Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Movie: Directed by Frank Oz.

Inciting Event: Professional and urbane conman Lawrence meets up with small-timer Freddy on the train to France. Lawrence (the protagonist ) immediately sizes Freddy up, although Freddy remains ignorant that Lawrence is also a conman. Even though Freddy is clear an amateur, Lawrence decides it would be wisest to steer Freddy away from his own hunting grounds. He tries to lure Freddy away to Italy.

First Plot Point: After meeting one of Lawrence’s rich victims, Freddy returns to Lawrence’s villa and begs to be trained. Lawrence reluctantly agrees, but only if Freddy then promises to leave. Whereas the Inciting Event, first “brushed” them together, the First Plot Point now officially launches the relationship that will define the rest of the story.

First Pinch Point: After Lawrence tries to encourage Freddy to spend his ill-gotten gains on the arts, Freddy leaves in disgust—to Lawrence’s joy—only to return once again. He announces he has decided to stay in France where the pickings are good.

Midpoint: Lawrence and Freddy make a bet: the first man to con the American “Soap Queen” out of $50,000 must leave town for good. The bet itself occurs slightly before the Midpoint, although it is the clear turning point. This allows for the bigger scene—their first showdown, in which Freddy captures Janet’s attention by posing as a psychosomatically paralyzed naval officer—to be placed as the Midpoint scene. From this point on, both characters are in action mode, trying to get the upper hand over one another.

Second Pinch Point: Lawrence swings the bet back in his favor by posing as a German psychiatrist, who promises to “help” Freddy walk again. Although this is, again, the clear turning point, there isn’t a particularly obvious “pinch” for Lawrence. He’s on the ascendant again here and only trips briefly when one of his former victims recognizes him as “the prince.” He quickly sidesteps the problem by convincing Janet the other woman is an “incurable” former patient.

Third Plot Point: After learning Janet is not rich, as they supposed, but has sold all her belongings to pay the doctor’s “fee” for helping Freddy, Lawrence wants to call off the bet. Instead, he is kidnapped by sailors who believe they are helping Freddy as a fellow naval officer.

There isn’t an obvious low moment to be seen here (it is a comedy, after all), but Lawrence’s sobering discovery about Janet’s true financial status is enough to momentarily change up the tone of the movie.

Climax: When Janet comes sobbing into Lawrence’s villa, telling him Freddy stole all her money, Lawrence gives Janet $50,000 of his own money and makes sure she gets on the plane for home.

Climactic Moment: Freddy arrives and reveals he did not steal Janet’s money, but rather that she stole everything he had, including his clothes—and Lawrence’s $50,000. They discover a note from her, indicating she is a fellow con herself.

Resolution: Janet returns to Lawrence’s villa and partners with him and Freddy on a real estate scam.

Notes: The structure here is quite nice. The stakes (and hilarity) escalate with each structural point, taking the story in new but seamless directions.

It’s also worth noting how the structure proves that Lawrence is the protagonist and Freddy the antagonist (despite Steve Martin’s higher billing). Although both characters are “scoundrels,” the story wisely chose Lawrence as the protagonist, since his gentility and personal “code” make him far more relatable and acceptable to audiences—who are then free to be amused by Freddy’s antics without needing to approve of them in any measure.

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.