Monthly Archives: April 2010

6) “Shutter Island” – The First Plot Point Cometh

In the 16th scene of Shutter Island, at about the 32 minute mark in the movie, and on the 89th page of the paperback movie reissue of Dennis Lehane’s bestselling novel by the same name, something happens.

Something huge.

Everything changes because of what happens.

And because none of us really understood what this story was actually about on the first pass, none of us got it.  Didn’t see it coming, didn’t assign much meaning to it when it arrived.

At least, not until we were on Shutter Island with Teddy for the second time.

Or for some of us, a third time.

For a few of us, not at all.

What happens is that subtle.  Even though, at the same time, it’s that significant.

In fact, it’s the most important moment of this or any other story.

 Welcome to the First Plot Point.

Everything we’ve just experienced through 15 movie scenes and 88 pages has led us to this moment. 

Everything we’ve read in this series up until this point has led us to it.

The First Plot Point.  The moment when everything shifts.

The moment when the actual story officially, noticeably, begins

Everything in Part 1 that we’ve seen or read prior to the First Plot Point – in virtually any competent story – has existed for the purpose of setting us (the audience) up for it.

Not solely for that purpose, just primarily for that purpose.  It has other work to do, as well.

To wrap your head around all this, you need to understand what a First Plot Point is… where it happens… why it happens… and what happens after it happens.

Once we cover that ground, I’ll tell you what the First Plot Point in Shutter Island was… where it happened (wait, already told you that…)… why it happens… and how it creates the context for everything that takes place after it.

Plot Point One – Generically Revisited

A novel or a movie can be broken down into four distinct parts, each with its own unique mission and context.  (In movie-talk there are only three parts – three Acts – but the middle segment, called The Confrontation, can be broken in half, and when you do that you have a nearly identical structure of four roughly equal parts in terms of length, and four very different parts in terms of mission. 

Part 1 exists to set-up the story. 

To be more precise, to set-up the First Plot Point.  There are a handful of bases it needs to cover to do it – check out the previous two posts in the series to review them.

The scene, or the moment that separates Part 1 from Part 2 is called the First Plot Point.  Some call it the inciting incident… same exact thing.

Prior to the First Plot Point we’ve met the hero, we see what she or he is all about in her or his life, perhaps we even see her or him in the midst of some quest or need or journey – or not – and we know a little about this person. 

Like, their outer persona as well as their inner landscape (demons, preferences, belief systems, etc.), both of which influence how they are perceived and the decisions they make.

We also know what’s at stake in their life.  Which, by the way, is about to change (at the First Plot Point), at least in the near-term.

The showing and telling of all of this is the mission of Part 1. 

The mission of Plot Point One is to throw something new into the narrative mix that changes everything.  And in several critical ways.

Not to say that there haven’t been plot twists prior to the FPP and it’s assigned location, which is between the 20th and 25th percentile of the story’s length.

Always.  No exceptions.  Refer to the previous paragraph.  No matter how many or how pronounced any plot twist in Part 1 may be, you still need a proper First Plot Point moment, and you need to put in the correct place. 

If you doubt this, try to find a commercial movie (not an art film) or a published novel without one. 

By the way, the First Plot Point in Shutter Island – which I’m about to reveal and discuss – occurs at the 24th percentile.  And that’s for both the movie and the novel.

If you’ve got the paperback handy, go ahead, do the math: the FPP occurs on page 89, out of 369 total pages. 

This is not a coincidence. 

Because Lehane and Martin Scorsese know what they’re doing as storytellers.

The mission of the First Plot Point is to inject new information into the mix that either begins, shifts, complicates or otherwise launches the character and the plot down a new and/or altered path. 

A path that is different than it was in the story’s preceding Part 1 scenes.

Because of what happens at Plot Point One, the hero has a new need, a new quest, a new goal, a new journey.  Or, if it isn’t completely new, it’s shifted somehow – it’s harder, it’s more meaningful, it’s complicated in some way.

This Plot Point One change or shift – sometimes an unexpected twist, or sometimes it’s the outcome or fruition of a seed planted earlier (that’s called foreshadowing)… sometimes something very subtle, as seemingly innocent as a softly uttered line of dialogue – actually launches the storyline.

Everything prior to this moment has been incomplete information.

Everything after this moment – even though it may change or evolve even further through more forthcoming plot twists, as it should – is, in this isolated moment, and just for that moment, and for the first time in the story, complete.

Three other things are essential to the First Plot Point.

There are now stakes attached to the forthcoming new or changed hero’s journey.  We understand what she or he has to lose, what she or he has to gain, and why this is meaningful to her or him.

Or them.  Or it… whatever your protagonist may be in your story.

If the writer has done the job in Part 1, we also are invested in the hero’s success or failure on this new or shifted quest.  We feel for them.  We empathize with their need.  And most of all, we root for them.

And thirdly, the First Plot Point is the first comprehensible, meaningful look (or understanding) at an antagonistic force that will oppose, seek to block or hinder, or otherwise defeat the hero along the way. 

