Story Maps: Sunset Boulevard

Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Boulevard is a perfect example of the Story Maps method of screenwriting.

One of the main dramatic elements in the Story Map is the Central Dramatic Question — this forms the spine of the story that keeps the audience waiting for the answer to the meta-mystery of the narrative.

Sunset Boulevard opens with one of the most striking images in film history.

The dead man in the pool, JOE GILLIS, also happens to be our narrator, making this one of the first instances of the “posthumous narrator” in movies, later adopted by many films such as American Beauty or The Lovely Bones. We soon leave our “front bookend” and flash back to the point at which we begin the action of the story, but not before asking…

  • WHO killed Joe Gillis and WHY?

You can’t get much more simple, clean and high-stakes than that. It may seem obvious in retrospect, but what if the question was, “Will Joe Gillis sell a screenplay?” Not as urgent, is it?

(Okay, dear screenwriter, maybe YOU are not the right person to try to convince of the trivial nature of that query, but for the rest of the audience, this is not the most important question in their lives!)

  • WHO killed Joe Gillis and WHY?

This primal Central Dramatic Question of murder lends an urgency to the story, giving it much more forward momentum than it would have had, otherwise. For the first half of the film, the story seems trivial and low stakes, in that it concerns a struggling screenwriter who’s writing a script for a washed-up silent movie actress.  Hardly a life or death matter; at least, not yet. Eventually, it will become a struggle for a man’s soul.

You will find a Full Story Map for Sunset Boulevard in the next version of my book, Story Maps: How to Write the GREAT Screenplay. Stay tuned to the Story Maps page for the latest announcements.

Interestingly, this film, released in 1950, adheres almost exactly to the pacing of a modern commercial movie, spec script and my Story Map beat sheet. I look forward to telling you more about this classic screenplay.

Good Luck and Happy Writing,


2 replies
    • Dan
      Dan says:

      They discuss that in the special features on the Sunset Blvd. dvd (which is not available for purchase any more, according to Best Buy, so I had to rent it via Netflix): the various bodies in the morgue begin talking to one in voiceover about their newest arrival, Joe Gillis. It was meant to be serious, but they previewed it and the audience was laughing! So they needed an opening that captured a serious tone, not a campy one, and came up with the body in the pool and Joe’s voiceover from the grave.

      That iconic shot was achieved by shooting into a mirror that was placed on the bottom of the pool!


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