Getting Smart with Story Structure: John Wick

Build your understanding of screenwriting and visual language.

 

“I once saw him kill three men in a bar… with a pencil.”

All retired hitman John Wick wanted was to build a peaceful life with his wife, Helen. After Helen dies and a mobster’s son destroys everything John has left, John returns to his life of crime for one last gig.

First-time feature film directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch channel their backgrounds as stunt coordinators to distinguish 2014’s John Wick, a neo-noir action thriller set in the mysterious underworld of New York City. It’s a spirited revenge story boasting stylish visuals, witty one-liners, and – as you’d expect from veterans of The Matrix crew – dazzling fight choreography.

Made for $20 million, John Wick went on to gross more than $88 million at the box office, a sizable Return on Investment that no doubt inspired John Wick: Chapter 2, released in February 2017. The sequel already has recouped more than double its $40 million budget and sits at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you missed the first film, then this edition of our “Getting Smart with Story Structure” series is your opportunity to catch up – and learn in the process!

A film breakdown bares a story’s mechanics. It reveals screenwriting principles you can apply to your own projects, sharpens your command of visual language, and trains you to watch films actively. Every film is, after all, a lesson that rewards study.

Let’s get started with today’s lesson by watching John Wick‘s trailer:

Break It Down

Set aside roughly 3 hours for this breakdown: two to watch the film and take notes; one to gather your thoughts. Ultimately, we’ll identify three act breaks along with nine structural points:

  • Inciting Incident
  • Pinch Point #1
  • Plot Point #1
  • Obstacle
  • Midpoint
  • False Sense of Security
  • Plot Point #2
  • Climax
  • Denouement

If you’re not sure what these points mean, then you might enroll in our online filmmaking course, where we’ll discuss them in depth as a part of your dedicated Screenwriting Module.

Regardless, as John Wick plays, also keep an eye out for those “plants” and “payoffs”, tracing the threads that hold the film together.

Alright, go track down the film and enjoy the show! We’ll see you back here once you’ve watched the film and analyzed your notes for act breaks, key structural points, and plants and payoffs.

John Wick | Summit Entertainment, 2014

John Wick | Summit Entertainment, 2014

Describe Your Findings

So what did you think?

Brutal and kinetic, John Wick thrills with its B-movie verve. Personally, I was especially impressed by the elaborate action sequences. Did you notice how the filmmakers escalate the stakes as each fight evolves? For example, when John battles Viggo, he’s winning – until Viggo reveals his knife. A good action scene is like a mini-story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, comprising distinctive beats. Nine times out of ten, it should not be a blur of senseless movement.

Speaking of beats, let’s take an in-depth look at how the narrative of John Wick works. Here’s my attempt to chart its structure; click through for a high resolution PDF:

filmbreakdown_johnwick_still780

How do our breakdowns compare?

Did we locate the First, Second, and Third Acts in roughly the same places? What about key structural points and plants and payoffs? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

 Michael Koehler, with


This post is a part of our ongoing story structure series. We analyze the inner workings of feature film narratives, including:

Our story structure series is an invitation to break down a professional film, compare your findings with our findings, and apply what you learn to your own productions. Break out your notebooks, pop some popcorn, and dim the lights!

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