10) “Shutter Island” – How It All Ends, and What to Make of It

If you’ve enjoyed this series – or not – and would like to contribute a Guest Post to Storyfix on the subject, click HERE.  The “winning” entry gets a prize, and everybody who contributes something will see their work published here.                                                         

Unless it’s off topic.  Or, if it’s much longer than 500 words. 

Please have your stuff to me by Friday – send to storyfixer@gmail.com – for publication on Monday, May 17.

If you’re new to this series or this site, you’ll find links to all of the posts thus far at the end of this article.  Then… choose in if you like.

As for today… let’s talk about how Shutter Island ends.  And the storytelling principles that got it to that point.

It’s no coincidence that the further you travel into a story from the opening quartile – Part 1, called the set-up – the fewer storytelling principles there are to guide you.

Oh, there are enough of them that stick around, that’s for sure.  But it’s a diminishing list the further you go, with less precision and more latitude.  Why? 

Because the creative decisions you make along the way become the defining essence of what comes next, rather than a somewhat precise list of generic criteria, like those that rule Part 1.  

After that we are left with only high-level guidelines for Parts 2, 3 and 4.  But I assure you that, if you’ve assembled your Part 1 properly, these remaining high-altitude contextual criteria will keep you from wandering too far from the prescribed storytelling path.

Without them, we are writing blind. 

And our only chance then is pure blind luck.  Unless you’re a raving, proven literary genius.

Are you raving, proven literary genius?   Me neither.

Nope, the rest of us need to lean hard on the principles, or we’re done before we hit the print button.

Part 1 is chock-full of storytelling principles, positioned as mission statements, or at least as a grocery list of things you need to get on paper before you reach the First Plot Point, which happens at the 20th to 25th percentile of your story’s total length.

In Part 1 you need to introduce and position the hero… a deft and subtle backstory… the hero’s inner landscape… the hero’s exterior armour… a pre-Plot Point world view and goals and circumstance… critical stakes… foreshadowing… hints at forthcoming dramatic tension (the collision of stakes and obstacles)… preliminary plot point mechanics… not to mention a killer opening hook, all without crossing the line of giving too much away too soon.

Try all that without a set of principles to guide you. 

Timing, patience and a good dose of narrative juice is what will make your Part 1 sizzle.  As it did for Dennis Lehane in Shutter Island.

I assure you, Lehane writes with these principles at the forefront of every instinctive, intuitive storytelling decision he makes, as does any successful writer of fiction.

But what about the pants?

At this point a died-in-the-wool pantser might ask… but how do you know the total story length when you’re only through Part 1

Answer… and there is a totally dependable answer here: because if you’re writing the story properly, each of the four parts will be of about the same length, give or take, with a prescribed contextual mission for each, and succinct and definable narrative milestones separating them.

And, each of those parts has a prescribed mission and context.

Another answer: your novel better be more than 300 manuscript pages and shorter than 600.  Or, generally speaking (and more than generally if you’ve never published before, thus making you a newbie), you’re toast.

If you don’t accept that, then you aren’t writing according to the accepted (by New York publishers) principles of effective storytelling.

But I digress.  I often do when the word “pants” appears in my posts

Usually I have to take a short walk and calm down… but that’s just me.

Just to be clear… the principles of storytelling structure don’t have any preference for pantsers or planners.  Outlining is always just a tool, a choice and a methodology, no different in purpose than discovery-via-drafting (pantsing).

At the end of the storytelling day, both roads need to end up at the same destination, and, in the final draft at least, along a proven path. 

By definition, though, applying them makes you a planner to some degree.  Because it makes you focus.  And focus is good.

The structural integrity of Shutter Island proves all this to be true.

Parts 2 and 3, other than asking for a Pinch Point smack in the middle of each, don’t ask much of you other than suggesting you observe the unique context of the scenes that comprise them: Part 2 shows the response of the hero to the First Plot Point shift that commences it, and Part 3 kicks the hero from response mode into attack mode with a series of proactive efforts.

As for Part 4, the contextual mission is even simpler: wrap it up

No new characters here, and no new information that hasn’t already been introduced earlier.

That last part is what makes the Part 4 of Shutter so tricky, and causes some to question its adherence to the principles.  Because for some, it seems as if new information is indeed suddenly entering the narrative debate.

But in truth, it’s not.  It’s just viewed differently than before.

In the scene in which Cawley explains the reality of Teddy’s experience to him, none of that stuff is new.  We’ve seen everything that Cawley talks about.  Teddy’s reality was there for us to see all along.

