There’s no doubt that ‘Get Out’ is an entertaining horror film. While it’s received a lot of attention for its timely discussion of race, one of the things that struck me on closer examination is its satisfying and well-structured story. When it comes to the most memorable movies I’ve seen in the last few years, one of the things they all have in common is a well-structured screenplay.
In ‘Story’, Robert McKee says that the objective of a screenwriter should be ‘a good story, well told’. The films that really move me are the ones that have compelling, well-structured and satisfying narratives. They’re movies that exploit the well-established story beats of a three-act narrative. This is one of the reasons I like to think the film received an Academy Award for best original screenplay in 2018. It’s a tightly structured and satisfying story that uses these beats as a foundation for its exploration of race in America.
While screenwriting books like Story, Save the Cat and How to Build a Great Screenplay might differ in their approach and terminology they all describe one thing: the basic elements of story. And while some criticize the adherence to these story beats as formulaic, I firmly believe they draw our attention to the timeless qualities of good storytelling.
So what does a good story look like?
To understand good stories, we need to understand three act narrative structure. Typically, screenwriters divide stories into Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3 which take up 25% 50% and 25% of the narrative respectively.
Act 1, the opening of the film, typically accounts for about 25% of a story. It establishes the main characters, including their traits goals and motivations, and always include some kind of catalyst or inciting event that compels the character to seek out their goal. After a period of debate, the character reaches a turning point where they commit to the action.
Act 2 what I often refer to as the development of the narrative, is characterized by rising tension, multiple storylines and typically takes up about half the film.
Act 3, which includes the climax and resolution, accounts for the remaining quarter of the screenplay. We’re going to take a closer look at how Jordan Peele uses three act narrative structure and these story beats as the foundation of an engaging narrative.
Act 1 of Get Out
The first act of a narrative usually includes what Blake Snyder in Save the Cat calls The Setup, which principally involves establishing characters including their traits goals and motivations. But ‘Get Out’ doesn’t start there and this is the moment that the narrative does something that is quintessentially horror. It begins with a violent and terrifying act. In The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll calls this phase of a horror film ‘the onset’:
“The first function in the complex discovery plot is onset here the monster’s presence is established for the audience. For example, in the film Jaws, we see the shark attack. We know a monster is abroad and about.”
‘Get Out’ begins in the same manner as countless other horror films including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and It Follows. It’s an engaging and terrifying prologue that hints at the presence of a monster and establishes a mystery. After this prologue, the setup unfolds as the audience is introduced to Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) a successful African-American photographer who’s in a loving relationship with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). In ‘Get Out’, the catalyst or inciting event occurs when Rose invites him to meet her parents. In most narratives, the protagonist doesn’t immediately pursue their goal or commit to the narrative. They go through a period of indecision. People don’t like change and characters are no different. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat calls this stage the debate, while Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces calls this stage ‘refusing the call’. In ‘Get Out’, Chris is initially dubious about visiting Rose’s parents because she hasn’t told them he’s black. This continues well after he arrives at the Armitage estate and he observes the odd behaviour of the family’s servants and endures a particularly awkward dinner. In three act narratives, there is usually a turning point at the end of Act 1 where the character commits to the action. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joesph Campbell calls this moment ‘crossing the threshold’. It’s the part in a story where the character commits to the action and enters a dangerous or unknown world, the moment there’s no turning back. In ‘Get Out’, this occurs when Rose expresses her anger at how her family has behaved and, because he loves her, Chris decides to stay. By the end of the first act, Chris’s story goal is firmly established. He wants to survive the weekend with Rose’s family. As the narrative progresses this goal doesn’t change. The word ‘survival’, however, takes on a slightly different meaning.
Act 2 of Get Out
In my opinion, we can divide everything that occurs in Act 2 of a narrative into two categories: b-stories and rising tension. In ‘Get Out’, there are a number of b-stories that unfold during the second act: the inner conflict that Chris feels over his inaction on the night his mother died; Rod’s investigation; and the mystery surrounding Georgina and Walter. In the first half of Act 2, Blake Snyder also talks about a story beat he calls ‘fun and games’ or the promise of the premise. It’s here we see Chris attempting to navigate the racial microaggressions of his girlfriend’s liberal elite family and friends. When it comes to rising tension, which is another defining characteristic of Act 2, ‘Get Out’ is a textbook example of the story beats identified by Blake Snyder in Save the Cat, including: the Midpoint; Bad Guys Close In; All is Lost; and The Dark Night of the Soul. In ‘Get Out’, the midpoint—which I like to call the midpoint disaster—occurs when Logan attacks Chris and urges him to ‘Get Out’. It’s a dramatic moment that raises the stakes and convinces Chris that something is terribly wrong. The Bad Guys Close In, refers to the story beat where the forces arrayed against the protagonist—both external and internal—tighten their grip. In ‘Get Out’, this occurs when Chris is sold off during a silent auction and is forced to confront the memory of what happened on the night his mother died. In Save the Cat, towards the end of Act 2, Blake Snyder says there should be a moment where the protagonist suffers a terrible defeat or setback. In ‘Get Out’, I think this occurs when Chris is betrayed by the person he loves most in the world and is taken captive by the Armitage family. The Dark Night of the Soul, according to Snyder, occurs when the character is badly defeated and forced to reflect on their predicament. This introspection leads to another turning point a decision that launches the character into the final confrontation that occurs in Act 3. In ‘Get Out’, Chris’ cigarette induced habit of drumming his fingers inspires him to stuff his ears with cotton. This is also an interesting moment for Chris’ character arc. Characters in narratives usually face both external and internal conflict. In ‘Get Out’, the external conflict is the Armitage family. Chris’s internal conflict, however, stems from his inaction on the night his mother died, the fact that he just sat there and did nothing. Forced to confront this guilt by the hypnotism and his later confession to Rose, Chris finds himself in a very similar situation: he can give into fear and do nothing or fight his way out.
Act 3 of Get Out
In Act 3, the climax occurs when Chris is forced to fight his way out of the house, ending in a tense standoff with Rose who goads him to kill her. Chris is bathed in flashing police lights and, just when the audience thinks he’s going to be unjustly arrested, Rod emerges from the car he explains the situation is being handled and they drive off into the night.
And that’s a quick look at the narrative construction of ‘Get Out’. Its screenplay, which received Best Original Screenplay at the 2018 Academy Awards, is a tightly structured and satisfying narrative that leverages these foundational story beats to tell a really engaging story of race in America.