Get in the ring with us while we spar with one of the greatest scripts of all time to figure out what makes it tick.
Where were you the first time you heard the Rocky theme song?
I was on the floor of my basement. It was family movie night, and I was about to have my mind blown.
Rocky is an awesome movie, but what if I told you we could use it to go over a screenwriting tool that can help you write the best version of your owns script?
How can we do this? In part by analyzing the story beats using our STORY MAP.
We’ll dissect the scenes that make us cheer, endear us to the characters, and a few of the ones that maybe don’t hold up quiet as well.
So without further ado...Let’s talk about Rocky!
So, What’s A Story Map?
When I think about screenplays, I think about all the beats you hit to take your audience from the opening scene to the closing credits.
Sure, some people swear by Blake Snyder, but I prefer to think of the screenplay more as a map than as certain building blocks.
It takes the pressure of page goals and formulaic outlines. Just tell me a great story!
And use these beat ideas to brainstorm.
There are twists, turns, but no matter what you’re trying to get to that ending payoff.
Here’s the way I see our Story Map:
Unraveling The Map - Do you have an opening scene that defines the movie?
The Launch Point - Where are we, and who are we with?
The First Leg - What’s a normal day look like in this world?
Change Course - What sets our characters off on their journey from normalcy?
The Foot of the Mountain - Okay, we’re going on this journey together
Climbing The Side - It starts hard, but you get used to the problems as you go
Through The Cave - Do you have a B story? Set that story off on its own now too.
Reassess the Problem - You’re at the middle. Is there another way to get it done?
Try and Fail - Things begin to fall apart, can they handle it?
The Fall - The worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.
The Hidden Clue - What do your characters discover about themselves/the problem that they never saw before?
Race To the Finish - They’re up and running no matter what.
The Treasure Chest - Did they get what they came for?
Where We Go From Here - Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next.
But now, let’s take the original Rocky script and see how it fits inside this Story Map.
The Rocky Story Map
I love Rocky as much as the next person from the Philadelphia area (shout out, West Chester!), but the movie is great even if you’re from a lesser part of the world.
Now that I have my homer banter out of the way, let’s get into what makes Rocky a great film by examining the Story Map.
Want to read along? Check out the Rocky screenplay.
Unraveling The Map - What do we get at the beginning of Rocky? A pullback from a picture of Jesus to reveal that we’re in the Resurrection Boxing Club. Look, this isn’t subtle, but it’s a great way to let us know this story is about a fighter, and hint at what this story might be about.
The Launch Point - We’re following Rocky, a down on his luck boxer who gets booed by the people watching him fight. Not a single person there respects him, and we quickly learn that he’s a guy who was never thought to be good enough to go pro.
Burgess Meredith said it best, Rocky is a bum!
But Rocky wants something more...if only he had a shot...
The First Leg - Rocky has a crappy apartment and works an even crappier job as an enforcer for the mafia. If you don’t pay, he’s supposed to break your thumbs. Or worse. But Rocky doesn’t break anyone’s thumbs.
We learn that he’s TOO NICE to be a great enforcer. And that makes us love him. To underline Rocky’s desire to be someone, we have him stare at a picture of his younger self. He used to be a kid with dreams. What happened?
We meet Adrian and her brother, Paulie. We see Rocky flirt and fall for her. We also see that Adrian can’t stand up to her brother. She and Rocky have similar arcs, both need to become the person they’re meant to be.
And we see Rocky going about his business. And get stiffed. And get yelled at. And get made fun of. And get spurned by women, children, and men.
The crazy thing about Rocky, and why I prefer the Story Map to a Beat Sheet, is that these first couples of headings take place over the movie’s first hour.
We spend a lot of time developing the characters, the stakes, and the story.
When you’re writing, I don’t want you to get bogged down by what happens by which page. Just focus on whether or not you’re creating a compelling story.
Sort the rest out later.
Change Course - We watch movies because we want to see people break out of their day to day and reach for the stars. This is a movie about a guy needing a shot, and this one actually comes a bit passively.
We learn, via Apollo Creed’s storyline, that his opponent hurt his hand sparring and has to drop out. Apollo needs to pick a new fighter for an exhibition. (want more Apollo Creed? Find and read the Rocky 2 script pdf, or Creed, or the Creed 2 script pdf. That characters storyline and legacy continues through the series!)
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-gcyQBr-gY
Apollo goes through lots of ideas but settles on one guy.
That guy happens to be Rocky Balboa.
And so, the course of Rocky’s life begins to change.
The Foot of the Mountain - So fighting Apollo is Rocky’s mountain. We’re not at the training montage yet, but we’re getting there. First, Rocky needs to get Mick to be his trainer. Rocky stops working for the mafia and starts getting serious.
He confesses to Adrian that he’s afraid he won’t win, but he knows he’s gotta try.
Climbing The Side - So if Rocky wants to get up the mountain, he’s got to climb. The middle of the movie intercuts Apollo’s antics with Rocky’s work.
