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March 23, 2023

Breaking Down Pulp Fiction

Of all the films that we discuss on the blog, this has got to be one of the biggest “rule-breakers” of them all. However, just because Pulp Fiction doesn’t follow conventional narrative structures doesn’t make it a bad film.

In fact, the opposite may well be true. Let’s break it down and figure out just how this film operates and investigate how you can also write a screenplay that breaks all the rules.

What is Pulp Fiction all about?

Directed and written by the legendary Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction is the high water mark of the postmodern film. This is because it indulges in copious self-referentiality, challenging structure, and a keen interest in pop culture.

This is because the film challenges the traditional narrative structure. It is also unusual because it refers to itself.

The film follows a group of loosely connected characters associated with the crime world in LA.

Because the film is told out of chronological order there are no inciting incidents or midpoints or dark nights of the soul here. Pulp Fiction is an exercise in a lot of ways about breaking the “rules” that govern storytelling.

We follow the characters in out of order segments that play out more like a series of loosely connected short films rather than anything resembling a central narrative.

However, a confident tone, a killer soundtrack, career-defining performances, and a wit and style in dialogue that is unrivaled drives the film forward. It shows just how forgiving audiences are about structure breaks if they’re given something else great to latch onto.

Who are the main characters in Pulp Fiction?

Let’s dive into the main characters in Pulp Fiction.

Vincent Vega (John Travolta)

Vincent is one part of the hitman duo we follow throughout the story. Vincent is portrayed as a bit of a goofball who constantly scrutinizes the world around him, all while engaging fully in all the criminal underworld of the city has to offer.

John Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction wearing a white shirt and a black jacket
John Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction

Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson)

Vincent’s hitman partner, Jules is a charismatic presence who is the biggest presence in any room. However, after a lucky break where he manages to avoid getting shot, Jules starts to wonder whether a divine presence is informing his life.

Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman)

The girlfriend of crime boss Marsellus Wallace and amateur actor, Mia is bored of life and is excited to be taken out by Vincent. However, her proclivity for excitement tends to get her in trouble.

Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames)

The crime boss for which Vincent, Jules, and Butch work for. He is a quiet but intimidating presence who is willing to back up his words with violent force if needs be. However, he is not without honor, and he helps out those who help him.

Butch Coolidge: (Bruce Willis)

A small-time boxer who is under the thumb of Marsellus who wants to pay him to throw a match. However, Butch is concerned about keeping his dignity and refuses to throw a match, even if it means invoking Marsellus’s ire.

Plot breakdown of Pulp Fiction using episodic structure

As we have previously described Pulp Fiction is not a traditional film. Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily follow a classic structure. Instead we have broken down the film into different scenes or episodes.

The diner

To start things off on a unconventional note, Pulp Fiction begins with a prologue between two criminals called Pumpkin and Honey Bunny discussing whether they should rob the diner they’re currently eating in.

Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield pulling a gun in the diner scene in Pulp Fiction.
The diner sequence is one of the most memorable in Pulp Fiction

This is unconventional for two reasons, firstly because these aren’t characters that the audience is going to see again until near the end of the entire film, and because what they do doesn’t really explicitly tee up the rest of the story.

However, the dialogue between the two is electric, and it sets the offbeat and energetic tone of the rest of the film, as well as laying the seeds for the unconventional and anti-chronological structure that the uninitiated viewer is yet to understand.

The apartment

As soon as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny decide to rob the diner, after a brief titles sequence we cut to Vincent and Jules on a ride towards a hit. Again, most of this dialogue isn’t strictly related to advancing the central plot as much as it is about establishing these characters.

Vincent worries about being asked to take Marsellus’s boss out on a date later that night and Jules both makes fun of him and gives him sage advice. The two break into the apartment, pick up a mysterious suitcase with something highly valuable inside, then carry out their hit.

The date

Later that night Vincent picks up some drugs from his dealer before taking Mia out on a date. Their relationship is frosty at first and Vincent is scared to be anything more than a bodyguard for fear of annoying his boss, but Mia wears him down and the two start to build a kind of bond.

After winning an impromptu dancing competition at a 50s themed bar, Vincent and Mia head home. Mia takes some of Vincent’s drugs but starts to have some sort of reaction to them. Panicked that he’s going to accidentally kill his boss’s girlfriend, he rushes to the dealer and in a tense scene they revive her just in time.

The gold watch

As soon as Mia is revived, we cut to a flashback of Butch being told the important of his father’s golden watch. In the present day, Butch, a boxer, one we saw earlier being told by Marsellus to throw his upcoming match, instead uses the money he was paid to bet on himself then make a run for it with his girlfriend.

However, as he packs his bags and leaves, he forgets his golden watch. He returns home where Vincent is awaiting him. However, Butch catches Vincent by surprise and shoots him on the toilet, before grabbing the golden watch and heading out.

However, by complete coincidence, Butch runs into Marsellus on the street. The two get into a shooting match that makes its way into a pawn shop. However, to make an unlucky day worse, the pawnshop owner imprisons the two of them in the basement and sexually assaults both. Butch escapes, grabs a katana from upstairs, frees Marsellus, who agrees to let Butch go if he doesn’t say a word about what he saw.

The clean-up

Suddenly, we’re back with Vincent and Jules after their hit in the apartment. They’re surprised when another man emerges from a side room and tries to shoot them, but he misses all of his bullets. The hitmen take the other man into their custody while Jules wonders how they could have possibly survived, concluding that it must have been divine intervention.

Vincent’s less convinced and asks their prisoner for their input, but, he accidentally shoots their prisoner in the face. Their car and clothes get covered in blood and thinking fast they stash their car and the body at a friend’s home. Marsellus sends the Wolf, one of his prime operators, to clean up the mess. The Wolf takes care of the body while the hitmen change their clothes and take the car to a scrapyard.

The diner (again)

Vincent and Jules eat breakfast at a diner in their ill-fitting clothes. Jules is convinced that what happened today was a sign from God and that he will quit the criminal business. However, just as Vincent goes to the bathroom, it turns out that Vincent and Jules are in the exact same diner that Pumpkin and Honey Bunny decided to rob way in the beginning.

The criminal duo tries to rob Jules, but he calmly talks them down and tells them the story of what happened, turning the tables on them with his own gun. When Vincent emerges from the bathroom guns blazing, Jules calms him down, and convinces Pumpkin and Honey Bunny to let them go.

As the hitmen leave the diner, Jules is ever more convinced that this will be the last day of his criminal life.

What can we learn from Pulp Fiction?

As you can see, the structure of Pulp Fiction is very far from conventional. However, every single episodic element contains its own miniature story full of obstacles, setbacks, and characterisation moments.

As long as the audience is given something to latch onto, they’re usually more than willing to go with you, even if the structure challenges their preconceptions of what a good story is in the first place.

Be sure to read the rest of our breakdown series for more ideas on how to structure your plot. And of course don’t forget you can download our software for FREE today.


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Breaking Down Pulp Fiction
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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