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Screenwriting Structure: Lessons from The Tourist

The plot of The Tourist

Today’s Plot Point Thursday features the slow-burning thriller, The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. It’s not your standard thriller, and in this world of ever-shortening attention spans, it’s not surprising that it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire.

Nevertheless, if you have patience, it’s an enjoyable movie. If you’d like to try your hand at a slowly unraveling thriller, if you’re enamored of all things Depp, or if you’re willing to study everything in your pursuit of screenplay mastery, then these plot points will be helpful.

Also worthy to note: without over-the-top gun fights or explosions, the end of The Tourist is quite suspenseful. How did the film achieve that?

  • Each component of the third act builds upon the previous one until the villain is finally killed.
  • The action also switches between Alexander’s apartment and Acheson’s canal boat, cutting away at key moments.
  • Acheson’s continuing refusal to allow his men to shoot–despite the ever escalating danger to Elise–also keeps the audience in suspense as they wonder if Acheson will relent…and if he does, will it be too late?

I think that The Tourist has some good twists up its European sleeve, so if you’d like to learn from the movie without discovering too many spoilers, check out: Screenplay vs Film: 8 Screenwriting Tips from The Tourist. For everyone else, onto the plot points!

Plot Points from The Tourist

  1. In Paris, French Intel agents monitor Elise Clifton-Ward and track her as she leaves her apartment to repose at a cafe.
  2. Another man in a stylish suit (we’ll call him Suit) watches her too. A courier gives her a letter–Scotland Yard is notified of this development. The courier is arrested.
  3. Alexander Pearce, Elise’s love, instructs her in the letter to pick someone resembling him on the Gare de Lyon train to Venice…and trick the agents following her into believing that the poor sap is Alexander.
  4. She burns the letter. The ashes are picked up by French agents, who also pursue Elise as she enters the metro station.
  5. Scotland Yard Inspector, John Acheson, is criticized by his boss, Chief Inspector Jones, who doesn’t have faith in Acheson’s abilities to apprehend Alexander. Jones nixes Acheson’s investigation.
  6. And yet, Acheson presses on. Under Acheson’s instructions, British Intel reassembles Alexander’s note and learn that that Elise is taking the 8:22 train to Lyon.
  7. On the train, Elise selects Frank Tupelo, an American tourist, as her prey. As they chat, French Intel officers take their picture. Acheson asks his colleagues to conduct a photo match.
  8. The Italian police have received copies of Frank’s photo and plan to arrest him when he exits the train.
  9. Acheson learns he’s been duped into believing Frank, a math teacher from Wisconsin, is Alexander. He calls off the Italian police.
  10. A snitch within Scotland Yard sees Frank’s photo, believes Frank IS Alexander, and calls Reginald Shaw, the man Alexander stole billions from.
  11. After abandoning him at the train station, Elise has a sudden change of heart and invites Frank onto her canal boat which takes them to the Hotel Danieli. Suit is there too. They adjourn to their room which is like one of Louis IV’s palaces. Elise finds beautiful clothing and jewels in her closet–gifts from Alexander.
  12. Shaw lands in Venice. He tells his Russian bodyguards that they can kill Elise, but not Frank–not until Shaw gets his money.
  13. Elise and Frank have dinner. Elise reveals that she’s upset at being summoned, but it was even worse not to hear from Alexander for two years. She tells the story of her Janus charm, a reminder that people have two sides…and you have to embrace both in the people you love.
  14. Back at their suite, Elise receives a gargantuan bouquet, which also contains an invitation to a fancy Venetian ball. On the balcony, Elise kisses Frank–then relegates him to the couch. Their kiss is photographed by several interested parties.
  15. Both Frank and Elise change into their nightclothes. Frank dreams of kissing Elise again, but when he wakes up, he finds that Elise has left (but thoughtfully ordered him breakfast before she flew the coop).
  16. Shaw’s men enter the suite. Frank hides in the bathroom and calls the concierge who is unfailingly polite and also exceedingly unhelpful. Frank jumps out of the window and onto the shingled roof of a nearby residence.
