Structure: E.T.

As a young teenager, Close Encounters made the deepest impression on me. Five years later, E.T. became the first movie I ever went to see a second time in the cinema. It made me officially a Steven Spielberg fan.

by Dave Trendall (structure breakdown) and Karel Segers (notes).

I’m still a big Spielberg fan, although War Of The Worlds made a small dent in this and – being Belgian – I’m a bit nervous about Tintin.

Story Origins of E.T.

The script for E.T. was written by Melissa Mathison but the original story Night Skies (that went on to become E.T.) was pitched to Spielberg in a Paris hotel by concept artist Ron Cobb. (Wikipedia):

“Steven Spielberg offered him the opportunity to direct this scarier sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind until problems arose over special effects that required a major rewrite.”

A few years ago Ron, who lives here in Sydney, replicated to me the pitch for Night Skies and, believe me, it sent shivers down my spine…

But we were going to talk story and structure.

Structure and POV

E.T. looks far more traditional than Close Encounters, which seems to have a never-ending first act (and threshold sequence), a non-existing second act and a downright odd ending – which I still loved. Obviously this didn’t keep it from being ridiculously successful.

In addition to what I’ve already said and written about Point Of View , it is worth noting how POV is handled in this film.

Let’s have a look at the first sequence:



Sequence A: A scary first meeting (12:30mins)

00:00 E.T. lands on earth and leaves the spaceship.
03:00 E.T. walks around and sees the city. Homing signals glow.
05:00 The bad guys arrive in trucks. They begin searching.
06:00 E.T.’s homing signal glows alerting the bad guys and the chase is on!
07:00 E.T. misses the boat – the spaceship leaves without him.
07:30 E.T. ventures down to the city as the bad guys continue searching.
08:00 Elliot wants to play but all he’s good for is getting the pizza.
09:00 He gets the pizza… and hears something in the garage.
09:30 Back garden: Elliot throws a ball into the shed, and it’s thrown back.
10:30 Elliot runs into the house screaming with shock – they all go hunting.
11:00 ‘It’s just a coyote.’ Nobody believes Elliot.
12:30 Elliot checks again and sees him. E.T. freaks and runs to the forest.

The movie opens with a great hook in which we see the Extraterrestrial for the first time, albeit briefly and mostly indirectly. Can you see the parallel with Jaws? Next we’re introduced to Elliot (and we stay with him until the end of Act One). The sequence ends on his Call To Adventure, when Elliot sees E.T. for the first time.


Sequence B: Becoming friends (9:30mins)

14:30 Elliot cycles up to the forest with lollies.
15:30 A suspicious man looks around and Elliot pedals quickly away.
16:00 Nobody believes me! He takes his frustration out on his mum.
19:00 Elliot waits in the garden at night, snuggled in a blanket.
20:00 E.T. reaches out to Elliot by giving him back the lollies.
20:30 Leaving a trail of lollies, Elliot gets E.T. into his room.
22:00 E.T. mimics his actions

The second sequence shows Elliot’s response to the Inciting Incident (or Call To Adventure). He is not really refusing his call: he wants to see E.T. again, contrary to those around him, who don’t believe him. You could argue that they are also more flawed than Elliot because of their lack of imagination.
The end of the second sequence usually sets up the hero’s goal. What is it here? Not so simple… Elliot wants to keep E.T. as a friend, while hiding him from the adults, because he doesn’t trust them. Elliot’s goal has an indefinite timeline: until when will he need to hide E.T.? Typically this wouldn’t work very well but here this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Note that this entire sequence is told from Elliot’s POV.



Sequence C: Keeping the secret while having fun (12:30mins)

24:00 The bad guys close in… they find the lollies.
25:00 Elliot skips school. He dims the shades and the fun and games begin!
26:30 While the cat’s away… Elliot gives E.T. an education.
27:30 It’s too much excitement! Time for milk and cookies.
30:30 Over the phone, Elliot convinces mum that he’s ill.
33:00 Allies, Michael and Gertie, meet E.T. … and freak.
34:30 ‘This isn’t a room, this is an accident’: Mum comes home.
36:00 Sister Gertie makes a pact to say nothing – this is their secret.

