Oooh-da-lolly, Robin Hood: A Plot Analysis

Today my kids and their cousins were watching Robin Hood, which reminded me of this post, which I wrote for an old blog of mine. This one is for the writers and story analysts out there. Enjoy!


My son has been watching Disney’s Robin Hood lately.  A lot.  As in, every day if I’d let him.

There are certain advantages to the three-year-old tendency to stick to familiar things.  I’ve had plenty of time to study this movie.  Conclusion?

Robin Hood has fantastic plot structure.

It may get away employ certain jokes Disney could never make now—I told my son that he’s never, ever allowed to cat call a woman, no matter how funny it is when the foot soldier whistles at Little John in drag—but the movement of its plot line is pitch perfect.  I’m learning a lot, watching it.

Let me go scene by scene.  I’ll be referring to both Michael Hague and Larry Brooks’ plot structures.

(Disney Wiki)

1) Introduction: Robin and Little John walking through the forest, being chased by the Sheriff’s posse.

This is the hooking scene.  It also shows Robin, Little John, and the Sheriff in a characteristic moment.  We know that Robin is an outlaw, that he and Little John are friends, that they have a good sense of humor (which makes them immediately empathetic), and that the Sheriff is their enemy.  We have conflict, but we do not have the direct presence of the story’s main antagonist, Prince John, which, according to Larry Brooks, is just as it should be.

2) Robin and Little John talking up in the tree, having escaped pursuit.

Here we have the set-up.  There’s a bit of light conflict as the two converse—Little John asks, “Are we good guys or bad guys? You know, our robbing the rich to feed the poor?”  to which Robin objects, “We never rob.”  The first scene establishes the story’s stakes, and this scene establishes their moral character,  motivations, and skill—Robin’s playful display of his archery skills, an important part of the plot.

Their decision to rob whatever trumpet-blaring procession is passing by constitutes the 10% opportunity, or (according to Michael Hague) the 1st Turning Point leading in the New Situation.  To cite the usual examples, this is Thelma and Louise deciding to head out of town for a girls’ weekend away, or Luke accidentally finding the message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi and deciding to go in search of him.

3) Prince John and Sir Hiss in the carriage, discussing taxes and usurping King Richard’s crown.

Enter antagonistic force. The previous scene establishes the protagonist’s motives and backstory, this one establishes the antagonist’s.

4) Robin and Little John putting on disguises in order to rob Prince John.

Conflict: once Little John realizes who they’re going to be robbing, he doesn’t want to.  Establishes stakes.

5) Robin and Little John rob Prince John.

The inciting incident: Robin and Little John incite the action by choosing to rob Prince John. This scene makes Prince John aware of their presence—until then, Robin Hood was not on his radar screen.

It also establishes the antagonist’s motives for the 25% Turning Point—not only did Robin Hood steal Prince John’s money, he left him humiliated, in his underwear, wet in a muddy puddle.

6) Narration; the Sheriff versus the people of Nottingham, Part One: Friar Tuck and Otto the blacksmith dog.

We enter the next scene, set in Nottingham (up until now we’ve been in Sherwood Forest), focused in on the new reward poster.  In a few lines of narration, the Rooster moves us through the 25% Plot Point:  Prince John wants to capture Robin Hood, and Robin Hood decides to ignore it and keep robbing the rich.

Now we’re introduced to secondary characters and the direct, visible motivation for Robin’s actions:  the poor people themselves versus the heartlessness of the tax-collecting Sheriff.  As Otto says, pious puppy-dog eyes lifted to Heaven, “God bless Robin Hood.”

The Sheriff of Nottingham is Prince John’s puppet and part of his antagonistic force.

We also see Friar Tuck in a characteristic moment: he loses his temper. It is a character trait that advances the plot, later in the story.

7) The Sheriff versus the people of Nottingham, Part Two: Skippy’s birthday present.

The Sheriff interrupts little Skippy the bunny’s birthday party and swipes his birthday gift (“One whole farthing!”) for the tax collection. Definitely an action aimed right at the heart of our youngster movie-watchers.  Now we all understand Robin Hood’s motives.

Here is Brooks’ “pinch point”—the driving antagonistic force halfway between the 25% and 50% points.

At this point, only Robin Hood is fighting back against the Sheriff. The people are in doormat mode—an important point, as this changes later in the story.

Robin Hood himself enters the scene and rectifies the sad birthday situation, as well as temporarily relieves Mother Bunny’s money situation, further establishing him as the hero of our story.

At this point, Robin Hood is fighting the antagonistic force, but not well—more stemming the tide than solving the problem.  Larry Brooks calls this the “wanderer” phase of Act II—while Robin’s decision at the 25% point locks him into conflict with his antagonist, he has yet to effectively fight him.

8) Skippy shoots his arrow into Prince John’s backyard; we meet Maid Marian.

What a cute scene. We need an introduction to Maid Marian, whose presence is important to forwarding the plot, and this does the job splendidly.

The scene has clear conflict:  Skippy needs his arrow back, but it’s in forbidden territory.  Maid Marian is there, and in a characteristic moment: playing badminton (so upper-class) and laughing with her funny lady-in-waiting, Lady Kluck.  Immediately we know she’s good-natured, young, refined, and, if not exactly a woman of action, her playing a game of badminton shows her be alive.  When Skippy enters the scene, we immediately see that she she is “awful nice” and loves children.  Finally, when the kids ask her about Robin Hood, we see her faithfulness in her love for him.

In short, an Ideal Woman, and worthy of the affections of our hero.

9) Maid Marian and Lady Cluck on whether or not to give up hope.

A short scene and, coming off a scene with the children, a peek into grown-up life and grown-up love.  Conflict: Marian thinks he’s forgotten her, and Lady Kluck thinks not.

10) Robin burning the chow.

Domestic scene back at Sherwood Forest, and a setup scene for the all important Midpoint.  Conflict:  Robin thinks Marian has forgotten him and wouldn’t have him, regardless.  Little John thinks not.

Enter Friar Tuck with news about the archery tournament Prince John is hosting.  Motivation: Marian will give a kiss to the winner.   (The Prince has instinctual knowledge of Robin’s internal motivations: pride in his skill and love for a woman.)

11) Prince John’s trap: the Archery Tournament.

This is a long and complicated scene, this midpoint scene.  What makes a midpoint scene? The hero is drawn out of himself to take a huge risk, fighting the antagonist, in order to achieve a particular goal, the action of which changes the entire course of the story.  It’s the Point of No Return.  This scene does this brilliantly.

What does Robin want? Marian’s kiss.

How will he achieve it? In disguise.  It’s the path with fewest risks.

Does he get these things? Yes.  But not without Robin becoming undisguised and entering into open battle with Prince John… the Point of No Return.

It also involves Robin’s first martyrdom.   He’s arrested and ordered to die for his actions, but it’s his, “Long Live King Richard!” that puts Prince John over the edge.  While he doesn’t choose martyrdom, he forwards it along by acting according to his principles.

(Midpoint martyrdom.  Paging Christopher Vogler!)

This scene effects the entire cast—because, of course, everyone shows up to the party as a good Midpoint would have it.  We have main protagonists against main antagonists, secondary heroes against secondary villians, and, by the end, the whole of Nottingham has joined in the fight, on one side or another.  This battle royale (heh) transforms Nottingham from passive victims to active fighters. Even the refined women have tossed in their lots, with Marian choosing Robin and Lady Kluck’s football player antics. I doubt they were let back into the castle after that.

12/13) Lovey-dovey and a party.

These don’t really constitute scenes, as there’s no conflict, but they do function as a “little resolution” following the Midpoint. Plots need these down times, especially here, after the Midpoint. Go-go-go action is exhausting after a while; the quieter plot moments set the stage for more elevated conflict.

Two things are established: 1) Robin and Marian love each other, and 2) the entire town is now joined in their efforts against Prince John, who’s now an object of open mockery.

14) Prince John fights back.

When Prince John learns of the town’s open mockery from Hiss and the Sheriff, he reasserts his power by raising taxes in revenge.  Pinch Point #2.

15) Townspeople in jail.

Again, not so much of a scene (conflict is implicit) as showing the results of Prince John’s decision.

16) Friar Tuck gets arrested.

Here is the 75% point, the lowest of the lows for our heroes. The conflict is between Friar Tuck and the Sheriff over the money in the poor box. Friar Tuck, angry and raging, calls Prince John a number of names and then attacks the Sheriff with a pole. The Sheriff arrests him for high treason.

As Hiss makes us aware in the next scene, this is the height of evil, a step gone too far—they’ve arrested and plan to execute “a man of the Church.”  I suspect the full implications of this are lost on today’s audience; it seems Prince John has inherited his father Henry II’s penchant for overstepping Church-State boundaries.

17) Prince John stews, then plots.