Apollo is loud, formidable, and a true showman.
Rocky sounds barely educated, and even though he’s chiseled, comes across meek.
This will be a steep climb. But each man has respect for one another.
Rocky is not climbing alone. He’s got Adrian, who agrees to go out on a date with him. So he takes her ice skating.
Then there is a problematic scene at Rocky’s apartment after the date, where Rocky won’t let Adrian leave, and sort of forces her to kiss him.
That might have flown in the 1970’s, but not today. It undercuts what should be a very tender scene, where the two talk about emotions first.
Anyway, the climb scenes balance tenderness with the tension of the impending fight. It makes us love the characters and gets us invested not only in Rocky’s life but also his success. And it pays off everything we got in the first hour.
Through The Cave - So the official B-plot and romance with Adrian happens around twenty minutes in, but the date and kiss really solidify it.
The cool thing about this movie is that we know from the get-go that it sets up the two b stories perfectly.
We already talked about following Apollo and his camp. Apollo is a winner.
But the other B-plot is about two losers. Adrian thinks she’s a loser because she’s single and runs a pet store. Rocky thinks he’s a washed up loser. They’re both people who need more from life and have to stand up to their respective bullies.
That’s kind of beautiful.
Reassess the Problem - Earlier in the movie, Rocky doesn’t believe in himself enough to fight Apollo, but once he accepts the battle he has to start thinking better of himself.
The first change starts small. I think it’s when he walks the girl home from the gang and gives her the speech about wanting more.
So then Rocky does something different. He starts to train better.
He’s eating raw eggs, he’s running the streets.
He’s not a loser or a bum, he’s punching raw meat.
Even Mickey sees the change in Rocky. Even if Rocky can’t see it yet.
So Micky encourages him to train even harder. And we get the greatest montage in movie history.
Try and Fail - Look. this is a story about a boxer. And in boxing, you have to take your licks. And Rocky’s licks are both physical and emotional.
Even with all his training, and even with his luck in his romance, and Adrian standing up to her brother, and all the inspirational things, Rocky still doesn’t think he belongs.
When Rocky enters the arena in Philly and sees that he FINALLY has a shot at the big time...he doesn’t think he deserves it.
Part of this is because his caricature is wearing the wrong color shorts, and part is because he’s been a nobody his whole life.
Rocky needs a training montage for his heart.
The Fall - When Rocky gets home, he confesses that he doesn’t think he can beat Apollo, and he doesn’t think he can even go the distance. I mean, no one else has ever done that...But Adrian believes in Rocky.
He just has to give himself a chance to go the distance…
The Hidden Clue - When Rocky gets in the ring with Apollo he’s immediately booed, and taken for granted.
But this movie isn’t about other people appreciating Rocky, it’s about Rocky digging deep and understanding that he’s gotta EARN that love.
So what does Rocky do?
He knocks Apollo Creed to the ground.
And then something crazy happens. The crowd inside the stadium. And the crowd in bars around the city. And the crowd watching at home. All unite behind Philadelphia’s own son.
Because those people start believing in themselves, too.
Race To the Finish - The fight between Rocky and Apollo goes multiple rounds. We see Rocky get ahead, Apollo gets ahead, and everyone starts rooting for Rocky.
We also get Apollo learning to respect Rocky in the ring. This isn’t going to be a “gimme,” he’s going to have to try to beat the Italian Stallion.
The Treasure Chest - the fight culminates in the 14th round. Blood all over the place. Two warriors staggering, but Rocky is determined to go the distance.
Lucky for him, Adrian makes her way down to the Spectrum to cheer him on.
Rocky gets clocked and lies on the mat. This should be it, but we know he wanted to last the fight, so even despite Mick urging him to “stay down,” Rocky rises triumphantly and battles until the bell rings.
He’s no bum now!
Where We Go From Here - Rocky gets out of the ring and runs to Adrian. It’s their love that’s the real story of this movie, and the love they’ve found through self-worth. Honestly, this movie is all about getting mentally healthy. That’s progressive.
Sure, Apollo wins via split decision, but Rocky doesn’t even look back or care.
He knows he gave it his all and lived up to his potential. That’s all that matters…
Plus the next six movies coming our way…
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj0jzepk0WA
Summing Up The Rocky Story Map
Now that you know how to map your story, you better hit the ground running. Use that tool for all of your screenwriting needs, but remember, all writing is rewriting.
Rocky is a crazy script. It has a long first act, short middle, and short ending. Consider that a young Sylvester Stallone wrote it in THREE DAYS! At least, that's what he's said...
The character of Rocky Balboa is part of the cultural lexicon forever. So much of that has to do with the inspiration, but also the execution of the idea through tight story beats.
As I said earlier, there are no rules. If you can entertain people you’ll win inside and outside of the ring. And certainly in Hollywood.
Now get out there and get writing!
Not sure if they have a montage for that...