find out who solved his math challenge by searching among his students in the hallway of MIT. Then he issues a new challenge.

 

Beat Functions:

Antagonist fails to achieve his goal. (find the next big genius)

Antagonist creates a new, escalated challenge.

 

Quest chain 2 : Lambeau wants to find the next big genius

Step 3: Fail first attempt. Begin second attempt.

Quest chain 7: Will wants to use his genius

Step 4: Antagonist creates a new challenge for Will.

 

BEAT 9

Summary:

Will, Chuckie, Morgan and Billy ride in Chuckie’s Cadillac talking about first world poor people’s problems.

 

Beat Functions:

Setup Will getting arrested

Character development

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 5: Show will’s flaw holding him back

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 4: More of Will’s normal life

 

BEAT 10

Summary:

Chuckie convinces Morgan to backup Will in a fight.

 

Beat Functions:

Character development

 

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 5: Chuckie demonstrates he’ll do anything for Will.

 

BEAT 11

Summary:

Will, Chuckie, Billy and Morgan fight Bobby Champa and his crew, ending with Will being arrested

 

Beat Functions:

Fight scene

Act 1 threshold

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 6: Will demonstrates he can’t control his flaw , and it is destroying his life.

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 6: Chuckie continues to demonstrates he’ll do anything for Will.

 

BEAT 12

Summary:

Sean sits morose on his roof having skipped his class reunion.

 

Beat Functions:

Demonstrate mentor’s flaw (arrested development)

 

Quest chain 5: Sean wants to stay in a state of arrested development

Step 2: Sean fails to confront the past, which is holding him back.

 

BEAT 13

Summary:

Chuckie picks up Will from the courthouse after being arrested.

 

Beat Functions:

Begin Quest chain 6

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 7: Will suffers the consequences of his failure at the end of Act 1.

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 7: Chuckie helps Will while enabling his self-destructive behavior.

Quest chain 6: Will wants to stay out of jail.

Step 1: Introduction

 

BEAT 14

Summary:

Lambeau and his students gather in class to learn who solved the second math challenge. They fail to achieve their goal. Lambeau creates a new goal for Will.

 

Beat Functions:

Antagonist fails his second attempt.

Antagonist begins new, escalated attempt.

 

Quest chain 2 : Lambeau wants to find the next big genius

Step 4: Fail second attempt. Begin third attempt.

Quest chain 7: Will wants to use his genius

Step 5: Will has used his genius in secret again, and the antagonist creates a new challenge for him.

 

BEAT 15

Summary:

Lambeau catches Will solving the third math challenge, but Will runs away.

 

Beat Functions:

Hero’s refusal of the call

Antagonist makes progress in Quest chain 2

Antagonist and hero meet for the first time

Hero’s flaw negatively impacts his life again (Will feels the need to quit his job.)

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 8: Refusal of the call

Quest chain 2 : Lambeau wants to find the next big genius

Step 5: Lambeau succeeds at finding his genius, but it’s a false victory as Will runs away.

Quest chain 7: Will wants to use his genius

Step 6: Refusal of the call

 

BEAT 16

Summary:

Will, Chuckie, Billy and Morgan go to Casey’s bar as discussed in Beat 4. Will says he lost his job and Chuckie says he can get him a new job.

 

Beat Functions:

Progress in all Quest chains present

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 9: Will suffers the consequences of his refusal of the call

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 8: Chuckie helps Will while enabling his self-destructive behavior again.

Quest chain 2 : Lambeau wants to find the next big genius

Step 6: Will makes it harder for Lambeau to find him by quitting his job.

Quest chain 4: Will and Skylar want to fall in love

Step 2: Travel to where the hero will meet his Skylar

 

BEAT 17

Summary:

Chuckie hits on Skylar and Lydia at a Harvard bar.

 

Beat Functions:

Introduce Skylar

Setup for Will helping Chuckie like Chuckie has been helping Will.

 

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 9: Chuckie sets himself up for trouble in a way that Will is perfectly suited to save him.

