I re-watched the Matrix recently and, man, is that movie chock full of good story-telling bits. It is a tried-and-true hero's journey and everything is thematic and symbolic and generally makes me want to take copious notes while watching to try and emulate in my own writing.
Since I'm setting up a new WIP (it's a YA sci-fi with wolves and an ice planet in case you were slightly curious), I wanted to mimic the hero's journey that Neo goes through. The Matrix is very much a story about self-discovery which I also want in my WIP.
So, true to fashion, I jotted down some beats that Neo's story hits and I'm going to use them to craft my own character's struggle against herself.
(Note, some of these beats might not follow other structural beats because I've combined them with other story structures that exist in my head. You might see familiar stuff from Save the Cat and the Hero's Journey. And then there might be other stuff that I've added on. And finally, all this is just my opinion. The fun thing about stories is that they're so open to different interpretations!)
The Status Quo - opening and set up
Opening scene w/Trinity, immediately showing how this world breaks the rules. (Also one of the most mind-blowing moments of my youth that still gives me all of the excited feelings years later.)
Hint of Adventure Challenge - inciting incident and new trajectory possibility set up
Neo is being stalked by Morpheus and given mysterious messages. His goal is to understand what the matrix is, to know the truth.
First Steps - heading reluctantly towards goal
Following the rabbit to the club, talking with Trinity.
Refusing the Call - life asks for a big step/leap of faith but character isn't ready - Act 1 - Inciting Incident
Morpheus calls Neo at work to warn him about the agents and help him escape, but Neo isn't ready to jump out of any windows. Neo is afraid to make the leap of faith. (Good foreshadowing here since there's the whole bit about jumping off buildings later.)
Side note - the internet seems divided on what exactly is the inciting incident in the movie. Some say it's when Neo follows the white rabbit, others think it's when Morpheus calls Neo. To me, it's the latter. An inciting incident should change the whole story trajectory. If it doesn't happen, then the story won't happen. Neo going to the club doesn't really seem like a big turning point to me. It seems like more set-up and tension building. But that's just my opinion, don't @ me!
Struggle and Making the First Choice - Act 1 Climax - first direct confrontation of the fear and goal
(partly fail/partly succeed)
Neo faces the agents and tells them off but he doesn't have the ability to truly face them yet. He's grabbed by Trinity and the gang and taken to Morpheus to make his decision. He takes the red pill (first steps to conquering his fear of the leap of faith) but wakes up in a very strange world that is not what he expected.
Act 2 - Into the Real World - New Reality set up. Choice has been made but was it the right one?
He is now in the new world and has to learn how it operates and learn its rules (and he is literally like a baby here. Symbolically obvious, lol.)
- Act 2 - Inciting incident to re-hook the audience
- The bomb that is the actual truth about the world. This is so freaking engaging and we have to know how Neo is going to react to this because we don't even know how to react to this truth bomb.
First test of choice - struggle or refusal of new reality
But when he learns the truth about the Matrix, he rejects it (emotionally and physically) by violently puking up his guts.
Slow acceptance to first test - Can I / Do I belong in this reality?
Neo learns fighting. That goes pretty well. He's not fast enough yet though. And though he's willing to take the leap of faith off the building, he is not ready to believe in himself or his place in this new world and so he ultimately fails.
Face Your Fear challenge / opportunity
Meeting the oracle - more hammering of the theme here - know thyself. He's not ready for the truth at all, so he is told a lie.
Leads to some turn around twist - a betrayal, a change, a surprise, a different path (not always a good one)
Cypher betrays the group, people die, Morpheus gets taken and the whole story trajectory changes again.
After the twist - build to midpoint - gives character a REASON to switch their beliefs, to try despite failures, to dive into this new reality but not to necessarily abide by the rules of it.
Neo does not want to be responsible for Morpheus' death when he is not the one. He thinks Morpheus is more important than he is and so becomes willing to do anything to save him because he's not concerned with his own life. When the others tell him that things like this are not done, he doesn't care. He doesn't care about the rules of the reality - he only wants to save Morpheus. Saving Morpheus becomes the new goal and Neo ignores the pursuit of truth (it hasn't done him any good so far, so this new goal makes more sense)
Continued confrontation (Act 2b) - Midpoint Reversal build to Act 2 Climax - actions also cause the antagonists to push back more harshly
Neo becomes more capable of impossible things the more he shakes off his fear and focuses on saving others. He surprises the antagonists, he surprises his allies. Agent Smith begins to push the boundaries of his personality. When Neo crashes the helicopter, he is fully in his new element - large explosions and lots of WHOA moments = Act 2 climax. :)
Into Act 3 - Second challenge - the Protagonist can run or face the new reality, another chance to continue bending the rules. Some ground gained but ultimately antagonist forces keep pushing, keep coming, seem unstoppable
Act 3 set up - Morpheus and Trinity escape. Neo makes a decision to face Agent Smith instead of run. He does more impossible things - destroys Smith but Smith keeps coming back.
- Act 3's inciting incident to re-engage audience's emotional involvement -
A new threat presents itself - the machines are coming in the real world too, threatening the allies that Neo JUST freaking saved. And they can't blow up the machines without killing Neo. So he'd better get the heck out of the Matrix and fast (hello, new ticking timeline)
On the run, but slowly less fearful of self, only of antagonists. It's a chase, a rush, a race.
Running from agents as he tries to get to safe location.
Confrontation and Loss - Sudden twist and it appears if all is lost. A death of the old self. The new self will be reborn.
Agent Smith shoots Neo. Neo dies. (In actuality, Neo does die but the code that lives with him, the part of the machine source code that is the essence of the One, allows him to be reborn.)
Rebirth through love or a loved one or self actualization / self realization
Of course, we don't know all that stuff about source code - but what we do see is Trinity giving Neo more truth (remember, it's truth that he's been chasing this whole time)
This time, Trinity is taking the leap of faith - she confesses her love. Trinity said she fell in love with him and she was destined to love the one - ergo - he is the one. And Neo is then reborn to his true self. The self that is a part of the Matrix and therefore understands it fully. GOAL PRETTY MUCH ACCOMPLISHED! He has accepted the truth about who he is and therefore the truth of the Matrix is now fully understood.
Act 3 Climax - Final Face off. New self fully engaged. Fear is no longer an issue as the protagonist has accepted their role in the reality but still doesn't have to follow rules - now they make the rules.
Neo destroys Agent Smith and looks bored doing it. We eat this up so much.
Antagonist forces lose. Character is successful and achieves their true goal.
What is the Matrix / the truth? They are both Neo. BAM.
(Side note - Even though Neo accomplishes his goal when he's reborn, he still had to save everyone on the ship in the real world by getting the hell out of the Matrix. We're more emotionally invested in the fate of the other characters, so it's important that the climax has two parts - one for Neo and one for us - the audience. We're pleased as punch Neo is all badass now but we really want to make sure no one is killed by the machines, especially Morpheus since we just freaking saved him. It's so satisfying when he makes it just in time.)
Resolution / final feelings
Grounded in his new self, Neo promises there's more to come. And then defies gravity and flies off screen, leaving us so dumbfounded and amazed we don't even know what to do with ourselves.
So, that's the beat sheet. Anyone is 100% welcome to use this for their own purposes and I hope that it's helpful in some way. Sometimes, reading the same thing from many different perspectives really helps with the total understanding of that thing.