True Grit (1969)

Movie: Directed by Henry Hathaway.

Inciting Event: Mattie waylays Rooster Cogburn, the “meanest” marshal, outside the courthouse and propositions him to help her track down her father’s murderer Tom Chaney. It’s Rooster (as the change-arc character to Mattie’s flat-arc impact character) who initially rejects the Call to Adventure and only gives in eventually due to Mattie’s persistence.

There are other arguable contenders for the role of Inciting Event—including the murder of Mattie’s father, Mattie’s arrival in Fort Smith, and her first sighting of Rooster when he’s bringing in his prisoners. But the meeting of Rooster and Mattie is the first glimpse of the story’s true conflict and arc—that of Mattie and Rooster’s relationship. Particularly when we look for the Climactic Moment as the bookend to this Inciting Event, we can see this is the moment when we discover what this story is truly about.

First Plot Point: Mattie, Rooster, and the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf leave Fort Smith to hunt Chaney in the Indian Nation. Although this is clearly the shift out of the setup of the First Act’s Normal World into the main conflict of the Second Act’s “adventure world,” the timing is extremely unusual in this movie: the First Plot Point doesn’t take place until nearly halfway into the running time.

Honestly, I was shocked to realize this. This is one of my favorite movies, one that has always “worked” for me on every level. Usually, when I discover a timing issue this egregious, it’s in movies that don’t work and I inevitably realize, “Ah, that’s why I never liked this.”

True Grit is the exception to the rule. Its very late start on the Second Act works largely because the pacing within the First Act itself is so tight—we have beat after beat after beat keeping our attention (the father’s murder, Rooster’s introduction, Mattie’s deal with Rooster, LaBoeuf’s intro, LaBoeuf’s convincing Rooster to throw in with him, Rooster and LaBoeuf’s attempting to keep Mattie from coming along). Even thought this is all First Act, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way to viewers, because the relational conflict is so tight, pivotal, and entertaining.

This is definitely not an approach I would recommend to most authors in most stories, but this is a great example of how far the structural paradigm can be pushed while still producing a great story.

First Pinch Point: Deep in the Indian Nation, Rooster, Mattie, and LaBoeuf discover the horse thieves Quincy and Moon waiting for Lucky Ned Pepper (with whom Chaney was last seen). When a wounded Moon tells Rooster the truth, Quincy murders him and Rooster kills Quincy. This fulfils the three important duties of a pinch point: it threatens the antagonistic force’s power, emphasizes the stakes, and offers new clues about the main conflict.

Midpoint: Rooster, Mattie, and LaBoeuf wait all night for Ned and his gang to arrive. A shootout ensues. This is the closest Mattie has gotten to Chaney, even though he wasn’t present at the shootout. The encounter gives them direction and impetus for tracking down Ned’s gang.

Second Pinch Point: After gaining further clues of Ned’s whereabouts at MacAllisters’ Store, Rooster produces to get drunk, lead Mattie and LaBoeuf on a goose chase, and eventually fall off his horse and demand to make camp in an unsuitable place.

This is a generally weak pinch and largely the result of the timing being short in this part of the story because it was so long in the First Act. It’s a good reminder that when any part of your structure’s timing is off, another part of your story will have to be sacrificed in compensation.

Third Plot Point: The next morning, Mattie, by herself, encounters Tom Chaney down by the creek. She attempts to take him prisoners and shoots him, but then her revolver misfires and she is taken prisoner herself. She feels utterly betrayed when Rooster agrees to Ned Pepper’s bargain and appears to abandon Mattie in his own haste to flee.

Climax: After Rooster returns to gun down Ned’s gang and LaBoeuf saves Rooster’s life by killing Ned, Chaney knocks LaBoeuf unconscious. Mattie shoots him again, but falls into a pit, breaks her arm, and is snakebitten. Rooster arrives in time to pull her out and race her back to the doctor.

This is the Climax of the story—not the shootout with Ned and Chaney. Beyond the timing, why is this so? If we look back to the Inciting Event, we find the question that must be answered by the Climactic Moment. The Inciting Event introduced Mattie and Rooster’s relationship; the Climactic Moment, then, must be about that relationship and not about the framing device of Chaney’s killing Mattie’s father.

Climactic Moment: Rooster gets Mattie back to MacAllisters’ Store, where she is doctored. This is a comparatively weak Climactic Moment. We don’t actually see Mattie recover. We only see her arrive safely and can only assume she will survive. We do, however, see Rooster’s concern and deep affection for her—bringing him full circle from his boisterous annoyance with her at their meeting in the Inciting Event.

Resolution: Mattie recovers, rewards Rooster, and, once back home, tells him she wishes him to be buried in her family graveyard upon his death.

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