Quest chain 4: Will and Skylar want to fall in love

Step 3: Introduce the Skylar

 

BEAT 18

Summary:

Chuckie gets humiliated intellectually by Clark.

 

Beat Functions:

Introduce a conflict for Will to demonstrate his strength and impress his Skylar

 

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 10: Chuckie’s flaw (ignorance) gets in trouble.

Quest chain 4: Will and Skylar want to fall in love

Step 4: Clark creates an opportunity for Will to impress Skylar.

 

BEAT 19

Summary:

Will saves Chuckie by humiliating Clark intellectually.

 

Beat Functions:

Demonstration of hero’s signature strength (genius)

State the stakes (Staying in arrested development leads to perpetual poverty.)

Fight scene

Act 2 threshold

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 10: Will glorifies his poverty and is reminded of the consequences

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 11: Will saves Chuckie.

Quest chain 4: Will and Skylar want to fall in love

Step 5: Will impresses Skylar

Quest chain 7: Will wants to use his genius

Step 7: Will uses his genius successfully

 

BEAT 20

Summary:

Skylar gives Will his prize for beating Act 2 threshold beat-antagonist (Clark)

 

Beat Functions:

Act 2 prize  (Skylar’s number)

Progress Will and Skylar want to fall in love

 

Quest chain 4: Will and Skylar want to fall in love

Step 6: Skylar gives Will her phone number.

 

BEAT 21

Summary:

Will taunts Clark with Skylar’s phone number.

 

Beat Functions:

Victory dance

 

Quest chain 4: Will and Skylar want to fall in love

Step 7: Will demonstrates that he’s kept Skylar’s phone number.

 

BEAT 22

Summary:

Chuckie takes Will home from the bar.

 

Beat Functions:

Transit/transition

Demonstrate the quality of Will’s life

 

Quest chain 1: Will wants to stay in a state of arrested development.

Step 11: Will returns from Harvard to his poverty stricken neighborhood

Quest chain 3: Will and Chuckie want to be best friends

Step 12: Chuckie helps Will by taking him home.

If you liked this plot break down, you may like these other break downs:

Formula Plot Templates

Plot break downs

Tips on being a writer


The Wise Sloth formula plot template

Below is a story outline. Below that are the terms used in the outline. 

Generic Story Outline

ACT 1

Introduction-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Cataclysm-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Decision-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

ACT 2

Preparation-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Engagement-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Neutralization-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

ACT 3

Prize-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Reckoning-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Sunset-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Terms

Setup

This is where you see the cause of what’s about to happen.

Delivery

This is the event the cause…caused to happen.

Outcome

This is what happened as a result of that thing happening.

Introduction

Introduce the protagonist and the setting. Show the protagonist in his natural setting doing what he always does the way he always does it. Show how life usually reacts to him doing what he usually does. Show what the protagonist loves, hates, fears and hopes for most. Show what he’s best and worst at. Show who he is and who is isn’t, what he does and what he doesn’t.

Cataclysm

The worst possible thing that could possibly happen to the protagonist happens. He loses that which is most dear to him.

Decision

The protagonist must decide to set the universe right again. Show how he makes that decision and why.

Preparation

If the protagonist already had everything necessary to solve the problem then it would have been solved already. So he has to gather the resources he’ll need to use to solve the problem.

Engagement

Once the protagonist has those resources, he goes about applying them to the problem.

Neutralization

There is a key moment where the solution and the problem meet and the solution neutralizes the problem conclusively. For example: throwing water on a witch. The audience needs to see the final event in full detail.

Prize

There wouldn’t have been a journey if there wasn’t a prize. The audience needs to see the protagonist pick up the prize in full detail.

Reckoning

The protagonist didn’t come all this way to get a prize and just hold it up for the crowd to admire the rest of his life. He planned on doing something with that prize. Show the first thing the protagonist does with the prize…or what it does to him.

Sunset

For the sake of closure, show the audience what the long term future holds for the protagonist.

If you liked this post you may like these as well:

Formula Plot Templates

Plot break downs

Tips on being a writer


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