The Hidden Structure of Before Sunset


The “Before” trilogy is, in my opinion,
one of the greatest gifts of modern cinema. Three films, each separated by nine years,
that together tell a beautiful and brutal story of what love means as we progress through
life. All three films have an unusual form—comprised
almost exclusively of lengthy conversations between the two central characters, Jesse
and Celine Because of this unusual structure, I remember
being in film school and arguing that Before Sunset was a perfect example of a movie that
doesn’t have a Hollywood structure. Oh film school Michael, you young fool. Fortunately, as I’ve grown older and wiser,
I’ve realized that one of the reasons Before Sunset is so amazing is because it is so structured. So today, I want to break the film into five
acts and dissect each one to uncover the invisible structure that keeps eighty pages of conversation
engaging… …to look at how the script constructs and
then destroys each character’s facade… …and to examine how each moment is tied
to the central dramatic question. Let’s take a look at one of my favorite films,
Before Sunset. First, let’s define what a story’s dramatic
question is. In his book Story, Robert McKee describes
it as a variation on the question ‘How will this turn out?’ writing: “Hunger for the answer to the Major Dramatic
Question grips the audience’s interest, holding it to the last act’s climax.” The dramatic question is the hook, the reason
we continue watching, and the engine that keeps Before Sunset engaging. Before Sunset opens on Jesse finishing the
last leg of his book tour. As he answers questions, it becomes clear
that he’s written the events of Before Sunrise into a book. This introduces the dramatic question of this
act—the same one the audience was left with at the end of Before Sunrise. “The book ends on an ambiguous note – we
don’t know. Do you think they get back together in six
months like they promised each other?” This introduces the dramatic question of this act, the same one the audience was left with at the end of Before Sunrise: Did Jesse and Celine get back together in
six months like they promised? Asking this question overtly but refusing
to answer it creates tension, which draws us in. “In the words of my grandfather, ‘to answer that would take the piss outta the whole thing.’” To keep us engaged, the film slowly hints
at the answer, starting with the inciting incident. “Across the room, Celine emerges from behind
a row of books, where she’s been hiding and listening. “He takes a beat, still looking at Celine,
not sure what to do next.” But simple curiosity about the answer to the dramatic question isn’t enough to keep the audience engaged. The substance of a story comes from characters
struggling to resist change. One way characters resist change is by trying
to maintain a facade— a persona they construct to hide the painful truth underneath. In the first act, Before Sunset hints at the
truths Jesse and Celine are hiding from. “I flew all the way over there. You blew the thing off. My life’s been a big nosedive since then, but it’s not a problem.” – “No, you can’t say that.”
– “I’m kidding.” Jesse suggests his life was ruined when she didn’t show up, but quickly dismisses it as a joke… “Reading something, knowing the character in the story is based on you, it’s both flattering and disturbing at the
same time.” “How is it disturbing?” “I don’t know. Just being part of someone’s
memory. Seeing myself through your eyes. How long did it take you to write it.” …and Celine suggests his vision of her was
disturbing, but immediately changes the subject. These are the truths the characters are afraid
of confronting, locked away behind their facades. But people and characters always resist changing
unless they are forced to, which is why the film introduces one final dramatic ingredient. “How long ‘till I have to go to the airport?” “You should leave at 7:30
at the very latest.” Jesse has a plane to catch, so now a ticking
clock looms over everything that comes afterward— there is pressure. So to recap: Act one establishes Jesse and
Celine’s facades, introduces a time constraint to pressure the characters, and asks a dramatic question— which by the end of the act has actually been answered. Celine and Jesse did not meet up nine years
ago, and haven’t spoken since. So our attention turns to a new dramatic question, the central dramatic question at the heart
of the entire film. Will Jesse and Celine get together this time? Now we’re ready for act two. To answer this dramatic question, we have to know if there is still even a romantic spark between them, so the second act is about
Jesse and Celine catching up. But how do you make fourteen pages of chit
chat about politics, their careers, and how they’ve aged engaging? The writers make sure that each conversation
topic eventually relates to the dramatic question. Disagreements allow for playful banter… “I realize that there are a lot of serious problems in the world.” -“Okay. Thank you.”
-“Okay?” “I mean, I don’t even have one publish in the whole Asian market.” “All right.” …Celine’s story about living the U.S.
turns into a conversation about the differences between American men and French men… – “I guess they’re not as, um…”
– “What?” “What’s the word? Um… horny?” “They’re not as horny.” “All right, listen to me on this one. In that regard, I am proud to be an American.” …And reflecting on how long it’s been