Act Two opens with a brief scene from the POV of the antagonist, building an underlying tension for the entire next sequence. In many movies, this is the only function of a shift of POV. What follows now is a typical Allies & Enemies / Fun & Games sequence.


Sequence D: E.T. & Elliot apart, share experiences.  (12:30 mins)

37:30 Bad guys are taking photographs of the house.
38:00 Gertie takes a dead flower to Elliot’s room.
39:00 Elliot, Mike and Gertie watch in wonder as E.T. does magic.
41:00 Elliot hears the bad guys outside… edging ever closer.
42:00 E.T. makes the flower grow.
42:30 Elliot goes to school.
43:30 Mum hears noises and checks it out but nothing.
44:00 E.T. goes to the fridge and opens some beers.
45:00 Elliot starts feeling the effects from the beer – in class.
46:00 Both are drunk.
47:30 ‘I gotta save him…’ Elliot releases the frogs in science class.
48:30 Reading a comic book gives E.T. an idea.
50:00 E.T. makes a machine from a toy while watching a movie.
50:30 Elliot recreates a romantic kissing scene from the T.V.

A second sequence of fun & games strengthens the bond between the boy and alien. Again, this sequence opens with a brief scene from the POV of the antagonists, showing they are gradually closing in on E.T. and Elliot. As a result, the tension rises.
E.T. is the story of the friendship between earthling Elliot and the Extraterrestrial and its structure shows elements of the buddy movie and even the romance, with a kiss around the mid point of the movie.
When Elliot goes to school, the POV is split between the boy and the alien. However, in terms of the story we really stay in Elliot’s POV’s, whose experience of getting drunk is more dramatic than E.T.’s.


Mid Sequence: E.T. phone home! (14:00 mins)

51:30 Gertie tries to get mum to meet E.T.
52:30 Mum gets the call to pick up a drunken Elliot.
53:00 E.T. speaks!
54:00 Gertie understands him. E.T…. Phone… home MID POINT
56:00 Bad guys listen in to Elliot and Mike.
58:00 Elliot cuts his finger and E.T. heals it.
1:00:00 Halloween… ghost E.T., Elliot and Mike leave to trick or treat.
1:03:00 Gertie waits at the top of a hill.
1:03:30 Trick or treat. The three guisers walk down the street.
1:04:00 E.T. and Gertie swap costumes. Elliot takes off on his bike with E.T.
1:04:30 The bike takes off with E.T. in the basket and goes higher still!
1:05:30 Mum doesn’t know where they are and blows the candles out.

This is a mid sequence in the purest sense: the tone changes from upbeat & fun to serious & suspenseful. The moment we see the scientists listen in to Mike and Elliot, we know it will be a matter of minutes before the fun is over.
The objective changes, too. First Elliot wanted to keep E.T. as a friend but after the mid point he helps E.T. to return home, which is a clear reversal as he will have to let go of his friend.
Where many films show a leap off a cliff at the mid, Elliot rides his bike with E.T. off a cliff to realize they can fly. But the flight ends with a crash, symbolizing the crash that is about to following immediately after every mid point high. Can you see other typical aspects of a mid point reversal?


Sequence E: I think we’re dying (11:30 mins)

1:06:00 They get to work on making the machine.
1:07:00 Mum is angry and leaves the house…
1:07:30 … bad guys break into the house.
1:08:00 Mum picks Mike and Gertie up… but where is Elliot?
1:09:00 The machine is working!
1:11:00 The bad guys continue ransacking the house.
1:12:00 Elliot wakes up but where is ET?
1:13:00 Missing person… Elliot arrives back.
1:13:30 He pleads to Michael to find E.T.
1:14:00 Mike is being followed and tries to lose the bad guys.
1:15:00 He finds the blanket and a half-dead ET. Helicopter circles.
1:16:00 ‘I think we’re dying.’ Mum is aghast and sees E.T. as the problem.
1:17:30 The bad guys… the scientists… invade their home.

