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With my online course, Smarter Story Structure, you’ll learn practical tips for overcoming plot problems like these in your screenplay or novel:

  • the story starts too slowly (according to a Goodreads survey, 46.4% of readers abandon novels for this reason)
  • the story doesn’t get going until halfway through (this happened in almost a quarter of scripts read by a studio reader in a year)
  • the middle “runs out of gas” (even John Grisham admits this is a tricky issue)
  • the climax doesn’t deliver fireworks, merely sparklers
  • the story is the right length…but isn’t a good read (uh-oh)

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Script Structure: Lessons from As Good As It Gets

The plot of As Good As It Gets

Writing a character-driven story?

If the primary focus of your script is on the internal transformation of your hero, the structure of As Good As It Gets is an excellent model to study.

So, without further ado, here are its plot points:

Plot Points from As Good As It Gets

  1. After an old lady sees someone in her apartment building, her joyous mood immediately evaporates.
  2. Turns out, that someone is curmudgeon Melvin Udall. He stuffs a small Brussels Griffon dog, Verdell, down the trash chute.
  3. Simon, Melvin’s gay neighbor and Verdell’s owner, looks for Verdell in the hallway. He asks Melvin if he’s seen the dog. Melvin responds with a gay slur against Simon and Simon’s art dealer friend, Frank.
  4. Melvin enters his apartment, revealing his OCD tendencies.
  5. The maintenance guy finds Verdell and returns him to Simon. Everyone realizes Melvin was the culprit.
  6. Simon interrupts Melvin, who was in the middle of completing a romance novel, in order to confront his cranky neighbor. In no uncertain terms, Melvin tells Simon to never, ever interrupt him–even if Simon smells Melvin’s dead, decaying body.
  7. Now, Frank confronts Melvin, and Frank’s a lot more intimidating than Simon. For the first time, Melvin looks scared.
  8. Melvin leaves his apartment, revealing his fear of stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. He’s heading towards a local restaurant. Carol, a cheery waitress, is the only one who can handle Melvin. He inadvertently makes a rude comment about her sick son, and she puts him in his place.
  9. Carol returns to her apartment late at night, bringing a date home with her. But her son, Spence, starts to cough, interrupting an amorous moment. She checks up on him (even though her mom is babysitting). When Carol’s date discovers Spence’s vomit on her dress, he leaves in disgust.
  10. A friend of Simon’s chooses a male hoodlum to pose for Simon, who’s an artist. When the hoodlum, Vincent, arrives, Simon explains his process.
  11. At the restaurant, Melvin tries in vain to get Carol’s attention. Finally, she yields, and he asks her about her son. Spence has severe asthma which usually results in late-night trips to the emergency room.
  12. Vincent lets his friends into Simon’s apartment, so they can rob the place. Despite Vincent’s attempts to distract Simon, Simon walks in on the robbery. One of the thieves severely beats up Simon.
  13. The police question Melvin. Frank demands that Melvin watch Verdell while Simon is in the hospital.
  14. Melvin’s left alone in his apartment with the dog, who makes himself at home. Verdell only starts to eat, however, when Melvin sings and plays the piano.
  15. Simon’s accountant, Jackie, and Frank visit him in the hospital. They cringe when they see his beaten-up face. Simon’s upset to learn that Melvin’s watching Verdell.
  16. Melvin actually changes his regular table at the restaurant in order to keep an eye on Verdell, who’s tied up outside. When Carol talks to Melvin about her son, Melvin’s attention strays back to the dog and the bacon he’s going to feed him. When they leave, Verdell strangely avoids cracks on the sidewalk just like Melvin.
  17. Frank asks Melvin to watch Verdell for one last night. Melvin cries at the thought of returning Verdell to Simon.
  18. Simon comes to Melvin’s apartment to pick up Verdell. Spoiled by Melvin’s bacon treats, Verdell would rather be with Melvin.
  19. Melvin invades his psychiatrist’s office. He’s kicked out because he doesn’t have an appointment.
  20. When Melvin goes to nurse his wounds at the restaurant, Carol’s not there because her son is sick. Melvin’s rude to her replacement, and as a result,is banished from the restaurant for good.
  21. Melvin visits Carol’s apartment. She doesn’t exactly welcome the intrusion, but she lets him inside, only kicking him out when he tries to teach Spence manners.
  22. When Carol realizes Spence has a fever, she rushes outside, and commandeers Melvin’s cab.
  23. In Simon’s apartment, Jackie breaks the news to Simon that he’s broke. He needs to ask for money from his parents. Simon seems more concerned with winning back Verdell’s affection.
  24. Melvin asks his publisher for help–her husband is a doctor. After she agrees, the publisher’s secretary asks Melvin how he “writes women so well.”
  25. The publisher’s husband, the doctor, makes a house-call to Carol’s apartment. Melvin wants to be billed for all the expenses.
  26. Simon fires his housekeeper because he’s broke. Before she leaves, she asks Melvin to walk Verdell, which he translates as “selling crazy.”
  27. Carol freaks out in front of her mother–she doesn’t want to be obligated to someone as crazy as Melvin.
  28. Melvin arrives at Simon’s to pick up Verdell for his walk. Simon can’t bear Melvin’s wisecracks and tries to take a swing at him. Even when Simon holds out a bacon bribe to Verdell, the little dog chooses Melvin over Simon.
  29. In the middle of the night, Carol knocks on Melvin’s door and declares she will never, ever sleep with him. But…Melvin takes comfort in the knowledge she’ll be at work tomorrow.
  30. Melvin brings Simon some soup. They have an awkward heart-to-heart.
  31. Carol works on writing a thank you note to Melvin while her mom insists they go out like real people. Carol’s reluctant to go out and breaks down in tears, but…
  32. …they finally go out, and Carol is overwhelmed by her new taste of freedom.
  33. At Carol’s restaurant, Frank and Melvin discuss Simon’s health and financial problems. Carol delivers her thank you note. Frank asks Melvin to drive Simon to Baltimore so Simon can ask his parents for money. Melvin declines, until Carol yells at him. She wishes she could have his problems. Melvin agrees to drive Simon, Carol reads Melvin part of her thank you note, and Melvin convinces her to come on the trip. She owes him, after what he did for Spence.
  34. Carol packs. Melvin does to. She calls to ask if they’ll be going anywhere dressy.
  35. Melvin leaves Verdell at a doggy daycare; Carol takes the bus to the city.
  36. Melvin introduces Carol to Simon. They leave for their road trip–Melvin’s even made mix tapes! Carol gives Simon her advice about parents. She pulls off to the side of the road so Simon can relate his traumatic childhood confrontation with his dad, who told Simon never to come back home. Melvin interrupts with his own sob story, but no one wants to hear it.
  37. At their hotel, Melvin interrogates Simon. Carol calls Spence, who’s able to join the other kids and play soccer for the first time. Overjoyed by this development, Carol suggests they go out for dinner and dancing to celebrate. Simon is too tired, so it’ll just be Melvin and Carol.
  38. Melvin takes the world’s longest shower.
  39. When they arrive at the restaurant, Melvin is informed he needs a tie and jacket. Rather than wearing a used one (the horror!), he leaves Carol at the restaurant and goes and buys a new tie and jacket.
  40. He returns to the restaurant, admires her at the bar, then rejects her invitation to dance. Finally, he insults her dress. She orders him to pay her a compliment. For once, Melvin delivers.
  41. She kisses him, then asks why he brought her along on this trip. Nervous, Melvin replies that he wanted her to sleep with Simon, maybe change Simon’s sexual orientation. Carol leaves.
  42. Simon calls his parents. They won’t answer the phone, and he leaves a plaintive message. Carol storms into Simon’s room.
  43. As she draws a bath, he sketches her. This is the first art he’s created since the beating.
  44. Melvin, at the restaurant bar, discusses his relationship with Carol with the bartender.
  45. Back at the hotel, Simon rips off his cast to paint Carol.
  46. The next morning, Melvin storms Simon’s room and asks if Simon slept with Carol. Carol tells Melvin that what Simon gave her “was better than sex.”
  47. Simon calls his mom. She’s whispering so Simon’s dad can’t overhear her. Simon tells her he doesn’t need money, and he hopes that she’ll make the first move towards reconciliation.
  48. Changing plans, Simon will return with Carol and Melvin. On the ride back, Melvin tells Simon that Simon’s apartment has been sublet.
  49. When they arrive in NYC, Carol tells Melvin good-bye. She doesn’t want to know him anymore because he makes her feel bad about herself. To Simon, she says “I love you.”
  50. Unbeknownst to Simon, Melvin has had Simon’s things moved into his apartment. They’ll share it, until Simon gets back on his feet. In gratitude, Simon tells Melvin, “I love you.” Melvin says he’d be a lucky man if that did it for him.
  51. At home, Carol gives souvenirs from her trip to her family.
  52. Carol calls Melvin. She apologizes for what she said. She simultaneously enjoys his company and is bothered by his personality. Nothing’s resolved.
  53. Simon’s convinced Melvin loves Carol and encourages Melvin to visit her tonight. Before he leaves, Melvin realizes he hasn’t obsessively locked his door five times.
  54. Melvin goes to Carol’s apartment and confesses that she relaxes him. She invites him inside, and eventually he asks her to walk to a bakery with him.
  55. He sings to her a little bit and praises her goodness. He tells her she’s the greatest woman alive, and that makes him feel special, because he can recognize that. They kiss. They stroll down the sidewalk towards the bakery where they get warm rolls.

