The Greatest Show on Earth

Movie: Directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Inciting Event: Trapeze superstar the Great Sebastian arrives in a fabulous characteristic moment: careening into the railyard just as the circus train is about to depart, driving his convertible much too fast and tailed by half a dozen motorcycle cops who all caught him on traffic violations.

Sebastian immediately clashes with circus boss Brad Braden, not only because of his careless arrival, but because he tries to cross Brad’s rules and make a good impression with Brad’s girl Holly all the same time. When Sebastian learns Brad has put Holly’s trapeze out of the center ring to accommodate Sebastian’s top billing, Sebastian tries to give it back to her, only to have Brad see through his game and refuse, to Holly’s frustration and anger. She vows to make “Ring 1 the Center Ring” by putting on such a spectacular show that audiences will watch her instead of Sebastian.

First Plot Point: Audiences get their first glimpse of the air duel Holly and Sebastian are waging, each one-upping the other—and without nets.

This is a pretty flat First Plot Point. Although it is the first show we see on the road (in the story’s Adventure World), it is not the first show for the characters. It demonstrates what the main conflict is about and what is at stake for the characters, but it is not a Door of No Return that dramatically turns the plot. It’s just one of many pit stops along the way of the characters’ journey.

As a matter of fact, the entire structure of this story is pretty flimsy. It hits all the right beats, but the structural notes are just about the only story we get—the in-between sequences are all dramatizations of the circus. Still, I gotta admit I’ve loved this movie ever since I saw it as a kid (even though it set me up to be very disappointed in the first real circus I saw). It’s a glorious spectacle with a lot of heart and (in no small part thanks to its sporadic story) quite a bit of nice subtext.

First Pinch Point: Brad learns Holly is doing dangerous “swingovers” in a successful bid to steal the limelight from Sebastian. Brad unceremoniously hauls her down from the air and drags her out of the ring. She is furious with him, not knowing he just saved her life from a frayed rope.

This is a nice pinch that functions on a number of levels—both as a threat to Brad and Holly’s relationship (especially when Sebastian takes full advantage of it) and also an emphasis of the “death that stalks the circus.”

Midpoint: After Holly promises Brad she’ll “tone down,” Brad puts a net under Sebastian “to save his expensive neck.” Holly teases Sebastian about it, and he cuts it down just before trying a daring new stunt. He fails and falls, desperately wounding himself.

This is a great centerpiece, around which the entire story clearly swivels. The dark, intense story in the second half is entirely different from the mostly happy carnival atmosphere of the first.

Second Pinch Point: Three months after his accident, Sebastian returns to the circus to collect his things. He tells Brad and Holly he’s leaving them for a girl in a competitor’s show. Brad realizes the truth and uncovers Sebastian’s crippled “claw hand.” Holly is horrified, blaming herself, and is determined to give herself to Sebastian, realizing he will never fly again and that he is in love with her.

Again, this is a very nice Pinch Point that realizes the threat of the Midpoint, while also hammering home the relationship stakes as Brad reveals how much he cares for Holly (however tactlessly) only to lose her to her overwhelming guilt.

Third Plot Point: Brad stops the jealous lion tamer Klaus from murdering his assistant Angel (who made a play for Brad in the wake of Holly leaving him for Sebastian).

Although this event clearly sets up the Climax (and is nicely dripping with the symbolic threat of death), it’s a poor Third Plot Point. It revolves around the Angel-Klaus subplot instead of the main characters’ plot, and, as you can see from the rest of the structure, it literally makes no sense out of context.

Also, despite its blatant threat of death, it is not in any way a clear low point for Brad or any of the other main characters.

Climax: After a vengeful Klaus stops the first section of the circus train, in order to rob the payroll, the second section crashes into it, endangering the lives of everyone, especially Brad, who severs an artery. Faced with Brad’s imminent death and the destruction of the circus, Holly must finally admit her love for him. She talks the fugitive doctor/clown Buttons into saving him, while she takes over managing the circus, determined to put on a show in spite of the wreck.

Climactic Moment: As Brad recovers from his hasty surgery and blood transfusion, Holly triumphantly leads the entire town out to the circus: the show goes on. Meanwhile, he tries to tell her he loves her, while she proves too busy with the demands of the circus to listen (an ironic reversal of roles). Sebastian and Angel, “left out in the cold,” decide to “keep each other warm.”

Ultimately, this is a story of Brad and Holly’s relationship. The plot gets a little too big for its britches sometimes and forgets this, but as the mobster Henderson tells Brad at the end, “I’ll say one thing for you—you’re good circus.”

Resolution: Not much of a resolution here, beyond all the characters hurrying to take part in the show.

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