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August 9, 2022

Silence of the Lambs: Screenplay Breakdown

This cult classic film in the psychological horror genre has an interesting structure that is worth studying.  But what  makes Silence of the Lambs such a great masterpiece? Let's dive into this film! We'll be breaking down the plot and discussing the nuts and bolts so you can use these techniques to better your own script.

What makes Makes Silence of the Lambs so successful?

Silence of the Lambs grossed $273 million worldwide, making it a box office smash though it is hardly what you would call a blockbuster thriller at that time. However, Silence of the Lambs picked up momentum gradually and is now regarded as one of the most popular horror films of all time..

The Silence of the Lambs film poster featuring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins
Jode Foster and Anthony Hopkins bring a complex film about serial killers to life.

Much of its success came from critical acclaim and reviews. As more people heard about the film, more people began to watch it. This is unusual in the film industry, where films either sink or sail in their first few weeks.

The film's success at the Academy Awards, where it won five awards, also helped the film continue momentum. Released in 1991, Silence of the Lambs deals with controversial and topical themes of gender, feminism, and how we treat serial killers that are still relevant today. Like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, it also pushed boundaries on graphic and violent content. The all-star cast also helped with its reputation.

The cast of Silence of the Lambs

Silence of the Lambs has a fascinating cast of characters portrayed by Hollywood greats.

Anthony Hopkins who plays Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
Anthony Hopkins leads an all-star cast in Silence of the Lambs.

Clarice Starling

Played by Jodie Foster, Clarice Starling is a student at the FBI Academy and the protagonist in the film. She’s very intelligent, calm and collected despite her turbulent work. Fun fact, this character is ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest heroine in film history.

Hannibal Lecter

This character is a serial killer and psychopath, expertly played by actor Anthony Hopkins. Hannibal is a dynamic character and despite his villainous tendencies, he’s intelligent and can be caring and compassionate. These characteristics add depth and color, which is unique for villains.

Jack Crawford

Crawford is Starling’s boss, and the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Services. Sterling respects him deeply, and he is well-liked and esteemed by his peers.

Buffalo Bill

“Buffalo Bill,” aka Jame Gumb, is the primary antagonist in the film. He’s known for his disturbing methods of torture that involved the removal of skin from overweight women as if they were cattle.

The Silence of the Lambs: screenplay breakdown

Silence of the Lambs uses a classic three-act structure for this complex plot, carefully setting up the relationship between Starling and Lecter. This is important because their relationship will help Starling solve the crime.

The plot of The Silence of the Lambs is complicated even though the cast of main characters is minimal because it involves the backstory of two serial killers.  

Let's break down the film into its acts and story beats.

Act I - The Setup

Exposition

Clarice Starling is removed from her training to become an FBI agent and is instead sent to interview Hannibal Lecter.

Lecter is a former psychiatrist turned serial killer who is now in jail. Lecter alone could possess the key to bringing serial killer Buffalo Bill to justice.

Inciting Incident

In jail, Lecter gives Starling a clue - a storage facility with a jar containing a severed head.

Plot Point One

Lecter offers to help with the case on the condition that he is transferred away from his current prison.

Act II Confrontation:

Rising Action

Buffalo Bill abducts the daughter of a sitting U.S senator, and another victim is also found dead.

Midpoint

Lecter insists on a quid-pro-quo in which Starling reveals information about her childhood. For each piece of information she shares, Lecter reveals more information about the case. Starling tells Lecter of a recurring nightmare she has of lambs being slaughtered. Lecter hypothesizes that Starling wants to save the senator's daughter to stop the screaming and hands her the Buffalo Bill case file with his annotations.

Plot Point Two

At the end of Act Two, Lecter kills his guards and escapes from jail.

Act III - Resolution

Pre Climax

Starling uses Lecters' notes to establish that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim, Frederika Bimmel, and that Buffalo is making suits out of the human skin he takes from each victim. Meanwhile, Starling's boss Crawford is en route to who he thinks is Buffalo Bill: Jame Gumb, a transexual denied sex-change surgery because of his mental state.

Climax

Starling confronts Gumb at a house she believes belongs to Gumb's friend. Gumb stalks her around the basement with night vision goggles but fails to shoot his revolver, and Starling shoots him dead. Starling also finds Catherine tied up in a dry well.

Denouement

At her graduation party, Lecter calls Starling to congratulate her on solving the case. He is at the airport but promises not to go after her. Starling cannot promise not to pursue Lecter in return. Lecter hangs up the phone and states he is having an old friend for dinner.

At her graduation party, Lecter calls Starling to congratulate her on solving the case. He is at the airport but promises not to go after her. Starling cannot promise not to pursue Lecter in return. Lecter hands up the phone and states 'he is having an old friend for dinner.

What can we learn from the screenplay breakdown of Silence of the Lambs?

The structure of Silence of the Lambs makes a complicated plot easier by dividing the events into three digestible acts.

If you want Set up the critical relationship in your first act to write a great screenplay, then set up the key relationship in your first act. Consider who the main players are - thematically - in your narrative arc and figure out what might draw them together.

In Silence of the Lambs, Starling would never meet or choose to meet a character like Hanibal Lecter; they must be thrown together. It is the fact that Buffalo Bill is on the rampage and his crimes need to be stopped urgently that notches up the pressure.

This puts Starling in the unusual position of spending time with an expert in serial killers - another serial killer - in order to solve the case. Remember, close friendships and relationships are often made under pressure, not in pleasantries.

Bufallo Bill from Silence of the Lambs opening his door to Starling.
Bufallo Bill (Ted Levine) is the principal antagonist of Silence of the Lambs.

Ron Weasley, Hermionie Granger, and Harry Potter only became close friends after they experienced the incident of the troll in the bathroom on Halloween night in Philosopher's Stone. Dramas set around a crime involving detectives or FBI officers have the bonus of creating that pressure and drama quickly without it seeming artificial.

Download Silence of the Lambs here

Do you want to read the script yourself? We've already found the script for you! Click here to download the script.

Are you ready to start writing your own horror or thriller film? We hope this plot breakdown and tips help you in your process.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!

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Silence of the Lambs: Screenplay Breakdown
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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