Getting Smart with Story Structure: Mud

Grow your understanding of screenwriting and visual language with our film breakdown.

“There are fierce powers at work in the world, boys.”

Ellis and Neckbone, two boys growing up in De Witt, Arkansas, befriend Mud, a mysterious man living on a derelict boat on an island in the Mississippi River.

Mud’s a fountain of home-brewed superstition, outlaw charm, and – in his way – youth, a beguiling combination that inspires the boys’ help. They discover he’s wanted for killing a man who hurt Juniper, the love of his life, and together they work in secret to rebuild the boat so Mud and Juniper can sail away and live happily ever after.

Writer-Director Jeff Nichols’ third feature film is a coming-of-age tale with a strong American undercurrent – think Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Flannery O’Connor’s evocation of the South – that captures the textures of a vanishing world; in this case, life along the Mississippi River. Ellis and his parents live on a houseboat; his father sells fish to make ends meet. Neckbone’s uncle goes diving for pearls.

And of course, there’s Mud, living off the land and off the grid. His blinding love for Juniper sets an example for Ellis, whose parents are headed for divorce, while he wades out into the murky waters of teenage dating. Can love be trusted? Does it last?

Mud asks deep questions by leveraging its watertight story structure. The film is packed with “plants” and “payoffs”, those breadcrumbs that propel a story forward and shade it with meaning; it’s a tremendously satisfying experience because all of the puzzle pieces fit together. After premiering at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions recognized Mud’s potential and acquired US distribution rights. It went on to make some $21 million domestically, more than twice its $10 million production budget – a sizable Return on Investment.

In short, Mud is a successful independent film and masterclass in three act structure, which is why we’ve chosen it for the next installment of our “Getting Smart with Story Structure” series, in which we invite you to analyze a film to discover how it works.

A 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.

Without further ado, let’s check out the trailer for this lesson:

Break It Down

Set aside roughly 3.5 hours for this month’s breakdown: 2.5 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, 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 Mud plays, also keep an eye out for those “plants” and “payoffs”, tracing the threads that hold the film together.

Alright, 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.

From Mud | Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, 2012

From Mud | Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, 2012

Describe Your Findings

So what did you think?

Personally, I fell in love with Nichols’ film – the distinct characters, the mythic landscapes, the sincere treatment of heartbreak, and, of course, the beauty of the story structure. There are no loose ends, here. Every element that gets introduced gets resolved, from details like Mud’s pistol to plot necessities like the snake pit and Tom’s sharpshooting abilities.

Let’s take an in-depth look at how Mud’s narrative works. Here’s my attempt to chart its structure; click through for a high resolution PDF:

FilmBreakdown_Mud_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


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