Watch the movie or read the book twice, you’ll see it again and again.

It’s just that now, with Dr.Cawley in the lighthouse suddenly doing the storytelling, the point of view has shifted to him.

The entire story until this point has been presented through Teddy’s perspective.  His point of view.  His eyes, his perception, even his insanity-created hallucinations.  The scene in which Cawley reveals what’s really been happening – the backstory, the drugs, the fantasy scenario and its therapeutic objective, even the flashbacks and hallucinations – is the very first and only moment in the story in which Teddy is really hearing.

Once Cawley shows Teddy the pictures of his dead children, the fantasy stands no chance.  Teddy has to either own who he really is… or… he’s incurably insane after all.

Even the scene with George Noyce, who throws Teddy’s reality right into his face, is hard for us to grasp because we are still hearing it through Teddy’s ears and foggy sense of interpretation.   It made no sense to Teddy, so it made no sense to us.

Watch that scene a second time, after digesting this series, and you’ll be blown away at how clearly Noyce tells it like it really is.

When you break it down, the ending of Shutter Island is very straight-forward.  

It consists of four primary elements: Cawley’s explanation… the visualization/flashback of what really happened that day in the backyard beside the pond between Teddy, Dolores and his children… Teddy soon thereafter claiming that the therapy worked and swearing to Cawley that he grasps his reality clearly now… and then the final scene, where he chooses which reality he would like to accept.

That last one is a real piece of work, too.

In the book, the reader is left with a more nebulous sense of vague bewilderment when Teddy suddenly reverts to his old U.S. Marshall identity.  

It’s the final scene of the story, leaving what may have happened to him after that moment up to the reader. 

Or not.  In my view, Teddy’s fate is very clear.  Lehane puts it right on the page for us.

Was Teddy once again insane, or was he, in effect, choosing to allow them to cut out half his brain because he couldn’t continue to live with the truth?

Ever heard of suicide by cop?  This was suicide, in effect, by lobotomy.  By a totally sane man.  A man completely overcome with grief and guilt.

His original insanity, the very reason he was sent to Shutter Island in the first place, rather than prison, occurred precisely because he couldn’t live with the truth of what had happened, and what he’d done as a result. 

And now, after being “cured,” he still can’t.

Before it was his subconscious doing the choosing.  Now, after Cawley’s therapy, it’s his conscious mind, in full command of itself, that chooses.

In the movie, though, this outcome is much more clearly stated than it is in the book, and by Teddy himself. 

His final words to Chuck, sitting on the hospital steps as he sees the orderlies coming for him – and in both the book and the movie, the audience is “shown” the surgical instrument that will be used on his frontal lobe, so there is no question what Teddy’s destiny is after the story concludes – are this:

“Is it better to live as a monster, or die a good man?”

Teddy chooses the latter.

The entire story was about this moment.

This moment defines the theme of the story.  Without it, you have no story, at least in this form.

The question we need to ask ourselves as supplicant writers who are reading this for inspiration and modeling as to how to write something of this complexity at this level of competence, is… did Lehane back into that theme, did he stumble on it, did he pants it… or did he begin with it?

Hard saying.  Like I said, Lehane isn’t returning my calls on that one.

Either way, though, one thing is unquestionably true.  He couldn’t have written the final draft without knowing that theme.  If he pants it, everything he’d done prior to discovering it was… not wasted, but just a planning step.

Which is why theme is one of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

Which is why you can’t write a publishable story or a saleable screenplay until all six of them are solid.

You don’t always have to have your hero speak it aloud on the last page, but you do need it to fuel the context and content of your scenes in a way that lends weight, meaning and sheer poetry to the reading experience.

Theme, more than your words, is the true art of storytelling.  The rest is pure mechanics, driven by criteria, checklists and choice.

And yet, you never realized that theme was afoot as you experienced this story. 

It simply penetrated your consciousness like protein enters your system via a tasty cut of steak.  You go there for the taste, not the nutrition.

The best stories, the best writing, are always food for the soul. 

And you, the writer, wear three hats: chef, server and nutritionist.

Make it tasty, sure.  But make it count, too.

That will get you published one day.


Interested in revisiting prior posts in this series?

For installment 1, an Introduction to the series, click here.

For installment 2, a Structural Primer, click here.

For installment 3, the Opening Act, click here.

For installment 4, more on the Opening Act, click here.

For installment 5, Evaluating the Part 1 scenes, click here.

For installment 6, the First Plot Point, click here.

For installment 7A, overview of Part 2, click here.

For installment 7B, more on Part 2 and the Mid-Point, click here. 

