Dear John

Inciting Event: Here’s another example of a story that pretty much begins with its Inciting Event right off the bat (after a brief flashforward prologue), without allowing for any setup of the characters or their situations. However, unlike Princess Mononoke, it doesn’t work nearly as well here—and for that very reason: it doesn’t allow any setup. The Inciting Event here is the meeting of the two lead characters (as it almost always is in love stories), when on-leave Special Forces soldier John jumps off a pier to fish spring-breaker Savannah’s bag out of the water.

However, we still get a turning point halfway through the First Act when John and Savannah go out on their first date.

First Plot Point: One of the pitfalls of using up your story’s big moments too early (i.e., opening with the Inciting Event instead of allowing it to be the First Act turning point) is that you can run out of juice too soon. Here, the only possible First Plot Point in sight is John and Savannah’s first kiss—and the subsequent launching of their “official” relationship as a couple. But it’s a pretty mild plot point. Not only does it fail to offer anything new or unexpected, it’s also not “big” enough to be more than a blip in the story’s pacing.

Although they’re completely different movies, another quick contrast with Princess Mononoke is worthwhile. Princess Mononoke gets away with opening with its Inciting Event because its subsequent structural moments are all increasingly bigger. Its abrupt opening doesn’t steal any of the thunder from the story that follows.

First Pinch Point: After John and Savannah’s first big fight (which ends up not affecting the plot at all), we get the necessary turning point here when John ships out and Savannah returns to school. This is a good pinch point, since their forced inability to be together is a powerful antagonistic force threatening their relationship.

Midpoint: While John is deployed, 9/11 happens. This starts out as a relatively mild Midpoint—so mild that I didn’t catch it until after it had passed and I realized the effect it was having on the story. As it turns out, this is the major shift in the story and in John and Savannah’s relationship, since it prompts John to extend his tour of duty abroad—thus severely taxing their relationship.

Second Pinch Point: John gets his “Dear John” letter, in which Savannah announces she’s dumping him and marrying someone else. Aside from the title and the incidental pressure on the relationship at the Midpoint, this really comes out of the blue. There’s no development and no indication that Savannah is interested in someone else. It’s a suitable pinch, but very poorly set up.

The rest of the Second Act is taken up by John’s getting shot—the scene that was teased in the very beginning. As it turns out, however, this scene has zero bearing on the plot, which is disappointing in its own right, but especially since its use as a flashforward in the beginning hinted at its great import.

Third Plot Point: Years later, John returns home after his father has a stroke. His dad subsequently dies. The structure isn’t great at any point in this movie, but after the Second Pinch Point, the whole thing really falls apart. Because the latter half isn’t set up well in the first half, even this plot point, which otherwise has everything going for it, ends up feeling random and disjointed. It has nothing to do with John and Savannah’s relationship—the ostensible core of the story—which careens the story around into a direction that temporarily wants to make it all about John and his struggling relationship with his autistic father.

Climax: Finally, the story gets back on track, structurally speaking, when John goes to see Savannah. Turns out she’s not married to the guy he always believed she was. Instead, she married an old friend (much older than her), the dying father of an autistic boy. At least the structure returns to the main story here. But, honestly, this plot development comes outta nowhere, makes no sense, and offers zero thematic resonance.

Climactic Moment: John decides to sell his father’s beloved coin collection to help pay for Savannah’s husbands medical bills. Why is this Climactic Moment? Mostly, because there’s no other option in sight. But also because we could say this is when John symbolically surrenders his relationship with Savannah—ending the main conflict.

Resolution: Years later, after Savannah’s husband has died, she and John meet again. Why isn’t this the Climactic Moment? You could make an argument that it is. But based on the fact that this ending was reshot to please audiences, who didn’t like the idea of John and Savannah not being together, it’s pretty obvious this is just a tacked on scene, an epilogue of sorts to indicate what happens to the characters after the main story ends.

Notes: I’m aware Nicholas Sparks has a huge following of avid readers/viewers and that I may take some flak for saying this, but: he’s not popular because his stories are well-written or well-structured. He’s popular because he has a total understanding of his target audience and knows all the right emotional notes to hit (just as many action movies are poorly done but still satisfying to their target demographic). As writers, however, it’s important to note that including all the “right” emotional stuff or genre conventions is not the same thing as creating correct or artful structure.

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