Movie: Directed by Richard Linklater.

Notes: Yeah, the notes come first on this one, just because the following breakdown needs context. People sometimes complain that the problem with story structure is that it is just arbitrarily imposed on any narrative. In this particular case, it’s completely true.

I have identified beats that could possibly fit the necessary qualifications for the major structural beats in the standard Three Acts. But, honestly, this movie doesn’t ever aspire to that kind of structured format—which is why the chief complaint of people who dislike it is that it has no narrative to speak of. There’s no overarching goal (plot) and no focused discovery (character arc).

That is, of course, the whole point in this instance, but it also illustrates why the dramatic structure of narrative is necessary to create emotional arcs and organic momentum.

So if you want a structural breakdown for this movie, here’s one take:

Inciting Event: Single-mom Olivia moves her kids Samantha and Mason to Houston, so she can go back to school. The kids reunite with their dad Mason, Sr., who has been working in Alaska.

First Plot Point: Olivia marries her psychology professor Dr. Welbrock and integrates her family with Welbrock’s two kids. Mason leaves his Normal World for that of the difficulties of life under a stepfather.

First Pinch Point: Welbrock slowly succumbs to alcoholism and becomes more and more tyrannical and abusive, to the point that Olivia finally leaves him, taking Samantha and Mason with him.

Midpoint: There isn’t a strong turning point here, but the subtext gently highlights Mason’s first major turn toward adulthood, as he hits puberty. No Moment of Truth either, since there isn’t a character arc here, but Mason spends a lengthy segment camping with his dad and talking about life (including his first girlfriend). This is also where he first indicates an interest in photography.

Second Pinch Point: Mason experiences his sixteenth birthday in a typically understated scene, which might be interpreted as stressing the stakes of growing up.

Third Plot Point: During his last year of high school, Mason’s girlfriend dumps him, again emphasizing the painful uncertainties of entering adulthood.

Climax: This is the only clear segment of the structure. As Mason graduates high school and prepares to leave for college, the story experiences an obvious ramping up toward the conclusion.

Climactic Moment: Mason and his new college friends look out into the world and embrace the future.

Final Notes: Is this film a worthwhile and fascinating experiment with some good insights into life? Definitely. Is it a strong narrative experience? Absolutely not. Which goes to show there are many ways to tell a story, but as an author, you must always be aware of the overall effect you’re seeking and what tools will make it most effective. In my opinion, Boyhood would only have been the stronger for incorporating a stronger narrative structure.

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