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December 12th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
Outlining “Ghostbusters”

(I’m traveling this weekend, so I’m reprinting this post from a few weeks ago on my own blog.  I’m not one of those writers who will tell you to turn off the TV and lay off the movies.  But I will say — if you’re going to watch TV and movies, be an active viewer.  Analyze what you’re watching.  Figure out what works and what doesn’t.  You’ll become a better storyteller for the effort.  And now, my analysis of the plot of Ghostbusters.)

Ghostbusters is back in theaters for a limited Halloween-themed release (and, I suspect, to generate some enthusiasm for a proposed third movie), and I wasn’t going to miss it.  I had so much fun, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been with an audience that laughed so much at all the right places (there was a group of teens and twenty-somethings in the back of the theater who I suspect had never seen the movie before, because they laughed loudest).  Except for the lack of cell phones and a really excessive amount of smoking indoors (remember that?), the film holds up really well.

It also demonstrated to me why I still go to the movies:  I pay more attention.  When I watch movies at home, I’m also eating, knitting, playing with the dog, answering the phone, whatever.  But at the movies, I’m watching, and studying, and thinking.  I’ve watched Ghostbusters at home a dozen times over the last 25 years, and last night is the first time I realized how brilliantly plotted the thing is.  It was a little depressing, actually, because I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write something that tightly plotted.

So, as an exercise for myself — and an exercise that may be useful to other writer types out there — I’m going to outline the plot, highlighting the various critical parts and how they work.  If you’re the kind of person who hates it when people analyze your favorite movies, you may tune out now.

What follows is the standard plot structure we all learned in grade school:  inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution.  Observe:

PROLOG:  This tells us we’re watching a ghost story.  Formulaic, but sets the mood nicely.

INTRODUCTION:  Two scenes introduce the three primary characters, and we learn everything we need to know about them through a few lines of dialog and some simple interaction.  Because it’s a comedy, it’s also very funny.  That earnest and comedic tone is maintained throughout.

INCITING INCIDENT:  The boys lose their university funding and get kicked out.  This sets off the rest of the plot:  they go into business for themselves.

SECONDARY CHARACTERS & PLOT INTRODUCTION:  We meet Dana, Louis, and the Central Park West apartment, which is the villain in the movie. (I know, Gozer is the villain, but the building is an avatar of Gozer.  Watch the movie, it’s there.)  Also, the incident happens that will bring the primary and secondary characters together.

INTERACTION:  The primary and secondary characters come together.  We hear the name “Gozer” for the first time.

**Note, that all the players who participate in the final confrontation, the climax, have all been introduced by this point, some twenty minutes into the movie.  The Ghostbusters, the Victims, the Antagonist.  It’s all there.

(If you’re a fan of the three act structure, Act I ends here.)

SECOND INCITING INCIDENT:  Hunting Slimer.  This is a direct follow-up from the first inciting incident, and sets up everything that follows.  We see how everything works.  Also, rather shockingly, this is the only ghost-busting scene in the entire movie.  But it’s all we need — it gives us all the information we need to understand everything that follows.  Everything after is summed up in montage that ends with introducing the next problem:  everyone is overworked.  The 600 lb. Twinkie.  We also see Dana again, and learn more about Gozer.

GUNS ON THE MANTEL:  Winston arrives on the scene.  On first blush, Winston seems a bit superfluous, but he provides a couple of very important functions:  Ray demonstrates to him how the containment grid works.  This is placing a big gun on the mantel.  It’s a perfectly natural scene that we slide right by but will play an incredibly important part in a couple of minutes.  He’s also the one who explicates the problem suggested in the previous scene:  “Maybe the dead are rising from the grave.”  The story escalates in a very big way — something cosmic is happening.  (And Winston gets some of the best lines for the rest of the movie. (“If someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!”))

ESCALATION:  The apartment makes its move and traps Dana and Louis.  This is the next domino falling.  The two sets of characters converge again:  Igon with Louis, and Peter with Dana.  The characters now have all the pieces they need to figure out the problem.  (And all the pieces are coming from within the story, right down to the monitor showing that Louis is possessed, which we saw used on Dana in the first act.  The story doesn’t have to bring in anything from left field to move it along.)

COMPLICATION/SETBACK:  The characters have all the pieces, but are prevented from solving the problem by a complication:  EPA guy Walter Peck.  (This may come from left field, but makes perfect sense given the world we live in.  So it’s not at all unexpected, really.  Just really bad timing, which makes for good story.)  Everything our heroes have worked for is destroyed, and the Central Park West apartment is allowed to advance unopposed.

(Second act ends.)

CONVERGENCE:  Peck’s interference is balanced by a rescue from the Mayor.  The heroes’ reputation as established earlier in the story saves them.

CLIMAX:  The final confrontation with Gozer and the apartment, which includes another delightful complication.  (“It’s the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”)

RESOLUTION:  The villain is defeated, the victims are rescued and the heroes ride off in the sunset.

And there it is.  A beautiful plot.

A word on the comedy of the film:  I love that the comedy here is all situational and grows out of the characters’ personalities.  There’s so much banter, and it all reveals character and moves the story forward.  Why can’t we have more movies like this?  When did comedy become all about stopping the plot for a few scatological pratfalls?

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4 comments to “Outlining “Ghostbusters””

  1. Diana Peterfreund
     · December 12th, 2011 at 11:00 am · Link

    Fantastic post. And very timely as I’m dealing with structuring issues in my latest WIP.

  2. Laura Lee Nutt
     · December 12th, 2011 at 3:39 pm · Link

    Thanks for the breakdown. I may have to go watch Ghostbusters again. It’s ben way too many years.

  3. JR Holmes
     · December 13th, 2011 at 11:49 am · Link

    If you think that Ghostbusters is tightly plotted, have a look at Back to the Future and other Roger Zemeckis movies.

    Even the opening of the first scene with the pan around Doc Brown’s lab is amazingly full of details that inform later events of the story.

    Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone and the way that it plays with the classic Romance elements while still be tightly plotted is another excellent movie to consider from a writer’s standpoint.

  4. Cameron Mathews
     · December 13th, 2011 at 12:21 pm · Link

    Agree with Diana – great post, great explanation of plot points with example, and great timing as I am working on structure for a WIP.



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