Story Structure Breakdown: Pulp Fiction
Breaking down the story structure of the mother of all story structure's with film-school favorite, Pulp Fiction.
Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino, a non-linear, darkly comic, noire masterpiece that officially made QT a household name and a legend. This breakdown is going to be tricky, as the standard structure is there, it’s just in a different order. It’s three character journey’s: Jules, Vincent and Butch. Jules’s bookends the film, with Vincent and Butch’s in the middle, each with their own structure and told in linear order. The last act is Jules’s journey, even though chronologically the story ended when Butch drove off on Zed’s chopper. It seems confusing at first, but when you really break it down, as I’m about to, it’s not. I’m going to use WORLD STRUCTURE for the overall story, indicated below in bold titles, and CHARACTER STRUCTURE for each journey, indicated in brackets. And keep in mind this is just MY INTERPRETATION of the structure of Pulp Fiction using my own method that's a simpler version of Save The Cat. But maybe I’m totally wrong and you may have a completely different viewpoint. I’ll be using my Simple Screenplay Structure method to breaking it down, which I use for all my structure breakdowns. But enough rambling, let’s get this twisty-ass structure broken down, so get some Scooby snacks and settle in this is gonna be a long one!
Director: Quentin Tarantino Year: 1994 Length: 2:34:27 min.
“Pulp /’pelp/ n. 1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter. 2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.”
1. The Introduction
We open in a diner with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two small time hoods discussing the problems of robbing banks and stores. They decide to rob the very diner they’re in, “would cut down on the hero factor”, but not before we hear snippets of Jules and Vincent’s conversation at a nearby table. On first watch we don’t realize we can hear them, and it’s not that loud, but in one shot we can even see Vincent getting up to the bathroom in the background, but it’s a clever little subliminal trick from Quentin Tarantino (QT). Pumpkin and Honey Bunny whip out their guns to rob the joint as the latter screams her classic “don’t any of you pigs move” line before we CUT-TO the MAIN TITLES. This is our intro to the world of Pulp Fiction: violent, colorful characters, chatting over good food and cool music. Time: 7:06 min
2. The Incident (s)
Now we’re in a car with Jules and Vincent who are on their way to retrieve a briefcase for their boss Marcellus Wallace. They chat about Europe and the differences between their McDonald’s, having a seemingly innocuous conversation that actually reveals a lot of character and story. They seem to have a good relationship and a casual attitude about their jobs as paid killers, Vincent was just in Europe so they probably do okay financially. On the walk to the apartment Vincent asks about their bosses wife, Mia Wallace, because Marcellus asked him to “take care of her” while he’s out of town. Thus we get our first inciting incident for Vincent’s journey: the date with the bosses wife. Jules drops a bunch of back-story about Mia’s failed TV pilot, and when Marcellus threw Anton Rocky Horror off a roof for supposedly giving Mia a foot massage. Their boss is a dangerous man and they live in a dangerous world.
About to knock on the apartment door, they hang back for a bit as it’s “not time yet”, revealing Jules’s relaxed, yet serious attitude when it comes to the job. Their informant Marvin answers the door and Jules proceeds to take entire control of the situation, while Vincent hangs in the kitchen acting tough. He takes a bite of way-out-of-his-element Brett‘s “Big Kahuna Burger” then sucks back all of his Sprite. This is Jules’s version of “pissing on his territory”, these dorks are way over their heads, and they all know it. They retrieve the mysterious glowing briefcase, thus setting-up the inciting incident for Jules’s journey: that goddamn briefcase. Brett tries to talk his way out of screwing over Marcellus (they don’t really go into exact details about what happened). Jules shoots the flock of seagulls dude on the couch, Roger, then does his Ezekiel 25:17 speech before he and Vincent blast Brett into kingdom come.
