Claim Your
Off Discount
March 16, 2023

Breaking Down The Godfather

Without a doubt, The Godfather is one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time and almost certainly one of the most influential. This Francis Ford Coppola film from 1972 set the standard for crime thrillers to come.

Let’s dive into a breakdown of this film using Save the Cat.

What is The Godfather all about?

In short, The Godfather is a mob movie. Auteur directors such as Scorcese would come to follow in the foosteps and build on the work of Ford Copolla.

The film follows Vito Corleone, the head of an Italian-American mafioso family between 1945 and 1955, a peroid of change after the end of WWII.

Vito Corelone as the head of the crime family as people in the community come to pay their respects to him
The Godfather is the ultimate crime film about loyalty, revenge and masculunity in the post-war era.

Representing this change is Michael Corleone. He is Vito’s second son who has just returned from the war. Michael is well aware of his father’s criminal enterprises, but he is determined to stay away from it and live a normal life.

However, circumstances might lead him down an entirely different path.

Now let’s dive into the main characters.

The main characters in The Godfather

Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)

Perhaps Brando’s most famous role, Vito is the aging patriarch of the Corleone mafia family. He is an intimidating figure whose soft-spoken words and tenderness to animals and his family is sharply contrasted by the swift and brutal violence he happily inflicts. However, times are changing, and the mafioso of a bygone age finds himself looking towards a potential successor as his health ails.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)

Vito’s second son, Michael is the only member of the family to really escape the mafioso lifestyle, going to college and fighting in WW2. Now, he has returned home for his sister’s wedding and is determined not to get dragged back into his family’s criminal empire and be a man of a new age. However, when the fortunes of the Corleone family trend sharply downward, he is torn between his duty to protect his family and his desire to make a new life for himself.

Michael Corleone in The Godfather sitting in his chair at the end of the film as the head of the crime family
Al Pachino as the reluctant heir apparent to the Corelone crime family.

Sonny Corleone (James Caan)

Vito’s first son and an absolute hot-head, Sonny is an incredibly violent yet fun-loving man who may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s got more than enough muscle to back up his father. However, it’s clear that if he were to take the reigns of the family the Corleone’s may end up in a constant state of unending war.

Kay Adams (Diane Keaton)

Michael’s long-term girlfriend and soon to be wife, Kay is from a WASP community in the New York suburbs and is new to the Italian-American family lifestyle. She represents true assimilation for the Corleone family with the American Dream, but she grows increasingly disturbed at Michael, an man she thought she knew, becoming increasingly distant and ruthless.

The Godfather Plot Breakdown using Save the Cat

Let's breakdown this classic using the Save the Cat framework.

Opening, setup, and inciting incident

The Godfather’s opening is famous for its efficiency. It establishes the rest of the story. In one set of closely linked scenes, the opening, setup, and inciting incident of the entire film are set up in a single fell swoop.

The film opens cold with Vito taking requests for his help at his daughter’s wedding. There is a clear and immense amount of respect from everyone who comes to see him, and we are introduced to the main players in his team, Sonny, his oldest son, and Tom Hagen, the adopted son who looks after operations. It's a great first page of action.

Enter Michael, with his long-time girlfriend Kay Adams. Michael is a bit of a prodigal son who hasn’t talked with his family in some time. However, he is warmly welcomed back into the fold and enjoys the festivities while introducing Kay into the way his family works.

As the wedding starts wrapping up, singer Johnny Fontaine approaches Vito and asks him to help him get a movie role by intimidating a studio exec.

Turn to Two

This request from Fontaine gives Coppola a chance to show us exactly how the family really works. Tom tries to peacefully ask the studio exec to help Johnny Fontaine, but when peaceful methods fail, it leads to one of the films most memorable scenes: he opts to cutting off the exec’s prized horse’s head and putting it in bed with the exec.

Needless to say, it scares the exec into doing exactly what the Corleone’s want.

Promise of the Premise

Now that we know the power of the Corleone’s, it’s time to face their major challenge. The criminal world is changing post-WW2, and the Corleone’s fellow mafia families (collectively called The Five Families) want to get into narcotics with the help of drug baron Sollozzo.

However, Vito dislikes the idea entirely, perhaps because he’s too old-fashioned to see that that is the direction the business is headed.

