There’s no better way to learn the art of screenwriting than breaking down the best scripts in the business. For me, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is the most vital screenplay of the past year (it received 5 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Original Screenplay), exuding a similar anger and tenacity as seen in Get Out.
Let’s use the four act-structure (Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, Act 3) to break down how the plot of this great movie plays out using the outlining tools of Arc Studio Pro.
To give you an idea of what outlining in Arc Studio looks like, we created a plot board for Promising Young Woman, which you can play around with here.
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead!]
Act 1 consists of four key beats: Opening Image, Setting up the world, Inciting Incident and the turning point into Act 2. Let’s break them down.
Generally, we always want the opening images of a movie to act as a kind of mission statement. Just like you would open an essay with the most explicit articulation of the core argument, movies tend to open on a dramatically significant moment that sets up what kind of movie we should expect.
In Promising Young Woman, that moment comes in the form of Cassie pulling her trick on the unsuspecting men of the city’s clubs. Seen mostly from the man’s perspective, we see his predatory behavior before having the rug pulled out from under us when it transpires that Cassie is actually stone cold sober. Cut to title card.
After the opening images, it’s time to establish the foundations for the rest of the story. Here we usually meet any characters of consequence to the story, the settings, the tone, and anything else that helps frame what’s to come next. This is the world as the protagonist currently lives in it, and while it might not be perfect, it is, in some way, comfortable.
In Promising Young Woman we see builder’s catcalling Cassie, an indication of the indignities she withstands every day, before getting a look into her personal family life (and the slightly disapproving parents) as well as her life as a barista and her supportive boss.
After the world of comfort has been set up, it’s time to throw a rock at the precarious jenga tower. Not enough to topple it, but enough to make everything wobble. The inciting incident is one of the few plot events that usually happens outside of the protagonist’s direct influence. It’s the word of chaos here to disturb the order. Everything after this can be stemmed back to this moment.
In Promising Young Woman, this is when Ryan and Cassie meet at the coffee shop. We can infer that Cassie has a generally antagonistic attitude towards men she doesn’t know, so we expect this incident to go similarly, but Ryan appears to be a charmer. Although the first meeting goes well, it does eventually end up in both characters going on a date.
The inciting incident sets our protagonist on a journey of some form, one they’re usually not 100% willing to go on. In the space between Act 1 and Act 2B, our protagonist wants to restore the order they had at the beginning of the story. However, by the end of this plot point, they are set on the journey for good.
In Promising Young Woman, this period sees the blossoming of Cassie and Ryan’s relationship. They clearly gel well, but an awkward encounter outside Ryan’s apartment shows that Cassie isn’t entirely ready for this relationship. After persevering through the trouble and extending an olive branch, Cassie learns that someone called Al Monroe is getting married soon. Although we don’t know who that is, we can judge by Cassie’s reaction that Al is bad news.
The protagonist is now on the journey and fully pursues whatever goal they seek to achieve. You absolutely need to fulfill the promise of what your movie is going to be here. If you’re writing an action movie, we need to see your best set pieces. A comedy movie should have some of the best jokes here, a horror movie needs some great scares. Consider this section as holding most of the “trailer moments”.
In Promising Young Woman, we get to see Cassie use her intelligence and grift that she used on the man at the beginning to get revenge on those who wronged her in the past. This includes manipulating two women, Madison and the dean of the medical school she went to in the past, to make them feel a similar dread that Nina, an old friend of Cassie’s, felt several years prior. While we don’t know the details of what happened to Nina yet, through these two major setpieces we start to get a pretty good idea that she was a victim of a serious sexual assault.
The midpoint is the axle upon which the entire movie swings. Coming out of the Promise of the Premise, the protagonist has arrived at their goal and usually experiences a great success. However, they soon realize that this success isn’t all it cracked up to be. The stakes rise as a new goal comes into sight that sends our protagonist into a tail-spin that threatens to destroy them.
