The Story X-Ray: Breaking down your favorite movies

As I [Ben] have said before, a Story or Screenplay is like a human body, and the Structure of that story is like the body’s Skeleton. But how do we examine the skeleton of a living person? We can’t see the bones themselves in a living person (hopefully), but there is technology to examine the skeleton indirectly: the X-Ray. By taking X-Ray pictures, we can examine the human skeleton, see how it works, and find the flaws.


A story is no different. To understand structure, we must examine structure. Why does this story work? Why doesn’t that one? It’s often hard to see the structure of a story on the surface (even though we certainly feel its presence), so how do we examine it? Through a simple technique: The Story Breakdown.

By going through your favorite movies or stories and breaking them down, beat for beat or scene for scene, you can see how those stories are structured, begin to understand them, and then apply them to your own work.

But what does a Story Breakdown look like? Here’s an example from one of the best movies from last year that also carries some similar subject matter to that of “NOW UPON A TIME.”

(and go see it for goodness sakes, sheesh!) 

  1. Prologue
    1. How I died
    2. The sun, flower
    3. Gothel finds flower
    4. Kingdom grows, King and Queen
    5. Queen sick, search begins
    6. Gothel’s song
    7. Flower found
    8. Queen healed, Rapunzel born
    9. Lantern
    10. Gothel clips hair, steals Rapunzel
    11. Tower, Rapunzel singing, can’t go outside
    12. Birthday lanterns
  2. Hide-N-Go-Seek with Pascal, no going outside (5:15)
  3. SONG: “When Will My Life Begin,” Boredom, Lights, Wish (6:00)
  4. Flynn stealing crown, escaping w/Brothers (8:22)
  5. Gothel arrives, Rapunzel sings, asks to see the lights, denied (9:28)
  6. SONG: “Mother Knows Best” World is scary, stay inside (12:55)
  7. Flynn finds wanted posters, Guards start chasing, betrays Brothers, steals Maximus, Max for crown, FALL, separate (15:45)
  8. Flynn finds tower, climbs (19:10)
  9. Rapunzel captures Flynn, he’s cute, struggles, hides him (19:35)
  10. “Person in my closet!” crown?
  11. Gothel arrives, Rapunzel tries asking again, “Ever!” shells/ploy, Gothel leaves (22:15)
  12. Gets Flynn out (24:40)
  13. Pascal wakes Flynn up, PROPOSITION, Deal (25:10)
  14. SONG: “When Will My Life Begin (Reprise)” Going outside (30:10)
  15. Conflicted – montage (32:05)
  16. Flynn trying reverse psychology, failing, Rabbit, Flynn’s idea (32:40)
  17. Max finds Wanted Poster, surprises Gothel, Gothel freaks (34:40)
  18. Gothel runs back, finds Tower empty, finds crown/poster, takes knife (35:30)
  19. Arriving at the Snuggly Duckling, THUGS!, grabbing Flynn, “Dream?” (36:52)
  20. SONG: “I’ve Got A Dream” Softies, Gothel finds them (39:15)
  21. Guards arrive, Thugs help escape, Max finds passage, Brothers escape, Gothel learns (42:30)
  22. Flynn / Rapunzel “No backstory” CHASE, FIGHT, FLOOD (44:30)
  23. CAVE, confessions, Rapunzel sings, escape (48:00)
  24. “We’re alive!” “It doesn’t just glow.” (50:27)
  25. Brothers alive, Gothel’s proposition (50:55)
  26. Rapunzel sings, heals Flynn’s hand, Backstories (52:15)
  27. Gothel arrives, challenges Rapunzel – SONG: “Mother Knows Best (Reprise)” crown (56:15)
  28. Rapunzel hides crown from Flynn, Gothel tells Brothers to wait (58:30)
  29. Max wakes them up, Rapunzel convinces him to not arrest Flynn (59:18)
  30. Entering City Montage – Braids, DANCE, Attraction, Portrait, Sun (1:01:30)
  31. Boat for best view, end of dream? (1:04:15)
  32. King & Queen cry, light first lantern, LANTERNS! (1:05:40)
  33. SONG: “I See The Light” Rapunzel gives Flynn crown, Almost kiss, Brothers (1:07:05)
  34. Flynn goes to give crown to Bros, captured, Brothers chase Rap, Gothel saves her (1:10:55)
  35. Flynn grabbed by guards, Max figures it out (1:14:35)
  36. Flynn taken from cell (1:14:50)
  37. Rapunzel sad in tower, Sun EVERYWHERE!, Flashback (1:15:15)
  38. Flynn gets story from Brothers (1:17:15)
  39. “I’m the lost Princess!” “All you!” “I’m the bad guy.” (1:17:40)
  40. Flynn freed by Thugs, escapes w/Max, to Tower! (1:19:25)
  41. Flynn arrives at Tower, hair (1:21:50)
  42. Flynn stabbed, Pascal kicked, “Never stop fighting!” “Let me save him” (1:22:15)
  43. Flynn cuts hair, Gothel dies, Flynn dies, Rapunzel cries, Flynn lives (1:23:40)
  44. Reunited with Family (1:28:15)
  45. Epilogue: “Dreams came true all over the place.” (1:29:35)
  46. CREDITS (1:31:20)