  17. Shaw’s goons follow as Elise watches in dismay from the ground below. The Italian police inform Acheson about the developments. He doesn’t care that Frank is in real peril and could be killed. Acheson wants the Italian police to focus on following Elise.
  18. Frank jumps onto a fruit market awning and then knocks a police officer into the canal. Still in his pajamas, he’s apprehended by the police.
  19. Frank argues with an Italian detective, who doesn’t believe Frank’s preposterous tale about a woman…the detective locks Frank up, but releases him when Frank’s story “checks out.”
  20. The detective explains that Shaw thinks Frank is Alexander…and that there’s a bounty on Frank’s head…which the detective plans to pocket. As the detective negotiates the exchange, Elise steathily ties her taxi boat to Frank’s canal boat. She starts to drive away, taking Frank with her.
  21. Shaw’s men shoot at Elise. The detective walks off with the money. There’s more shooting. Elise bashes a goon with a life preserver. There’s a very slow chase before one of the goons boards Frank’s boat. Frank jumps into the canal and ends up in Elise’s boat.
  22. In displeasure, Shaw kills one of his henchman in front of Shaw’s tailor and the rest of his bodyguards.
  23. Elise unlocks Frank’s handcuffs and apologizes for getting Frank involved. She’s involved because she’s in love with Alexander. Frank confesses that he doesn’t regret kissing her. Elise drops Frank off at the canal station, abandoning him again even though he’s in love with her.
  24. She visits British Intel headquarters in Venice–because Elise is no mere pawn in Alexander’s game. She’s a Financial Crimes officer sent undercover to bring in Alexander, which Acheson reminds her, she’s managed not to do for 2 years. She claims she’s ready now.
  25. Elise arrives at the Venetian ball. Acheson is mesmerized by her, as are others. One man chats her up, but it’s a regular old playboy, not Alexander. Suit drops off a note for Elise. Believing he’s Alexander, she chases him. Frank appears magically in a white tuxedo jacket. As they dance, he critiques Alexander’s plan. After confessing she’s worried about Frank, she walks away. Frank chases her, but is apprehended by British officers.
  26. Elise opens Alexander’s note. It contains a key and an address. She leaves the ball, with Acheson and Shaw in pursuit.
  27. Pretending to believe that Frank is Alexander, Acheson threatens Frank. Acheson also learns that Shaw is following Elise. He gives up the charade and then scolds Frank for almost ruining his multimillion dollar sting operation.
  28. Elise enters Alexander’s apartment. Shaw is right behind her. British Intel set up cameras and Acheson watches the action from the boat.
  29. Shaw explains to Elise that he loved Alexander like a son, and that is why AP’s betrayal stings so much. He demands she tell him where the safe is. She refuses. He slaps her. Acheson tells his men to hold their fire until Alexander appears. Frank begs them to go in. Acheson says that she can handle herself–she’s a British agent, which is news to Frank.
  30. Shaw brandishes a knife. Acheson still tells his men to hold fire. Elise reveals the location of the safe–it’s behind a stone carving of Janus in the wall. Frank escapes from Acheson’s canal boat and enters Alexander’s apartment as Shaw orders Elise to open the safe.
  31. Frank enters the apartment and demands they let Elise go. He proclaims that he’s Alexander (Elise is adamantly dismissive) and that he’ll open the safe if they let Elise go. Shaw says he’ll kill Elise unless Frank opens the safe right now. Acheson still doesn’t let his men fire.
  32. Elise whispers “I love you” to Frank. Chief Inspector Jones bursts onto Acheson’s canal boat and gives permission to engage. Shaw (and his henchmen) are shot.
  33. Acheson storms Alexander’s apartment with his team. Jones terminates Elise’s employment. An agent radios in “we’ve got Alexander Pearce.”
  34. Frank opens the safe…because he really IS Alexander. He risked his life to prove to Elise that his love for her was real. They kiss.
  35. Suit is apprehended and says he’s just a tourist who agreed to show up at certain times for a little bit of cash.
  36. Acheson’s team blast open the safe. Inside is a check made out for the precise amount of Alexander’s back taxes.
  37. Elise and Alexander/Frank sail away on a boat.

Typewriter (with modifications) by Xlibber

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