So, Sollozzo strikes out and orders Vito to be killed. Vito is shot and sent to hospital. Michael checks in with him, concerned that his family is in danger, and sees how the police have refused to give Vito protection. Michael single-handedly saves his father from would-be hitmen searching to finish the job on his father, and he realizes that he may be the only one who can truly help the family.


To halt the threat on his family, Michael offers to kill Sollozzo and the police chief McCluskey to show that the Corleone’s are not to be challenged. If he carries out the hit, Michael will have to go into hiding for years, a sacrifice that Michael is willing to take as he feels as if he’s the only one who is willing to do it.

So, he meets Sollozzo and McCluskey in a restaurant at supposed peace talks before unearthing a stashed gun, killing them both, then escaping, heading straight to Sicily to lay low for a time.


As Michael makes a new life for himself in Sicily, New York turns into a state of open crime warfare as a result of Sollozzo and McCluskey’s murder.

Sonny, the hot-head oldest son who is now mostly in charge on account of their father’s sickly state, beats up rival Barzini, husband to his sister, for beating her. Crucially, he does it in public and humiliates Barzini.

At the same time, Michael is pursuing a relationship with a woman called Apollonia in Sicily who represents an innocent and innocuous life that Michael could yet have. Apollonia represents a kind of innocence for Michael.

However, a string of killings send things into a desperate state of decay. First, Barzini organizes a hit on Sonny where rival mafiosos gun him down at a toll checkpoint. At the same time, Apollonia is killed in Sicily by a car bomb that was intended for Michael.

Turn to Three

It’s clear that no matter where Michael runs to, his father’s criminal empire will follow. Michael returns to New York as Vito makes peace with the dons of the Five Families, ending the state of war between them by promising not to seek revenge for Sonny’s murder.

With Sonny gone and Michael back in New York, Michael now becomes de- facto head of the Corleone family. He marries Kay, probably not out of love, but in order to gain respect and assure the future of the Corleone family. Michael’s moral degradation is nearing its heights.


Vito dies from a heart attack while playing in an orange grove with his grandson. Now, Michael is the don of the Corleone family, and he is keen to enact revenge for the murder of Apollonia and Sonny with his father not able to object.

At the baptism of his firstborn, Michael organizes the simultaneous hits of the dons of all the other crime families to secure the Corleone’s power over New York and express the immense power they wield. Additionally, Michael organizes the killing of Barzini, his brother-in-law, finishing up the business of the now dead Sonny.


The hits were successful. However, Michael’s sister confronts him in front of Kay and accuses him of killing Barzini when she expressly forbade it. Michael lies to her face and tells her he didn’t order the hit. Her sister doesn’t believe him, but can’t argue with him and leave. Kay asks Michael if he really did order the hit on Barzini, and Michael lies again to her.

The film closes on a shot of Kay in a different room from Michael, watching as his manifest underlings pay their respect to their new don, as a door closes between them.

What can we learn from The Godfather?

Sometimes classics of the genre feel impenetrable through their sheer reputation. However, despite the seemingly complexity and intricacy of The Godfather, when broken up into its constituent elements we can see it uses a very similar story structure to countless other stories. Suddenly, stories of these epic proportions can feel just a little more manageable and we can use the lessons this story teaches us in our own writing.

Be sure to download our free screenwriting software today.


Level-up your screenwriting software

With Arc Studio, you stay focused while writing your screenplay, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease.

Add the template to your Arc Studio Pro account

text content

Download the template
Go to Desk

Download your free template now

With Arc Studio pro, you stay focused while writing your screenplay, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease. 2
Breaking Down The Godfather
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

Level-up your screenwriting software

Arc Studio is the new standard in screenwriting software: stay focused, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease.

Go to Desk

Download your free template now

With Arc Studio pro, you stay focused while writing your screenplay, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease.

Go to Desk

Receive a free screenwriting book

Get your free ebook now!

Download Your Template
Go to Desk

Learn from the film industry’s top screenwriters

Our new podcast, How I Write: Screenwriters Share Their Creative Processes, launches Nov. 12th.

Go to Desk


This is some text inside of a div block.
This is some text inside of a div block.

Read More

Ready to get started?

Go to Desk
No credit card required