Structure Breakdowns: “Whiplash.”


Another Academy Award winning movie written and directed by Damien Chazelle is one of my favorites: Whiplash.  A vicious game of psychological warfare between a talented pupil and psychotic teacher transforms into a fascinating character study and a meditation on what it takes to achieve artistic greatness.

LOGLINE: Plagued by the failed writing career of his father, an ambitious young jazz drummer hungers day and night to become one of the greats at an elite east coast music conservatory.  When an instructor equally known for his teaching talents as for his terrifying methods transfers the aspiring drummer into his band, the drummer’s passion for perfection spirals into obsession, as his ruthless teacher pushes him to the brink of his ability—and his sanity.



Andrew Neiman, 19, an aspiring drummer at America’s most prestigious music conservatory.

What is the main character’s INITIAL WANT?

He wants to become the greatest living jazz drummer and reap the rewards of that achievement.

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

The school’s top conductor, Terrence Fletcher invites Andrew to join the school’s top band.

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

Andrew joins the band but isn’t sure he’s good enough.

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

– Friends: His father, Joe Neiman; his short-lived girlfriend Nicole.
– Foes:
Every musician from school whom he competes against for his place in the band.

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

Skills/Talents: Musicality; unbelievable discipline, drive and determination; clarity of vision.

Deficiencies: Single-minded determination, zero social skills.

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

To win Fletcher’s approval by becoming the best jazz drummer ever.

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

He submits to Fletcher’s abuse and suffers physically and emotionally for his art.

The New World (Act II):

Who are the ALLIES the main character encounters?
– Mentor Figure:
Fletcher, but more as an “anti-mentor.”
– Mirror Figure(s): His father Joe, who failed as a writer.
– Minor Figure(s): His girlfriend, his cousins who think he’s a douche, other bandmates

Who are the ENEMIES the main character encounters?

Other musicians trying to hold their places in the band under Fletcher’s scrutiny.

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

Though he guides and inspires, Fletcher puts Andrew through living hell to make him sacrifice everything in his soul to be great.

Who or what is the WANTED OBJECT in this story?

Musical greatness, undeniable musical genius.

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

After earning the top spot in the band, Andrew’s forced to compete for it anyway, causing him to realize that no matter how good he thinks he is, it will never be enough.

The Brave World (Act III):

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

He redoubles his efforts, sacrificing everything in his life.

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

Despite Andrew’s hard work, Fletcher makes him outperform two more students or he’ll take away Andrew’s place in the band.


Andrew becomes so obsessed with meeting Fletcher’s standard that he almost gets himself killed in a car accident trying to get to a gig on time.

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

That you can never stop being vigilant, not even for a moment.

What is the LOWEST MOMENT in the story?

Due to the car accident, Andrew doesn’t play his best.  As a result, Fletcher kicks him out of the band.

The Reordered World (Act IV):

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

Kicked out the band, Andrew’s anger gets the best of him and he attacks Fletcher.

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

When Andrew learns of another student’s suicide due to Fletcher’s treatment, Andrew helps to get Fletcher fired.

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

Andrew decides to abandon the pursuit of jazz and live a normal life until Fletcher invites him to join a competitive band, which Andrew does.

This film being a “two-hander,” there are few subplots.  Andrew’s girlfriend Nicole moves on to a new guy.  Andrew comes to understand his father better.

What is the CLIMAX of the story?
During the on-stage competition, Fletcher returns to his old tricks and tries to get inside Andrew’s head.  This time, Andrew ignores Fletcher’s demands, trusts his own judgment and plays what he thinks is right.

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

What Andrew plays is genius; Even Fletcher can’t deny it.

How is the RESOLUTION ARTICULATED at the end? 

Awed by Andrew’s performance, Fletcher genuinely overjoyed by what he witnesses; and for the first time, Andrew actually enjoys himself while playing.

So there you have it… 5 great films to look at while learning how to deconstruct a film into the major points of it’s plot.  Pick a movie or two and try to do it for yourself.  See how much of the film’s narrative structure you can spot.

Next week, we’ll look at how these breakdowns can be used to help you write your movie.


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