We get the (director trademark) title card VINCENT VEGA AND MARSELLUS WALLACE’S WIFE that introduces the start of VINCENT’s JOURNEY, then a fade in on stoic Butch talking to an unseen Marcellus Wallace, who apparently is everybody’s boss and the one connecting thread between all three stories. Marcellus wants Butch to throw a boxing match for a envelop stuffed with cash. He reluctantly takes the pay off money which is the inciting incident for Butch’s journey: a washed up boxer throwing a fight. Character moment with Butch: “In the fifth my ass goes down.” He says it but we can tell he doesn’t mean it. Time: 24:20 min.
Now that’s a LONG inciting incident sequence, and I had it shorter. At first, I was using the chapter stops on my Pulp Fiction blu-ray as a guide as most chapters mirror story structure, but in this case it didn’t feel right to me. Mainly because we meet Butch pretty late and, in my opinion, the rest of the story doesn’t start until we’ve met our characters and learned their goals.
3. The Exposition
Jules and Vincent enter in the background of the bar and take a seat, oddly wearing completely different clothes than the previous scene (if it’s your first time seeing the film it’s odd). They chew the fat with the bartender, Paul, who mentions Vincent’s date with Mia, which he doesn’t find as funny as Jules does. This is the one time in the film where Marcellus, Jules, Vincent, and Butch are in the same scene, but only Vincent and Butch have an exchange. At the bar Vincent acts like a disrespectful dick toward Butch for no reason, giving us a big reveal into Vincent’s character: he has no respect for anyone, but expects it in return. This sets-up how his bad attitude will bite him in the ass later. Butch remains calm during the exchange, but we can see it angers him, giving us a glimpse at his explosive temper. He watches Marcellus give Vincent a big hug, realizes is best not to start shit with the bosses henchmen. Time: 26:00 min.
4. The Obstacles
The structure was chugging along like clockwork at first, but this is where it really veers from the norm and branches off into the three separate “structures within the structure” for each characters journey, but ALL still within the structure of the overall WORLD. Confused yet? Me too! This is some INCEPTION type shit!
(INTRO) Vincent at his dealer Lance’s house, listening to a conversation between Lance’s wife, Jody, and her Irish friend Trudi about body piercing. He seems to be repulsed by it, a hint towards something later on involving piercing. While buying some heroin, Lance asks Vince about his car to learn that some “dickless piece of shit” keyed it. Maybe it was random, or maybe someone Vincent pissed off, fan theory suggests it was Butch after their little stare down earlier, but it’s another glimpse into how his bad attitude gets him into trouble.
(INCIDENT) Lance’s seemingly throwaway line about having to use baggies instead of balloons has huge repercussions. We’ll see Lance, and how all that plays out, later. Lance asks Vincent if he likes their friend Trudy, who he confuses with his wife who has “all the shit on her face.” Foot meets mouth.
(OBSTACLE) Then, he shoots heroin before driving and going on a date with his bosses wife. The embodiment of “karma is a bitch.” In this sequence, Vincent doesn’t display the usual resistance to “crossing the threshold” into the second act, but we learn how he’s his own worst enemy, creating problems which come back to haunt him. Time: 31:22 min.
5. The New World
(NEW WORLD) Vincent arrives at Mia’s place. He’s never been in his bosses house and it’s full of fancy things his thug ass has never seen before. Mia’s in the bathroom “powdering her nose” before they leave to eat at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a cool restaurant that Vincent describes as “a wax museum with a pulse.” He asks about their Buddy Holly waiter about the five dollar shake, confused to why it costs so much. After some chitchat over food, Mia volunteers them to go first in Jack Rabbit Slim’s world famous twist contest. Out dancing with his boss’s wife, celebrity waiters, $5 dollar shakes?? Ol’ Vinnie definitely isn’t in Kansas anymore. 49:57 min.
6. The Journey Begins
(MIDPOINT) They won the twist contest, arriving at Mia’s place carrying a huge trophy. A flirtatious moment. Vincent excuses himself to the bathroom, which we learn only causes bad things happen every time he goes. Mia finds the baggie of heroin in his coat and snorts it thinking it’s coke, which is the payoff to the no balloons only baggies set-up. Bad idea.