With the last half of the second act we have entered darker territory. Elliot knows that he will lose E.T. if the alien returns home but … it looks like E.T. may not even make it home when Elliot finds him half-dead. Elliot meets with the antagonists when the scientist crew enters the house. This is an ironic ‘approaching of the inmost cave’ because it is effectively the antagonist entering the cave (Elliot’s home) in the literal sense. For Elliot and E.T., the approach is symbolic as they are preparing to face their worst fear: to lose each other.


Sequence F: Approach to the inmost cave (12:00 mins)

1:18:30 The scientists enter the house with equipment.
1:19:00 The alien is misunderstood.
1:21:00 ‘He’s calling his people… he needs to go home.’
1:22:00 The Scientist tells Elliot he was happy the alien met him first.
1:23:30 ‘The boy’s coming back… we’re losing E.T.’
1:26:00 The flower wilts… E.T. is dying.
1:28:00 E.T. dies… the Doctors stop trying.
1:30:30 ‘You must be dead because I don’t know how to feel’

The Ordeal sequence usually has ‘the image of death’ and here we see E.T.’s death literally on the screen. When Elliot says “You must be dead because I don’t know how to feel,” it shows how he now has to learn to stand on his own feet. This very realisation signals Elliot’s transformation and thus we have the end of Act 2. At this point a story ALWAYS turns from hopeless to hopeful. In a way this story is a coming of age for Elliot; he has to cope with the abandonment of a friend. Would it be a coincidence that this theme is equally present in the Toy Story movies?



Sequence G: This is reality… (08:00 mins)

1:33:30 ‘He’s alive!!!’ As Elliot leaves… the flowers perk up.
1:34:00 Opening the casket door, Elliot sees E.T. is alive.
1:35:30 Uh oh. Gertie gives mum a note from the boys a bit too early.
1:36:00 Mike drives away from the uniforms. His mum follows.
1:38:30 Mike’s friends on the bike meet E.T. at the playground.
1:40:00 ‘This is reality Greg…’ The chase is on!
1:41:30 A dead end? They fly over the roadblock with E.T.’s magic powers.

Once Elliot’s transformation (or growth) is complete, we’re ready to move into Act 3 and immediately the energy turns to positive, the pace picks up and the kids leave “the cave”. Note that like in every successful film, there is a ‘threshold sequence’ because at this point in the movie, for a variety of reasons we need movement.


Sequence G: I’ll be right here… (5:30 mins)

1:42:30 They arrive at the forest. E.T.’s Spaceship touches down at the forest.
1:44:00 Sister and Mike say their goodbyes.
1:44:30 ‘I’ll be right here’, E.T. reassures.
1:47:30 E.T. goes back to his ship and the ship leaves.
1:48:30 They wave goodbye.
1:49:30 END

The kids have shed the antagonists (the adults), the main tension is now resolved and despite the fact that the friends have to say goodbye, the atmosphere is somewhat lighter. Elliot is now strong enough to say goodbye to E.T.

Structural Analysis: Dave Trendall
Notes: Karel Segers

4 thoughts on “Structure: E.T.”

  1. Lollies? Must be an Englishman writing this…which is totally cool but I couldn’t figure out how that meant Resse’s Pieces for the longest time.

  2. Thanks. I’d quibble slightly with your definition of the Inciting Incident [see Karel’s posts on this elsewhere on this site]. I’d say the movie is a great demonstration of how the Inciting Incident, the hero’s Call to Action, and the Act 1 Turning Point are frequently different beats.

    Inciting Incident is ET being left behind when the spaceship departs to avoid discovery.
    [if this doesn’t happen, there is no further story – period]
    Call to Action is Elliot’s first glimpse of ET in the “probably a coyote” sequence.
    [if this doesn’t happen, Elliot doesn’t begin pursuing his goal]
    Act 1 Turning Point is when ET connects with Elliot – giving the candy back to Elliot.
    [if this doesn’t happen, the “promise of the premise” is not met [ie boy befriends alien].


Leave a Comment