Note: I used to consider As Good As It Gets a dramatic comedy. But, I’ve come around to the idea that it is a full-fledged romantic comedy, with the ups and downs of Melvin and Carol’s relationship reflecting his change in character.

Not very essential for you to know…but it does help shed light on the exchange in the comments section, below!

Typewriter (with modifications) by Xlibber

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alice Trueman June 11, 2013, 4:04 am

    Thanks for this breakdown of plot points – really helpful. I might have to disagree with you over the Inciting Incident however! I thought it was Melvin looking after the dog at first – but I think that is actually the first act turning point – the II is when he insults Carol and she (effectively) makes him administer an apology. He is visibly ashamed and guilty for having hurt her – the first person to ever make him feel this way – she makes him want to be a better man and the next time he sees her he even asks her all about her son to try and make amends. So this is the first, irreversible step towards melting Melvin’s heart, which the dog then softens further, and more quickly, but the dog acts as a catalyst upon a process Carol has already set in motion. It is certainly a subtle II and easily missed but at 12 minutes in it would be around the right place! (I am a script editor and also screenwriter so forgive the pedantry!). Thanks again for the article, really helpful – Alice

    • scribemeetsworld June 11, 2013, 1:56 pm

      Hi Alice,

      Thanks for visiting Scribe Meets World! Your analysis is very timely too. I just completed a screenwriting guide all about inciting incidents and included Melvin and Carol’s exchange as an atypical rom-com inciting incident. I think if you view AGAIG as a romantic comedy, then Carol’s evisceration of Melvin is definitely the inciting incident for the movie.

      If you view it as more of a dramatic comedy, then I think things get trickier. You make a very good point that this is the first time we see Melvin feel ashamed, and then the next time he sees Carol, he tries to make amends (which is certainly uncharacteristic for him!). So it’s very logical to trace his character change back to that moment…and then the arrival of the dog “locks” Melvin into a path of transformation. I like the way you described it, “the dog acts as a catalyst upon a process Carol has already set in motion.”

      Hmmmm. I may have to rethink my stance on AGAIG’s inciting incident as a dramatic comedy. As a rom-com however, we are in agreement!

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