For the foreseeable future, every Tuesday will be a Scriptshadow Secrets type breakdown of a great movie, giving you 10-12 screenwriting lessons from some of the best movies of all time. Today will be the first entry, “The Graduate.” Next week will be The Big Lewbowski. And going forward from there, I’ll be taking suggestions. Feel free to offer potential films in the comments section, and if you like what someone’s suggested, make sure to “like” their comment so I know what the most popular requests are.
Logline: A college graduate comes back home, where he’s pursued by one of his mother’s friends, a relationship that is tested when he falls in love with the woman’s daughter.
Writers: Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (based on the novel by Charles Webb)
The Graduate allllllmost made it into my book but, to be honest, I was a little scared of it. The movie is based around the one thing every single screenwriting book tells you not to do – include a passive protagonist. I thought, “What if I can’t figure out why it works? It’ll fly in the face of everything I’ve learned.” The good news is, I DID figure it out. What I realized was that the 3-Act structure is basically built around the idea of an active protagonist. Someone wants something (Act 1), they go after it, encountering obstacles along the way (Act 2), and they either get it or don’t (Act 3). If someone isn’t going after something, the 3 Act structure isn’t as relevant, which is why so many scripts that don’t have a goal-oriented hero fall apart. The solution then, is to offset this lack of action somehow. And you do it with one of the most common tools in the craft: CONFLICT – a central focus of this breakdown. Read on!
1) To quickly convey who your protagonist is, introduce them around people who are the opposite – This is an age-old trick and it never fails. If your hero is crazy, introduce him around a bunch of normal people. If your hero’s too nice, introduce him around a bunch of assholes. The opposing characteristics of these characters will work to highlight your own hero’s traits. So in The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock is introverted and quiet. The writers then THRUST him into his graduation party, where everyone is loud and excited. We wouldn’t have captured Benjamin’s mood nearly as well if all the other characters were just as introverted and quiet as he was.
2) If your hero’s passive, one of the other main characters must be active – If all you have is passive people in your screenplay, then nobody’s going after anything, which means there will be ZERO happening in your script. Someone has to drive the story. In this case, because Ben isn’t active, Mrs. Robinson is. She’s the one who wants Ben, who wants the affair, who pursues Ben. This is why, even though Ben is such a reactive person, stuff is still happening in the story. We have someone pursuing a strong goal.
3) The Power Of Conflict – I realized that the main reason this story works despite its main character being so passive, is that every single scene is STUFFED with conflict. Every scene in The Graduate has either a) two characters who want completely different things, or b) One character keeping/hiding important information from another character. There is just so much resistance in The Graduate. Since each individual scene is so good (due to the intense amount of conflict), it distracts us from the fact that there’s no goal driving the story forward (until later, when Ben falls for Elaine).
4) Easiest Scene to Write – One of the easiest ways to make a scene fun is to give one character a SUPER STRONG GOAL and give another character the EXACT OPPOSITE GOAL. This creates conflict in its most potent form, which leads to a high level of drama. It’s no coincidence that this approach created one of the best scenes of all time, Mrs. Robinson trying to keep Ben at the house and seduce him (her goal) while Ben is trying desperately to escape and avoid her seduction (his goal).
5) STAKES ALERT – Notice how when Mr. Robinson invites Ben to a nightcap, he says, “How long have your dad and I been partners?” This is a HUGE piece of information as it raises the stakes in Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s relationship considerably. If the only thing at stake in this affair is Ben’s pride or emotions, that wouldn’t be enough to drive an entire movie. But screwing up his father’s business, that’s a whole different ballgame. You want to make sure the consequences for your characters’ actions are as big as they can possibly be.
6) MID-POINT SHIFT ALERT – The Graduate has one of the best mid-point shifts I’ve ever seen. Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, comes back from school. She and Ben are then set up. The whole second half of the movie now moves to Ben’s relationship with Elaine while he tries to fend off a scorned Mrs. Robinson. Like all good mid-point shifts, it adds a new wrinkle to the story that keeps it fresh. Had they stretched Ben’s relationship with Mrs. Robinson across the entire story all on its own, the movie likely would’ve run out of steam.
7) Cheating/Infidelity scripts must be PACKED with dramatic irony – When you have a character cheating or a couple hiding a relationship from others, you want to put them in as many situations as possible where there’s dramatic irony. For example, when Ben first meets Elaine before their date, Mrs. Robinson is in the room, leering at them from the corner. Same with an early scene where Mr. Robinson invites Ben for a nightcap and Mrs. Robinson (who just tried to seduce Ben moments ago) enters the room. We feel the tension because of the secrets Ben and Mrs. R share. These situations also lead to some great line opportunities, such as when Mr. Robinson says to his wife, “Doesn’t he look like he has to beat the girls off with a stick?” “Yes,” she replies. He does.
8) The “Bad Date” Scene – The Graduate did something really cool that I’ve never noticed before. The story needed to show Ben and Elaine fall in love quickly because Elaine had to go back to college and we had to believe Ben had fallen in love with her enough to chase her there. Normally, I see writers writing these “lovey-dovey” scenes to prove their leads’ love to the audience (see Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones). For whatever reason, these scenes often have the opposite effect, making us nauseous and annoyed by the couple. So The Graduate takes the COMPLETE OPPOSITE approach. Ben’s only going on a date with Elaine because his parents make him. In order not to piss off Mrs. Robinson, he’s a total bitch to Elaine all night, taking her to a strip club and embarrassing her on stage. It gets so bad that Elaine starts crying, making Ben realize how much of a jerk he’s been. He apologizes, which leads to their first kiss. Experiencing a traumatic night instead of an ideal one thrust them much deeper into their relationship, adding the kind of weight to their experience a “happy” date just wouldn’t have been able to achieve. So the next time you write a first-date scene or need to accelerate a relationship, consider your characters NOT getting along instead of getting along.
9) SCENE AGITATOR ALERT – Remember, you should always look for ways to make it difficult on your hero in a scene, especially when they want something badly. So when Ben finally gets to Elaine’s college and spots her getting on a bus, he follows her on in an attempt to win her back. Except Ben isn’t able to sit next to Elaine because someone’s already sitting there. He’s forced, instead, to sit diagonally behind her, meaning he has to lean forward at a weird angle to make his case. It’s awkward. It makes his task difficult. And that’s exactly what you want to do to your character. If it’s too easy, you probably aren’t getting enough drama out of the situation.
10) “Crash the Party” moment – Whenever something’s going too good for too long for your protagonist, “crash the party.” In other words, bring them back down to earth. So later in the movie, after Ben’s chased Elaine to her college and the two have spent multiple scenes having the time of their lives together, Ben arrives back at his hotel to find Mr. Robinson waiting for him. He crashes the party, informing Ben that he knows about the affair, and that there’s no way he’s letting Ben anywhere near his family from this point forward.
These are 10 tips from the movie “The Graduate.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Inception,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!