Tombstone

Inciting Event: The Earp brothers and their wives arrive in the silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona. In large measure, this is the obvious moment when Wyatt enters the story’s “adventure world,” but notice how he repeatedly and emphatically rejects the Call to Adventure. At least three people proposition him to use his skills as a lawman in the town, but Wyatt wants nothing to do with their offers. He’s there to make money and settle down with his family; he wants absolutely nothing to do with the main conflict as stoked by the town’s lawless Cowboy gang.

First Plot Point: While dealing faro at the saloon where he has gained a 25% interest in the take, Wyatt, his brothers, and their tubercular friend Doc Holliday first lock horns with the Cowboys’ ruthless leader Curly Bill. Doc declares he hates Bill’s wingman Johnny Ringo, setting up their personal enmity.

This is a very slight plot point, almost nonexistent. It doesn’t force Wyatt into the main conflict of the Second Act, so much as it merely hints at it. It works largely because of the pacing and tone of the movie, which slowly and inexorably draws out the tension as it plods toward the inevitably violent firestorm of the second half.

First Pinch Point: An opium-addled Curly Bill shoots up the town and when the old marshal tries to take his guns away, Bill accidentally kills him. Wyatt’s latent lawman habits kick in and he instinctively takes charge of the situation, arresting Bill and staring down the Clanton brothers in a showdown that stokes their enmity for him. Wyatt is still rejecting the conflict, but he’s being drawn into it whether he wants to be or not.

Midpoint: The conflict with the Clanton brothers finally comes to a head when Wyatt’s brother Virgil—who took the job as town marshal after Wyatt turned it down—decides to enforce his new law that guns can’t be carried within the town limits. Knowing his brothers are headed for a showdown, Wyatt reluctantly joins them and Doc and heads down to the O.K. Corral for the shootout.

This is where the slow burn of the first half finally and fully explodes. Wyatt dons his guns and proves his abilities. Despite his best efforts to avoid the conflict, he is now firmly enmeshed in it. He can no longer be reactive; he must start taking action to protect himself and his family.

Second Pinch Point: In retaliation for the three men killed outside the O.K. Corral, the Cowboys shoot at the Earps’ wives and drastically wound Virgil in the arm. This is a long section, spanning pretty much the entirety of the Second Half of the Second Act. It’s a prime example of the antagonistic force’s power being emphasized in a way that sets up and leads directly into the Third Plot Point:

Third Plot Point: Much like the two-sided doorway (Key Event/First Plot Point) between the First Act and the Second Act, we have the low moment ending the Second Act and another definitive action opening the Third Act. The low moment is clearly the murder of Wyatt’s youngest brother Morgan, who is shot in the back. This closes off the lengthy pinch point section (which, it’s useful to note, could not be this long in a book) and is the final occurrence in the Second Act. This is Wyatt’s moment of tragedy. He must rise from it, bent on revenge, and gallop into the full-on fury of the Third Act.

The Third Act begins at the train station when he tells Ike Clanton to warn the Cowboys that he’s coming “and hell’s comin’ with me.”

Climax: After killing Curly Bill, the conflict spirals down to its final confrontation: with psycho gunman Johnny Ringo, who challenges Wyatt to a duel.

Climactic Moment: Although Ringo’s death (at Doc’s hand) is basically the end of the conflict, the true Climactic Moment is the one in which Ike Clanton, fleeing on horseback, flings away the red sash marking him as a Cowboy—symbolizing the end of the Cowboys (since history wouldn’t allow for Clanton’s death in the movie).

Resolution: Years later, Wyatt sits at Doc’s beside in a sanatorium in Colorado. After Doc finally dies of tuberculosis, Wyatt seeks out the actress he met in Tombstone and asks her to marry him.

Notes: This is a phenomenal movie, and also one that features a very unique structure. Unlike most stories, which offer a rise and fall of action between the major plot points, the conflict here is more of a straight line rising almost without interruption. As particularly evidenced in its quiet First Plot Point, it keeps the conflict very understated in the first half, even going so far as to keep Wyatt basically unarmed until the Midpoint. The conflict finally explodes at the Midpoint, then grows more and more personal.

This approach works for a couple of reasons:

  1. The tension is handled masterfully. We can feel the approach of danger and doom, which makes the wait all the more delicious.
  2. When the story is finally ready to unleash its action, it doesn’t hold back. The second half is a whirlwind of conflict and violence.
  3. It also doesn’t hurt that the story is already legendary. Viewers know going in that the shootout at the O.K. Corral is going to happen sooner or later—which is an advantage to the filmmakers in planning a comparatively leisurely first half.

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