For installment 8, the Part 3 Scenes, click here.

For installment 9, PP2 and the Final Act, click here.

For more information about story structure (this will send you to a description of my ebook on the subject), click HERE.


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction

14 Responses to 10) “Shutter Island” – How It All Ends, and What to Make of It

  1. kelly

    This has been an extraordinary couple of weeks. I’ve really enjoyed the deconstruction.
    IMHO, there is no way Lehane pantsed this book; the degree of finesse required to pull it off even as a preplanned story is remarkable.
    Looking forward to the next chapter on your blog.
    Thanks– Kelly

  2. I could just ditto what Kelly said. This has been so helpful to me in writing my first novel. I believe I said before that I was pantsing it, and couldn’t for the life of me understand why I didn’t get the POINT of the story. Now, thanks to you, I’ve revisited the whole story and have decided to write the first draft backwards, (in a sense).

    Thank you so much for this super-helpful series!

  3. This series was more useful than tons of writing howtos I’ve seen before. Thanks a lot!

  4. nancy

    I’ve always been a good story teller at parties, so I decided to try my hand at writing–but without a martini. I successfully pantsed my way through Parts 1 and 2, but then became gridlocked in a convergence of ideas, unable to choose one direction over another. Luckily, the muse led me to your blog and books.
    Following your structure principals, I easily outlined the second half of the book. Worked like a charm until the next gridlock: Which-way’s-the-theme? I’ve always heard authors say that if you tell the story with integrity, the theme (truth about life) will emerge. Well maybe for some people.
    Today after finishing the Shutter Island deconstruction, I set off in search of my theme. It was right where you said it should be but hidden in a sea of clutter. I’ll fix it.

    In the end, I bet it won’t take me two years to write the next book.

    Thanks ever so much. Keep it going.

  5. Larry, I loved the series and you’ll definitely get an email from me before Friday for the “Shutter Island” guest post contest.

    I would however like to state something in defense of “pantsers.” I agree that story structure is extremely important, but it feels to me that you’re assuming people only write one draft of a work. Or maybe two–to correct for grammar and spelling.

    I can wholeheartedly get behind the idea of just writing to get the majority of the story out. Sometimes I just don’t know the ending to my story–but as I write, I suddenly realize what happens. Boom–I have the beginning, somewhat of a middle, and ending of a story. I can always go back and edit that initial draft–or even rewrite it again.

    You just sound so… negative when talking about people writing without structuring their work.

  6. Martha Miller

    Larry’s not negative. He’s extremely positive.
    Positive that his structural paradigm works every time.
    If you’ve been reading his posts for a while now, you surely have heard him say that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and that lots of writers are ‘pantsers’, resulting in great stories. But he’s passionate about helping struggling writers–especially those who have a great idea that peters out about a third of the way into the story because they don’t know where to go next.

  7. Martha, Larry has been a great source for help for me and I don’t think he’s negative overall–honest 🙂 Believe me, I have learned so much and I appreciate Larry’s work in bringing the importance of structure to the forefront. I’m sorry if I’ve been taken the wrong way. It’s just you can really tell he doesn’t like the whole notion of “pantsing” altogether.

  8. @Kari — I appreciate and value your opinion. I can see how I come off as a bit harsh on “pantsers”… please allow me to clarify.

    I’ll try to keep this under 10,000 words.

    First, yes, you can write ONE draft, AND get it published after a polish (which I don’t consider a draft). Really. I’ve done it more than once. And I’m no genius prodigy. How? By following the principles of storytelling. By understanding what goes where, why, and how to implement across all six core competencies. When you get to a full understanding — and, this is important, comfort level — with these principles, and if you do enough story planning, and if you are someone who can write close to publishable copy once you’re certain about what you’re writing (including, context, nuance, sub-text and narrative voice)… then you can do it, too.

    Not that you should, though. Multiple drafts are fine. Whatever makes your story better is a good thing.

    Here’s the deal with pantsing, though. Within the pantser practice — and this, too, has many levels, I even do some of it myself — you can break writers down into two categories: those that get the principles and put them into practice WHILE they pants their story, and those that don’t.

    Those that don’t almost always revert to pantsing. And when they do, they must rely on storytelling instinct instead of storytelling principles. If the two are close, then this writer can eventually get there. If they aren’t close… it’ll never happen.

    What does happen is that the writer who pantses blind, just making it up as they go along — not only the story, but the principles of how to tell it, which AREN’T something any of us can make up, any more than we can make up our own rules of physics and gravity — is that these writers don’t even recognize the mistakes they are making along the way. They write pretty sentences, but the story is way off balance, even if the concept is strong.

