Maus Story Structure

The majority of Maus documents Vladek’s inspiring experiences in the Holocaust, but at the heart of the story, the spine of it all, is the struggling relationship between a father and son.

If you’re hoping to write a tragic love story graphic novel, Maus (written by Art Spiegelman, published by Pantheon) is a great example to learn from.

Spoiler Warning! Below is the plot structure of Maus using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet as the basis for the breakdown (see my review of Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, an excellent storytelling resource). For an explanation of each “beat” please refer to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Thanks!

PREMISE: Maus is a tragic love story about Art, a New York cartoonist, who tries to have a relationship with his father, Vladek, by documenting his experiences during the Holocaust.


Opening Image: Maus begins with a prologue about friends. Art, as a little boy, has been deserted by his pals and Vladek scoffs at him for calling them “friends”. This story is about what it means to be friends (love).

Set Up: Many years later, Art visits his father. We learn that they aren’t very close, Vladek has had heart trouble after his wife’s suicide and he doesn’t get along with his new wife, Mala. The two men sit together and Art expresses his desire to document his father’s Holocaust experiences.

Catalyst: Vladek begins his story with how he met his wife, Anja.

Theme Stated: But once his first story is done, he tells Art not to use it; it would be improper. Art objects saying the story makes his experiences more real, more human. Art wants to see his father’s humanity. (We will learn later that Art and Vladek have always been in competition with one another and Vladek always wins. It’s as though Art is perpetually the flawed child and Vladek is the perfect superhuman adult. Through this project, Art hopes to see his father not as a superhuman but as a person, and perhaps, be validated by him.)

Debate: But can these two men be friends? As Art and Vladek regularly meet to document the stories (Art’s older brother, Richieu, and Vladek’s time as a P.O.W.), they have opportunities to get closer, but Art is more interested in the project than hearing about Vladek’s health and marital complaints, and Vladek continues to be critical while making decisions for his adult son without consulting him — Vladek throws away Art’s coat and doesn’t listen when Art protests.

Choosing Act Two: Vladek’s critiques and expectations are building. Vladek assumes Art will help him around the house and they argue about money – Vladek is very cheap. Art chooses to ignore their growing conflicts by redirecting their conversations toward the project; it has become a crutch for their relationship. Art is even more dedicated to the project when Vladek mentions Anja’s diaries. Art must have them but Vladek changes the subject.

B-Story: Later, after Vladek has told Art about being a black market businessman under the Nazi regime, and the first round of selections, Art spends some time with Mala while searching for the diaries. He doesn’t find them in Vladek’s massive collection of random old calendars and hotel stationeries, etc. Mala says that Vladek is more attached to things than people (Theme). It’s driving Mala crazy!

Fun n’ Games (Promise of the Premise): Art wanted a relationship with his father, he got it. As they continue documenting stories about Vladek’s time in the ghettos, Art has early wake up calls, guilt trips, reminders of their constant competition and also gets sandwiched in between Vladek and Mala about money. Anja’s diaries haven’t been found but Art’s mini-comic about Anja’s suicide has been and it upset Vladek. Mala is nearing her wits end and Art has regrets about portraying his Dad as a Jewish caricature in his comics, but he’s realizing that’s just who his father is (Art’s perception of his superhuman father is beginning to crumble)!

Mid-point: The first part of Maus ends with Vladek telling Art how he and Anja were sent to Auschwitz and admits that Anja’s diaries are gone; he burned them a long time ago. Furious, Art calls Vladek a murderer. They patch things up, but the damage has been done: Art’s anger lingers and Vladek has revealed a very human flaw.


Bad Guys Close In: Many pressures begin to take their toll on Art. With guilt, doubt and Vladek’s high-maintenance tendencies building, the Holocaust stories are a break from the stress! Art even breaks the fourth wall to flat-out tell the reader about the depression he has found in success, a success built upon the death and pain of the Holocaust and the flaws of his father. He feels small and powerless to the point of regressing to childhood form, living in his father’s shadow – still competing even after his death.

All is Lost (& Whiff of Death): Returning to the original timeline, Vladek tells Art and Art’s wife, Francoise, about life in Auschwitz: the work camps and the gas chambers. Later, Art and Francoise chat on the back porch about what to do with Vladek. Mala has left him, so should he move in with them? Art says, no, they’d go mad (spoken as he kill flies with a spray can, gassing them). Looks like the relationship has stagnated. It’s only a matter of time until it, too, meets it’s end.

Dark Night of the Soul: Guilt trips, returning used food to the grocery store, racism toward blacks, etcetera, Art is fed up with Vladek’s all-too-human behavior. We hear about Vladek’s time in the camps and his release at the end of the war but Art’s visits become less frequent. It isn’t until Vladek presents a box of family photos for Art’s project – not quite his mother’s diaries, but the best he can do – that they share a loving moment (their relationship is troubled, but not all bad).

