F.R.I.E.N.D.S… The One With The Perfect Plot Structures

Louisa Leontiades On Writing, On Writing-General, On Writing-Technique

Aristotle was a wise man and my first port of call whilst studying how to structure a novel. He said, a plot must have three acts – a beginning, a middle and an end. Who knew?

The writers of Friends were master plotters, not only over entire seasons, but in many individual episodes. They often intertwined several plots in one, playing them off against one another. So if you thought that Friends was just a bit of fun… think again. Many of their plots, no matter how simplistic, were ingeniously structured1. Three perfect acts, with compelling transitions (or doorways) between them, to propel the story forward.

In my extensive post-Christmas television watching studying, I’ve discovered that a good structure is sometimes even more important than a good story. True story.

I’m assuming you already know some basic principles of plot structure – if you don’t, please do go and read some of James Scott Bell’s excellent work. “Write your Novel from the Middle” and “Plot & Structure” are my particular favourites. To summarise, your novel will be made up of three parts (acts 1, 2 & 3) and two doorways. Doorway 1 will propel a character into act 2 (often called, the point of no return). Doorway 2 (falling between acts 2 and 3) will pave the way for the resolution. Your lead, will have an objective experience conflict, and go forth into the climax to the finale and resolution. How does it translate here?

The One Where No-one’s Ready’ presents Ross (our depressingly uptight hero) who wants to get to his benefit in time (objective). It shows his mounting desperation as not one of his ‘friends’, for various reasons, is ready to go. This is the conflict!

As stories go, it’s slight. And yet structured in such a way which makes it, in my opinion, one of the best episodes. Because Ross plays the protagonist simultaneously within four brilliantly structured plots. For simplicity’s sake I’ll call them like this –

  1. Subplot – The One Where Joey & Chandler Fight Over a Chair
  2. Subplot – The One Where Phoebe Gets the Hummus (a mere 10% airtime)
  3. Subplot – The One Where Monica obsesses over a message from Richard
  4. Main Plot – The One Where Rachel is “Humiliated”

Each story tells the reason why that particular antagonist is not able to be ‘ready in time’ …thus preventing our hero from achieving his objective.

The One Where Joey & Chandler Fight Over a Chair

  • Act One: Setting the scene… The episode opens with Joey and Chandler’s interaction. Joey is drinking a glass of fat. Why you ask? Because he thought it  was cider (naturally). Joey is clearly a few peas short of a casserole. Then it’s revealed that Chandler already drank from the same glass and knowingly encouraged Joey to do the same. They are set up as a comedy duo. Ross comes in and reveals the recurring ‘disturbing incident’ for the whole episode. Could it be a green blob ghost in the library? Terrorists taking over Nakatomi Plaza? Or something even worse. For Ross, it is. No-one is ready and the dinosaur tail (aka the second hand on his watch) is ticking….

Ross: Why aren’t you guys dressed?
Joey: We have a half hour.
Ross: No, four minutes ago you had a half hour, we have to be out the door at twenty to eight.
Joey: Relax Ross, we’ll be ready. It only takes us two minutes to get dressed.
Ross: Well, you know, I’d feel a whole lot better if you got dressed now.
Chandler and Joey: Okay. (They don’t move)

  • Doorway One: The Point of No Return… Why can’t Joey and Chandler just go and get ready? It’s a big deal, says Chandler. A fight to the death about who gets to sit in the comfy chair (Not the comfy chair!)

Chandler: You’re in my seat.
Joey: How is this your seat?
Chandler: ‘Cause I was sitting there.
Joey: But then you left.
Chandler: Well, it’s not like I went to Spain. I went to the bathroom, you knew I was coming back.
Joey: What’s the big deal, sit somewhere else.
Chandler: The big deal is I was sitting there last, so, that’s my seat.

