Structure of Pulp Fiction: Method in the Madness

By Keaton Ziem · October 3, 2011

“Pulp /’pelp/ n. 1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter. 2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.”

That’s it. That’s all the pre-requisite information you’re allowed to bring in with you before the movie begins. Don’t worry; you don’t need any more than that to start with.

This is how Quentin Tarantino opens his second and greatest film, Pulp Fiction (1994); telling us upfront, in plain English (do you speak it?) courtesy of the American Heritage Dictionary, what to expect. By Tarantino’s admission, he compares it to ‘soft, moist, shapeless masses of matter’; names it ‘Pulp’, thus  calling it a film ‘containing lurid subject matter’; crediting its acclaim to the ‘rough’, ‘unfinished’ veneer.

Yet even as the definition of pulp fades, it won’t take long before we forget the significance of pulp’s meaning. We’re swept away by Tarantino’s methodical building of tension, shown scenes of abrupt violence impeccably accented by the application of Tarantino’s jazzy breed of iambic pentameter. The dialogue is as humorous as the violence is venomous, making ‘pulp’ the last thing on our minds.

The structure of Pulp Fiction is nothing short of complex. It meticulously balances each violent act of depravity with positive and admirable virtues (the depraved sexual fetishes of Zed & Maynard balanced by Butch’s bravery in rescuing Marsellus). It has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end for each of the three major characters: Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Vincent Vega (John Travolta) & Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis). It’s a film that does exactly the right things at precisely the right times.

Sounds a little contradictory to the American Heritage Dictionary’s thoughts on ‘pulp’, doesn’t it?

Despite the definition Tarantino throws at us, the proof is in the pudding: Pulp Fiction, for all its supposed ‘softness’ or ‘shapelessness’, stands as a shining gold testament to the validity of the 5 Plot Points because of how stridently it adheres to the 5 Plot Point structure and because it uses the 5 Plot Points to tell each of the three major stories. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 15 total Plot Points to go around. The trick is finding where they go and how they fit together.

Tarantino quotes the dictionary to tell you how pulpy his fiction will be, but another quote could be borrowed from Aristotle who coined the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Pulp Fiction is made better than it would have been if Tarantino had made any one of the three stories within it into its own solo feature-length film. The fact that the stories of Vince, Butch & Jules revolve around one another like the spokes of a wheel around a center (with Marsellus Wallace being the hub of the Pulp Fiction wheel) is what makes the movie endlessly endearing to watch and allows all those multiple viewings of to be so rewarding, time and time again.

So, let’s break Pulp Fiction down into its basic parts to see how a film, trademarked as Tarantino’s mish-mash-masterpiece and defined as ‘pulp’, can still fit seamlessly into the 5 Plot Point Structure. To do this, we’ll need to examine each of the three film’s segments separately, starting with…

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VINCENT’S STORY: Vincent Vega & Marsellus Wallace’s Wife

We are introduced to Vincent Vega; back from a long vacation in Europe and enjoying a conversation with friend and business associate Jules Winnfield, carpooling their way to work. Sounds nice, right? Like a conversation we’d have with our carpool buddies. We like these guys; we see ourselves as these guys. We might even say ‘Royale with Cheese’ aloud just to see if it sounds as good. Then out come the guns.

Jules & Vince’s banter shifts to Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), the wife of their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and the foot massage she received from Antwan Rockamora that supposedly got him thrown off a balcony. Good to know; but it’s not until we’re told that Marsellus has asked Vince to take Mia out while Marsellus is out of town that the full weight of Antwan’s four story fall really crashes down. This is Vince’s Inciting Incident (Plot Point #1); when he confides to Jules, and to us, that he’s agreed to take Mia out upon Marsellus request; trying to assure Jules (and himself) that it is not a date (0:13:43).

Tarantino follows Vince to the home of friendly neighborhood heroin dealer, Lance (Eric Stoltz). We’re shown the deal but what’s most important is presented as a trifle; Lance says he’s out of balloons and asks Vince if his heroin can go in a bag. It’s said with an air of such casual coolness that we don’t notice its significance, but oh how things might have been different if there had been even one balloon left…

We watch a heroin purchase turn to heroin indulgence before Vince’s Lock In (Plot Point #2) occurs; arrival at the home of Marsellus & Mia Wallace. At this point Vince makes the commitment to take Mia out; the choice that will carry Vince to the finish-line of his tale (0:31:19).

Even if it’s “not a date” the evening continues with a stifling first-date feel complete with incompetent waiters and awkward silences. It’s not until the subject of Antwan Rockamora and the foot massage is broached that Vince reaches his Midpoint (Plot Point #3), even if all he discovers is that no one knows why Marsellus threw Antwan off the balcony ‘except Marsellus and Antwan’. This doesn’t justify or denounce Vince’s fears of overstepping his bounds with Mia, but it does break the ice, and the two are noticeably more comfortable with each other afterward (0:43:08). And now with the ice freshly broken, the two are free to dance.

Vince and Mia return to her house. The temptation to do more than just dance is unspoken, though palpable; but Tarantino has other plans. The Main Culmination (Plot Point #4) occurs when Mia mistakes the heroin in Vince’s coat for cocaine. If only Lance hadn’t run out of balloons, such a mistake might have been averted (even if other mistakes might have taken its place). This brings the sexual tension that had grown between Vince and Mia to an end and begins a new obstacle for Vince; to rescue Mia and himself from certain death (0:52:33). Mia may die from overdose but Vince’s death may involve a balcony.

Back to Lance, our friendly neighborhood heroin dealer. The Third Act Twist (Plot Point #5) comes when we learn that in order to save Mia, Vince needs to stab her in the heart with a long, sharp syringe full of adrenaline. Will it kill her or save her? Only one way to find out… (0:57:27)

It’s not long before Vince’s story comes to a close. We see him again in The Gold Watch and later in The Bonnie Situation, but the segment of the film that deals exclusively with him ends at 1:03:22. Tarantino has let Vincent Vega off the hook, at least for now.

BUTCH’S STORY: The Gold Watch

Enter Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), who approaches a young Butch to give him the gift (or curse) of his father’s Gold Watch, along with the dark tale of how it came to be his. Butch takes the watch and wakes up a middle-aged boxer in a cold-sweat, alone in a locker room before a fateful fight. This is his Inciting Incident (Plot Point #1), the moment he makes the choice not to take a dive; instead incurring the wrath of Marsellus, the man who paid Butch off. This decision will dictate the rest of Butch’s story. (1:08:01).

Butch wins the fight decisively after killing Floyd Wilson in the ring. He takes a cab to a downtown phone booth where he is soon talking to his connection about the money Butch stole from Marsellus to bet on himself to win. Butch’s Lock In (Plot Point #2) is made clear when he agrees to meet his connection in Knoxville (the same place where Butch’s great-grandfather bought the Gold Watch, ironically), committing to both skipping town for good and remorselessly screwing over Marsellus Wallace (1:14:29).

Well, that’s the plan. The next day, Butch finds out his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) forgot to pack the Gold Watch from his apartment. The Midpoint (Plot Point #3) occurs when Butch decides to return to his home, where Marsellus Wallace is likely waiting, in order to get his Gold Watch back (1:26:55).

And Butch does get his watch back, while also managing to issue some personal revenge against Vincent before finding himself on his way back to Fabienne. But Tarantino has other plans for Butch.

By sheer coincidence, Butch and the audience find themselves face-to-face with Marsellus Wallace himself, who chases Butch into a back-alley pawn shop where the two are kidnapped by Maynard (Duane Whitaker) and Zed (Peter Greene). This Main Culmination (Plot Point #4) ends Butch’s previous story and begins a new obstacle, escape from rape and torture (1:36:23).

Butch manages to escape his shackles and is about to leave Marsellus to his doom, but his conscience prevents him. Butch’s Third Act Twist (Plot Point #5) occurs when he decides to save the man who wants him dead (1:43:01). Butch selects his weapon – a samurai sword – and descends back into the basement to free Marsellus. In return, Butch’s life is spared, bringing The Gold Watch to a close at 1:51:30.

JULES’ STORY: The Bonnie Situation

Jules’ story began while he and Vincent discussed Royale’s With Cheese before making the acquaintance of Brett (Frank Whaley) and given Jules’ Inciting Incident (Plot Point #1): the collection of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase (0:17:51), the object that motivates all of Jules’ actions until its delivered. We are treated to a zealous, fire-and-brimstone interpretation of Ezekiel 25:17; the speech that the ending note of the film will echo. Don’t worry, you’ll recognize it when it comes back around; despite that the speech’s recitations are separated by two full hours, you’ll practically have it memorized after you’re first viewing of Pulp Fiction.