since they first met allows them to comment on how they each look. “Okay. Well? Voilà” “So?” “…you look beautiful.” In other words, it always comes back to romance. These fourteen pages of conversation about
politics, their careers, and how they’ve aged, serve to demonstrate that Jesse and Celine
clearly still enjoy talking to each other and still find each other attractive. So with clear facades and the possibility
of Jesse and Celine getting together looking good, the film moves to act three, where everything
gets more complicated. When the audience’s relationship to the
dramatic question remains static, a story starts to drag, which is why it’s important
to complicate the dramatic question. In the first half of act three, Jesse and
Celine start overtly flirting with each other. “If we were both going to die
tonight, would we talk about your book, the environment, or…” “I would still want to talk about magic in the universe. – I’d just want to do it from a…”
– “What? “A hotel room, you know, in between sessions of us wildly fucking until we die.” “Wow. Well, why waste time with a hotel room? Why not do it right there on a bench?” “He immediately grabs her and pulls over
to a bench. …as she is suddenly
overcome with shyness.” “Well, we’re not going to die tonight.” “All right. Too bad.” “She repositions herself on the bench next
to him.” It seems like they’re both interested in
reconnecting, like we’re moments away from getting the fairytale answer to the dramatic question… So it’s the perfect time for the screenwriters
to have Celine casually bring up the one topic the’ve been avoiding. “So I read in that article you are married
with a kid? That’s great.” “A slightly weird look from Jesse: ‘knew
this was coming, eventually.’” This is the film’s midpoint, the reveal of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that re-contextualizes the entire film thus far
and complicates the dramatic question. What would it mean for Jesse and Celine to
get together now? Do we even still want that? Now that the dramatic question has been complicated, the film uses conflict to complicate the characters as well. Jesse and Celine are each other’s opponents, so part of their function in the story is to erode the other’s facade by attacking the lie they project. Jesse’s lie is that “love is simply a
choice.” “So you got married because men you admire were married?” “In the moment, I remember thinking that it didn’t much matter, the who of it all. That nobody is going to be everything to you. and that ultimately, it’s just the simple action of committing yourself, meeting your responsibilities that — that matters.” But spending time with Celine has been revealing
the importance of connection, which is wearing on Jesse’s facade. “Jesse then speaks in a voice that is both
louder and more frustrated and desperate than we’ve seen.” “Oh God, why weren’t you there in Vienna?!” “I told you why.” “I know why. I just… I wish you would have been. Our lives might have been so much different.” As his own facade cracks, Jesse starts challenging
Celine’s lie— that “everything worked out for the best.” “Maybe not, maybe we would have hated each
other eventually.” “Oh what, like we hate each other now?” “Celine is a bit tense.” “Well the past is the past, it was meant
to be that way.” The struggle of the characters trying to hold onto their lies is what makes this section so gripping. By the end of the third act, it’s clear
that there are cracks in each character’s facade, but they are still holding on to their lies. So the story ratchets up the pressure. “Well, I guess this is good-bye. You better give me your—” “No, why don’t we just give you a ride home, wherever you’re going, huh?” “Well, I can take the Metro. I’m fine.” “No, no. My flight’s not until 10:00. They’ve got me arriving two hours early.” “This way we can keep talking.” They are truly almost out of time, so they climb into the car…and enter the most explosive act of all …act four. Act four centers around Celine— who has been clinging to her facade more tightly than Jesse— as . she slowly unravels in a three-and-a-half
page cascade of emotion. It begins with Celine restating the lie she
is trying to believe. “For me, it’s better I don’t romanticize
things as much anymore. It doesn’t make me sad, it is the way
it is.” Jesse, acting as her opponent, calls her out. “Is that why you’re in a relationship with someone who’s never around?” … which forces her to admit she has problems
with romance now. “When someone is always around me I’m
suffocating.” But again, Jesse calls her out, forcing her
to acknowledge her contradiction. “Wait, you just said you need
to love and be loved.” “Yeah, but when I do, it quickly makes me
nauseous. It’s a disaster.” This snowballs into an emotional response that will finally force Celine to admit the truth she hinted at in act one. “I was fine until I read your fucking book. It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was,
how I had so much hope in things and now it’s like I don’t believe in anything that relates to
love. I don’t feel things for people anymore. In a way I put all my romanticism
into that one night and I was never able to feel all this again.” Because the last thing characters want is
to reveal the truth, when it finally comes out it is often messy…even disastrous. “I’ve gotta get away from you.” – Stop the car. I want to get out.”
