Meet John Doe

Inciting Event: After Ann’s gag of publishing a fake suicide note in the newspaper (as a parting shot when she’s fired) takes off, she and her editor hire the tramp Long John Willoughby to say he’s the “John Doe” who wrote the note. This is a great example of a story that features multiple important events prior to this one. The first scene is that of Ann getting fired after D.B. Norton buys out the paper. That scene immediately leads into her writing the fake note, which takes the city by storm, which forces Connell to take action, which prompts Ann to wangle her way back into the paper by making the stunt a regular column. It’s a great example of scenes acting as “dominos” and knocking into each other, one after the other, in perfect symmetry. But none of these scenes is the Inciting Event. The main conflict isn’t “incited” until the catalytic character John Willoughby arrives on the scene.

First Plot Point: D.B. decides he can use John as a political voice, and he hires Ann to write a radio speech for him. This is a relatively quiet scene; the radio speech itself later on is a much bigger scene. But this is the turning point. This is where Ann sells herself to D.B. It’s also what leads directly to her writing the speech that (somewhat dichotomously) sparks her idealism about the John Doe movement and opens her heart to Long John.

First Pinch Point: During John’s radio speech, D.B. witnesses the enthusiastic response of his house staff and realizes how much power he can wield through John. But John feels used and runs away. John’s running away is the obvious turning point. But D.B.’s scheming is more properly the pinch point, since it emphasizes the threat he poses and the possibilities he intends to wield.

Midpoint: After hearing about the good achieved by the John Doe clubs around the country, John decides to return and go on a speaking tour, which D.B. uses to grow his political machine. This is where John’s perspective changes. He goes from being a hired stooge out to earn enough money to get his bum arm fixed to someone who honestly believes in the John Doe cause.

Second Pinch Point: D.B. tells Ann to write a speech for the John Doe convention, in which John will announce the formation of a third political party with D.B. as their presidential candidate. This is where we see the full power of the antagonistic force and what is truly at stake for John and his idealistic vision.

Third Plot Point: John learns that D.B. is going to use him and the John Does to further his own corrupt politics–and that Ann has been a part of it from the beginning. This is a powerful Third Plot Point (played amazingly by Gary Cooper). Long John loses everything here: his new ideals, the woman he loves, his current livelihood, and his own dignity and self-respect.

Climax: Desperately, John goes to the convention and tries to tell the John Does the truth, but D.B. squelches him and the John Does turn on him.

Climactic Moment: John tries to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, just as Ann had written in her original suicide note, but Ann stops him.

Resolution: A very ill Ann collapses, and John carries her away. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the original ending. Originally, John goes through with the suicide to prove the ideals of the John Does are real. Test audiences reacted negatively to this ending, so it was changed. The result is an ending that (however much more emotionally satisfying) doesn’t quite jive with the overall progression of the story.

Notes: I find myself forgetting why it is I don’t remember this movie well between viewings. The only things that stick out are the plot points. This is because it’s a wonderfully structured movie, but without much filling between the structural points. Very little happens in between the plot points outside of long monologues.

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

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