In Promising Young Woman, the midpoint is not a major set piece, but an encounter on the road with another aggressive male driver. Cassie smashes up his car in a state of vitriol we hadn’t seen before. We were under the impression that these acts of revenge were giving Cassie a sense of closure, but instead is flaring up deep-seeded rage. What seemed like a righteous path of revenge now shows glimmers of self-destruction.
While during the Promise of the Premise the protagonist was showing goals of progress, this period of the script, post-midpoint, shows a regression of the protagonist back towards a negative place. No matter what they do, things only seem to get worse.
In Promising Young Woman, this comes in the form of how her grifts affect her personal life. Immediately after the midpoint we see that Cassie’s vendetta meant she messed up a date with Ryan. When she tries to exact revenge upon the lawyers who defended Al in court, she learns that he’s a psychologically broken man who begs for forgiveness after being haunted with what he’s done in the past. Cassie is explicitly told by Nina’s mom to move on, but it’s hard to know whether that’s even possible. Maybe through her blossoming relationship with Ryan she can find a path forward.
However, another ball is thrown at the Jenga tower that threatens to make the whole thing fall to the ground. This is what the descent has been leading to, a completely hopeless moment where there doesn’t seem to be any way for the protagonist to succeed. This moment is all the darker if the misery comes from self-inflicted wounds that came from the protagonist’s own inability to grow beyond their origin point.
In Promising Young Woman, this moment comes when Madison, the woman Cassie tricked earlier, shows up at Cassie’s house. Cassie faces a rare moment of having to directly see the aftermath of her revenge. Madison shows Cassie a recording of Nina’s rape where she’s devestated to see that Ryan, Mr. Nice, was there when Al raped Nina.
What matters most is how the protagonist reacts to this darkest moment. Generally this comes in the form of a thematic revelation that allows the character to make the choice to grow, to become the person they never thought they could be, and summon the courage and strength to do what needs to be done at the end.
In Promising Young Woman, this is when Cassie confronts Ryan at the children’s hospital. All semblance of warmth between the two is gone, and Cassie has clearly regressed into a ball of righteous anger. She threatens to release the video if Ryan doesn’t tell her where Al is having his stag party. When he tells her, Cassie makes it known in no uncertain terms that this relationship that brought both of them a lot of joy is done forever
Here’s the breakdown for Act 3.
Using the knowledge gained from the Turn to Act 3, the protagonist charges forth and confronts their biggest demon. What happens here heavily depends on the kind of story you’re telling. In most stories with a happy ending this is where the protagonist uses their newly found thematic knowledge to destroy the element of antagonism. In a tragedy, this is where the protagonist’s hamartia destroys them for good.
Unfortunately for Cassie, Promising Young Woman is a tragedy. Posing as a stripper, Cassie goes to Al’s stag party, drugs all the men, and restrains Al to a bed. She cathartically says all she needs to say, but just as she’s about the exact her ultimate revenge, Al breaks free from his bindings and smothers her to death. In the end, Cassie’s inability to find a path forward from Nina’s trauma ended in her death.
Following the finale it feels very good to see the new status quo. Here we get to see the protagonist return back to their original situation changed with the knowledge and experience they found in their journey. Often screenwriters like their final images to be a mirror image of the first to contrast the different versions of the protagonist.
The final images of Promising Young Woman, are done in a similar sense to Macbeth in that the protagonist isn’t actually alive to see what happens. However, this still works. After Al and his buddy dispose of Cassie’s body, we get to see them get away with the murder and proceed with their lives unabated. Maybe everything Cassie did was for nothing. However, at Al’s wedding, a pre-scheduled text from Cassie arrives at Ryan’s phone that explains that she had a contingency plan in case she never made it back. She’s got the evidence to prove Al’s misdoings. Al is hauled away by the police, and Ryan knows that because he lied to the police, he could be headed to jail too.
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