Who Framed Roger Rabbit?: a Funny Bunny Gets Some Serious Attention


“Rising Action” is typically a term associated only with the Plot of a story. However, the Plot is only one aspect of story, and frankly it’s not always the most important one. To wit—Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Roger Rabbitwas an incredibly successful film on so many levels—as a commercial blockbuster, a technological breakthrough and even a licensing coup in assembling the most comprehensive cast of classic cartoon characters ever. It’s not the most tightly plotted story in the universe, however, and if you start asking too many questions you can ruin the whole movie experience (so, uh, yeah, why does Jessica Rabbit say she’s “drawn that way” even though I don’t remember seeing any animators in this movie…hmmm?)

At the same time, it’s a cartoon! All the rules are up for grabs!…

Except for the number one rule of putting on a show:Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Audience!

And the key to not boring the audience is to keep the beats of a story moving up and down in opposition to each other, in a way that engages their attention and then maintains it long enough to reward them with a fulfilling pay-off.

But don’t think of the audience as a rat in a cage, however, clicking on little levers to get treats. The audience deserves the respect of the storyteller because without ears to hear, there is nothing to really say.

And just like any good beat, it needs to be well timed.

This dynamic of rising and falling action is nicely demonstrated in a scene where Detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is trying to saw away a pair of handcuffs that he and Roger Rabbit are chained together with:

Valiant goes to a metal locker and digs through some tools, coming out with a hacksaw. He sits on the cot and starts working on the cuffs.
                                          (to Roger)
                              Will you hold still?
Roger quiets like a child for a moment as Valiant saws feverishly. Then Roger slips his hand out of the cuff and holds his side while Eddie keeps sawing.
                                          ROGER RABBIT
                                Does this help?
                               Yeah, that’s better.
Valiant saws a couple more strokes before the realization of what Roger’s done hits him. His face darkens. Roger sees the look and sheepishly tries to recover by sticking his hand back in the cuff.
                               You mean to tell me you
                               coulda taken your hand outta
                               that cuff at any time?
                                          ROGER RABBIT
                              Well, no, not any time.
                              Only when it was funny.

(Screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman)

The most important thing to notice in this scene is that it did not do anything to advance the plot:  no new critical information was given; no twists or turns that took the story in a different direction; and no major character decisions were made that resolved character objectives.

It was funny, though. And that counted for quite a bit, especially since Roger Rabbitwas a movie that promised laughs. So this scene did advance the genreof the story. In addition, it revealed charactervalueswhich then spoke to the themeof the story—along with helping to establish the rules of the story’s setting.  Perhaps this is why this one moment is so memorable—because it captured so much of the story’s promise of the premise in one simple joke.

The next important thing to notice is how this joke played on a simple opposite—helpful/not helpful. Valiant asks for help to get out of the cuff—Roger does the opposite and does something that’s not helpful.  And then Roger Rabbit asks if what he did is helpful, realizing it is not. Then as soon as Eddie realizes that Roger Rabbit’s hand is out of the cuff, Roger does the opposite of something that is helpful again—he puts his hand back in the cuff, with the subtext of his dialogue implying that the only time he could have done something to help Eddie was when it was not helpful. And there is the key to the humor—and any other dramatic tension—oppositional forces pushing against each other.

Which leads us to the idea of proper timing. Those oppositional forces need also to be trying to exist in the same space at the same time. Good timing works like a game of musical chairs.  The fun comes from everyone mad dashing to get a seat, and then watching the last two players trying to sit on the same seat simultaneously. Roger was unhelpful at the same time he was supposed to helpful. This of course caused Valiant to become frustrated, which then led to Roger ultimately rationalizing his behavior in a way that actually made some crazy sense.

Which brings us to our final takeaway from this scene: in stories a lot of the interest is generated in being clever enough to shift the context of an object, or the perspective of the audience. The whole set-up of Roger Rabbit bears this out: What if cartoons were like real people with real problems, and real people had to deal with those problems? Suddenly crimes need to be solved, criminals apprehended and victims restored. Which is why Eddie Valiant’s character is always so serious.  These are not just cartoons he’s dealing with—even though they act like them—they are living, breathing creature who are capable of killing and being killed. No time for nonsense there, my friend!  If Valiant didn’t take these hijinks seriously, neither would the audience.

So the next time you are boring the audience, keep in mind that there is no excuse! Not just because that’s your job to keep them interested—but because you as a storyteller have quite a few tricks up your sleeve that you can utilize to keep them interested!


Look for the weak links in your script. Identify any Beats in your scene that are repetitive or lackluster—perhaps the same information is given, or exposition is given without any flavor or larger context. Maybe the beat seems out of sync or confusing to how it moves the plot along. If you are bored with an idea, action or line of dialogue, chances are your audience will be more bored than you.

With that in mind, explore what you can do with that weak beat to engage the audience’s attention. Look especially how this beat can be used to pay-off another part of the story later on. Review the tricks of the trade as discussed above:

  • How can this weak beat be multi-purposed to advance the genre, character, setting, or theme (argument) of the story?  Example: add an uncommon but relevant activity to a moment of literal exposition.
  • How can the oppositional forces inherent in this weak beat be amplified so that the audience can “hear” them better? Example: instead of stating a line that is obvious, mouth the words to the other actor or audience.
  • How can this weak beat be played in concert with oppositional beats so that it is trying to happen in the same moment. Picking up the pace is always a simple fix, but how about when the beats are slowed down?Example: have your character try to walk away from an argument that your character is also very committed to having.
  • How can this weak beat be used to demonstrate the simple context-shift in the premise? That is, how can it help to answer this question: What if X happened in a different context than initially understood? Example: find a subtext for your beat that is the worst-case scenario for your beat, like a job interviewee who feels secretly paranoid that if they get their dream job, they will fail at it. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *