Structure Breakdowns: “Manchester by the Sea”



Kenneth Lonergan’s first writing/directing outing since 2011, Manchester by the Sea is a universal tale grief in which being your brother’s keeper includes all of the big and little baggage that we leave behind for our loved ones to care for, to mend to, and ultimately to preserve.

LOGLINE: A troubled janitor must return, permanently, to a town that holds painful memories for him in order to raise his nephew when his brother dies unexpectedly.



Lee Chandler, an unhappy maintenance man dealing with his own demons.

What is the main character’s INITIAL WANT?

In a state of existential grief, he wants to hide from the world and punish himself by denying himself any joy.

What is the INCITING INCIDENT that sets the story in motion?

His brother Joe dies, and Lee learns that he has been named as the legal guardian for his nephew Patrick.

After the Inciting Incident, what is the main character’s CONFLICTED WANT? 

Lee returns to home for his brother’s funeral and to find a place for Patrick, even though Lee  doesn’t want to be there.

Who are the FRIENDS/FOES with whom the main character debates his/her choice? 

– Friends: His nephew Patrick and his brother’s friend George.
– Foes: Embodied by his ex-wife Randi, everything and everyone who lives in Manchester because they remind Lee of his grief.

What SKILLS, TALENTS and DEFICIENCIES does the main character have?

– Skills/Talents:  Lee is handy and responsible.
– Deficiencies:  Lee is unable trapped in grief, unable to feel or express any emotions.

What does is the CLEAR WANT that the main character has…?

To make sure his nephew Patrick is cared for and has a home.

What ACTION CHOICE does the main character make to obtain his/her want?

Lee moves in with Patrick and becomes his guardian.

The New World (Act II):

Who are the ALLIES the main character encounters?

– Mentor Figure: George, though there really isn’t one.
– Mirror Figure: Patrick.
– Minor Figure:  Random people Lee comes in contact with in Manchester.

Who are the ENEMIES the main character encounters?

While the entire town of Manchester could be seen as an “enemy,” that sentiment is embodied in Lee’s ex-wife Randi.  Not because she bears Lee any ill will – in fact, it’s the opposite; she wants to forgive him – but because she reminds him of all the grief he is trying to put out of his head.

Who is the ANTAGONIST who prevents the main character from achieving his/her goal?

The antagonist is Lee (plot type: “Man vs Himself).  The self-loathing, grieving Lee wants to punish the Lee who wants to forgive himself for the errors of his past.

Who or what is the WANTED OBJECT in this story?

The wanted object in this story is actually Lee’s happiness – will he ever find it again?

What is the MIDPOINT SHIFT that allow the main character to take effective action?

Back in Manchester, Lee is unable to keep his grief at bay.  He’s forced to remember the death of his children and face that he can’t run away from his grief but must face it in order to forgive himself and heal.

The Brave World (Act III):

Based on the main character’s epiphany what ACTION COURSE does s/he take?

Unable to deal with his grief, Lee tries to find a different living situation for Patrick that allows Lee to not have to stay in Manchester.

What action does the antagonist take to create the RISING CONFLICT?

He wants to care for Patrick, but every day Lee spends in Manchester forces him to feel the full weight of his grief.


Tensions between Lee and Patrick increase as Patrick begins to feel more and more abandoned by Lee’s behavior.

What is the PERSONAL LESSON the main character learns from this experience?

When Patrick’s grief comes to the surface over the sight of frozen chicken, Lee is forced to admit that there is nothing they can do about their sorrow and loss.

What is the LOWEST MOMENT in the story?

When Lee bumps into his ex-wife Randi who wants to forgive him and be forgiven by him so that they can both move on with their lives, Lee faces the reality that he doesn’t know how to move on and is not yet through punishing himself for the death of his children.

The Reordered World (Act IV):

How does the main character react in his/her MOMENT OF WEAKNESS?

Lee goes to a bar, gets blind drunk and picks a fight with the biggest guy he can find until that guy beats the living crap out of him – in effect, Lee is getting himself beat as self-punishment.

What MOMENT OF RESILIENCE that enables the main character to continue?

George takes care of Lee, showing him some kindness and concern.   Patrick does the same.

What is the FINAL ACTION CHOICE that the main character takes? 

Lee convinces George to take care of Patrick so that Lee can out of Manchester and back to Boston.


Patrick breaks up with his girlfriend.  Lee decides to leave.

What is the CLIMAX of the story?

Lee tells Patrick that he doesn’t have to come with him to Boston; and more importantly, Lee admits out loud that he cannot beat his grief – it still has too powerful a hold on him.

What is the CHANGE that has occurred in the world of the story?  

When the snow thaws, Lee returns to Manchester for his brother Joe’s funeral.  Having moves through the stages of grief from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to the beginnings of acceptance, Lee is finally able to begin to heal and find joy in his life once again.

How is the RESOLUTION ARTICULATED at the end? 

After the funeral, Lee and Patrick bounce a ball back and forth, having a moment of fun for the first time.  The last line of the movie is Lee: “Just let it go.”  The last shot is the two of them fishing together on the boat, enjoying the day.

Many people loved this movie; for others, it fell flat.  Like many of the critically acclaimed films of 2016, Manchester by the Sea is a subtle film.  Unlike high-concept, mainstream films, this movie documented Lee’s shift from trapped in his grief to the beginnings of transcending it.  It’s a small change, but change nonetheless.

The lesson here is that when writing a mainstream story you want to be sure to give your character the opportunity for the greatest amount of change possible — “A to Z,” if you will.  When writing an indie film, you can make your character’s change much more subtle, let’s say from “A to C.”

What kind of film are you writing?  What kind of character evolution does your story involve?

Most important, remember that even if slight there must be change in order for your story to be effective.

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