Choosing Act Three: A few months later, while listening to a recording of Vladek tell about the death of Richieu and debating with Francoise about allowing Vladek to live with them (Art does not want the responsibility), Art receives a phone call from Mala. Vladek is in Florida with her, and he’s sick. Immediately, Art flies out to be with him.

Finale: Art and Mala tend to Vladek’s medical needs and help him move back to New York. Vladek is weak, but able to tell Art about his return to society after the camps. And a few months later, as Vladek grows weaker still, he finishes his story in the way he began it: how he found Anja. He even finishes by saying they lived “happy, happy ever after” – a nice idea, but not quite the truth (Vladek’s superhuman presentation of himself continues).

Final Image: With his story all told and documented, Vladek says to Art, “I’m tired from talking, Richieu. Enough stories for now.” Calling Art by the wrong name – the name of his dead, golden-boy brother – is an ironic and tragic end to their love story. Art wanted to see his father’s humanity and he did. Vladek was not a superhuman, he was just a man which is clear by the final image: his tombstone, next to Anja’s.


  1. Remi
    03/14/2010 at 12:57 PM

    But whyyyyy, why did Art call Vladek a “murderer”??? What human flaw? Was it because by burning the books, Vladek cut off any direct connection between Artie and Anja? I still cannot understand, someone point me in the right direction, please?

    • 03/15/2010 at 9:10 AM

      Thanks for the question Remi.

      In short, yes, Art calls Vladek a murderer because Vladek cuts off the opportunity Art had to connect with his mother through the diaries. By burning the diaries, Vladek also burned the only “living memory” of Anja (hence, “murderer”).

      But to clarify what I mean by “human flaw”: Vladek knew that Anja intended for the diaries go to Art and yet Vladek still burned them out his own selfish motivations; that is what I mean by “human flaw” (selfishness).

      On page 23, Art says he wants to know Vladek’s experiences in order make the Holocaust project more “human”. Art wants to establish a relationship with his emotionally distant father and know him as a person, using the project as a reason or an excuse to establish that relationship. But, to have a relationship with someone, you have to be willing to take them as they are – flaws and all.

      The Midpoint shows that Vladek is not the superhuman he presents himself to be. Up to the Midpoint, Vladek behaves as though he is without flaws (what he thinks is correct and everyone else is wrong, thus, he is in the right to criticize others – especially Mala and Art – for being wrong). Then, with the realization that he burned the diaries, the façade cracks wide open and Art gets what he wanted: to truly know Vladek. Unfortunately, Vladek is the type of man who will destroy something that doesn’t belong to him, even something precious and irreplaceable.

      Art must accept that to have the relationship he wanted. The struggle to accept Vladek as a “murderer” (a self-centered, self-serving man) is what the second half of the book is all about. That’s why it is a very strong Midpoint.

  2. 03/16/2012 at 12:48 PM

    I think that someone should update this site and have it so when people have questions about the book Maus they can type in the question and an answer pops right up. I was looking forward toi finding out how Vladek and Anja met but this site didn’t help…. Change it!! Update it!! Help it too make people get the right answer!

    • 03/16/2012 at 8:41 PM

      The types of details you’re looking for is not what I set out to provide, so I recommend you look elsewhere. Best of luck.

  3. dreamchaser
    11/14/2012 at 9:04 PM

    This helped me understand Maus more clearly !

    • 11/14/2012 at 9:31 PM

      So glad to hear it. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Aaron Chayefsky
    04/17/2013 at 5:55 AM

    I’m not so sure you understand screenplay structure or Snyder’s methodology I don’t mean to be rude but you really have it all wrong. Look at your midpoints, ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Those are not midPOINTS they are sequences.

    • 04/18/2013 at 4:23 PM

      Thanks for the comment.

    • 09/23/2014 at 4:11 AM

      Aaron, have you ever noticed that when someone says, “I don’t mean to be rude but…” the only thing they ever are is rude and too lazy or indifferent to reframe their bluntness or rudeness in a constructive fashion? I notice that a lot. And yes, I am ironically being blunt right back at you because what you said was in no way relevant nor helpful, especially given that the midpoints in the book ARE sequences and not nearly so clear cut. The fact that he was able to whittle them down at all is impressive. As far as not understanding screenplay structure, did you note the mention that this was a book? Sometimes things need to be shimmied in order to make them fit. Also, Stout clearly said the beat sheet was the basis for this, and a basis is not the same as an ironclad box. Next time you comment, try to add something, or at the very least ask something sincerely, rather than utilizing screaming, rhetorical sarcasm.

  5. 07/29/2016 at 3:54 PM

    Thank you for this site, and the analysis of MAUS (and other graphic novels) in relation to Snyder’s structure. I wasn’t sure how the structure would fit with a project I’m developing–or how to use it–and, although points are (thank goodness) subtle and somewhat complex when embedded in a high-quality work such as Spiegelman’s, your analysis above helped me understand it better. Well-done, thank you for a useful resource.

  1. 12/27/2009 at 6:15 PM
  2. 03/15/2010 at 6:00 PM

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