Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Structure of Sweet Home Alabama

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama)

Okay, time to put my money where my mouth is. I will now analyze the three act structure of Sweet Home Alabama. I will also tell you the big structural flaw I think the movie has and why it seems to survive it.

There is a brief prologue with the young Melanie and Jake on the beach. It serves to set up the “lightning striking twice” theme, establish the romantic tone of the story and give a little foreshadow of the Alabama environment to come.

Domino and Catalyst: A little tricky. Is the catalyst the moment where Andrew proposes to Melanie in Tiffany & Co.? That’s the point where the character has the problem. However the audience does not yet know what the problem is. To solve this, my original draft had Melanie tell her best friend she’s already married immediately after the proposal. Not as dramatic a reveal, I will admit, as the scene where Melanie appears on Jake’s doorstep and demands a divorce. So one might argue that the proposal is the domino and the doorstep scene is the catalyst. I do not agree, however. I think the catalyst is the proposal because we have character and dilemma. It’s risky not letting the audience in on the dilemma, but we did drop lots of hints that something’s amiss even if it’s not clear what that something is for a few more minutes.

The important thing, though, is that in the period between 12 minutes and 15 minutes into the movie, we establish the Main Tension: Will Melanie marry Andrew? We do an unusual thing with the tension. At first, the audience is hoping that the answer to the question will be yes. But as the movie goes along, they discover that she should actually be with Jake instead, so by the end they are rooting for the answer to be “no.”

Act One Break: Act one ends and act two begins when Melanie learns she still has access to the joint checking account with Jake. This gives her the idea to try to get the divorce by becoming the most annoying version of a wife he can imagine. Until now, she was simply making a quick swing down to Alabama to get a paper signed. But that has proven impossible, so she now embarks on a mission to achieve her goal.

Midpoint: Jake and Melanie kiss in the pet cemetery. This is the up moment when Jake and Melanie are closest together, a reflection of the resolution and the opposite of the Act Two Break. We’ve also twisted the tension. From this point forward, it should be clear Melanie belongs with Jake.

Act Two Break: After Andrew breaks up with Melanie over her lies, Act Two ends when he forgives her and the marriage is back on. Melanie now has what she wants – Andrew. But, in one of the common romantic comedy forms, she’s not sure she wants him anymore. She just can’t admit that fact to herself.

Twist: As she walks up the aisle, Melanie learns she forgot to sign the divorce papers herself. This is the wake-up call that makes her realize she’s marrying the wrong guy. It’s the thing she needs to solve her dilemma happily – by calling off the wedding with Andrew and going after Jake.

And the resolution, of course, is that she and Jake get back together.

So where do I think the movie went wrong? Look back at the Act One Break. Melanie sets about trying to get Jake to sign the divorce papers. In my draft, Jake doesn’t actually sign until the end of act two, when Andrew’s come to town and Jake realizes how miserable he’s been making Melanie. But in the finished movie he signs before the midpoint. This causes the story to lose some of its momentum and begin to meander. In fact, if you watch it and work out the timeline, there’s a bit of a logic flaw. Melanie gets what she wants – Jake’s signature on the divorce papers – and then hangs out in Alabama for at least 24 hours for no apparent reason.

So how does the movie survive this? Mainly by introducing several other tensions. By the time Jake signs the divorce papers, the audience is beginning to think maybe Melanie’s making a mistake going for Andrew instead of Jake. That new emotional tension carries us forward. We also have a subplot about Andrew’s mother trying to dig up the truth about Melanie, and then the moment where Andrew comes down to Alabama, discovers Melanie’s lies, and calls off the wedding. These conflicts all have crucial forward motion which pulls the audience along. Plus, there are a few secrets about Melanie’s past which we reveal to keep things interesting. And don’t underestimate how much charming actors can do for a film.

However, I still think the movie would have been better if Jake didn’t sign those papers until the end of Act Two.


Unknown said...

I don't think it's a logic flaw when Mel still hangs around after Jake signed the paper. Actually this even adds a new dimension to her conflicting subconsciousness. Deep down inside, she still loves him and just needs him to prove that they belong to each other.

Hannah D. said...

Thanks for this interesting structural break-down, Doug! I agree the movie would have been better with the divorce papers being signed later. I came across your site while looking for the screenplay to Sweet Home Alabama. I recently re-watched it and learned a lot about writing romance -- I wish Hollywood still made this type of rich, layered sweet, funny romantic comedy.