“While I was writing Thelma and Louise, it was the most fun I had ever had in my life, bar none,” she says. “It was such a pure experience. There was no self-censorship there, there was no second guessing. From a creative standpoint, it was the freest I had ever been in my life. I loved every moment I got to spend time with those characters. Nothing came close to it, including winning all the awards and everything else. As much fun as all that was, it wasn’t as much fun as sitting alone in a crummy office on Vine at 2 in the morning writing that screenplay.”
— Callie Khouri, who has more recently written Nashville (2012) and the film Mad Money (2008)
Time Magazine asked why this film struck a nerve with the wider culture.Above all else, Thelma and Louise is a perfect example of story structure. Some people think of stories — especially films — in terms of three act structure. I prefer John Truby’s more detailed 22 Step Structure, and this film is a perfect example of that. Whatever else can be said about the feminist zeitgeist of 1991, the story structure definitely has a large part to play in the box office success of this film and its enduring appeal.
Genre Blend of Thelma and Louise
Myth, Drama, Crime >> Road Movie
A road movie is a mythic journey. The problem with mythic journeys is, they can get a little episodic, in a bad way. Just one damn thing after another. But when you have opponents stuck in a car together, that makes the story take a more linear, constrained shape. Thelma and Louise also gets around the ‘one outside opponent after another’ by having the Brad Pitt character turn up more than once.
The trio in the Ford Thunderbird in Thelma and Louise reminds me of the trio in the Lincoln Capri Convertible in A Long Hot Summer. Driving, we have the uptight woman, next to her the carefree woman, and in the backseat the bad boy they picked up on the side of the road. I don’t know if A Long Hot Summer is a named influence on Thelma and Louise, but I bet the writer watched that earlier movie at some point.
Story Structure of Thelma and Louise
As the film starts, the two women are embarking on a camping trip. Stopping off at a roadside bar is a very clear step into a world different from their own. As they both start to let their hair down, they begin to shed more of their former selves — but this is drama; every action has a consequence. Thelma attracts the attentions of a local redneck who brutally assaults her. The crisis is precipitated. Given the choice to kill him or warn him off, Louise — provoked — shoots him in the head and they flee from the scene. Both are thrown into a completely alien world — into the woods again.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
Self-revelation, need, desire
When we first meet Thelma and Louise, they are living in darkness, mortgage holders on a conservative American society.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
If either of the two central characters is the main character, it is Thelma. Thelma has more of a character arc, whereas Louise starts off strong and stays strong, though there is room in the story for Thelma to take over, as explained by Howard Suber in The Power Of Film:
In the first half of Thelma and Louise, the older Louise uses her knowledge and experience to lead. Halfway through the film, however, she succumbs to despair, and Thelma becomes the leader.
— The Power Of Film
Thelma needs to learn to live outside the control of her husband.
Thelma desires a fishing trip with her older best friend.
Her self-revelation will be that she is better off without her no-good husband and she can do amazing things under her own steam.
Thelma has only been with one man and we find out when she picks up the thieving hitchhiker that she has been with him since she was 14.
Louise had something horrible happen to her in Texas and refuses to go back. Thelma guesses that it was rape.
A detailed explanation of the American setting and stopovers can be found over at Twelve Mile Circle.
Here’s the caution John Truby offers about journey stories in his book Anatomy Of Story:
DON’T: have too many arenas in a journey story. A major reason journey stories feel fragmented, besides having too many arenas, is that the hero encounters a number of opponents in succession on the road. That’s why one of the keys to making the journey story work is the vehicle in which the hero travels. A simple rule of thumb is this: the bigger the vehicle, the more unified the arena. The bigger the vehicle, the easier it is to bring opponents along for the ride. These are the ongoing opponents, and with the hero, they create the single arena within the vehicle.
Khouri avoided fragmentation in Thelma & Louise with the Brad Pitt character, who turned up over and over again. If that guy had been separate people it would have felt fragmented to the audience. The masterful thing about that particular thread is that J.D. has a good motivation for following the women. (A couple, actually.)
There are often lots of storms in road trip movies, to the point where a storm is cliche. This film doesn’t have storms but it does have a lot of rain. Pathetic fallacy. It never rains on Thelma and Louise themselves, however. It’s raining back home where the men are, and J.D. gets rained on, but Louise and Thelma stay dry inside their convertible.
Weakness & Need (Problem)
Thelma needs to escape for a while from her controlling, dismissive husband of many years. But more deeply, she needs to learn to believe in herself and in her best friend (rather than in her useless husband).
Thelma doesn’t stand up to anyone, not even her own life partner. She can’t even bring herself to tell him she’s going away for the weekend, leaving him a note instead, and a frozen dinner in the microwave.
Thelma’s desire is to gain a little independence from her husband, but by taking the mini-step of going fishing with her friend for the weekend.
A sleazebag at the bar where they stop tries to rape Thelma. Louise shoots him dead.
As Truby says, “The best inciting event is one that makes your hero think she has just overcome the crisis” (which has often been happening since the beginning of the story but not in this particular case). Sure enough, Louise has just saved Thelma from violent rape but this is just the beginning of their troubles.
Here’s the thing about this confrontation as an inciting incident: This scene has created what writers call the ‘obligatory scene’. (John Yorke prefers the term ‘obligatory act’.) Now that Louise has shot this guy with a gun, the audience must see a battle between Louise and the law. The audience won’t feel the story is finished until they see a showdown between the women and the police.
Thelma and Louise are each other’s strongest ally, but their relationship doesn’t start off all that close at the beginning. They will grow closer as the story progresses.
Most of the world is against them, mostly men.
Surprisingly in a cop drama, even the detective is on their side. In fact, he’s an opponent, for the purposes of plot. But this is the character who is most closely aligned to us, the audience. We see what he sees, as he sees it. We know the women have done wrong, but can’t help but be impressed by them anyhow, just like him. In the final scene when the detective is running for dear life towards the women’s car, trying to get them not to drive off that cliff, that’s how the audience feels too, after spending an entire movie with these characters.
There is a strong opponent in this story and there doesn’t need to be any mystery, but the mystery of what happened to Louise in Texas is introduced. Thelma basically confirms our suspicions near the end.
Attack by ally
This happens earlier than usual, with the cafe scene in which Thelma has just been assaulted. Louise almost blames Thelma for getting them both into this terrible mess.
J.D. is an unambiguous example of this. The clever thing about the scripting is that he is upfront about his thieving, and still steals from Thelma and Louise. He unwittingly tutors Thelma in armed robbery with the intention only of showing off. Did he really rob a petrol station using those words, or are those words what he wishes he’d said? Thelma, being part impressionable, part naive, quotes him verbatim nonetheless.
The audience sees him before he is properly introduced. Thelma trips over him. He’s overly apologetic, but since she is still traumatised and temporarily suspicious, Thelma doesn’t reply.
Changed desire and motive
They now want to stay out of trouble with the law. The fishing trip has been abandoned. Louise wants to travel to Mexico. Thelma doesn’t know what she’s going to do.
First revelation and decision
They need money. Louise decides to call her musician boyfriend.
Louise will call back in an hour and the boyfriend will tell her which bank to pick her money up at in Oklahoma.
As for Thelma, she calls her husband who is annoyed that she left without his permission. She tells him to ‘go fuck’ himself, which we sense is the first time she’s ever said such a thing to him. This is the start of her character arc.
Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
J.D. plans to rob the women so he asks to hitch a ride with them since he’s a student and has no way back to school after his ride fell through. That doesn’t work at first, but does eventually. Then he turns up yet again (in the rain — deliberately not standing under the eaves, I notice, to look even more pathetic) to have sex with the vulnerable Thelma, who he may or may not have planned to rob from the get go.
We learn that all of Louise’s life savings are gone. What’s left to do now, when they don’t even have money for petrol?
Thelma feels responsible for the money going missing so she tells Louise ‘Don’t you worry about the money’. She is newly hardened and resolved to get money by robbing a store. Or, as TV Tropes would put it, she Took A Level In Badass.
Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive
The successful and easy robbery has a galvanising effect on Thelma. She feels she can do anything and is having a good time for the first time in many years. I’m reminded of the elation experienced by Walter White just after he ‘breaks bad’.
Second revelation and decision
In Thelma and Louise, Thelma initially refuses to accompany her friend to Mexico. Only after a patronizing, misogynistic phone call from her husband forty minutes into the film does she commit to the journey.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
When Thelma calls home and immediately realises the police are there the women realise just how much trouble they’re in.
Louise has been raped (or similar) in Texas, and the anger she holds about this would have motivated her shooting Thelma’s rapist in the carpark.
TV Tropes calls this a Noodle Incident.
The Noodle Incident is something from the past that is sometimes referred to but never explained, with the implication that it’s just too ludicrous for words, and the reality that any explanation would fall short of audience expectations. Questions about it are often met with “You Don’t Want To Know…“
TV Tropes also points out that this noodle incident trope is generally used by trickster characters.
Don’t be surprised if it was caused by a trickster-type character. If there’s a noodle incident and a trickster happens to be in the main cast, the trickster is almost always responsible for it, or at least blamed for it.
Louise is not the stock trickster character but she is certainly an extended version of it. So is Thelma — they are constantly getting themselves out of tricky situations by doing underhanded things. Audiences love main characters who do this.
Third revelation and decision
Talking to the detective again on the phone, Louise is told that they won’t get into Mexico. She puts two and two together and realises that Thelma has told J.D. where they were headed, and that J.D. must have told the cops.
Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
Louise gets pulled over by a cop, who knows all about them. Thelma is now given the opportunity to show the audience how much she has genuinely changed. Whereas before she was simply parroting the words of J.D. when robbing the bank, we now get to see that she can hold her own as a criminal. We see her act calmly and confidently as she gets the cop to climb into his trunk.
The same scene is used in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. When the two guys are pulled over by a cop we think, they’re certainly done for now. There’s also a cop-pulling-over scene in Little Miss Sunshine and another in No Country For Old Men. It’s very common in road movies, and interesting to see the various ways in which the writers get their characters out of this situation.
I’ve always thought that truck explosion was overdone. I mean, there are a lot of stock characters in this movie, and Thelma’s husband is almost overplayed, but the guy who plays the vile truck driver really does seem overacted. But there is a very good storytelling reason for that very Hollywood truck explosion — it makes for a great battle scene. The explosion, of course, symbolises their entire mess.
Self-revelation and Moral decision
Now that Thelma and Louise have become emancipated and liberated they are truly free.
This part of the film has been left out with the express purpose of leaving the audience in a state of shock. At this point there is what TV Tropes call a:
Cerebus Callback: Thelma and Louise take a polaroid photo of themselves at the start of their trip and stick it to the rear view mirror in the car. The photo flies off the mirror just as the car goes plunging into the Grand Canyon.
Are you writing a road trip story for younger readers? I recently watched Amanda at Book Riot talk about a book called Done Dirt Cheap, which she describes as being ‘a cross between Sons of Anarchy and Thelma and Louise’. It’s interesting to see books being promoted using films as examples. I guess this is because there are so many books in the world it’s hard to find anything that everyone has read, whereas there are a few tent pole films which almost everyone knows something about, even if they haven’t seen them. It’s not a bad marketing strategy.