– “No, no. Don’t get out.” “It’s being around you — Don’t touch me! I want to get on a cab.” This is the story’s crisis, the worst possible consequence of the inciting incident. Maybe we’re about to get the answer to the
dramatic question: not only do they not get together, but their reunion ends in a terrible fight. But, she stays, and after her facade is destroyed, Jesse is finally able to reveal the painful reality his life has become. “You think you are the one dying
inside? My life is 24/7 bad. And I know that there’s something wrong that I — God, that I can’t keep living like this, that there’s gotta be something more to love than commitment. But then I think that I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love, that I might have put it to bed that day when you weren’t there. You know, I think I might have done that.” Finally, the truth is out: they both gave up on romance when they didn’t meet in Vienna nine years ago. Their souls are bared, their facades have
crumbled, and as they arrive at Celine’s apartment it’s finally time to answer the dramatic question: Will Jesse and Celine get together this time? By act five we understand how complicated
the dramatic question is, but now we also understand how complicated the characters are, and that this could be the second chance at love they both need. So as Jesse goes upstairs so Celine can play
him a song before he heads to the airport, there is a new kind of tension. “They start up the stairs, not saying anything,
but acting like everything is normal. As they continue in silence, the charged undertone
seems even more pronounced.” As they hang out in her apartment, we see what Jesse and Celine have earned by weathering the painful storm of exposing their truths and surrendering their facades. Their true selves are together for the first
time in nine years, and it’s clear with every moment this is where they want to be. “As the song keeps going, and Celine keeps
clowning around, Jesse just sits there with the most peaceful, happy grin we’ve ever seen on him.” But it’s not until the very last line of
the film that the dramatic question is finally answered. “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” “I know.” So, does Before Sunset have a conventional
Hollywood story structure? Well, if we take the big moments we’ve just
covered and overlay them onto the Syd Field paradigm structure— the three-act model used
in most Hollywood films— we see that they fit pretty snugly. The first section has an inciting incident… …there’s a first plot point as Jesse and
Celine start talking… …there’s a midpoint reversal that flips
the story on its head… …there’s a second plot point when Celine
wants to get out of the car and it looks like their relationship will end badly… …and there’s a third act climax as each
character makes the ultimate choice. So, in that respect, sorry film school Michael,
you were mistaken. Before Sunset does have a conventional Hollywood
structure. But in all honesty, you could take just about anything and force it to fit into this structure if you tried hard enough. Simply adhering to structure for its own sake
isn’t enough to make a movie good. Before Sunset is brilliant because it is a
beautifully-designed real-time conversation that organically takes its two characters
through a full arc, and the result of that is a structure so effortless it seems invisible. This is something that is hard to come by, and it’s what film school Michael was connecting . with. That the film feels so romantic and raw is really a signal of the immense effort and honesty that was poured into Before Sunset. So much of what makes the Before Trilogy great
is the power of conversation, and as I was working on this video I kept thinking about
my favorite book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens is a fascinating summary of humanity’s
evolution, and one of my favorite chapters is about the importance of language. He describes one theory, that “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping… It is not enough for individual men and women
to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know
who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.” Sapiens made me appreciate the true power
of conversation and so many other aspects of humanity, and you can download the audiobook
today for free with Audible. If you’re a regular viewer of Lessons from
the Screenplay, then you’ve probably heard me talk about how much I love Audible and that they have the largest selection of audiobooks on the planet, but through the month of July
there’s a special offer going on. Amazon Prime members can start an Audible
membership and save 66% on your first 3 months— it’s essentially like getting three months for
the price of one. Just head to audible.com/LFTS
or text LFTS to 500 500 to get started today. Thanks to Audible for sponsoring this video. Hey guys! Hope you enjoyed the video. There’s so much to talk about with Before Sunset, which is why I’m very happy we have our podcast, “Beyond the Screenplay.” Our episode on Before Sunset is out today. We do a deeper dive into that film as well as the entire “Before Trilogy.” So check it out! The link to the episode is in the description below. Thank you, as always, to my patrons on Patreon and supporters here on YouTube for making this channel possible. Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time.

