The Shawshank Redemption is a stunning movie. Set almost entirely within the dank walls of a state prison with corrupt guards, foul-mouthed convicts, and even less savory aspects of prison life, it manages to be
The Shawshank Redemption is a stunning movie. Set almost entirely within the dank walls of a state prison with corrupt guards, foul-mouthed convicts, and even less savory aspects of prison life, it manages to be beautiful and uplifting. I cannot recommend it enough.
This should go without saying, but SPOILERS!!! If you haven’t yet seen this movie, you should skip this post. Or better yet, go find it on Netflix, watch it, and come back. We’ll wait.
Ready? Okay, let’s do this.
Movies are great for studying story structure. Only a few hours long, and the plot points are usually precise to the minute. This one follows the 3-Act Structure pretty well, with a bit of the Hollywood Formula thrown in for good measure, so we’ll start there.
Story Structure in The Shawshank Redemption
The 1st Act opens with Andy Dufresne in his car, pulling a handgun and bullets out of the glove compartment, then cuts to him in court, an offscreen lawyer asking about the night his wife was murdered. Talk about a Hook!
Setup- Within the first 17 minutes of the movie, we meet and learn about Andy, Red, Captain Hadley, and Warden Norton. We also learn the details of Andy’s case and the harsh reality of life at Shawshank.
The Inciting Incident comes when the prisoners “go fishing.” Will Andy engage with life in Shawshank? Will he give in to the status quo? At least for the moment, he will not.
The 1st Plot Point is when Andy offers to help Hadley take advantage of a tax loophole. From this point he begins to fully participate in the life of the prison (exemplified when he carves his name in his cell wall a few scenes later). This is also a point of no return for him. Now that the guards know his skills, he won’t be allowed to back out.
In the 2nd Act Andy is still responding to the actions of others: the Sisters’ attacks, his reassignment to the library, and the growing demand for his particular skill set. Warden Norton has the cells tossed so he can size Andy up at the 1st Pinch Point.
The Midpoint arrives with the boxes of books and records for the library, and his decision to play music over the prison’s loudspeakers. This is easily one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever. Here you also get the first hint at the theme. Red remembers the voices soaring “higher and farther than anyone in a gray place dares to dream.” It’s stated outright in the next scene
Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it, though. Didn’t make much sense in here.
Andy: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.
Andy: Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. It’s yours.
Red: What are you talking about?
Red: Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You better get used to that idea.
Andy: Like Brooks did?
In the 3rd Act Andy becomes more active: giving Red a harmonica, building a new library, and helping fellow prisoners get their high school equivalency. At the 2nd Pinch Point, Norton refuses to follow up on Tommy’s story, afraid of losing his money-man. He goes so far as to send Andy to solitary for protesting.
After Tommy’s murder Andy tries to quit, but Norton explains exactly what he will do to both Andy and his beautiful new library if that happens. The 2nd Plot Point shows us Andy at his lowest. Here we get a variation on the theme:
“Get busy living, or get busy dying”
The 4th Act jumps right into the Climax. We get to watch Andy’s escape, marvel at all the pieces falling together, and see the final defeat of the antagonist (Norton’s suicide). But this story has two leads. Red has his own climax, when he is finally paroled. Facing the same struggles that plagued Brooks, Red finally decides to “get busy living, or get busy dying.”
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Story structure isn’t the only thing this film gets right, though! Here are a few other things I particularly admired.
Rule of Three
This basically means that you repeat something twice, then change it up on the third beat. It’s enough to establish expectations in the reader, which makes the switch that much more satisfying. But it’s not enough repetitions to become boring. This can work small scale, in a single scene or dialogue, or over the course of a book or movie.
The Shawshank Redemption does this marvelously with Red’s parole board hearings. This is how we’re introduced to him, and it’s clear his expectations are low. Then again, following the Midpoint. By the end, we know as well as Red does what question they’ll ask, and we’ve got his answer down pat too. But this time he drops the pretense. In place of his carefully worded replies, we get a moment of honesty and resignation. So when the stamp slams down “Approved,” it’s particularly satisfying.
People like repetition, but they don’t like being bored. Mirroring accomplishes this perfectly, showing a similar event, conversation, or phrase, but with new meaning or a different outcome. There are several strong mirroring moments in The Shawshank Redemption.
- To a certain extent, the reveal at the end accomplishes this. We see the same scenes twice, the first time in the context of a potential suicide, and the second in the context of Andy’s escape
- The parallels between Brooks’ and Red’s parole experiences are powerful. Even some of the narrative is similar. It serves to heighten your sense of what’s at stake if Red succumbs to despair.
- My favorite is from Norton’s first interview with Andy. He hands the Bible back to him with the admonishment, “Salvation lies within.” So it is a delicious irony when he reads Andy’s inscription- “You were right. Salvation lay within” only to turn the page and see the cut out pages where Andy kept his rock hammer.
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These are just a sampling of the wonderful moments in this movie. I hope you’ll do the same with your own favorite books and movies. Then come back here and share those insights with the rest of us!