  • Act Two: The Action… The tension escalates as Chandler attempts to win back the chair…by holding his hand two inches away from Joey’s face, by sitting on Joey’s lap, and eventually by getting dressed double quick time so that Joey will be forced to vacate the chair to go and get dressed himself. Joey leaves the chair but takes the cushions, Chandler hides Joey’s underwear and Joey wears all of Chandler’s clothes as retaliation. Phew, that’s a lot of action.

(Joey enters wearing a lot of clothes)
Joey: Okay, buddy-boy. Here it is. You hide my clothes, I’m wearing everything you own.
Chandler: Oh my God! That is so not the opposite of taking somebody’s underwear!!
Joey: Look at me! I’m Chandler! Could I be wearing any more clothes? Maybe if I wasn’t going commando…
Chandler: Oooo-ooh!
Joey: Yeah. Whew, it’s hot with all of this stuff on. I ah, I better not do any, I don’t know, lunges. (starts doing lunges)

  • Doorway Two… The (Anti)-climax. What will resolve this situation? Nothing will force Joey and Chandler to stop fighting and get ready faster than Ross saying that they can’t come.

Ross: Okay, okay. Enough, enough with the lunging. No! I’m sick of this. Okay. I’ve had it up to here with you two! Neither of you can come to the party!
Chandler: Jeez, what a baby.
Joey: Yeah, Ross, way to ruin it. I was just going to get dressed.

  • Act Three: The Resolution… Joey lunges off to get dressed whilst Ross follows to arbiter. They will soon be ready to go. But in perfect symmetry the episode closes with an epilogue of Chandler not quite being able to let go of his territorial argument… with a perfect stranger at Ross’s benefit.

Chandler: Excuse me. Hi.
Whitfield: Yes?
Chandler: Well, you’re kind of sitting in my seat.
Whitfield: What do you mean, your seat?
Chandler: I mean, I was sitting there.
Whitfield: But, you got up!
Chandler: But, I never left the room!
Whitfield: But, you left the chair area.
Chandler: All right, that’s it, give me your underwear.

The One Where Phoebe Gets the Hummus

  • Act One: Setting the scene… Phoebe enters finely dressed (for once). She’s shown to be secure in herself, peculiarly honest and ready to go.

Ross: Wow, hello! You look great!
Phoebe: Thank you! I know, though.

Ross: You see this, this is a person who is ready to go. Phoebe you, oh, you are my star.
Phoebe: Ohh, well, you’re my lucky penny.

  • Doorway One: The Point of No Return…What could possibly prevent Phoebe from being ready? Answer: Joey and Chandler, who whilst fighting over the comfy chair, accidentally flip a blob of hummus onto her dress in the most obvious place possible… her left boob (nice touch writers).

Phoebe: Hummus. I got the hummus.

Rachel: Ooooh! Honey, well we’ll find you something. Do you wanna wear my black jacket?
Phoebe: That won’t go with this dress though.
Rachel: No, you’re right. Well, we’ll find something. Let’s just get you out of that. Come on.

  • Act Two: The Action… It’s Friends, so it doesn’t include light sabres, instead it involves Phoebe trying on 3 separate dresses, each more unsuitable than the last. This could go on all night…

Phoebe: Oh Rach, good, listen isn’t this perfect for me! (she’s wearing another dress on a hanger around her neck)
Rachel: Oh, it’s perfect! But not for tonight.
Phoebe: Well, of course not for tonight. Yeah, hi!

  • Doorway Two: …but for the climax of ‘The Dramatic Discovery’ (duh, duh, dun). Who should come to the rescue… why it’s a Christmas bow to cover the stain. Ta-dah!
  • Act 3: The Resolution. Phoebe’s happy. Weird. Ready to go.

Phoebe: Rachel, didn’t have anything that I liked, so, but she had this Christmas ribbon, and I thought, ‘All right, fine I’ll be political.’
Chandler: What are you supporting?
Phoebe: Duh!! Christmas!
Ross: Okay, hey, that’s okay with me.

The One Where Monica Obsesses over a message from Richard

  • Act One: Setting the Scene… Ah Monica. We’ve all got a little Monica in us, but hopefully not so much we’ll die of a heart attack before 40. She arrives, most uncharacteristically late, not ready and not bothered about it. After all it’s for her brother’s ‘benefit’ and as we all know, sibling rivalry between these two can get heated. But Monica’s ‘disturbing incident’ kicks off when she hears the message from ex-boyfriend Richard.

Richard: (on Machine) “Monica, it’s Richard. Call me.”
Monica: Is-is-is that message old or new? (yelling) Old or new?! Old or new?!
Ross: It’s old, it’s definitely old. Didn’t you hear the, the double beep?
Monica: What if it’s new? I mean, we agreed not to talk again, unless we had something really important to say. Shouldn’t I call him back?

She calls him back leaving a message, otherwise that would be the end of this plot.

  • Doorway One: The Point of No Return…  What can possibly prevent Monica from getting ready in time? The worry that her message isn’t breezy enough? No. It’s the second message she hears on Richard’s machine… from an unknown female. And so the obsession starts… and just like Joey and Chandler’s determination to win the chair, Monica cannot let it go. She’s through the doorway.

Woman’s Voice: (on Machine) Hola, it’s me, yesterday was really fun. Call me about this weekend, okay.
Joey: Now she sounded breezy.
Monica: He’s seeing someone. I can’t believe he’s seeing someone.
Phoebe: Monica, you don’t know that.
Monica: Well, who’s voice was that?
Chandler: Maybe it was his sister’s. You know, maybe it was his daughter’s.
Monica: Michelle! Of course, it was Michelle! Did it sound like Michelle?
Ross: Oh, great. It’s starting to rain, that will make it easy to get a cab.
Monica: It was Michelle. It was definitely Michelle.
Monica: (entering from her room) Okay. I gotta call Michelle. I gotta see if that was her voice or not. I’m sorry, I just have to.

  • Act Two: The Action… Monica calls Michelle and puts the phone down. But Michelle has caller ID, she phones back. Monica confesses what’s she’s done and gets in a fight. Michelle hangs up on her. Monica attempts to call her back but is wrestled to the ground off stage by Phoebe.

Monica: (on phone) Michelle, I only beeped in so I could hear my message. I mean that’s allowed. Yeah-huh! I mean look, yeah, you know what I would really appreciate it if you didn’t tell your Dad about. What do you mean, you’re not comfortable with this? Come on we’re friends!! (Michelle hangs up) That bitch always hated me. I’m calling her back.
Ross: No, no, no, no. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
Monica: Okay, fine. (runs to her room)
Chandler: They got a phone in there, right?
Phoebe: Okay, we’re on it. We’re on it.
Phoebe: (yelling from the bedroom) Get away from that! No! (she comes into the living room carrying the phone) She’s just getting dressed.

  • Doorway Two: The climax… Monica who by this point has turned into a complete stalker, taps into Richard’s answering machine and erases all messages. Or so she thinks. Then she leaves another apologising for being a stalker, but inadvertently changes the outgoing message announcing to anyone who calls him that she’s probably pre-menstrual.
  • Act Three: The Resolution… Well, well, well. There is no resolution. The outgoing message cannot be changed. The writers chose a tragic ending (and a cliffhanger).

Machine: Your outgoing message has now been changed.
Monica: Outgoing! Did that say outgoing?! Not, outgoing!!!
Monica: (on Machine) “Hi, uh, Richard it’s Monica, um, listen I did something kind of crazy tonight, um, maybe I’m getting my period or something, I don’t know.” Nooo!!
Phoebe: How did you do that?
Monica: I don’t know!
Machine: Good-bye.
Monica: Noooo!!!!<

The One Where Rachel is ‘Humiliated’

And so we come to the main plot. Ross and Rachel. Nothing is more important to Ross than having his beloved girlfriend front row and center at his benefit. He’s making a speech, dont’cha know.

  • Act One: Setting the scene… Rachel emerges from the bathroom, almost ready to go. But not quite. Rachel has a passion for clothes. And is also notoriously indecisive. Especially today.

Ross: No. (to Rachel) So, um, let’s see your pretty close, huh. Make-up’s on, hair’s done.
Rachel: Yeah, I just have to get dressed.
Ross: Yay! And that takes what? Just six or seven minutes.
Rachel: Yeah! Once, I figure out what I’m wearing.

  • Doorway One: The Point of No Return… unlike the other plots, this doorway happens fairly late in their story. What prevents Rachel from getting ready? We have the other acts and doorways to keep us amused whilst Rachel pops in and out suggesting different outfits adding to Ross’ increasing anxiety. We, the viewers, need this time because we need to sympathise with Ross. We need the mounting tension. And so finally Ross’ (most believably) explodes and yells at her to get her ‘butt’ in her room and pick some shoes… humiliating her in the process. This is the doorway…

Rachel: (entering from her room) Okay, Pheebs, quick, what shoes should I wear? The black or the purple?
Ross: Just, just, just pick one!
Phoebe: Okay, okay, okay, the black. But, oh, do you have black, with the little strappies?
Rachel: Yeahh, but, but those really go better with pants. Maybe I should wear pants?
Ross: Yeah, pants, what, what an idea. Or better yet, um, how ’bout you go without any pants. Look, I don’t know what you’re trying to do to me, but just get your butt in there and pick out any shoes that fit your feet, okay. No, no I don’t care if they match. I don’t care if they make your ankles or your knees or your earlobes look fat. Okay.
Rachel: But I…
Ross: No, no, no just do it. Go in there and pick something out so we can go.

Act Two: The Action… So Rachel decides not to go. She’s not mad, she’s just not going. Disaster!

Ross: Right. So is it gonna be like ‘I’m abandoning you while you’re upset.’
Rachel: No.
Ross: No, because you’re not upset.
Rachel: Right.
Ross: About the yelling.
Rachel: Right, and the humiliating.
>Ross: Oh, well of course, the humiliating. So, so we, we’re okay.
Rachel: Um, hum.
Ross: We’re good.

They’re not.

  • Doorway Two: The Climax… what on earth can bring us to a resolution? An apology? No it’ll take more than that to placate Rachel. It’s the big gesture. To prove just how much he loves Rachel, and how sorry he is for the yelling (and the humiliating) Ross will drink the fat.

Ross: I think this will be fine. Okay, vanilla milkshake, just a vanilla milkshake, with chicken bits floating in it. Cheers. (starts to drink, but Rachel stops him just before he starts drinking)
Rachel: No, no, no, wait! Okay, okay. Don’t! I’ll go, I’ll go!
Ross: You will?!
Rachel: You were really gonna do that, weren’t you?
Ross: Well, yeah.
Rachel: You were gonna drink the fat.

  • Act Three: The Resolution… Rachel’s heart melts and she soon appears in a slim fitting long dress looking stunning. No surprise there. But the writers give us a little extra seasoning…

Ross: Rachel!! (she enters) Wow! You, uh, you look, wow!
Rachel: And I still have about five seconds to spare. (kisses him) Okay, that was about seven seconds.
Ross: So we’re a little late.
Rachel: Come on. (they start to leave) Oh! And, uh, by the way….
Ross: What?

Rachel: I’m going commando, too.

And structure, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why this episode – even though filmed on only one set, played in real time, around the six main characters in order to save money as a so-called ‘bottle’ episode –  was nominated the third best ‘Friends’ episode ever2.

1. From Act 1 (setting the scene) there must be a transition, a doorway, a point of no return to Act 2 (where the action happens). But the story must end in Act 3 (the resolution) and so from Act 2 to Act 3, there must be a second transition, a dramatic discovery, challenge or something which paves the way ~ Plot & Structure – James Scott Bell

2.NBC’s 6 Favorite Friends Episodes Countdown.