3 Structure Tools and a Movie Case Study: The Equalizer


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As Seen On

Don’t you just love a good lightbulb moment? Like when you’re watching a movie and you suddenly recognize the practical application of some bit of screenwriting theory you’ve learned. For example. 😄

I strive to facilitate those moments whenever I can, so today let’s dive into a little case study. Hopefully by the end you’ll feel like A Beautiful Mind, screenwriting edition.

Case study: The Equalizer

This week we’ll use the movie The Equalizer as our example. It’s come up a few times recently in my conversations with writers, and it was a special request for a closer look. (If you have movies you’d like to see analyzed, send ‘em my way!) Plus it’s just a really good cut-above action movie that still holds up 10 years later, and has spawned a couple of sequels.

The Equalizer does a lot of things right, but I want to look at it specifically through the lens of some of the screenwriting tools I’ve discussed here. Three tools in particular:

Tool #1: The Inciting Incident – Break into Act 2 Story Connection​

The relationship between the ​Inciting Incident and the Break into Act 2​ can be most simply described as “problem-solution.” The Inciting Incident creates a problem and/or opportunity that the protagonist must contend with. The Break into Act 2 is the protagonists’ chosen solution to deal with that problem or opportunity, and launches us into the main thrust of the story. That’s not always the exact nature of the relationship, but very often it is, so it’s a good place to start when you’re figuring out your own story’s major plot points.

What does that look like? In The Equalizer:

      • The Inciting Incident: Teri “breaks protocol” and joins Robert at the diner. These two are late-night regulars at the diner, but they usually just make minimal, passing small talk. On this night, Teri joins Robert at his table, properly introduces herself, and the two share a real conversation. A connection is made, one of few in Robert’s life. Later that night, Teri is picked up by the violent gangsters who control her. Robert watches helplessly as they take her away.
      • The Break into Act 2: Robert makes an offer to buy Teri’s freedom from the gangsters. They refuse, and Robert can’t bring himself to let that be the end of it. Instead, he attacks the roomful of gangsters – and single-handedly kills them all. Robert is using skills from his mysterious past, and this is a path he didn’t intend to go down again, but Equalizers gotta equalize. Here, Robert starts something he’ll spend the rest of the movie trying to finish, and we’re off on the Act 2 Adventure.

Does the Inciting Incident – Break into Act 2 connection work?

We can see a clear connection between these two story beats. First, Robert is jostled out of the somewhat isolated life he now leads, by an innocent with good intentions who needs a protector. (Problem.) Then, Robert’s initial effort to solve that problem fails so he is pushed to the alternative – revert to his old ways, risk the quiet life he’s living, and set the world right. (Solution.)

And that’s the kind of connection that forms the start of a strong throughline, or story spine. When all of your Major Plot Points relate to each other – meaning, they’re all doing their individual parts to create one cohesive story – then you have a sturdy skeleton on which to flesh out your story.

Tool #2: An awesome Midpoint​

The function of the Midpoint comes down to creating new tension to get us re-engaged and re-invested in the story. You may have heard it described as a rocket booster for the story, because a good Midpoint gives the story a kick in the pants to keep it going through the second half.

The two most common and effective ways new tension can be created at the Midpoint are:

      • raising the stakes​ (adding importance, meaning, or urgency) and
      • ​increasing the opposition​ (making it harder for the protagonist to win).

How does The Equalizer create new tension at the Midpoint?

At the Midpoint turn we see Robert meet Teddy, the main enforcer for the Russian mob. This is the guy who’s been tasked with tracking down whoever killed the men in the Break into Act 2 scene mentioned earlier. Here, Robert and Teddy come face-to-face for the first time, when Teddy shows up at Robert’s apartment pretending to be a detective. So Robert lays eyes on his main adversary and they size each other up. This brings the conflict and danger physically closer, and it makes Robert more vulnerable since Teddy now has Robert in his sights.

​Tool #3: A satisfying Act 3​

And finally, Act 3. I’ve written before about what makes a satisfying Act 3 and ​how to build one​. There are a few things Act 3 needs to accomplish:

      • Act Three answers the question posed in Act One.
      • It satisfies the audience emotionally.
      • It shows proof of the transformative experience.

Does The Equalizer‘s Act 3 hit the marks?

      • In The Equalizer, the question posed in Act 1 is about how Robert will fare against the Russian gangsters. Basically, will he survive this ordeal he’s created for himself?

        In the climactic sequence, we see Robert take out Teddy, and then go to Moscow to finish it finish it by killing Pushkin, “the head of the snake.” And Robert walks away, free to go back to his quiet life. So that question is answered.

      • By the time Robert checks off all the boxes that equal a “win,” we are really rooting for him to do so. We’re invested in his success because we care about what happens to him, we know the internal struggle he’s dealing with in order to be able to help the helpless, and we also know how much he’s needed.

        So when we finally see Robert take down the bad guys for good, get a little help from an underdog he helped in the past, and save the lives of innocent folks (his co-workers as well as Teri)… it’s truly satisfying.

      • Robert’s transformation is going from a guy who’s trying very hard to put his past behind him and live a different life, to being willing to regress enough to help those who desperately need it and have nowhere else to turn. And if his actions throughout the movie weren’t proof enough, this idea is cemented at the very end, when Robert posts his “open for business” offer to help.

Your very own case study

There you have it: three structure tools, and how they show up in a pretty fantastic action movie. The next step of practical application, of course, is figuring out how these structure tools might work for your work in progress.

Questions? Send them over! And if you’d like help making your story as strong as it can be, ​book a consult​ anytime. Bring your questions and I’ll help you get moving in the right direction.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.