Editor Roundtable: The Bridges of Madison County Show Notes

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

This week we analyze The Bridges of Madison County (1995), which is based on the novel of the same name by Robert James Waller. The screenplay was written by Richard LaGravenese, and the film directed by Clint Eastwood.

You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 5).

You can find the movie via Amazon.

The Story

Here’s a synopsis of the film adapted from Wikipedia:

In the present day (early ’90s), adult siblings Michael and Carolyn arrive at the Iowa farmhouse of Francesca Johnson, their recently deceased, elderly mother, to see about the settlement of their mother’s estate. They are shocked by their mother’s  burial request (that her ashes be scattered off a local covered bridge). As they go through the contents of her safe deposit box and the will, they discover that in 1965 their mother, an Italian war bride, had engaged in a four-day affair with Robert Kincaid, a travelling professional photographer who had come to Madison County, Iowa, to shoot a photographic essay for National Geographic on the covered bridges in the area. The affair took place while her husband and children were at the state fair in Illinois.

Francesca and Robert almost ran away together, however, after a wrenching period of decision-making, she decides the consequences of leaving would have too great an impact on the lives of her teenage children and husband, who was a good, loving man. She also suspects that the guilt would erode and taint the love she and Robert had shared.

Francesca adapts to a life of or finds meaning in (depending on your interpretation) staying with her family and her friendship with Lucy Redfield Delaney, a local woman shunned for having an affair with a local married man. After leaving, Robert finds meaning and his true calling as an artist.

The story has deep consequences in the lives of Michael and Carolyn, who are both experiencing marital problems. Their mother’s story helped them to find a sense of direction in their lives. At the end, the Johnson siblings comply with their mother’s request and scatter their mother’s ashes at the covered bridge.

The Six Core Questions

1. What’s the Global Genre? Courtship Love Story


The Global Genre for The Bridges of Madison County is the external genre: Love Story > Courtship. The Global Value is Love/Hate. The range of value is Ignorance to Attraction to Desire to Commitment. Jarie thought Francesca’s story could be Obsession, a sub-genre that ends with Desire and doesn’t reach Commitment.

Additional Comments

  • Anne: Why would each lover’s genre would be different?
  • Valerie: Courtship is a better fit for both lovers.
  • When compared with Fatal Attraction, a known Obsession story, the majority of us concluded that Francesca was safely within the Courtship sub-genre.
  • We see the internal genre coming through as Worldview > Education (with possible Morality > Testing for Francesca).

2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?

Obligatory Scenes


  • Lovers meet: Robert drives up, lost, and asks Francesca for directions. This is also a “Stranger Knocks at the Door” scene.
  • First Kiss or Intimate Connection: (Francesca/Obsession) “I realized that he had been here just a few minutes before. I was lying where the water had run down his body.” And when she fixes his collar and they start slow-dancing. Actual first kiss is in the same scene. This is basically the Midpoint Shift.
  • Confession of love: In the intro, Robert has put his love for Francesca in writing. The actual moment in Francesca’s timeline occurs at 1:35:00 or so, when Robert confesses that he doesn’t want to leave Francesca. Also, “This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime.”
  • Lovers break up: The morning after scene includes anger and misunderstanding: “What can this possibly mean to someone who doesn’t need meaning?”
  • Proof of love: In a way, it’s when she explains why she can’t run away with Robert. “All I can do is try to hold on to both of us somewhere inside me. You have to help me.” Robert comes back to town a few days later and stands waiting for her in the pouring rain.
  • Lovers reunite: Not in this life! But a package arrives after Robert’s death, and the scattering of the ashes over the bridge symbolizes togetherness in the afterlife.



  • Triangle: Francesca is married to Richard, but falls in love with Robert. Even though Richard is not physically present during the week, he calls on the phone, and much of the lover’s time is spent in their home. The mailbox declares “Mr and Mrs Richard Johnson.”
  • Helpers & Harmers: Harmers = the town Winterset (gossip, shunning attitudes toward the other woman Lucy), Time (only have days together, and “I don’t think I can do this, try to cram a whole lifetime between now and Friday”).
  • It was interesting that even her children who are learning about this as adults, one is supportive (Carolyn) and one is not (Michael)
  • Gender Divide: The roles of men and women are demonstrated and brought up in dialogue more than once (cooking duties, lifestyle “When a woman chooses to settle down and have children”), also the double standard attitudes of the town on adultery (women are the guilty party)
  • External Need: Robert Kincaid needs directions to the Roseman Bridge for his photography shoot, only has few days in town to complete it.
  • Opposing Forces: Settled down and committed vs wild and free “Citizen of the world” who needs no one/everyone
  • Secrets: The entire affair is a secret the couple keeps from society.
  • Rituals: Humor (comments, teasing, stories), Stories of their life, poetry, offering each other drinks / serving one another
  • Moral Weight: Robert’s resistance to let himself Need her, to give himself over, her commitment to her family / the life she made

3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device?


The filmmaker uses a framing story: After her passing, Francesca’s two adult children find out about the affair she’d had with Robert. An epistolary narrative device through letters and Francesca’s journals is also used. The film moves between the past with Robert and the present when the children are dealing with their mother’s affairs.

