Burn After Reading

Inciting Event: Katie, the wife of disgraced CIA analyst Osborne, burns a disc of Osborne’s personal data. She’s after his finances, in preparation to divorce him, but she accidentally includes information from the memoir he is in the process of writing. Although Osborne’s getting fired in the opening scene is definitely an inciting event of its own, note how it is this Inciting Event, halfway through the First Act, that actually launches the main conflict.

The story then immediately switches to gym employee Linda and her desperate desire to have cosmetic surgery.

First Plot Point: Linda’s friend and fellow employee Chad shows her his discovery: Katie’s disc which was lost in the ladies’ locker room. Chad immediately deduces that Osborne’s memoirs are spy stuff. Despite the gym manager Ted’s insistence that he’s uncomfortable with holding onto the info, Chad and Linda take it and run with it.

First Pinch Point: After Chad discovers Osborne’s phone number, he and Linda call him in the middle of the night, hoping for a reward. Instead, Osborne flips his top. Chad is merely disappointed, but Linda, sensing an opportunity to pay for her surgeries, decides to make Osborne pay through the nose to get his CD back.

Midpoint: At Linda’s insistence, Chad meets up with Osborne—who refuses to pay and punches Chad in the nose. Linda rams Osborne’s car—then takes the CD to the Russians, promising them more information. Linda is going totally on the offensive after this point.

Second Pinch Point: While sneaking into Osborne’s house (now his estranged wife’s house, unbeknownst to Chad and Linda), Chad is trapped in the closet by the arrival of Katie’s lover—and when discovered by the paranoid Harry, he is shot and killed. This is not only a shocking turn of events, but it puts the pinch on everyone involved in the story, in one way or another.

Third Plot Point: Every experiences a low moment here. Harry learns his wife is divorcing him. Osborne learns Katie has emptied his bank accounts. Linda fears for the missing Chad. And Ted—who loves Linda—is told by her, hysterically, that she hates him.

Climax: Harry—who is also romancing Linda—figures out that her friend Chad, who he’s helping her look for, is actually the guy he just shot. He freaks out, thinks Linda is with the CIA and flees. Linda has her “dribble” CD returned to her by the Russians and is arrested by the CIA. Osborne finds the gym manager in his basement—trying to find more info for Linda—and shoots him.

Climactic Moment: The befuddled CIA director decides to pay for Linda’s cosmetic surgery in order to keep her silent about the whole mess.

Resolution: The entire Resolution takes place in only a moment as the director wonders, “What was it all about?” But note how even that one line helps ease the audience into knowing the story is over.

Notes: For as short as it is, this is a crazy complicated plot. Another watching would probably allow me to pull out even more structural threads regarding all the subplots. But even here, we can see how a knowledge of structure can simplify even the most complicated stories.

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