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Conflict breakdown: Sleepless in Seattle

I watched Sleepless in Seattle as homework for my upcoming Michael Hauge seminar, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to evaluate the movie in terms of conflict.

I don’t go into great detail, but beware, I will spoil the ending.

If you're not familiar with the story, or don't remember it well, you can find the script here.

This story's a bit different than a typical romance because the H/H don’t really meet or talk until the end of the movie, so I can’t evaluate the conflict in terms of their relationship, and there’s no external conflict keeping them together in this case.

But, a lot of the elements still apply, especially early on.

The internal conflicts are stated:

–The hero, Sam, who lost his wife to cancer doesn’t believe that true love happens more than once in a lifetime, so plans not to remarry.

–Annie, the heroine, doesn’t believe in destiny or “signs” that someone is right or not right, for you. Her fiancé meets all of her criteria and she thinks she’s happy with him.

Awareness that their beliefs may be incorrect begins to form:

–Annie quickly realizes that she might be wrong about her fiancé Walter. There’s no magic between them, and their relationship lacks excitement.

–When Sam’s son Jonah calls a radio show and tells the host that his dad needs a new wife, Sam initially denies that he needs someone, but later starts to wonder if maybe he should get back “out there”.

Their beliefs are challenged and they start to explore (test) them:

–Annie hears Sam and Jonah on the radio and feels a connection to Sam. She asks her brother how he felt about getting married and figures she’s just getting cold feet. She starts to write a letter to Sam but tears it up.

–Sam talks to a coworker about dating, makes a date with a woman he met through work, and they become an item.

They dump core belief:

–Sam commits to a weekend alone with his new love interest.

–Annie flies to Seattle to meet Sam under the guise of doing a news story.

Okay, normally this is where a vacuum would form, and the characters would start to fill it with new beliefs about the other person, culminating in the realization that this is the person for them.

Then the black moment where one or both revert to the old belief after some kind of misunderstanding or betrayal (he lied to me, I was right not to trust him; after all we’ve been through she still doesn’t believe in me, I’m outta here).

One or both would realize leaving was a mistake (climax, race to the airport, near death experience, etc…) and they’d resolve it=>Happy Ever After.

SIS is a bit different, so the second portion doesn’t follow the pattern in quite the same way, and most of the change happens on Annie’s part. The way I see it, the black moment is when Annie decides she was being an idiot, goes to New York to meet Walter, and puts renewed energy into their relationship.

Quickly, she realizes she made a mistake and she’s still unhappy. She and Walter break up amicably, and she races to the Empire State Building where Sam might be waiting.

After a near miss, they meet for the first time and walk away holding hands (resolution/implied HEA).

The conflict structure I just went through is really geared toward traditional romance, but still works here with a little imagination. I’ll try this again with a better example when I get a chance.


Photo credit: ADMIT ONE © Dana Rothstein |

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  1. Reply

    I was wondering if you were going to his seminar. It’s so tempting – but really too expensive for me to make the trip. Lucky you to be there. Enjoy!

  2. KM Fawcett


    I like your breakdown. Michael Hauge was fabulous at RWA. Lots of great info. Yesterday, I was on the Blake Snyder site (from Save the Cat! fame) and was looking at his beat sheet and the examples people did from different movies. Wow. What a great tool. I need to pick up his books.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Kathy! I missed Michael Hague at Nationals, so I’m excited to have this opportunity.

      I love Blake Snyder’s books. I just finished STC!2 this month. Very helpful. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. ayman medhat


    Hi Gwen, just watched the movie and I was wondering whether actII started exactly after 25% cause I have doubts and I guess the hero Tom Hanks is not pushing the events forward it’s his son, and where’s the nemesis here?

    • Reply

      ayman: You’re right, it’s really the boy who forces his father to change, and even to meet Annie by running off to New York. You could probably consider the woman he’s dating and Annie’s fiancé as the nemeses (keeping them from their true external goal of meeting each other), and Sam’s son and Annie’s best friend/editor (Rosie O’Donnell) as their mentors.

      According to my notes from Michael Hauge’s seminar, turning point #2 (Change of Plans) happens when Annie decides to find Sam and starts investigating, and when Sam decides to start dating again. I believe both of these took place pretty close to 25%, but it’s been over a year since I watched it now. It’s harder with romance because you usually have two of everything since there are two protags.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Ayman Medhat


        thanks for replying actually i’m reading Michael Hauge’s “writing screenplays that sell” so you know how it is when apply the rules you just learned on everything you watch.

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