Moving toward the climax—the antagonist makes the first move. Prince John decides to use Friar Tuck as bait to capture Robin Hood.

18) The Sheriff makes a gallows; Robin Hood finds out about Friar Tuck

Conflict: Robin Hood needs information about what is going on.  He obtains it in disguise from the clueless Sheriff, but not without having to turn aside the suspicions of his guard. It moves the plot forward.

19) The Jailbreak.  The Treasury-break.  CLIMAX.

I’m going to count the entire jailbreak episode as one scene.  It could be broken up into a series of smaller conflicts, each with their own resolution, for or against Robin Hood.  But I think it functions as a whole.

The entire climax moves from heightened conflict to even more heightened conflict, to the pinnacle of conflict—literally so, as Robin Hood is driven to the top of the castle and forced to jump down into the moat to escape—forced to jump to his probable death.  In the end, Robin Hood chooses martyrdom.

(Act Four martyrdom. Paging Larry Brooks!)

The scene is an appropriate response to the set-up preceeding it—we’re prepared and anticipating this specific conflict.  It’s the most direct; it’s also both the protagonistic and antagonistic forces at their fullest.

Plus, the stakes are high: rescuing the innocent, who are now at risk for death (they’re being shot at!), and robbing Prince John of his unjust wealth motivate the heroes to risk their lives for others.  We know from the previous scene that Robin’s capture will entail “a double hanging”—his and Friar Tuck’s.

In the end, our hero emerges from the moat water victorious, and Prince John’s actions have destroyed his entire self, as represented by his “mother’s castle.”

20) Resolution.

King Richard returns, fixes everything, Robin gets married.  Happily Ever After.

See?  I told you it was a near-perfect plot.  20 scenes and not a one of them out of place, all working toward the end goal: defeat Prince John.  The pacing is great, the goals/motivations/conflicts are great, and the motion from Orphan, to Wanderer, to Warrior, to Martyr is perfect.

But that’s what Disney does, right?

And this is what I think about while my kids rot their brains out in front of the Boob Tube.


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Forgive This Emo Moment: The Lumineers and Character Psychology

Fiction writing is a strange process, and fiction writers, strange for it. For me, story writing is largely an analytical process of thinking through cause and effect:

If this happens, then this happens next.

If this character meets with these circumstances, how would this character react? As opposed to that character?

I always have characters A and B together. What would happen if I put A and C together? Or B and C? A and D?

The pacing of this scene is off. Where do I introduce conflict? At what rate did I build it up? Did the scene reach a crisis point? Did the character make a choice? Was their an unexpected twist as a result of that choice?

And so on. But every so often my right brain shuts up, my left brain takes over, and I’ll have an unexpected and almost always dramatic emotional breakthrough that pushes the story forward in ways my right brain never anticipated.

The source of these breakthroughs also always surprises me. Once upon a time, many years and many stories ago, I had a breakthrough while typing on my computer in the middle of McDonald’s Playland. I was seven months pregnant, my oldest was playing with other kids, Hootie and the Blowfish was blaring from the speakers… and my main character decided that this was the exact right moment to tell me her deepest, darkest secret.

Have you ever blubbered like a baby while typing frenetically against the backdrop of squealing kids and “Order 294!” and I only want to be with yooooo-oooo-oooo-uuuuu and that Mickey D’s french fry smell? Well, I have. Just another crazy writer. Don’t mind me.

I’ve had several of these emo moments while working on my current project. One of them came while listening to this song:

I don’t follow popular music. All I know about Stubborn Love was that it hit the top of the charts some years back. My husband and I had listened to the album a few times and liked it, but I hadn’t thought much about it until after I began working on my current project, in which I have a 23 year old male character who is in love, and has been in love for many years, with his childhood friend.

Stubborn Love was the song that gave me an emotional insight into the dynamics of that kind of love.

How? Not entirely sure. Perhaps because Stubborn Love has a male protagonist. Perhaps because the lyrics speak to childhood affection and unrequited love. Perhaps because the beloved in the song is a girl on the run. Perhaps because the lover is faithful to her, regardless of the pain she causes him. Perhaps because the lover is, in fact, stubborn.

All these dynamics are at play in my story. But only when I happened to hear the song again, about four chapters into the story process, did I have the cathartic moment that allowed me to understand my character.

Of all things to help me understand the emotional workings of an eighteenth century man… contemporary folk pop rock.

As I said before, don’t mind me. Just another crazy writer.


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Tax Collectors There Must Be: Inside Custom House

Remember that little kerfuffle we call the American Revolutionary War?

