Screenwriting Lesson: "True Grit" (Part 2 — Fish Out Of Water)

September 1st, 2011 by
Knowing the importance of creating a connection between the reader and the Protagonist, one way to accomplish that is by creating sympathy for the character. And one of the best ways to do that is by using the Fish-Out-Of-Water dynamic.

The phrase “fish out of water” refers to someone whose journey takes them into an unfamiliar environment. In the language of The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell describes this as a shift from the hero’s Ordinary World into the New World or alternatively the World of Adventure. Because the character doesn’t know the people or creatures who reside there nor the local social norms, there is an almost invariable sense of discomfort in the situation, hence the idea of a fish attempting to breathe while out of water. Who among us hasn’t been in a situation where we found ourselves in a strange circumstance making our breath hard to catch?

In True Grit, the Protagonist Mattie Ross is a fourteen year-old girl who finds herself as a fish out of water on several accounts:

• She has traveled from her home in Missouri to an entirely new place — Arkansas.
• Her father has been killed leaving her as the titular head of the household.
• This New World is filled with violence.

This latter point is one that is touched on often in the story and becomes a central theme in the narrative. Here are three key events featuring violence that spotlight Mattie’s Fish-Out-Of-Water experience in her journey, creating a beginning, middle and end to her metamorphosis arc:

The hangings: Almost immediately upon Mattie’s arrival in Fort Smith, she is introduced to violence in the form of the public hangings of Sullivan, Smith, and His Tongue in the Rain [P. 4-6].

Three men stand upon a rough-hewn three-banger gallows. The condemned are two white men and an Indian. They wear new jeans and flannel shirts buttoned to the neck. Each has a noose around his neck. One of the white men is addressing the crowd:

Ladies and gentlemen beware and train up
your children in the way that they should go!
You see what has become of me because of
drink. I killed a man in a trifling quarrel over
a pocketknife.

Mattie is pushing her way through the spectators thronging the town square.

Then the trapdoors are opened, the men plunge down, and they “hit the end of their ropes with a crack:

Two of the men have their heads snapped to an angle and are limp
and twist slowly. One, though, writhes and kicks, jackknifing his legs.

Oh, Sullivan must’er lost weight in prison!
His neck ain’t broke!

Sullivan continues to writhe and kick.

Hot tamales?

Mattie looks down at a boy selling hot tamales out of a bucket.

. . . Ten cents?

There is a sense of normalcy among the onlookers, even callousness to the deaths of these men, conveying a sense of the general attitude prevalent in this New World. But the moment also serves as a visualization of what Mattie has in mind for Tom Chaney and therefore an opportunity to test her mettle: Is this really what she wants? In settling on the idea that it is, the hangings serve as a portent of violence to come.

The incident with Quincy and Moon: Just over midway through the screenplay, Mattie and Cogburn stumble across a “hrown-together cabin dug into the flanks of a ravine.” After smoking out its two inhabitants – a hard fellow Quincy and less stalwart young man Moon, who had the misfortune of having been shot in the leg in the altercation and now bleeding badly – Mattie watches as Cogburn attempts to gain information as to Chaney’s whereabouts [P. 67-68]:

Easy now. He is trying to get at you.

I am getting at you with the truth.

We seen Ned and Haze two days ago. We’s supposed—

Don’t act the fool! If you blow I will kill you!

I am played out. I must have a doctor. We’s supposed—

Quincy jerks up one knee, banging the bottom of the table and sloshing
Rooster’s sofky as he grabs something from his boot: a knife.

He slams it down on Moon’s cuffed hand, chopping off four fingers. They
fly like chips from a log.

As Moon screams Rooster mutters:

God damn it!

Quincy flips the knife lightly in the air and regrabs it with blade pointing
opposite-wise. He twists and rears with cuffed hands to plunge the knife
into Moon’s chest.

Rooster has his gun out now and fires.

Quincy jerks back, hit in the face. Blood spatters Mattie. Quincy, still seated,
slides awkwardly down the wall.

Moon has fallen to the floor, knife in chest.

Oh lord, I am dying!

Whereas Mattie began her FOOW experience with violence witnessing it from a distance — part of a crowd watching three men get hanged — here she moves more deeply into the New World, not only experiencing death (two of them) in the same room, but also intimately: “Blood spatters Mattie.” In effect this counterbalances the natural dynamic by which a character becomes more familiar with and comfortable in the New World by immersing them more deeply in experiences, reminding them that while they may feel like they are getting their feet underneath them, they are still a fish-out-of-water.

The Final Struggle with Chaney: The arc of this particular FOOW dynamic in True Grit gets completed in the story’s Final Struggle. The entire journey has been predicated on Mattie’s goal: to find and arrest Tom Chaney, then see to it he is tried, convicted, and hanged for the murder of her father. On P. 88, while fetching water at a river, lo and behold she runs into none other than Chaney. Matters are complicated by the fact she is alone, Cogburn still asleep back at their camp, LeBouef having ridden off the night before. Producing her father’s Colt Dragon pistol, she announces to Chaney she intends to take him back to Fort Smith to see justice [P. 89]:

If you refuse to go I will have to shoot you.

Oh? Then you had better cock your piece.

Mattie gives a dismayed look at the gun and tries to pull the hammer
back. It has a heavy pull: she struggles, using two thumbs.

Chaney watches, smiling.

. . . All the way back til it locks.

Unfortunately for Mattie, despite all she has learned along the way in her journey and no matter how much she feels like she has accommodated herself to this New World, she is not a match for a truly violent person like Chaney. Mattie raises his ire by shooting Chaney in the side, but in the end he takes her captive.

The Final Struggle itself [P. 100-112] is filled with violence: Chaney assaulting Mattie, LeBouef showing up and fighting Chaney, Cogburn’s shootout with Lucky Ned, Mattie shooting and killing Chaney leading to her falling down a pit. Dangling upside down, her leg broken and tangled in a root, Mattie’s deeper immersion in the violence of the New World has one more act to play: She finds herself confronted by a corpse. Spotting a knife in the decomposing body, Mattie tries to retrieve it:

Mattie hastily reaches and curls fingers around ribs. She pulls. She is
about to get the knife when—

A glistening something inside the rib cage—guts?—starts to slowly
move. But it can’t be guts: it is gliding, coiling, under its own power.

A faint rattle.

Mattie screams as the ball of waking snakes quickens.

Bit in the hand by the poisonous snake, it is only through Cogburn’s rescue and epic flight to civilization, carrying Mattie first on horseback, then in his arms, that Mattie survives. In the end, no matter how much this Protagonist learned about the New World, Mattie remains a fish-out-of-water, and must rely on the aid of Cogburn, someone completely at ease with the violence of this place.


In your story, you can engender more sympathy for your Protagonist by increasing their FOOW experience, making sure to minimize what they understand of the New World, embracing their experience as a stranger in a strange land.

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One thought on “Screenwriting Lesson: "True Grit" (Part 2 — Fish Out Of Water)

  1. Phil says:

    Great insights Scott. Thanks for doing this. Really helps me appreciate a a great script even more.

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