(LOWPOINT) Vincent comes from the bathroom, about to go home when he finds Mia on the floor, nose dripping blood and mouth leaking drool. He carries her to his car and calls our good buddy Lance. Time: 54:49 min.
7. The Plan
“Don’t fucking die on me Mia!” Screeching down some LA street Vincent calls Lance, who’s busy eating “Frute Brute” cereal. Lance tells him not to bring some “fucked up puba” to his house, but like usual, Vincent doesn’t listen and does what he wants, crashing on Lance’s lawn. Then he proves what a jerk he is once again by threatening Lance, a supposed friend, with telling Marcellus he didn’t help Mia and let her die on his lawn. SHIT. They take her inside to administer an adrenaline shot that Lance has trouble finding.
(SHOWDOWN) In a tense moment, Vincent JABS Mia in the chest with the shot and she comes out of it just like that. (OUTRO) Vincent quietly drives Mia home, who looks like death’s sister. Before Vincent goes “home to have a heart attack”, Mia tells him the one joke she had in her pilot, but he’s too shit baked to laugh. Good night. Time: 1:03:32 min.
8. The Midpoint
Title card: THE GOLD WATCH. (INTRO) Young Butch is watching TV when his dead dad’s old war buddy, Captain Koons, comes in to give him the watch he hid up his ass during Vietnam. A little Butch hand takes the watch then DING, old Butch wakes from a dream, about to box in the match he’s paid off to throw. Turns out he has other plans and ends up (unknowingly) killing the other boxer, winning the match and making a bundle betting on himself in Vegas. But now he’s gotta collect, hiding out in a hotel room with his love Fabienne while he waits.
(INCIDENT) The next morning he learns Fabienne forgot to pack his father’s watch, and he has a serious freak out that actually scares her. There’s that temper we talked about. He cools off, but has to go get the watch. He could just let it go, but the watch is very important to him. Some may argue that the inciting incident is when he chooses to screw over Marcellus, but in Butch’s “ordinary world” he was already planning that, as shown in the scene where he’s talking to his bookie on a payphone after winning the fight. But the inciting incident is an event that happens to the hero that is out of their control, which in this case is Fabienne forgetting the watch.
(OBSTACLE) She doesn’t want him to go, but he promises he’ll be back before she can say “blueberry pie.” Fabienne: “Blueberry pie!” Butch: “Okay maybe not that fast.” Time: 01:28:10.
9. The New Plan
(NEW WORLD) Butch is back in his apartment, finds the watch, right where he said it was. “Bedside table. On the kangaroo.” He puts it on then casually pops a pop-tart into toaster, surprised to find that there’s a sub-machine gun on his kitchen table! A FLUSH is heard from the bathroom, he aims the gun. And guess who comes out? Vincent. Butch SPRAYS him down in a hail of bullets, and, ironically (or justifyingly, depending on how you look at it), Vincent dies in the bathroom.
(MID-POINT) Butch drives back to the hotel, thinking he’s Scott free, until Marcellus Wallace walks right in front of his car! Butch SMASHES into him, crashing his car into another. Cue staggered, bloody shootout in the streets between Butch and Marcellus before they end up in a pawn shop. The hick owner, Maynard, threatens them with a shotgun to stop fighting in his store before he knocks them both out. Time: 01:24:07.
10. The Lowest Point
(LOWPOINT) Butch and Marcellus wake up with water being sprayed in their faces. Both tied up and ball gags in their mouth. Not good times. Maynard calls his pal Zed: “Spider’s caught a couple flies.” Hillbilly policeman Zed comes over and they have themselves an old fashioned cornholing party. Butch breaks free of his restraints and punches out the leather-ensconced Gimp.
(SHOWDOWN) About to escape the pawn shop, Butch has a change of heart and decides to save Marcellus, a samurai sword being his weapon of choice. He sneaks into the room just in time to see his bad ass boss getting butt-raped by Zed. Butch interrupts by slicing Maynard across the chest, then taunting Zed with the sword to pick up the gun, just to make it fair before he cuts his dick off. But it’s too late for any of that when Marcellus BLOWS Zed away with a shotgun, turning his man-meat into ground beef.