Remember what started it all?

Taxes.

Detail of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, 1770; Custom House visible at right. (Public Domain)

In Book One of my current work-in-progress, the male lead character, Josiah, is offered a job as a secret agent, gathering intelligence for the President’s office. France and England were on the brink of war in 1792 and America was trying to stay out of it. American port cities need to be watched, Josiah is told, and between his foreign language skills and experience as a merchant sailor, he’s a perfect candidate for the job.

(Long story short: Washington had a black ops budget. Technically the funds were allocated for overseas operations and their incident expenses, but it’s not too much of a fictional stretch to include domestic operations among those incident expenses.)

It’s an intriguing offer. But for Josiah, there’s one major drawback: the cover job. Specifically, working as a tidewaiter (inspector) at Boston Custom House.

The idea of being a tax collector doesn’t thrill him, at all.

Tell me how you really feel about paying taxes: A depiction of the tarring and feathering of (British) Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm, a Loyalist, by five Patriots on 5 January 1774 under the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts. (Public Domain)

Taxes: America’s favorite controversial topic. This is no less true today than in 1789, when the First United States Congress was faced with the task of figuring out how to raise revenue without ticking everyone off.

Congress’ solution was the Tariff Act of 1789, which established duties (taxes) on imported goods into the United States, and the subsequent Collection Act of 1789, which established the United States Customs Service and designated American ports of entry. Every inbound ship, American or foreign, was required to stop at the nearest port, undergo inspection, pay duties, and clear papers before going on its merry way.

For years, tariffs were the main source of revenue for the federal government – only in 1861, with the Civil War as an excuse, did Congress dare to impose an individual income tax. Tariffs, by comparison, were far less intrusive.

Every customhouse was run by a Collector of Customs. He was assisted by a naval officer (in the case of largest ports), who acted as deputy collector and supervised the clerical staff, and a surveyor, who measured ships and tonnage and supervised ground operations and inspection staff. Customs officers received their appointments from President Washington and answered to Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury.

In order to make the idea of paying tariffs more palatable for the general public, the first customs officers were carefully chosen, well-respected Patriots, many of them war heroes. On the flip side, in order to attract good candidates, the Department of the Treasury paid its customhouse officers a percentage of incoming revenue, making the positions highly lucrative, especially for those officers assigned to the largest ports, such as Boston, where my story is set.

Of course, we know who ran Boston Custom House in 1792. And they weren’t nobodies, either! My character may be fictional, but his employers were influential men. For a writer, this is where things get fun: my job is to blend fact and fiction, playing each off each other and seeing what kind of story develops.

So who is Josiah working for?

Benjamin Lincoln, Collector of Customs

General Benjamin Lincoln by Charles Wilson Peale. (Public Domain.)

Benjamin Lincoln served in the Provincial Congress and then as a major general for the Continental Army. As Washington’s second-in-command at Yorktown, Lincoln was the man who formally accepted Cornwallis’ sword of surrender. Afterwards, he served as Secretary of War for the Confederation government and led the troops that put down Shay’s Rebellion. He was the second Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. General Lincoln was then appointed Boston’s first Collector of Customs in 1789, a post he held until 1809, the year before his death.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more respectable man to fill the position of Collector of Customs. With General Lincoln at the helm of Custom House, paying taxes felt almost patriotic.

James Lovell, Naval Officer

James Lovell was the son of the headmaster of Boston Latin School. After his graduation from Harvard, Lovell joined his father and served as an instructor. In 1771 he gave the first speech commemorating the Boston Massacre, making him a well-known Patriot, while his father was an ardent Loyalist.

In 1775, Lovell was arrested by the British for spying and was released in 1776 in exchange for Colonel Philip Skene. Afterwards he took his seat in the Continental Congress, where he served on the Committee of Foreign Correspondence and of Secret Correspondence, and as such was responsible for creating and implementing cyphers for the country.

So the real-life Lovell was involved in intelligence work, a fact which ought to dovetail nicely into my story, except for one itty, bitty little detail:

The chances of President Washington having actually trusted the man are slim to none.

Admittedly, this is conjecture on my part, but justified, I think. During the war, Lovell was a vocal critic of George Washington and an open supporter of General Horatio Gates. He took Gates’ side in his quarrel with General Philip Schuyler (Hamilton’s future father-in-law) and then (along with the Adamses) supported Gates in his attempt to usurp command of the Continental Army from Washington. Lovell was among those encouraging Gates to send his reports directly Congress instead of reporting to Washington, his commanding officer.