However, unknown to both Jules & Vincent, there was another man hiding in the bathroom who suddenly reveals himself by unloading six shots at the hit men; all of which inexplicably miss. Jules & Vincent are somehow saved from certain death, even though the two men have strikingly different observations on what exactly had occurred. Jules is certain it was God himself who stopped the bullets while Vince chalks it up to little more than a freak-occurrence.

As Jules & Vince wax theology, Vince asks Marvin (Phil LaMarr) his opinion before accidentally shooting Marvin in the head; painting the inside of their getaway car in brains and skull. This obviously changes everything for Jules, acting as his story’s Lock In (Plot Point #2); committing him to the situation (1:55:50).

They find their way to the home of Jimmy Dimmick (Tarantino himself), a safe-house where they can get cleaned up and on the road again. However, time is a factor and Jimmy’s patience is thin; if Jimmy’s wife Bonnie (Vanessia Valentino) comes home from the graveyard shift to find Marvin’s dead body and two bloody hit-men, Jimmy’s guaranteed a divorce (at best). The Midpoint (Plot Point #3) occurs when Ergo; Winston “The Wolf” (Harvey Keitel), a problem-solving pro, is called in to instruct the team on what to do (2:07:46).

With The Wolf’s help the crisis is averted and the car cleaned. Jimmy’s marriage remains intact even if Marvin’s head is not. To celebrate the day’s bi-polar fortunes, Jules & Vincent deign to dine together at breakfast.

But even if Jimmy Dimmick’s part is done, Tarantino’s job isn’t finished. Jules is suddenly confronted with the dynamic duo of Pumpkin (Tim Roth) & Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer), two love-sick bandits who decide they’re done with liquor stores and banks; robbing diners and coffee shops will do just fine. This is Jules’ Main Culmination (Plot Point #4); the previous tension of his story now over, the diner’s robbery begins a new tension that must be solved before Jules can retire and be free to ‘walk the Earth’ (2:17:30).

When Pumpkin comes for Marsellus’ suitcase, the Third Act Twist (Plot Point #5) arrives as Jules turns the tables by taking charge and putting Pumpkin (a.k.a. “Ringo”) at gunpoint (2:22:08). This action of course leads us to that infamous retelling of Ezekiel 25:17. As Jules recites, however, we relearn the passage; hearing the same words but the meaning behind them changed somehow. Both Jules and the audience discover his new role as “The Shepherd”, moving him in a new life direction and leading us to assume that Jules will come to a better ending than Vincent did. And yes, maybe the bullets were the deciding factor; regardless of whether they were guided by God, or blind chance.

Shortly afterward, the film is over. No American Heritage Dictionary definition of ‘fiction’ required. As the credits roll, while we’re left to put together the pieces we’ve been shown and make as much sense of them as we’re can.

‘Soft’? ‘Moist’? ‘Shapeless’? The definition of ‘pulp’ is only a slight of hand; like a magician diverting your eyes to look a certain way so he can pull a fast one, Tarantino uses smoke & mirrors to disguise three stories that individually aren’t complicated in structure and puts them together in a way that gives them the semblance of pulp; makes them appear to us as soft, moist, and shapeless stories. Tarantino colors chaotically outside of the lines, and in so doing, seamlessly bends together these stories, laughing in the face of normal filmmaking and storytelling conceits all while making it look so easy. Yet, even if the magician’s audience can’t immediately say how a trick is done, they still know a trick when they see one. This is the fine line any magician must tread; the trick cannot be so seamlessly performed that the audience isn’t aware of the trick at all, but it can’t be so obvious as to deprive the audience of the magic of something unexpected occurring right before their eyes.

What can be said of one storyteller’s masterpiece might be said of another’s: In Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet Prince of Denmark, Polonius says of the titular character’s ranting; “Though this be madness, there’s method in it.” At a glance Tarantino seems to shoot from the hip in his writing and structuring choices in Pulp Fiction; yet there clearly is a method to the madness. Under the guise of a filmmaker’s smoke & mirrors and movie-magic, an ardent code of conduct is employed from the opening frame unto the final name of the credits. So strictly adhered to that it seamlessly appears to be nothing more than ‘pulp’ fiction.