100 Replies to “The Hidden Structure of Before Sunset”

  1. Which film in the "Before Trilogy" is your favorite? Why?
    Before Sunset has been mine, but in revisiting them, I might be starting to lean toward Before Midnight.

  2. Am thoroughly pleased with this, have always been curious about how subtle Linklater’s underlying story structure is. Boyhood is still one that baffles me…

    On a side note, would love to see a comparison between All About Eve and Birdman, specifically with creating rich subtext and truly unique, memorable characters through dialogue. Two classic dialogue-driven masterpieces set about mounting broadway

  3. The Major Dramatic Question of this video is, "How many acts does Michael think this movie has?"
    Lovely work, but that question kept me hanging on til the end. 🙂

  4. Hey Michael. I was binging your videos (all of them great btw) and I was curious about something. In the “Good Will Hunting” video, you talked about it being a perfect example of a positive change arc for a character. I was wondering; what would you consider a perfect example of a negative change character arc in film?

  5. I love Sunset the best of the trilogy too. The first one was a bit too stilted and Jesse's patter was insufferable, but that speaks to the character's age. The third one was devastating because I hated seeing characters I loved tear into one another. This one struck the right balance of wistfulness and romance.

  6. video on "My Dinner with Andre" ? My dad loves this movie, I fall asleep every time. I wonder if you can break it down?

  7. This is a wonderful video after watching this I want to watch the movie, it seems really great and has defiantly given me insight to screen writing.

  8. I so wish I could used the line about wearing out each others facade on my ex girlfriend. I think that is such a better explanation about why things went wrong than blaming her for not being earnest or trusting.

  9. I love how as soon as i signed in to youtube there was a video that I clicked on straight away in my recomended. Like fuck television and old media its so cool that I can do that.

  10. "The Before trilogy is, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts of modern cinema"… except for Before Midnight, we don't talk about that one

  11. Hi there, Great video once again. One of my favourite channels on all of YouTube. I have always wanted you to take a look at The Worlds End. But considering you have done Shaun Of The Dead, I assume you wouldn’t want to do a video on such a similar film, Same thing goes for Hot Fuzz. Either way, keep up the great work. 🙂

  12. Before Sunset is my favorite too! Would you be interested in digesting Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)?

  13. An excellent analysis of an excellent movie. I love "Sunrise" and "Sunset" so much so that I don't dare watch "Midnight," which has been sitting in my video cabinet for years and which I'm afraid will be devastating. Part of the appeal for me is that I, and obviously many people besides me, have been in situations very comparable to those in these movies, but things never quite panned out this way, presumably because one or another of us missed our cues or fumbled our dialogue. The films provide the most delicious sort of wish fulfillment. What if I had done this or that slightly differently? What if I had asked the perfect question, or given the perfect answer? For this reason (along with the excellent actors, scripts, and production values) the films are timeless.

  14. as someone who still hasn't seen "before midnight" (no spoilers, please!), I like "before sunset" more than "before sunrise".

    but, and I feel that's important, to me it really feels like my own age plays into that.

    you see, before I saw "before sunset" for the first time (which was just a few months ago), I revisited "before sunrise" – a movie which I LOVED when I had first seen it as a young adult. but while young me felt the conversations were really "meaningful" and "deep", nowadays me felt a lot of them felt kind of "shallow" – which to an extent seems to make sense because both characters were only slighter older than I was back then.

    fast forward to 2019 and I'm approximately the same age (slightly older) than the character in "before sunset". which absolutely seems to be the reason why I can relate to the topics and the way their conversation goes in a much bigger way.

    finally, this is also the reason why I have decided to not watch "before midnight" until I'm in my forties. I truely believe I would somewhat cheat myself if I watched it at an earlier point.

  15. i really liked the way you threadbared the structure of the movie .it is a great art to tell stories and it's greater when that is from imagination.now i appreciate this movie even more. regarding the question, my favourite is before sunrise.

  16. I was watching the movie when you uploaded this. My favourite is Sunset but I can't decide between the car scene here and the dinner table scene in midnight where everyone is eating and talking about their experiences. Thanks again Michael.

  17. For a long time I avoded watching this movie. I felt that there was something in it that will confront me with something I didn't want to confront. I didn't even want to watch this video.
    I'm glad I did.
    My eyes are tearing.
    Thank you.

