A Magical Dragon Shows Us the Way
Do you ever watch movies that you saw many years ago and fell in love with to see how they hold up and to relive the experience again?
Recently, I watched Pete’s Dragon (this is the 1977 version and different from the remake) again. I saw it when I was younger and loved it. The movie starred the fabulous Helen Reddy (a singer whose signature song, “I am Woman,” became the original anthem for women everywhere). I was always a HR fan, so this was an added treat for me to watch the film again.
The movie has a whimsical premise of a boy, Pete, and his invisible dragon, Elliott, searching for a place to call home.
As I watched the movie, I started paying attention to the film’s structure and how the story moved forward. Pete and Elliott had to face many obstacles with no promise of the outcome they were seeking.
Evaluating movies and television shows provides a good way to look at structure. Obviously, you can and should evaluate novels and nonfiction books, but this takes longer.
These days, I automatically analyze shows I’m watching, usually when I’ve seen them before, to see how the stories are set up. If you haven’t developed this habit, then learning to do this can help with your writing and structure.
Structure is the backbone on which our stories rise or fall. Many writers think of structure as simply as Act I, Act II, Act III, etc., but it goes much deeper than that. Structure is how we organize our narratives and present the events that take place. Many times, when a story doesn’t hold together, it’s because the organization doesn’t make sense or is hard to follow.
Most people have read a book or seen a movie that didn’t fit together as a whole piece. We might not have known why, but invariably its failure can be found in the story’s structure or lack of adequate structure. Examples are story climaxes that seem to come too early or sputter out, or rambling story lines that don’t connect and don’t have any bearing on the overall story.
The obstacles that our characters face and overcome drive the story and keep the reader engaged.
The simplicity of Pete’s Dragon offers an opportunity to easily dissect the structure. Spoiler alert! I’m revealing plot points, if you haven’t seen it. However, a movie like this can have only one ending to appease its audience. Happy!
Opening and Introduction:
Pete and Elliott are hiding from a horrible family that has “purchased” Pete. When he runs away, they chase him, setting up the movie’s conflict.
Conflict and tension:
P & E find a quaint town, but Elliott disrupts the peace by breaking a fence, stepping in wet concrete and causing the mayor to be doused in fresh eggs. Pete makes Elliott stay invisible because he’s afraid of what will happen when people see him. This scene creates more conflict because it’s not going to be easy for the oversized Elliott to live in a regular town.
Lampy (the lighthouse keeper and local, loveable drunk) sees Elliott, when the dragon is not invisible, but nobody believes Lampy (played by Mickey Rooney) because he’s drunk. This creates another level of conflict because someone else now knows of Elliott’s existence, even if no one believes Lampy.
Pete finds a cave for them to hide out in, but he’s mad at Elliott because of the dragon’s antics in town. Now we have conflict between friends.
Nora (the lighthouse keeper’s daughter played by Reddy) finds Pete and takes him home. She is kind to Pete and feeds him, both of which he’s not used to in his life.
Secondary Story Lines (subplots):
Nora tells Pete about her true love, Paul, a sea captain who disappeared at sea more than a year ago and is presumed dead. Only Nora believes he will come home. Pete tells her that Elliott can find Paul (a foreshadowing of Elliott’s true nature). She thinks Elliott is Pete’s imaginary friend and doesn’t believe the lad, which sets up conflict between new friends.
A medicine man and his sidekick come to town. They’ve defrauded this town before but work hard to win the townspeople over again.
Conflict and tension:
These men are up to no good and want to fleece the townspeople.
The men find out about Elliott and want to capture him for evil purposes.
Pete’s adoptive family comes to town in search of Pete and spots him, but Nora won’t let them have the boy. The matriarch (the late, great Shelley Winters) says she has a “bill of sale.”
The medicine men witness the exchange, giving them something to think about.
Advancing the Plot:
The men approach the family to offer an exchange of services: they’ll help catch Pete, if they can have the dragon.
Elliott has gone off in search of Paul, Nora’s lost love, though this is off screen. This sets up anticipation that Elliott might find him.
Conflict and advancing the plot:
The medicine man’s sidekick (Red Buttons) lures Pete to town, claiming Elliott is in trouble. They use Pete to set a trap for Elliott, who is captured in a net. They want his body for its “medicinal” properties.
Pete is shoved in a bag, and the family starts to haul him away. Elliott breaks free from his captors, and the family finally see’s Pete’s dragon. The mother tells Elliott she has a “bill of sale” for Pete, and Elliott flames it as dragons do.
Elliott dumps sludge on the family, and they flee town. Elliott and Pete fall over in the street, laughing, but not sensing the danger that lurks in the opposite direction.
The medicine man and his cohorts aim the harpoon at Elliott, but the act backfires on them, when the medicine man gets caught up in the rope and lands hanging upside down on a pole.
Building toward the movie’s climax with increasing tension:
A storm is brewing and blows a power line down, but Elliott comes to the rescue and saves the Mayor and other town folks.
Then we see a ship on the horizon as the storm grows stronger. Nora and her father try to light the lamp in the lighthouse, but the winds hamper their efforts.
The movie cuts to the ship, and we see the hunky ship captain, Paul, for the first time. We know without being told that Elliott is somehow responsible for Paul’s return. Shivers!
Elliott flies up to the lighthouse with Pete riding on his neck, but the winds are almost too strong for Elliott. Finally, Elliott squeezes inside, but he gets stuck and is unable to shoot out flames.
Nora finally sees Elliott, who is visible, and she encourages him to give it another shot. He lights the wick, and Paul realizes he needs to steer away from the rocky shore.
Character changes and revelations:
Elliott, who was always getting into trouble before, becomes the hero.
Paul and Nora are reunited. He explains that his ship sank in a storm, and being the sole survivor, he had no memory. A couple of days before he starts home, his bed is tipped over, and he hit his head, jogging his memory to return.
The Resolution and Conclusion:
Pete tells Elliott that they finally have a real family, but Elliott says he must leave for good. Now we understand how they came together. Elliott tells a tearful Pete that there is another little boy who needs his help.
At every stage, Pete and Elliott face obstacles that thwart their goals of finding a better place to live where they are both safe. Pete longs for a family, though he doesn’t specifically say this. It’s an unspoken desire.
Each time something happens, the stakes get higher and higher, which is what you need to create tension in your story. Tension is what keeps the reader or viewer, reading or watching all the way to the end.
Notice how the plot lines weave together with the tension and conflict to move the story to its final destination.
These ideas apply to nonfiction as well. Tension and conflict are needed, or you don’t have a story.
It’s enlightening and fun to see how other writers intertwine their story elements to create an engaging novel or movie that we stay with until the end.
In the comments below, tell me about a movie or television show you’ve watched that offers a good example of structural soundness.
Millard is a writing coach and project development editor. If you’d like to see how she can help you, email her at bonny dot millard AT gmail dot com and ask for a complimentary Project Discovery Call to learn more.