outlining “Ghostbusters”

October 28, 2011

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?

14 Responses to “outlining “Ghostbusters””

  1. missraye Says:

    yeah… another reason why i loves ya…

  2. ArcLight Says:

    Reading this I realize two things; 1) I really need to pick up a copy of this movie, and B) I was right at that frickin’ apartment building two weeks ago and never even thought about taking pics.

  3. gigi Says:

    You break this down very well; it’s a skill I need to practice.

    This makes me want to go see the movie again.

  4. Andrew Says:

    Nicely done. It’s only recently that I’ve realized that writing a story is not necessarily a linear process, thus the value of an exercise like this.
    Also, on Winston…
    Though it’s not directly related to outlining, I always thought that he represents the “viewer indentification character”. He’s a normal guy who gets thrown into this weird supernatural experience. He is not only the eyes of the viewer behind the curtain, but he’s also able to translate “ghostbuster-ese” to the person whose experience is rooted in the mundane on both sides of the fourth wall.


  5. Speaking of movies, I have to ask: have you seen the Swedish film Let the Right One In? If not, then I highly recommend it. Just be sure you see a version with the theatrical English subtitles (such a version is available for purchase and rental at the iTunes store).


  6. Also, in the realm of comedy films, I heartily recommend checking out Rango. Yes, there are a few scatological jokes (although one did, rather surprisingly, make me laugh), but mostly it’s a very clever and at times surreal movie.

  7. Jakk Says:

    Loved this article, and i was very sad that my movie chain decided that my 14 screen theater was not worthy of this movie, despite holding several other return showings of other movies. One of my favorite movies AND i was a fan of the cartoon as well.

    Also,off topic, did you see the article about Wild Cards being turned into movies?

  8. carriev Says:

    I’ve seen “Let the Right One In.” I call it the “anti-Twilight.”


  9. “Anti-Twilight” indeed. Not to mention Oskar & Eli are much more adorable (in a macabre kind of way) than Edward & Bella. ^_^

  10. Charlie Says:

    I went to see this yesterday and it was great, I had a similar experience last year with Back to the Future getting a cinema re-release. And that film is also one that is brilliantly plotted.

    As for Ghostbusters, almost everything Bill Murray says in it is hilarious, not least his deadpan reactions to Dana’s possession. And ‘this guy has no dick’ still cracks me up. Interesting to note that Winston’s role was originally bigger when Eddie Murphy was due to play him (he was the one who accidentally summoned Mr Stay Puft in the original script apparently).


  11. […] power and genral awesomeness of Ghostbusters by showing how tightly plotted the whole project is by outlining it according to the standard plot structure we all learned about in middle […]

  12. Robert Says:

    Another great horror movie for those who don’t mind subtitles. Dead Snow a Norwegian film about Nazi zombies. A great twist on some old premisses.


  13. […] remember when I was thinking about Ghostbusters and its very good plot structure?  Here’s another exercise:  how could it have gone wrong?  What’s the alternative to […]


  14. […] 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 […]


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