?? Writing to a Dramatic Purpose -- A Review of Shawshank Redemption by Bill Johnson
A Story is a Promise
Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling book cover
Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author


My full review of The Shawshank Redemption is now part of a collection of movie reviews that are available on Smashwords. This is a partial review of the movie.


Shawshank Redemption

Writing to a Dramatic Purpose

by Bill Johnson


Poster for the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank Redemption is a film that points out once again a fundamental truth of storytelling. That by clearly setting out and writing a story around a dramatic issue like redemption, the storyteller sets in motion both a plot -- what the main character must do to gain redemption -- and a deeper story issue – whether adversity can lead to redemption.

By potently and vividly resolving and fulfilling its promise, the story offers a vivid story journey around the transforming power of adversity.

The story begins with its title, which suggests the story's promise. The title, then, is written around setting out the point of the story, not hiding it. By quickly setting out the story's promise, the storyteller can begin developing drama over the story's outcome. Will the main character here gain redemption? To delay the presentation of this issue risks weakening the story to create a distant plot revelation.

Music lyrics, 'If I didn't care... would I feel this way. If this isn't love, then why do I thrill."

This song is a set up for an introduction to the main character, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), and his inner feelings. The lyrics are ironic when we discover his inability to express his feelings, and the repercussions of that failure. Knowing the situation the main character confronts as the story opens, the storyteller choose a song that makes a pointed reference about him. The song and its lyrics are an integral part of the story, just as every element of a well-told story has a discernible purpose. Writers weaken a story when they try and construct it from details that only have a vague association with the dramatic context of the story.

Next we come up on street lights; a quiet night. Another contrast to what will soon be happening.

We move into car, a man listening to the same song that opens the story. Who is he? Andy. What's he doing? The questions arise naturally.

He puts something in his lap. A gun. He loads bullets into it, drinks. He needs courage. Question, courage to do what? The questions here multiply. The song, coupled with the gun and drinking, suggests Andy is tormented by his feelings and is readying himself to do something about them. As a character, he is dramatically ripe. Ready to act as the story opens, not just thinking about taking action. If he were still thinking about acting, he would be a static character no matter how dramatic the situation around him.

Cut to Andy being asked a question at a trial about his conversation with his wife; that his wife asked for a divorce. He was very distraught at the time, but as he testifies, he appears calm, cool.

His wife, it comes out, was having an affair with golf pro. Cut between Andy in car and the trial, where he appears cool, unfeeling.

Andy calmly insists he didn't kill wife and her golf-pro lover, but the DA insists he was on the scene, had a gun. That the gun he insists he threw in the river was never found.

Is he innocent?

We see Andy get out of car with gun. Walk toward house.

DA talks about people being shot eight times. So gun had to be reloaded. A crime of passion.

We see Andy's wife and golf pro making passionate love.

Judge sentences Andy to life in prison, consecutive terms.

Cut to bars sliding open, a man entering a room. Andy? No, it's Red (Morgan Freeman) in for parole hearing. He's asked if he's rehabilitated. He's very agreeable, says that he's "a changed man. No longer a danger to society."

Cut to: 'Rejected' being stamped on his parole form. The scene gets right to the point. No one buys that Red is rehabilitated.

He returns to the prison yard at Shawshank prison. This naturally frames a question, will Red ever change? Ever be ready for parole?

Red walks up to see view in yard.

Through a voiceover, Red explains he is a con who can get anything for anybody. "A regular Sears and Roebuck."

We hear siren, see prison van approach. Question, who's in the van? By withholding that information, simply showing the approach of the van and the fuss about its arrival, a small revelation is set up about who's in the van.

We come up over roof to 'see' prison. This visual image is suggestive that we're going to be allowed a full view of this world. Even the camera work here, then, speaks to a dramatic purpose in the story, becomes another element in how the story is presented.

Men in the prison yard move with purpose toward the van and the arrival of new prisoners. Why are the men excited? The audience is set up to anticipate something.

Guards and cons alike await new prisoners, lining up to see them.

Door to van opens; guard comes out, then others. Finally, Andy comes out.

It quickly comes out that the cons like to torment the new arrivals.

Andy is shy, wears a suit. He's really out of place in this new, harsh world. By showing how out of place he is, a question is naturally generated: can he survive here? What will happen to him in the coming days? Minutes?

Red takes bets on which new man will get beat up first, will be broken.

Red, "I didn't think much of Andy... my first impression of the man."

The story will change the impression of Andy for Red and the audience. Red is set up here as our guide in this story, a guide to the world within the walls of Shawshank.

Andy looks up at the formidable walls as he enters prison. This is to let the audience more fully experience this moment. It also becomes a sly commentary on the inner fortress walls Andy must surmount.

We meet Captain of guards and the Warden. Rules are spelled out for the new prisoners.

Rule # 1. No blasphemy.

One guy wants to know when they'll eat. Captain cusses him out and hits him while Warden looks on. The audience is being shown that Andy has entered the abyss.

Naked men are hosed, deloused.

Men are taken into prison naked and put into cells. It's meant to degrade, and the moments are set up for the audience to experience, to feel the degradation of these men.

Red narrates what it all means, how many men break down and cry their first night. The question, "Who's it going to be?" Who's going to cry first? That's what the betting in the yard was about. Red has bet that Andy will break first.

Red narrates, remembering his first night in prison. Red, the "boys always go fishing with" new men. The cons bait the new men.

Fat man, a new prisoner, cries out plaintively, "I don't belong here."

Cons jeer him.

Fat Man, "I want my mother." Con, "I had your mother; she wasn't that great."

The fat man can't stop pleading that he shouldn't be there. A con in a cell quietly pleads with the fat man to shut up. The Captain brings the fat man out and beats him senseless with a club.

We're shown the brutal immorality here. That the real evil is with those running the prison.

Red narrates that he lost cigarettes because Andy didn't break that night, that he never made a sound. This is another step in our journey to take in the full measure of Andy as a man.

Morning, men walk along cell block and into mess hall.

Where will Andy sit? What will others do? He sits by himself. Picks maggot out of his food. An old man asks for the maggot. Andy gives it to him. Will the old man eat it? It turns out the old man has a baby bird in his coat.

The bird becomes a continuing character in the story, not just a momentary effect in this one scene. Great stories layer their effects, build on them, develop them, deepen their impact, in small moments and large.

A happy con comes in; he's won cigarettes from the bet about who would break first.

Andy listens to conversation, that fat men received no medical treatment. Andy asks his name.

Con, "What the fuck do you care? Doesn't matter what his name was, he's dead."

Andy is listless in shower. Another man asks, "Anybody get to you yet?" He's offering protection for sex. Question, how will this turn out?

Red narrates that it took Andy a month to speak to someone... and that someone turns out to be Red.

Andy still maintains his innocence.

Red, "Rumor has it you're a cold fish... think your shit smells sweeter than most."

Andy asks Red to get him a rock hammer.

Red thinks he might want it for a weapon. Boggs (the prisoner who spoke to Andy in the shower), wants Andy for sex, according to Red. Red tells Andy to grow eyes in the back of his head. Andy says he won't use the rock hammer as a weapon.

Will Red get it for him? They agree on ten dollars as the price.

Set up of question, pay off. One way to draw an audience through a story is to raise a small question at the beginning of the scene and resolve it by the end of the scene. Questions can also be set up to play across scenes, or through the body of the story, its plot, character goals.

Red tells Andy the rules. If he's caught with the rock hammer and mentions Red, he'll never get him another thing... gum, anything.

Red, "He strolled... like he had on an invisible coat that shielded him." Question, will he be able to keep that shield?

Cut to laundry room. Black man sticks something in shirt. It gets to Red. He gets rock hammer and realizes it can't be used to escape or as a weapon. Or so it appears.

Old man who fed maggot to baby bird delivers book with hammer to Andy.

Andy sent to basement area. Other men surround him. He's beaten by three men, including Boggs, and, we assume, raped. We have an answer to that question of what would happen to Andy.

Red, "Prison is no fairy tale world."

Red talks about Andy showing up with fresh bruises. That sometimes he fought them off. Red continues that this went on for two years, that it might have eventually broke Andy, but something happened.

Question, what?

Cut to Warden talking about new license plate factory needing volunteers. Andy and others volunteer.

Red smiles that he's called because of bribe. Andy is on detail as well.

While cons works, Captain talks about how a brother died with money and he's only getting $35,000, and the government will take most of that in taxes.

Andy looks off at something. What?

Andy walks toward the Captain. This sets off a reaction by guards. Will Andy be killed. What's he doing? He tells Captain he can keep money if he trusts his wife enough to give her the money. The Captain is outraged. Will Captain kill him? Andy, an ex-banker, explains that he can set it up so the Captain gets to keep most of the money if he puts it in his wife's name, and he wants three beers each for the work crew for the advice.

Captain goes along.

Cons get to drink ice cold beers.

Red, "We felt like free men."

The audience gets to experience this great victory with the men.

Andy has a strange smile. Big question, what's he smiling about? He refuses beer. Red believes Andy did that to feel 'normal' again.

Andy plays chess; Red hates the game. This comments on how Andy will eventually get out of prison, one move at a time, in a game that takes 20 years to play.

Andy needs rocks to carve chessmen.

Red comments that they are becoming 'friends.' Andy wants to know why he's there. Red's in for murder, the 'only guilty man in Shawshank.' Red knows who he is. Question, who is Andy?

Andy gets up. He carves something into wall with rock hammer. Question, what?

Cons watch movie.

Andy asks Red to get him Rita Hayworth. A poster? What?

Andy leaves. He's attacked again in the movie projection room.

Man takes out knife. He threatens Andy for oral sex. Andy refuses and is beaten senseless.

But now the Captain has something invested in protecting Andy. Boggs, the con who's been raping Andy, spends a month in solitary for the latest attack on Andy. When he returns to his cell, the Captain waits for him. He beats him into a wheelchair as a broken cripple. The Captain is sending a message that Andy works for him now, and he won't tolerate him being abused.

Cons decide Andy is someone to respect. They go out to get him rocks for chessmen.

Man finds a rock, but not right one. It's petrified horse shit.

Red gets in a shipment. It includes a poster of Rita Hayworth.

We now see walls of Andy's cell. It's covered with pictures.

This concludes the partial review. For the full review, purchase Kernels to Storytelling Mastery on Smashwords.