    Some pantsers, like Stephen King and, dare I say, even Dennis Lehane, may believe they’re making up their story as the go, but they do it — it falls out of their head THE FIRST TIME OUT — in complete accordance and optimization of the rules of story architecture. It’s like Rembrandt sitting down and making a sketch… it’ll come out just fine. The rest of us who don’t know what he knows… it’ll look like fingerpainting.

    People too often pants because they don’t know better. People who understand the principles almost always employ some form of story planning, even within their pantsing process.

    It’s all just a search for the story. You can start, engage in and finish that process in your head, on a page of notes, or by writing a draft.

    The unenlightened pantser, though, doesn’t know what to shoot for, they don’t know when it’s broken, how it’s broken and what needs to happen. They just write something, write something else… sometimes it comes out with no plot point at all, no conflict at all, or everything we need to know comes out in the first 50 pages. I know of a doctor, who like many doctors thought he knew everything about anything, including writing (because he’d read everything Clancy had done and believed he, too, could do that), who retired to write a novel. Took him two weeks. The manuscript was 112 pages long, double spaced. Thought he was done. He’d pantsed the whole thing, and even though he knew how it was going to end, he had no clue about the principles of getting there that meet the standards of publishable work.

    It looks so easy when you read it and it’s been done well. This is the great trap too many pantsers fall into. It isn’t easy.

    So, pants away, that’s fine. The principles and the story arc needs to end up executed in a certain fashion, no matter how one goes about it. If you know just a handful of things before you begin — and you WILL know these things before you can write a workable draft, even if it takes you ten drafts to get there… or just one — you can then pants your way in between the story milestones, because you’ll have intermediary story markers to shoot for.

    Know the conceptual framework, the ending, the first plot point, the different missions of each of the four parts, the mid-point and the second plot point… just those things can make a pantser successful.

    Then again, if you’ve taken the time to plan these things ahead of time, give them significant critical thought and consideration, you’ll end up planning more stuff, as well. And before you know it, you won’t be a pantser anymore, even if you insist you still are. Even if its all just in your head.

    You have to know these things before the story will work. Period. In my view, life’s too short for 10 drafts of anything.

  9. Hi Larry,
    I finally got a chance to sit down and read through all of your Shutter Island posts at once, making sure to take notes at the same time. It’s been really helpful seeing the whole story broken down, and I’m looking forward to more deconstructions.

    One question:
    Any chance you’d think of doing a deconstruction on a character-based movie? Something mainstream, but perhaps with a more subtle story structure?

    Either way, I still found this incredibly helpful. Thanks!

  10. @Suzannah — thanks for chipping in here, glad you enjoyed the series. And good news… I’m on it already — the next deconstruction will be the Oscar nominated (best movie, best actress) “An Education,” which was a stunningly effective character-driven film. I just rented the DVD an hour ago, and taking it out of town with me (writing conference, teaching two classes, will have lots of down time to work on this).

    And if you’re not Suzannah and you’re reading this, I highly recommend her blog, Write It Sideways, which always has good solid core material for hungry writers. And, she’s really cool.

  11. Kelly

    Hello Larry. Kelly here.

    Just read your treatise on pantsing above, and have one comment:
    Amen, brother.


  12. Ha ha, thanks for that!
    So looking forward to reading your next deconstruction. I can imagine how much work goes into these series’, so thanks for taking the time to help the rest of us 🙂

  13. Julianne

    Hi, Larry.
    Just another loyal follower letting you know how much your time and effort is appreciated. You’re the real deal, not someone who simply wants to get a larger audience and therefore bangs out anything to get the job done. The content you provide is more useful than any I’ve found out in the blogosphere (and I float there often). Because you work hard and actually think carefully before you type, I (we) get a little thrill of anticipation every time a new email from Storyfix lights up the Inbox.
    Believe it!


    …I can’t resist adding that it’s so not negative to want to save the pantsers from doing extra work….

  14. Mae

    Hi, Larry. Just finished reading the deconstruction of “Shutter Island”. Side attractions in my life have slowed my last month of reading sessions, so I am catching up. What can I say that hasn’t already been said. Your deconstructions will become my writing bible. I watched the movie “An Education” and have taken notes on each scene. Amazing how this is finally sinking into my head. Seems easy, but somehow the wealth of info just has to be summarized over and over.
    I am now settling down to read your latest book. I have pencil and paper ready to deconstruct. Have a relaxing memorial day.