(OUTRO) Butch agrees to never speak of what happened here to anyone and get the fuck outta dodge immediately, leaving Marcellus alone to finish off Zed in the most painful ways imaginable. Butch ganks Zed’s chopper and goes to pick up Fabienne at the hotel. He yells at her to hurry up, but chills out and gives her a hug. She hops on the chopper. “Who’s Zed? Zed’s Dead, baby. Zed’s dead.” (of course I used that quote!) They drive off into the sunset. Time: 01:51:40.
11. The Showdown
Title Card: THE BONNIE SITUATION. (INTRO) We’re back to where Jules and Vincent blow Brett away, then a fourth dude hiding in the bathroom with a hand cannon bursts out and unloads on them, missing every shot. They take a moment. K, still alive. Then BLAST the cockeyed sap away. Jules thinks divine intervention just saved their lives from the bullet, Vincent just thinks it’s luck. They grab a babbling Marvin and jet.
(INCIDENT) In the car while having another casual chat, Vincent accidentally BLOWS Marvin’s head off! Once again his careless behavior, like leaving his gun on Butch’s counter, leads to another disaster. Jules calls his buddy Jimmy to get the blood painted car off the road.
(OBSTACLE) But Jimmy’s wife, Bonnie, is coming home from another stretch at the hospital, and Jimmy’s pissed about the whole situation. They only have an hour and a half. Jules calls Marcellus, who calls The Wolf. “The wolf? Shit, negro, that’s all you had to say.”
(NEW WORLD) The Wolf gets there in record time and waste none telling Jules and Vincent what to do. And, of course, Vincent talks back, because he doesn’t like people “barking orders at him.” But he shuts up and they get to cleaning, where Jules continues to berate Vincent for fucking up as he picks up pieces of skull in the back seat. They finish cleaning and the Wolf inspects it, then orders Jimmy to spray the blood off Jules and Vincent with the hose, which is cold as shit. The Wolf drives the cleaned car to a junk yard, the boys pay their respects to The Wolf after seeing him work in action. “Respect for you elders shows character.” Time: 02:13:22
12. The Outroduction
(MID-POINT) We’re at the same diner the film opened with. Jules and Vincent eat and relax. Until we pick up where we left Pumpkin and Honey Bunny as they rob the place. And guess where Vincent is? In the bathroom what a surprise! Jules hands over his “bad mother fucker” wallet willingly, but doesn’t give up the briefcase. He’s been through too much shit over it to just “hand it over to your dumbass.”
(LOWPOINT) Pumpkin has Jules dead to rights, so Jules takes his hand off the case, but then grabs “Ringo” and puts a gun to his head.
(SHOWDOWN) Honey Bunny, aka Yolanda, loses her shit and threatens Jules if he hurts her Pumpkin, but he takes control of situation like he usually does. At least until Vincent finally comes out of the bathroom and aims his gun at Yolanda. Everybody needs to chill the fuck out.
(OUTRO) Jules recites his Ezekiel speech again, this time seeing it from a different light after the “miracle he witnessed.” He and Vincent shove their guns into their surfer shorts and leave the diner. Jules’s story, the WORLD story, and all the character arcs, have ended. Though in the end, Vincent doesn’t really change at all. Butch and Jules both go through a change, but in the dark and seedy world of Pulp Fiction, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think they could return to a life of crime, either through necessity, or their violent tendencies. Time: 02:30:00
The End. Credits. Time: 02:34:27
And that’s the story structure breakdown of Pulp Fictions as I see it folks. It was a big undertaking, but I loved every minute as I nerd out on screenplay structure. But I would love to know what you think, so please share below.
I’ve been writing, mainly screenplays, seriously since 2009. I’m a graduate of the Writing For Television and Film program at Vancouver Film School. VFS has such illustrious alums as Kevin Smith, Neill Blomkamp and his wife Terri Tatchell .