Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: the Story Structure

Lately when we’ve watched a movie, I’ve been paying particular attention to story structure. This is probably due to my focusing on screenwriting and how to construct a great story, which I’ve found to be quite fascinating. It’s something that, through learning and practicing, I feel like I’m getting a bit better at it, though I still have a long road of learning ahead of me…. I still need years and decades of learning and experience!

We watched the well-known film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington last Friday night, so I decided that I would chart the Story Structure on a Paradigm. I’ve already done this with a couple of films (the Toy Story movies, to be exact), but only within the context of three acts. There’s a whole lot more to the Three-Act Story Structure than I had thought about three or four months ago. Hence, I used Syd Field’s Paradigm method of structure, which goes into the smaller details of the three-act structure.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: the Story Structure


The setup: Congressman dies and a new one is needed; inklings of the sinister “Machine,” Jefferson Smith’s introduction and character development as a normal U.S. citizen who loves his country and fellow citizens.

Plot Point I: Jeff Smith reveals his desire to build a boy’s camp in his state.


Dramatic Context (first half of Act II): Smith starts his Senate job, begins working.

Pinch I: Run in with the press, discussion about Truth.

Midpoint: Smith proposes his bill (for the building of the camp) in the senate.

Dramatic Context (second half of Act II): The Machine (political corruption vs. truth)

Pinch II: Paine’s pushing Smith to compromise truth, attacks Smith’s character.

Plot Point II: Smith is accused of corruption, deceit, etc., by Paine and the Machine.


Dramatic Context: The last battle for truth

Resolution: Paine confesses to corruption, Smith wins the victory.

So that, in a nutshell, is the story structure of the film. What do you think? I might be wrong about my identification of some of the elements (I’m not totally sure about the two Pinches in Act II…); feel free to discuss this in the comment section below!

As far as some of the other elements of the story goes:

Protagonists: Jeff Smith, Clarissa Saunders

Antagonists: The Machine, the Press, Senator Paine

Jeff Smith stands strong in his principles, Senator Paine finally changes in the last five minutes, Clarissa Saunders changes from helping the Machine in the first half (up until the midpoint of Act II) to helping Smith in the last half, some of the Press changes, the Machine never changes (it remains corrupt and evil).

The MacGuffin: Smith’s Senate Bill

Pretty interesting stuff, isn’t it?

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