As you can see, by breaking down the story, in this case beat for beat, we can see exactly what happens when in the story and how much time is spent on each beat. This is important for pacing. And like I said, this is a beat for beat breakdown rather than a scene for scene breakdown. In animation, the scenes are often longer and squeezed for every last drop of story they can manage, which means you get more beats per scene (as in beats 26-28, which are all one scene), OR you get several very short scenes for one beat (as in beat 17, which is actually several short scenes put together to service one story beat, otherwise known as a sequence).

You can also do a scene for scene breakdown as in this case from the greatest American romantic comedy ever made (no arguments).

(and if you haven’t, for shame!)

  1. Credits: CHICAGO!
  2. Flashback: “With my dad,” “First time,” “Will speak” (2:21)
  3. Pulling tree up, slip (4:28)
  4. Gift to Landlord, Joe Jr. (This is my fam / prospects) (4:55)
  5. Hot dog, unknown usual, Boss asks her to work Christmas, no family (6:05)
  6. Decorating tree alone (7:25)
  7. Christmas working, Peter says “hi”, mugged, TRACKS! (8:00)
  8. Hospital: “Family only”, Misunderstanding “Going to marry him” (10:05)
  9. Shone to room, FAMILY!, FIANCE!? (10:40)
  10. Clarifies to Nurse, “Saved the whole family” (13:30)
  11. Waiting room, “How you met,” Other girl? (14:25)
  12. Joe Jr. asks Lucy out (16:00)
  13. Can’t sleep / To the hospital… (16:16)
  14. Confessions, “Confusing a man in a coma,” Saul hears (16:55)
  15. Waking up in Hospital, invited to Christmas, “You haven’t met Jack!” (20:35)    –ACT II
  16. “Husband’s things,” Basketball accident teased (22:11)
  17. Boss’s advice: go along with it, “Just mustard!” (22:59)
  18. TV dinner w/cat, business card (23:40)
  19. Arrives at Callahans’, bonding with Saul, “Part of the family”, invited in (24:13)
  20. Photo album, invited into family photo (27:13)
  21. Christmas with “family” (27:40)
  22. Ashley’s first message: “Will marry you.” (29:12)
  23. Jack pulls up (29:33)
  24. Jack sneaks in, caught by Mary, “Who’s Lucy?” (29:46)
  25. Bike crash (30:39)
  26. Lucy tries to sneak out, caught by Jack, “Welcome to the family” (30:51)
  27. Mass: Jack’s doubts, work frustration (32:01)
  28. Lucy goes through Peter’s stuff, finds cat food, panics (33:24)
  29. Lucy sneaks past Joe Jr., Jack pulls up, “Know her? I’m dating her.” (34:00)
  30. Lucy sneaks past doorman (35:00)
  31. Lucy enters Peter’s apartment, looks for cat, hurts Jack, “No cat,” Cat!, Hospital calls (35:10)
  32. “Peter’s car?” (37:49)
  33. Giving blood, Jack’s interrogation (38:13)
  34. Jack tests Lucy, “Prove it,” “One testicle” basketball story (38:47)
  35. “More room in his jocky shorts.” (41:03)
  36. Lucy gets home, Joe Jr. confronts Lucy, hide Joe Jr., Saul enters/leaves, Jack comes, both leave (41:21)
  37. Arriving at Peter’s, “Parked too close,” Rocking chair, love seat, Jack can’t quit job (44:41)
  38. Confronted by Doorman, who is she?, fiance, “She’s scary” (46:12)
  39. Forcing love seat into Peter’s apartment, carpet! (47:05)
  40. Truck blocked in!, “Walk you home” (47:58)
  41. Getting to know you: Passport, Dad (48:41)
  42. Ice, near kiss, SLIP!, “Wait till you get inside” (50:58)
  43. Joe Jr. “Me or him!” (53:16)
  44. Lucy watches Jack walk away (53:30)                  –MIDPOINT
  45. “Affair!”, Boss’s advice: “Pull the plug.” (53:52)
  46. Poker w/Peter, Jack likes Lucy (54:43)
  47. Dinner w/ “family,” Find a girl for Jack?, Types (56:13)
  48. Lucy leaving, w/Jack under mistletoe, Kiss, Jack watches her go (57:31)
  49. Mary & Beth visit Lucy, Celeste learns, Pregnancy misunderstanding (58:12)
  50. Ashley’s second message: Haven’t heard, want to see cat (59:21)
  51. New Year’s Eve, Mary: “Lucy’s pregnant!”, Jack leaves (59:36)
  52. Joe Jr. w/flowers, denied again, Jack sees the “lean” (1:00:11)
  53. Meets Jack outside, offers to drive her (1:01:25)
  54. Party! Jack mistaken for Peter (1:02:59)
  55. Explain to Boss…kinda, Jack blurts “BABY!” (1:02:21)
  56. Jack tries to explain, “Leaning,” “Who’s type am I?”, “I don’t have anybody.” (1:03:05)
  57. Peter wakes up (1:06:46)             –ACT III
  58. Lucy arrives, “He’s awake!” (1:07:07)
  59. Peter sees family, Lucy, “Who are you?” “AMNESIA!” (1:07:23)
  60. Explanation of Amnesia, Lucy trying to confess, cut off, Jack arrives, Saul offers to handle it, then disappears (1:08:24)
  61. Family tries to help Peter remember Lucy, “Do I like jello?” Lucy calls Saul out (1:09:14)
  62. Jack drives Lucy home, “Really good friend,” Jack: “Terrific couple.” Alone… (1:10:33)
  63. Jack says he wants to leave biz, Ox accepts (1:13:13)
  64. Peter’s memory, Saul tries to confess, fails, says to take Lucy (1:15:48)
  65. Lucy returns Peter’s stuff, first conversation (1:18:37)
  66. Ashley stopped by Doorman, “Not fiance.” “Huh?” (1:20:42)
  67. Peter being moved, Peter confesses flaws, expresses desire for Lucy (1:21:10)
  68. Saul hasn’t told, “Fired!”, Ashley and Lucy enter (1:23:31)
  69. Elevator: Ashley knows Peter was moved, Lucy doesn’t (1:24:05)
  70. Ashley confronts Peter (1:24:21)
  71. “Been moved!” / Peter proposes (1:25:46)
  72. Joe Jr. with New Girl (1:26:50)
  73. Lucy trying on dress, Jack’s snow globe gift, “No reason to not marry Peter” (1:27:16)
  74. Lucy gives invite to Boss, calls her out, “He didn’t want me.” (1:29:59)
  75. Wedding: Objects, Confesses everything, Ashley bursts in (1:31:03)
  76. Taking down decorations, Joe Jr. comforting/heartbroken (1:35:55)
  77. Lucy’s last day, Jack/Family propose, “‘Kay” (1:37:33)
  78. Epilogue: Married, “While you were sleeping.” (1:39:25)
  79. CREDITS (1:40:05)

For a couple reasons, it being live-action and this being a scene for scene breakdown, there are nearly TWICE as many bullet points in this breakdown. You’ll also notice the scenes are MUCH shorter even though both movies are very close together in length. Live-action movies tend to have shorter scenes than animation, but it is fascinating to note just HOW short some of these scenes, many of them some of the greatest scenes in film history, actually are.

In this breakdown, I also marked where I believe the act transitions and midpoint are in the story. Some may argue with my choices here, but it will give you an idea of what these points actually are in practical application.

I’ve been doing breakdowns like these in an attempt to understand my favorite movies for years, and they have been of IMMENSE help. I highly suggest doing them yourself, however, as opposed to finding someone else’s (like my own), because breaking them down yourself will give you a much greater understanding of what you’re trying to see.

This week’s lesson:
By breaking down our favorite stories,
we better understand how they function.


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