The bad guy. 

Or, if you’re writing about the Titanic, an iceberg.  Or if you’re writing about a natural disaster, the instrument of Mother Nature’s fury. 

Whatever – the antagonist/bad guy is the obstacle that stands between what the hero now (at the FPP) wants and needs and the achievement of that goal.

Which, if you’ve done this right, is different than it was before.

Don’t blink, you might miss it.

Here it is.  The First Plot Point in Shutter Island occurs during one of Teddy’s delusional fantasies.  He’s with his wife in some twilight zone of a room.  She’s wearing the dress she wore when she was killed.  She’s speaking cryptically to him about needing to let her go, and that she’s there with him, but she’s not.

And then, right before she incinerates in his arms, she says it.  Dolores — the vision that is the voice of Teddy’s subconscious guilt, the voice of truth in this story – tells him that “Laeddis is here.”

That’s it?  Really?

Yup.  That’s the First Plot Point of Shutter Island.

Because everything changes for Teddy from that moment onward. 

 He has a new goal – to find and kill Laeddis

He has stakes – revenge for his wife’s death on one level (his), and the validation of Cawley and his treatment (on a realistic level, rather than Teddy’s delusional one).   

Everything in this story depends on Teddy’s new goal.

What we thought was Teddy’s quest in Part 1 – finding the missing Rachael Solondo – was only partial, incomplete and diversionary information, one that  was largely without stakes for Teddy.  Finding Rachael, it turns out, never was Teddy’s reason for “being” here.

He suspected Laeddis was on Shutter Island (he admits this later to Chuck).  And now, Dolores has confirmed it.  Which serves to alter the story – it shifts Teddy’s need and quest and stakes – to something new.

The real story of this movie and this novel begins right there.  Everything prior to this moment was just a set-up for it.

The opposing force?  Teddy’s insanity.  His ability to finally recognize and comprehend the truth.  Not Cawley… he’s actually on Teddy’s side in this, with much to gain from his success.

Teddy is his own bad guy.  Or rather, his inner demon is.

There you have it. 

Chew on this, it’s both challenging and meaty food for writerly thought.

Test it against the criteria for an effective First Plot Point, and you’ll see how this moment was not only needed and inevitable, you’ll also see why it – or any effective First Plot Point – couldn’t have come much earlier in the sequence of the story.

This is the genius of Shutter Island.  It’s a perfect model of Part 1 storytelling, because only by establishing the ruse, the set-up, would the rest of the story be possible.

And the rest of Shutter Island doesn’t begin until Plot Point One has hit the page or screen.

7) Coming Monday – the Part 2 quartile of Shutter Island.

CLICK HERE for more 101 on story structure.

CLICK HERE for an interview inspired by this series, from


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction

5) “Shutter Island” – Evaluating the Part 1 Scenes

If you’ve just arrived, you’ve landed in the middle of a multi-part series that deconstructs – some call it eviscerates – Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, and the movie based on it. 

In yesterday’s post we identified and positioned each of the 15 scenes that comprise the story’s opening act (also known as Part 1 for novelists, or Act I for screenwriters).  They’re very much the same thing at this point.

We left you hanging right before the arrival of the First Plot Point (Scene 16), which we’ll focus on in tomorrow’s post (#6 in this series). 

For now, though, we’re not done dissecting Part 1 – today we’re going to hold it up against the criteria for an effective opening act, which was defined in post #3 of this series.

The nature and components of an effective opening act is often the place unpublished authors trip themselves up.  They try to do too much too soon, and don’t understand the relationship and mission of the component structural parts.

Part 1 has three things to accomplish: to set a hook early… to deliver on an 8-point list of context-setting criteria (see post #3 in this series)… and to set-up the approaching Plot Point One.

Think of your story as a child you are raising.  You don’t ask your teenage to do heart surgery or run for office.  The opening act of your story is your child’s early and teen years, right up until the moment you kick them out of the house.

And that’s when everything changes.  For your kid, and for your story.

If you’ve done your job in those set-up years, chances are the kid will be fine.

The Shutter Island Set-Up is Now Complete

In the last post we reviewed the 15 scenes that comprise the opening act – the set-up – for this story. 

Now it’s time to crank up the tension and the stakes by throwing a curveball into the mix.  With the set-up complete, this is precisely the moment in a story when the First Plot Point needs to be revealed.

The First Plot Point is arguably the most important moment of all in your story.

By now, after 15 set-up scenes, we’ve been completely seduced. 

Or in this case, conned.

We’re comfortable in Teddy’s world… which turns out to a completely false contrivance.  We have an abundance of facts and knowledge about what we think this story is about and where it’s going.

Our emotions are right there with Teddy’s – he’s not getting cooperation, it seems certain that Rachael’s disappearance is more than meets the eye, certainly more than they’re telling him, and it screams of an inside job, or a least a cover-up.

We are invested in Teddy’s need at this point.  We are in the journey with him.

