Learn the art of screenwriting
How a Scene x Scene breakdown can help you
What follows is a scene by scene breakdown of The Dark Knight taken from my forthcoming screenwriting course, “Writing Movies”. I do these breakdowns for every draft of the scripts I write as it helps me to see the big picture more clearly. I can see what’s working and what’s not and what I need to change for the next draft. Doing it as an exercise for an existing film lets you see how those films were put together. The act breaks, the midpoint and other devices that drive the story.
The Dark Knight
Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan.
From a story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer.
Batman created by Bob Kane.
- The bank robbery. Intro: the JOKER
- Intro: the DA and JIM GORDON
- Intro: BATMAN as he has to deal with COPYCATS while he takes down SCARECROW and assorted GOONS.
- Gordon goes to the crime scene at the bank. Batman turns up. They talk. Batman vanishes.
- Intro: ALFRED as he finds Bruce’s bed empty. He goes to the new subterranean Batcave and tells BRUCE WAYNE to take it easy.
- Intro: HARVEY DENT and RACHEL DAWES in court.
- Gordon wants to go after the mob banks. Harvey backs him because he’s Gotham’s White Knight. Harvey wants to meet Batman.
- Intro: LUCIUS FOX at Wayne Enterprises. Fox meets with LAU, a potential business partner from Hong Kong. Bruce sleeps through the meeting. Fox has concerns about Lau. Bruce trusts his judgement. He asks Fox for a new Batsuit that lets him turn his head.
- Harvey and Rachel end up having dinner with Bruce and his date, a Russian ballerina. Talk turns to Batman. Bruce likes what Harvey has to say.
- Gotham’s most notorious GANGSTERS (MARONI, GAMBOL and the CHECHEN) convene to lament the money they lost at the bank robbery. Lau appears via a video link to suggest they let him bank all their money. The Joker turns up and says he wants half of all their money to kill Batman. Lau reveals he has already moved all the money.
- Gordon raids a bank vault and finds it empty.
- Batman, Gordon and Dent meet on a rooftop. Dent and Gordon argue about rats in their respective offices. Batman wants to know if Dent can make Lau talk if he, Batman, can get him back from Hong Kong. Dent says definitely.
Act one has set up the world and the characters. This being a sequel some of the hard work has already been done in Batman Begins but no one need watch the first film or have any real knowledge of Batman to follow this story. Act one ends when the film’s three main protagonists agree to work together to bring down the mob.
Also set up here is a question that drives the story – can Bruce Wayne ever stop being Batman? Can Gotham’s White Knight take the place of Gotham’s Dark Knight? This won’t be answered until the very end.
13. Bruce and Fox discuss what Batman will need to get Lau.
14. Bruce takes the entire Russian ballet on holiday as cover for Batman’s excursion to Hong Kong.
15. Joker kills Gambol.
16. Hong Kong. Fox goes to Lau’s offices to plant something for Batman under the pretext of turning down Lau’s offer.
17. Batman snatches Lau and delivers him back to Gordon in Gotham.
18. Rachel interrogates Lau. He gives up all the mobsters.
19. Gordon arrests all of them.
20. The Mayor backs Harvey. Joker strings up a fake Batman.
21. Bruce and Alfred watch the Joker kill the fake Batman on TV.
22. Bruce throws a fundraiser for Harvey. Bruce makes a great speech in Harvey’s favour.
23. Rachel and Bruce discuss Harvey. Bruce genuinely believes in him.
24. Gordon hears that Joker has threatened the lives of the Police Commissioner, the Judge and Harvey. Gordon puts them all in protective custody.
25. Harvey asks Rachel to marry him.
26. The Police commish and the judge are killed.
27. Joker turns up at the party. Rachel stands up to him. Batman turns up and Joker throws Rachel out of a window. Batman saves her.
28. Alfred tells Bruce that some men just want to watch the world burn.
29. Two DEAD MEN found playing cards with a hands full of jokers. Batman takes a bullet embedded in the wall.
30. Reese, a Wayne Enterprises accountant, finds an irregularity, which leads him to think Bruce Wayne is Batman. He tells Fox. Fox laughs it off.
31. At the Police commish’s funeral parade, Joker tries to shoot the mayor. Gordon saves him but takes a bullet.
32. Gordon’s wife is informed of his death.
33. Harvey grabs one of the Joker’s accomplices and tortures him.
34. Rachel goes to Bruce’s place.
35. Batman stops Harvey from killing the Joker’s man.
36. Rachel agrees to be with Bruce if he’s no longer Batman.
37. Bruce locks Batman away.
38. A press conference so Batman can turn himself in. Harvey beats Bruce to it and announces he’s Batman.
39. Rachel tries to talk Harvey out of what he’s doing but he’s adamant.
40. The cops transport Harvey to lock up. Joker comes for him. Batman comes for the Joker. Gordon reveals that he’s still alive and they arrest the Joker.
Midpoint – this is where you need to change things around to stop proceedings becoming predictable or repetitive. The protagonists have spent much of the second act so far trying to catch the Joker. Well, now they have him. What happens next ups the ante considerably as in the second half of act two the Joker dictates events.
41. With Joker in custody, the Mayor makes Gordon the new Commissioner.
42. Gordon goes home to his understandably pissed-off wife. Gordon hears Harvey has vanished.
43. Gordon interrogates the Joker. Batman is hiding in the shadows and gets physical. Joker reveals he is holding Rachel and Harvey. Batman goes after Rachel and the cops go after Harvey. But Joker’s outsmarted them. He escapes and blows up the police station. Batman saves Harvey though he’s disfigured. Rachel dies.
44. Alfred reads a letter from Rachel to Bruce telling him she is going to marry Harvey because she loves him. Alfred chooses not to show Bruce.
45. Gordon visits Harvey in hospital. Half of Harvey’s face is horribly scarred. Now he’s Two-Face. Maroni tells Gordon where to find Joker.
46. Reese, the accountant, goes on TV to reveal the identity of Batman. While the Joker burns a huge mountain of money, he calls the TV station and says he’s decided he doesn’t want Batman’s identity revealed and instead tells the viewers he wants Reese dead in one hour or he’ll blow up one of Gotham’s many hospitals. Alfred tells Gordon which cops currently have relatives in hospital.
47. Joker goes to see Harvey. He gives him a gun to shoot him with. Harvey flips a coin to see if he lives or dies. Joker blows up the hospital.
48. Fox hears that the R&D department of Wayne Enterprises has been broken into.
49. Joker broadcasts to the city and says Gotham is his now and suggests a surprise lies in wait in the tunnels and on the bridges for anyone who tries to leave.
Act two ends with things looking as bleak as bleak can be for the protagonists. The Joker is in control of the city. Rachel is dead. Harvey is Two-Face so Gotham’s White Knight is no more. This has answered part of the question posed up front. Gotham’s Dark Knight can’t retire in favour of Gotham’s White Knight because he’s gone bad.
50. Harvey/Two-Face goes to see Wuertz, one of the dirty cops whom he holds responsible for what happened to Rachel. He wants to know who else is dirty. Wuertz says he doesn’t know. Two-Face flips a coin and shoots him.
51. Fox finds Batman in R&D and discovers he has used Fox’s sonar phone technology and expanded it citywide looking for the Joker. He gives ultimate control of this technology to Fox.
52. Gordon tells the Mayor how bad things are and how he’s planning to use a ferry to get prisoners out of Gotham before the Joker can use them.
53. Two-Face is waiting in Maroni’s limo and finds out that it was Ramirez who betrayed Rachel. He flips his coin for Maroni and Maroni lives. His driver is not so lucky though.
54. Two ferries. One full of convicts, the other full of civilians. The Joker has rigged both to blow and he delivers an ultimatum: one blows the other or he blows both.
55. Fox triangulates the Joker’s location. Batman informs Gordon.
56. The civilians want to debate whether or not to blow up the other ferry.
57. Ramirez calls Gordon’s wife and tells her that Gordon needs her to take the kids and leave immediately. We discover Two-Face has a gun to Ramirez’ head. The coin lets her live.
58. The Joker is in a building under construction. He has hostages – a bus load of hospital patients.
59. The civilians vote.
60. Batman goes in and gets a lay of the land.
61. Gordon discovers Two-Face has his family.
62. Batman discovers the Joker’s clowns are the hostages in disguise and the doctors are the Joker’s goons just as Gordon sends in SWAT. Batman has to try and save everyone.
63. The civilians vote to blow the prison ferry but no one wants to pull the trigger.
64. Batman stops SWAT from killing the hostages by accident until they work it out.
65. Batman fights the Joker.
66. One of the prisoners takes the detonator and we assume he’s going to kill the civilians but instead he throws it out of the window.
67. The civilians don’t push the button either.
68. Batman throws the Joker off the building but catches him. Joker says he’s pushed Two-Face over the edge.
69. Two-Face plans to kill Gordon’s son. Batman kills Two-Face and saves the boy. Batman decides to take the blame for the people Two-Face killed so Gotham doesn’t lose its hero.
70. Gordon praises Harvey at his memorial.
71. Alfred burns Rachel’s letter. Fox discovers the sonar device has a self-destruct. Gordon smashes the Bat-signal. Batman is now being hunted.
The other part of that question posed up front – can Bruce Wayne stop being Batman? – is answered. No, he can’t. Not just yet. In fact, now things have become a lot worse as he’s got to continue as a fugitive.