Storyclock Research Log

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

By Seth Worley

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Happy Halloween! Every week or so, we watch a movie and study its story structure using the research portion of the Storyclock Notebook, our notebook designed for screenwriters.

This week in the Research Log we've got the Spielberg classic, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Steven Spielberg. Let's dive in!


Let's Break It Down

  • Opening Image: Spaceship in woods.
  • Normalcy: Dungeons and dragons. Michael and friends leave him out.
  • Normalcy Disrupted: Baseball thrown back.
  • Herald: Elliott goes outside at night and sees E.T., scaring both of them. E.T. runs off into the woods.
  • Rational Approach: Everyone tells him it was just a coyote. He loses his temper at dinner and upsets his mom by mentioning how Dad is in Mexico.
  • Acceptance and Break Into Act 2: E.T. shows back up, having followed Elliott's Reese's Pieces trail.
  • B Story Begins: I think the B Story is "hiding E.T. from the grownups," but I'm probably crazy wrong.
  • Trailer Moments/Promise of the Premise: Elliott fakes sick to stay home. Shows E.T. his toys. Michael and Gertie meet E.T. and promise to keep him a secret. They find out more about where E.T. came from. E.T. gets drunk while Elliott is at school and Elliott frees all the frogs. Gertie teaches Elliott to talk. And dresses him up like a girl.
  • Midpoint/Arrival at Solution: "E.T. phone home." He has a plan to call his family to come get him, so they help him build the machine.
  • Things Get Worse: The morning after Halloween, Elliott and E.T.'s health are rapidly declining.
  • Hero's Last Resort: They show E.T. to Mom. It doesn't go well.
  • Worst Fears Realized: Astronaut at the door. Keys and co show up and take over the house.
  • Game Over: E.T. dies. Elliott has to say goodbye.
  • Breakthrough and Rebirth/Break Into Act 3: E.T. is alive! His family is coming!
  • Hero Gains Upper Hand: Elliott and Michael break out with E.T. and recruit Michael's friends to help them.
  • Shadow's Final Push: The government men chase down the kids and have them cornered.
  • Ultimate Breakthrough: E.T. flies all the bikes into the air and over the forest.
  • New Normalcy: Elliott is leading Michael and friends, whereas just on the other side of the clock they were leaving him out of Dungeons and Dragons.
  • Final Image: Elliott watches E.T.'s spaceship depart, now closer to his family and less alone in the universe.

Stuff That Stood Out To Me

  • Symmetrical moments: Michael's friends being jerks to Elliott + Michael's friends helping Elliott get E.T. to the forest.
  • Symmetrical moments: Elliott opens the umbrella, scaring himself and Elliott in the other room, implying the two of them now share a connection + E.T.'s health starts to decline as Elliott's starts to get better, implying their connection is now fading.
  • We check back in with Peter Coyote's character Keys WAY more often than I remembered. And at varying levels of intensity. Sometimes it's just a moment to show his progress, while other times he's actually involved in the scene (unbeknownst to the characters). And the fact that we don't see his face until the end of Act 2 is pretty spectacular. Pay attention to how Spielberg and Mathison really make a moment out of it.
  • Something I never noticed until this viewing: the scene where Elliott cuts his finger and E.T. heals it ("ouuuch") immediately follows one of the only scenes where Elliott actually talks about his dad, when he Michael are in the garage and they find Dad's shirt. Such a wonderful thing that's only resonated with me subconsciously before now -- Elliott's emotional wounds are exposed and then in the very next scene his physical wounds are healed by E.T. (and a nice touch that Keys -- the potential father figure for Elliott at the end of this story -- is eavesdropping on the whole thing).

The big takeaway for me on this movie: commit to the scope of your story. This is an intentionally small story, and Spielberg and Mathison get SO much out of it. Every look, every line of dialogue, every inch of movement MEANS something and pushes our story forward. The smaller your story, the more you can potentially get out of it.

Got any movies/tv shows/etc you'd like to see clocked? Send us some suggestions here, or clock them yourself with the Storyclock Notebook!