We aren’t sure if we quite like him, even though we are curious about him.  But chances are we empathize with him, especially in light of his dark and tragic backstory, which includes a dead wife and a traumatizing, horrific war experience.

Remember those eight criteria-based objectives for Part 1 of a story?

Let’s see how Lehane and Scorsese did.

I think it’s fair to say that Teddy has been fully introduced, but only from the perspective of his fantasy identity.  We get plenty of foreshadowing that there is something else going on here, especially within the flashbacks… these two things cover two of the eight criteria for the Part 1 mission.

Teddy’s inner landscape is on full display.  He’s impatient, suffering, intolerant and suspicious.

Is there a dramatic hook early? 

I believe so.  It’s at the gate and the walk into the building, where the woman gives him that weird “shhhh!” and we hear that Ward C is not to be entered.  It is at that moment when we are literally told there are certain secrets in play.

And nothing says hook quite like a juicy secret.

Is the premise clearly set forth? 

Very clearly, but again, only from the point of view of the fantasy scenario at hand, not in reality.  And yet, through foreshadowing, the premise does embrace the certainty that Teddy is not well, and that more is going on here than meets the eye.

What we have here is a premise within a premise.  Not exactly entry-level novel writing, but certainly something we can marvel at and learn from.

Do we understand Teddy’s position, his world view, his current pre-plot point need and journey?   

That’s part of the mission with Part 1 narrative – the goal is to present a protagonist with a life, something going on, something at stake

Compelling stakes are often the overlooked variable in unpublished stories.

Our job is to get the reader invested in the hero and their pre-plot point life… and then change it up, throw it a curveball, pile on the drama and tension, change the stakes, send the story in a new direction – the intended direction of the story from the beginning, according to the writer’s story plan – that has the reader hooked.

It’s Plot Point One that does all this shifting.

In this case we do indeed understand the pre-plot point Teddy, at least as far as we’ve been led to believe.  He’s on assignment, he’s impatient with coddled killers, he’s looking for the missing patient, he’s already suspicious of his hosts, and he’s not feeling terribly well the entire time.

His character has not only been competently introduced, he’s been fleshed out to an extent that we care about what happens next.

That’s your Part 1 job as the author.  Not to give away the whole nine yards of the plot… yet.  Rather, to hook the reader on both an emotional and intellectual level. 

And then slap them upside the head with a huge twist at the plot point.

We empathize with Teddy, but perhaps more than anything, we fear for him, because it’s a pretty sure bet that he’s being deceived.  He’s the good guy here, and he appears to be in over his head. 

Most importantly, does this opening act – everything prior to Plot Point One – set up the critical transition that is Plot Point One?

This moment defines the art of the storytelling. 

Because while much has been foreshadowed relative to the everything-is-not-what-it-seems context of these scenes, what is about to happen in Scene 16 – the First Plot Point – seemingly comes out of left field.

Not completely out of left field, but it’s enough of a curve ball (two baseball metaphors in one sentence… forgive me) to make you drop your popcorn.  Or, for the near term, to be completely befuddled and lost.

Or, from another perspective, to not even realize that it changes everything.

The important lesson here is to notice how all of the Part 1 scenes give us new expository information that is not only required – either to inform us or to mislead us, both of which happen here – but to set-up what’s about to change or be added to the pile (in terms of meaning and purpose and stakes) at the plot point.

Notice that Teddy’s true mission – to find and kill Andrew Laeddis – has not yet been exposed to him or to us in Part 1.  We first learn of it in Scene 16, and even then, it’s cryptic at best. 

That Scene 16 shift in Teddy’s purpose, his need, his story-centric mission, is what makes this the First Plot Point. 

Because not only do we discover what Teddy is really here to accomplish – remember, this exists in his fantasy delusion, and from his perspective – but it has meaning and rationale to it.

And, it is in context to a visible and omnipresent antagonistic force.

Those are the three criteria of a functional and effective first plot point:

It defines, focuses, shifts or completely changes the hero’s quest and need going forward… there is now greater and clearer rationale and stakes attached to this new journey… and we are more fully aware of the nature and purpose of an antagonistic force – a “bad guy” – that will challenge and attempt to block his path toward achieving this goal.

In this case, it appears to be Dr. Cawley.  But appearances aren’t always what they seem.

Read that again.  That’s the mission and function of the First Plot Point in a nutshell.  And it needs to happen between the 20th and 25th percentile mark in the story.  Mess with that timeline at your own peril, because this is what the publishing community expects of you. 

Because, from a dramatic standpoint, this is how a story works best 

Everything changes at the first plot point.  Sometimes subtlely, sometimes like a hammer to the head.

The genius of Shutter Island is that the First Plot Point does both.

Tomorrow’s post – 6) Shutter Island’s First Plot Point

Check out this interview, inspried by this series, at Imperfect Clarity.  Some interesting Q&A about the need for story structure in the writing process.

Click HERE to learn more about the principles of story structure and narrative technique that are the foundation of this deconstruction, and of effective storytelling in general.


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction