A Story Deconstruction
Welcome to another opportunity to jack your learning curve to an even steeper angle. Because nothing says “I get it” better than knowing what to look for in a story… seeing it… and understanding why it works.
When analyzing a story, especially one as good as An Education, there are several levels of interpretation at hand.
First, we are looking at how the writer assembled the story across its four sequential parts, scene by scene, and noticing how the context of those scenes align with the defined mission of the parts in which they appear.
Just knowing what those contexts are, and how they differ, puts you ahead of most writers struggling to learn this craft.
We are also looking for the major story milestones that separate and transition between the parts – the plot points, the mid-point and the pinch points – and then noticing how those moments are in alignment with their mission under these principles.
When we see it working – as we will here – we begin to notice something.
We notice how we no longer fight off this approach to storytelling. How natural and clean it is. How pervasive and effective it is. We realize that this is how it’s done. We understand we are no longer forced to — or even allowed to — make up our own alternative basic story architectures.
We begin to realize that story planning becomes an inevitability once you “get it.”
Even if you don’t want to come close to outlining, you can’t help but think ahead to the milestone toward which you are writing. Which is, perhaps, the most empowering thing you can bring to the craft.
Another way to recognize and define this structural realm is to acknowledge what I call “mission-driven” storytelling. Once you get this, you can sense the mission of each scene and each part as it unfolds before your eyes.
Because a scene without a mission is… failure.
No longer is a story remotely random, chaotic or arbitrary. Suddenly it all makes sense… even if you have to wait until the ending to realize it (ala Shutter Island).
A writer is like a doctor in surgery. Every phase of the procedure – from scrubbing in to the assembly of equipment and talent, to anesthesia and the incision, to the specific goal of the operation, to the stitches and after-care – is part of a whole while also being separate in context and mission.
And any one of them, done wrong, can kill the patient.
The first quartile of An Education delivers on the stated mission for Part 1 of a story.
The context here is clearly that of a set-up, as it should be.
Every scene introduces something and/or somebody. Every scene delivers a piece of exposition we need to understand. Every scene, even if it seems to stand alone as a unit of dramatic action, has a higher calling: to set-up what’s down the storytelling road.
There is abundant foreshadowing among these scenes that connects to the forthcoming First Plot Point and the ensuing story. Of course you, as a viewer (or reader) may not recognize it as such, but once you understand how these connections are made you realize that the writer absolutely had to.
And most importantly, these 16 pre-Plot Point scenes accomplish the mission at hand: they capture the understanding and empathy of the audience.
That is the higher goal, the purpose of the functional goals of character intro and depth within her current situation, foreshadowing, establishing of stakes and any mechanical set-up business required to unleash the forthcoming plot point.
We find ourselves rooting for Jenny.
Which is no accident.
Disliking her father… intensely. Feeling for her situation. Sensing her backstory, even without ever really glimpsing the iceberg it represents.
All this in 16 brilliantly crafted, yet seemingly soft-edged scenes from the life of a bright yet normal young girl in 1961 Britain.
Everything Jenny desires, everything that makes her who she is, stems from a burning need to escape her father’s power and the life-plan he’s set in place for her. We feel and see behind her need to see the world and become a sophisticated woman who “wears black and smokes” in the romantic dark alleys of Paris is a primal yearning to escape, to make her own way.
To seek adventure. To quench her thirst for life and literature and romance.
In other words, Teenager 101.
Who doesn’t empathize with that, in the face of a boorish, bigoted, small-minded, controlling father.
Notice how all of this combines to define the theme of the story.
An Education is an exploration of parental influence and the passing on of a limiting world view colliding with the naiveté of youth and the blinding power of first love.
Universal life-experiences all. As common as puberty and hormones.
We empathize — yet without really thinking about it in these terms — as much with the story’s theme as we do with the hero through whose experiences we feel it.
We are invested. Rooting. Feeling. Caring. Wondering what is coming next for Jenny as we are simultaneously thrilled for her and fearing for her.
I won’t take you through the scenes themselves.
For that you can go HERE, where you’ll find a scene-log (unedited, as I wrote it in real time) that defines each scene’s content and sometimes it’s context, with a time-code for reference.
The hook comes in scene 5, five minutes in, when Jenny is offered a ride home in the rain by David in his sexy sports car. We know this isn’t a random event, that it’s the story itself kicking in. And because of the obvious age difference and the already introduced yearning on Jenny’s part, we are hooked.
Notice how the four scenes prior to that one serve two masters: they not only introduce the hero and paint a clear picture of her current life situation, goals and world view, but they also serve to set-up this hooking moment itself.
Somewhere between the promise of romance and trouble, this story just lifted off the runway.
There is one brilliantly rendered storytelling subtlety that you may or may not have noticed in Part 1, but certainly becomes more obvious when we get past the Plot Point. And as such, becomes a wonderful yet subtle tool of foreshadowing.
It’s a peripheral character – Helen, the girlfriend of Danny, who is David’s partner in crime. Notice how she doesn’t fit in. Just as Jenny doesn’t fit in, though the nature of their incongruences are quite different.
Helen is the ticking clock of this story. Helen is what Jenny could become if she doesn’t recognize what she is and what she represents.
Meanwhile, the seduction of Jenny proceeds.
We see it on two levels – through the time she spends with David as she witnesses the slow exposition of what he does for a living and, more subtly, what his three degrees of characterization are… and how that begins to color her experience with her friends and at school. Especially relative to the awkward young man who keeps trying to catch her eye.
You can feel it all building toward something. And while it’s never really on the surface in these 16 set-up scenes, you can already feel the wheels wobbling a bit. Because we’ve come to care for Jenny we sense an approaching darkness with an almost parental sensibility.
None of this is an accident the writer stumbled onto. All of it, down to the most finessed of subtleties, was planned and executed.
The gift of this story, in terms of learning, is how clearly the scenes are seen as a set-up for something to come. This classic Part 1 story architecture at work.
When you coat that skeleton – pre-draft scene identification, mission and specific exposition of action, foreshadowing and contextual meaning – with fluid dialogue and multi-faceted characterizations beneath what we see clearly as surface affectations, the result is a story that is ready to soar.
By the way, total running time for this story is 96 minutes. In theory then, the First Plot Point should show up somewhere between 19.2 minutes and 24 minutes, according to standard story structure.
Scene #17, which delivers that Plot Point, arrives at 21:37.
The moment at which the story takes a major turn – throwing open the gates to Jenny’s journey in this story, with an intention (goal) and opposition (the squirrely nature of David, and the shadow of doubt cast by Helen) – happens toward the end of that particular scene.
Everything changes. As it should when you reach the inciting incident at this point, fully set-up, foreshadowed and vested with stakes.
The scene itself cuts at 24:16, less than a minute after that moment.
Next up – the “First Plot Point” of An Education.