The Ten Commandments (1956)

Inciting Event: Moses’ birth mother Yochabel becomes trapped between two massive stones that are being pushed together in the city Moses is building for his beloved uncle, the Pharaoh Seti. Moses stops the stones to free both her and the stonecutter Joshua who is condemned for striking an Egyptian overseer. Moses further decides to feed the Hebrew slaves with Temple grain and give them one day in seven to rest.

First Plot Point: On the brink of being named Seti’s successor—over Seti’s own son Ramses—Moses learns from the throne princess Nefertiri that he is adopted and is, in fact, Hebrew. He decides to masquerade as a slave discover what it means to be Hebrew.

First Pinch Point: Moses kills Baka, the Master Builder, to save Joshua’s life. When Joshua asks why a prince of Egypt would kill to protect him or any slave, Moses admits he is Hebrew—and is overheard by Ramses’ spy, the Hebrew overseer Dathan.

Midpoint: Ramses turns Moses over to Seti as “the Deliverer” and then exiles Moses to the desert, where Moses eventually makes his way to Midian and the tents of Jethro.

Second Pinch Point: After Moses is commanded by God, in the burning bush, to return to Egypt to free the slaves, Ramses scorns Moses’s demands and declares that now the slaves must spend their nights gathering their own straw to make their tally of bricks.

Third Plot Point: The Angel of Death visits Egypt and kills all the firstborn not protected by blood on the door. Ramses and Nefertiri’s young son dies.

Climax: Nefertiri goads Ramses into pursuing and attacking the freed slaves at the Red Sea.

Climactic Moment: The Hebrews cross the parted Red Sea, and the waters then close upon Ramses’ chariots, killing his entire army.

Resolution: Moses is given the Ten Commandments. Aaron makes a golden calf, and God punishes the Hebrews for their orgiastic idolatry. Forty years later, the Hebrews reach the Promised Land.

Notes: One interesting thing to observe in this movie, due its extraordinary length, is the use of turning points other than the major plot points (e.g., Bithia’s discovery of the infant Moses, Seti’s command for Moses to build his city and Ramses to find the Deliverer, Baka’s taking Lilia the water girl for a house slave, etc.). This should be particularly interesting to novelists, since the length of books usually means there’s quite a bit happening in between the major plot points.

On the less positive side, one other thing to note is something I’ve written about elsewhere, which is the manner in which the plot in the second half disappointingly swerves away from its character-driven arc. This is due to the filmmakers’ attempts to stay true to the Biblical account (which becomes decidedly God-driven after Moses’ return to Egypt). But from a storytelling perspective, the fact that the story becomes much less interesting after this point is a good reminder to keep your plot resting firmly on your main character’s shoulders throughout.

Finally, the lengthy Resolution is also worth examining. Again, the filmmakers included it to preserve the Biblical story (and the film’s title), but arguably all of these scenes could have omitted to the story’s benefit. The plot officially ends with the scene in which Ramses returns to Nefertiri and admits, “His God is God.” Everything afterwards is extraneous to the focus of the movie.

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.