  18. I don't think there is a series of moves as heartwarming, touching and ultimately devastating as the Before trilogy. Bless Richard Linklater, July Delpy and Ethan Hawke for making such a masterpiece on life itself.

  19. Funny cause my parents loved this movie, I watched it when i was 9 and really hated it. Now that I´m 25 I think I need to give this trilogy a new chance.

  20. I’ve always loved the 1st. And I didn’t even know about the sequel though until it showed up on tv just when the 3rd instalment was coming out. Love them all now.
    In the before sunrise there’s a bit when Jesse is talking about a tv show that’s very similar to the structure of The Truman Show. I’m sure there must have been some influence into the idea in years to come?! That’s another film you must do sometime, please?
    My favourite bit of that one though is when they meet the Germans on the bridge inviting them to the play they’re promoting.

  21. Thanks for spreading the love for the 'Before' trilogy! 

    In the past, I did a tribute of it, including other love stories that I enjoyed like La La Land, Sing Street and 500 of Summer. But mostly, is about Jesse and Celine's journey because I really relate to them. If some one is interested, here's the link: https://youtu.be/O7NWgWVifBo

  22. My fave too. Before sunrise is a love letter to our younger selves. Befire sunset -This is reality. Before midnight is a promise.

  23. I had never heard of this trilogy before a few years ago when my taste in cinema matured a bit. These movies have a serious following among select film buffs. Ethan Hawke has always been one of my favorite actors.

  24. I think, some people have something similar to before trilogy, a youthful encounter that rattled you, like, meeting of minds or souls mate. Some took the plunge to travel down the road as a couple (didn’t miss the date in Vienna). Some, due to various “priorities” or bad timing at the moment, let it go. The formal, a relationship or marriage may or may not last. The later, some always wonder the could have should have would have beens.

  25. Listening to podcast, kind of hurts when I watched them in real time and had to wait the 9 years to find out if Celine and Jesse met and then another 9 years to find out what happened after he missed his flight. Ugh! These are some of my favorite movies ever. They meant so much to me and I do not know about structure or story. I just connected emotionally and on a personal level. Thank you for the video.

  26. Before Sunset has always been my favourite of the three but Before Midnight still resonates with me the most, it's such a realistic depiction of how a relationship develops through the years… Great video as always Michael!

  27. Gotta give Ethan Hawke some serious credit. The dude takes mad liberties with his lines, but never fails to nail them.

  28. Thank you for doing this one, Mike.
    The "Before…" films have always had a special place in my heart – and I haven't re-watched them anywhere NEAR enough (I was late to the party – only watching the first two shortly before "Midnight" came out). But I know they'll stay with me forever.
    Also, glad to find out you have a podcast – that's an instant "Add" for me!
    Thanks again and keep up the amazing work 😉👍

  29. That movie put me under the illusion that I could find a woman with brains & have a dreaming relationship.
    36 and single.
    Hahaha 😎

  30. "Before" is one of my favorite trilogies and Before Sunset is my favorite film in the series. So happy you did a video on it!

  31. Since you’re ostensibly a writer, I thought you’d take this silly little tip as innocuously as intended: “composed of” instead of “comprised of.” 🦆

    I love the work you put into these. Standout stuff on a platform drenched in predictable & tiresome film-school regurgitation. ✌️👏👏

  32. I watched Before Sunset first, then Sunrise, and Midnight after that.

    The first thing that actually got my attention was the script, the first time I ever started caring about screenplays.

    And, oh yeah, I cried again

  33. After searching "analysis of before sunrise trilogy" millions of times, I have finally found the answer. Thank you for analysing this brilliant cinema.

  34. This trilogy is so "real". Some conversations were over the top, but the characters are always believable, sweet, and touching.

  35. Before Sunset is my favorite among the three. It taught me so much about life. The wisdom of the characters are pure that after watching the movie, I just want to follow my passion, and not just the convenient path I’ve made for myself. Jesse and Celine catching up on what they did, what are their jobs after that meet up in Vienna made me think and realize things. They grew sooo much after that meet up in Vienna! Aaahhhhh!!!!!!! 💓

  36. I needed this video! Thank you!
    I watched your Collateral – The Midpoint Collision and then found this one after! That one also featured facades, I'd love to see that same type of 'protagonist/antagonist parallel character arcs, tracked beat by beat' applied to stories like Before Sunset.

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