Surely Washington would remember a little detail like that.

But that’s not all! Lovell found himself embroiled in personal scandal on more than one occasion. As a young man, he fathered an illegitimate son. But worse was his… indiscreet flirtation? failed attempt at something more?… with Abigail Adams. Lovell and the Adamses were friends, and Lovell sent her some suggestive letters while her husband was overseas as commissioner to France. (Barking up the wrong tree, methinks.) Between the letters and an accusation that he was having an affair with his landlady, Lovell resigned from Congress in 1782 and returned home to Boston under a cloud.

Afterwards, Lovell served as collector of taxes and customs officer for the state of Massachusetts. His appointment as naval officer in 1789 was, in effect, a continuation of the job he was already doing, except that Custom House was now under the auspices of the federal government instead of the state. I find it notable that Lovell was not offered the job of Collector of Customs, despite being far more qualified for the position than Benjamin Lincoln, who had neither the experience nor education. Washington and Hamilton didn’t fire Lovell, but they also didn’t promote him.

What I’m going to do with all of this in Book Two of my series, I have no idea. I have a draft of the story but haven’t yet incorporated Lovell into it, for the simple reason that I didn’t know of his existence until a month ago, when I found this document. Let the revision fun begin!

Thomas Melvill, Surveyor

Thomas Melvill, artist unknown. (Public Domain.)

Thomas Melvill (or Melville) was a cool cat, and I’ve taken the liberty of making him even cooler. As surveyor of Custom House, he would be Josiah’s direct supervisor, overseeing all tidewaiters, weighers, and gaugers. But Melvill’s supervisory role extends beyond his Custom House duties…

Melvill was a Son of Liberty and a close friend of Sam Adams. He was present at the Boston Tea Party. (He even came away with tea leaves stuck in his shoes, which he saved as a souvenir.) During the war he was an officer in the army and served in the Rhode Island campaigns.

After the war Melvill was appointed to Custom House as surveyor and eventually replaced Lovell as naval officer. He was also a fireward, a founder of Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of the Massachusetts General Assembly. But his biggest claim to fame is being the paternal grandfather of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick.

Major Melvill was a well-known figure in Boston, a robust, energetic, and charitable man, most especially loved by his fellow firefighters, and whose death was publicly mourned and eulogized for weeks in both poetry and prose.

Finally, for the purpose of my story, Melvill is also one of Washington’s spies. Because… why not? He’s just the kind of man who would be a secret agent, on top of everything else.

And now… time to go hunt down some bad guys!


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From Nothing to Something: Nathaniel Silsbee

Josiah, the male lead of my historical work-in-progress, is not only first mate on a merchant ship, but a small-time merchant himself. His captain allows him a share of cargo space in exchange for a cut of his profits. Josiah has made a small fortune off of his investments, which he squirrels away in boxes hidden beneath his kitchen floorboards. He is saving to build his own ship.

When I first wrote this scenario, I merely assumed it was possible. Would an 18th century merchant-captain share cargo space with his ambitious young officer? Sure! Why not?

Fortunately, as I found out later, this scenario has historical precedent. Elias Hasket Derby, the wealthiest shipowner in Salem, Massachusetts, made it his policy to encourage and facilitate his young employees’ small-time investments in foreign trade:

He allowed his apprentices to put their savings into small ‘adventures’ in foreign trade, for which he gave them space in his vessels. Even his seamen were allowed 800 pounds of freight apiece, to exchange for foreign products.

Alexander Laing, Seafaring America, pg. 69

One of Derby’s young ship masters, Nathaniel Silsbee, was so successful in his investments that

…he retired from water, wealthy, at the age of twenty-eight, to manage his [own] ships from on shore. He made it a family enterprise by bringing in his brothers, William and Zacariah, when they, too, duly swallowed their anchors at the proper age of twenty-eight. Both had become shipmasters at nineteen.

ibid. 69-70

Not only did Silsbee become a wealthy shipowner, but he eventually entered politics, serving as a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and member of both the Massachusetts House and Senate.

Nathaniel Silsbee. (Public Domain)

Josiah’s fictional and Nathaniel Silsbee’s real-life stories are very similar. Both their fathers experienced financial failure. Both went to sea at a young age in order to support their families (Josiah leaves home at fifteen; Silsbee at fourteen). And both are determined young men with enough business savvy to take advantage of the financial opportunities that came of working on a merchant ship.

The scenario works. And the novelist wipes her brow with a, “Whew!”


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