In past events, we closely follow Francesca’s POV, only jumping to Robert’s a few times (for example at the diner when he sees Lucy Delaney). [This may be why Jarie leaned toward Obsession, because her POV allowed the filmmaker to highlight a woman’s sexual desire and what her experience of falling in love would be from her own perspective.]

Narrative drive: We know through the entire story that Francesca stays with her husband and family (dramatic irony), but we still want to know the how and why of it all.

Additional Comments

Anne: We know from the beginning that the affair was never discovered by anyone, removing the risk of scandal from the story, too. This editorial choice causes the whole story to be focused strongly on the internal moral weight of the affair.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?


  • Wants
    • Francesca: Passion and love.
    • Robert: Passion and love.
  • Needs
    • Francesca: To feel connected and fulfilled—not just walking through life.
    • Robert: Someone to come home too, even though he is a loner.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?


Sacrificing for others, at our own expense, leaves us unfulfilled and yearning for meaning in our life. Both Francesca and Robert do that in different ways.

The Story Grid Positive Love Story Controlling Idea: Love Triumphs when lovers overcome moral failings or sacrifice their needs for one another.

Additional comments?

  • Jarie: It’s great the way the movie goes back and forth between the 1960’s and the present. It reinforces the conflict between following your heart or being fulfilled and doing what is right or perceived to be right.
  • Leslie: Francesca’s daughter and son have similar dilemmas in their own marriages, and they have the opportunity to choose better lives for themselves because their mother chose (1) to stay with their father and (2) explain the reasons for her unusual (for the time, apparently) desire to be cremated.

6. What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, Ending Payoff?


Beginning Hook

  1. Inciting incident: Robert Kincaid drives up to Francesca Johnson’s house looking for directions. (Causal)
  2. Progressive Complication: Robert brushes Francesca’s leg when he reaches for the glove box. [Francesca is awakened … first glimmer.]
  3. Turning Point: Francesca tells Robert the flowers he picked are poison. (Active) [Francesca is letting guard down.]
  4. Crisis Question: Will Francesca sever contact with Robert when he drops her off and pass up an adventure she desperately wants? Or, will she maintain contact with him and risk being an outcast in the community (like Lucy Delaney)? (BBC)
  5. Climax: Francesca invites Robert in for iced tea.
  6. Resolution: They genuinely enjoy one another’s company.

Middle Build

  1. Inciting incident: Francesca invites Robert to stay for supper. (Causal)
  2. Progressive Complication: If Francesca is discovered having an affair, she’ll be an outcast of her society.
  3. Turning Point: The dance. (Active)
  4. Crisis Question: Will Francesca go through with the affair (and have the adventure), or not (and ensure her reputation in the community is protected)? (IG) [NOTE: almost the same crisis as Act 1, but here I think it’s an IG]
  5. Climax: Francesca and Robert have an affair.
  6. Resolution: They decide to spend a day away from Winterset and Madison County.

Ending Payoff

  1. Inciting incident: Robert and Francesca go on a date to an out-of-town jazz club. (Causal)
  2. Progressive Complication: They have only two more days together.
  3. Turning Point: Robert asks Francesca to leave with him. (Active)
  4. Crisis Question: Will Francesca go with Robert and live the life of adventure she’s been longing for, or will she stay with her family? (IG)
  5. Climax: Francesca stays on the farm with her family.
  6. Resolution: Robert and Francesca go their separate ways, and except for one letter from Robert, they never speak to one another again. Their love for one another, lasts the rest of their lives.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

  • Valerie: The subtlety of the Progressive Complications is brilliant. All from life. The movements are so small that when the dance scene finally happens, its importance is magnified.
  • Valerie: Coffee/Dinner Scenes: Francesca and Robert falling in love.
  • Valerie: This film consists mostly of mostly two-person scenes, and they do work, BUT how much of that is due to the incredible acting? A lot of it in my humble opinion. There is so much subtext communicated in a look and gesture. I’m curious how the book handled this.
  • Anne: Great “stranger knocks on the door” scene as the inciting incident.
  • Anne: Because of taboos surrounding their love, the unresolved sexual tension just about goes off the charts until the midpoint shift when the lovers finally kiss and proceed directly to a bit of a cliché: sex on the floor in front of the fire. Bearskin rug missing.
  • Anne: The film includes multiple endings, because the main story of Francesca and Robert’s four days together needs an ending, the framing story for the children needs one, the story of Francesca’s lifelong choice needs one, and the global story needs one: In the past, Robert drives off, the family comes home and Francesca decides not to run to Robert when he shows up again a few days later. In the present, the brother and sister come to terms with their own marriages and the reality of their mother’s life. In the past, Francesca befriends Lucy. Later in the past, the package from Robert’s estate arrives after Francesca has been widowed. In the present the children scatter Francesca’s ashes.


Next week, we tackle a War Story: A Midnight Clear. It can be purchased on DVD or you can find it on YouTube. The recording quality isn’t great, and you may want to adjust the settings (with the gear in the lower right corner), but we think the movie is well worth it.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

Share this Article:

🟢 Twitter🔵 Facebook🔴 Pinterest


Sign up below and we'll immediately send you a coupon code to get any Story Grid title - print, ebook or audiobook - for free.

(Browse all the Story Grid titles)


Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.