Monthly Archives: April 2010

4) “Shutter Island” – The Opening Act (continued)

Yesterday we took a 10,000 foot view of the opening act of Shutter Island, both the book and the movie.  The focus was on the first scene (aboard the ferry taking Teddy and “Chuck” to the island) and how it established a context of deception for all that is to follow.

Chuck, of course, is not really Chuck.  But nobody, especially Teddy – who is actually in a better position to know this than we are – has any way to realize that fact.  

There are so many things about this opening scene that give away the Big Secret of Shutter Island, but odds are you won’t notice any of them until you see it or read it a second time.  You may notice something is a bit off kilter, but it’s impossible to assign meaning to it.  At least not yet.

But when you do see it a second time, you’ll be amazed at how blatant it all is.

Today we’ll look at the Part 1 scenes themselves, analyzing them against the eight criteria offered yesterday that, in sum, comprise the mission of the opening quartile of a great story.

Any great story.  Including yours.

In the film there are 15 scenes leading up to the first plot point.  In the novel there are 16 scenes leading up to that exact same plot point moment.

In both cases the Part 1 scenes have a singular contextual purpose, as they do in any structurally-sound story: to set-up that first plot point.  And in doing so, to achieve eight story-specific objectives.

Go back to yesterday’s post to review them if they aren’t on the tip of your tongue (they are the bulleted points in the middle of the article), as this is the stuff of any effective opening act. 

Those eight things alone can and should accelerate your writing career. 

The Scenes

Prologue – narrated by Dr. Sheehan, whom the reader cannot yet identify Rachael Solondo’s missing doctor, and later, as Teddy’s sidekick, Chuck, in the contrived fantasy scenario they’ve crafted. 

In the book this is the hook.  But it’s not there in the film, and, while brilliantly written, it’s not remotely missed.

Scene 1 – on the ferry.  Teddy wakes up sick, centers himself.  The question the viewer reader doesn’t think to ask at this point is, wakes up from what?

Scene 2 – up on deck he meets “Chuck,” his new partner on the case to which they’ve both been assigned.  They are U.S. Marshals sent to the Shutter Island hospital to investigate the whereabouts of the missing Rachael Solondo, a psychopathic patient who murdered her own children.

Her crime is a key element of foreshadowing, by the way.

There are about 20 such clues in this scene.  For example, in the book Teddy says he thought he had his cigarettes when he boarded… that’s huge once you know what’s going on, but slides under the radar on an initial read.

These clues are hidden among all the backstory and contextual set-up, that (only in retrospect) lead directly to the hidden truth that Chuck is hiding and Teddy is actually, in part, crafting via his own madness.

Yes, Teddy is totally, certifiably mad.  But the reader/viewer has no way of knowing… yet.  Imagine trying to write this scene without you, the author, knowing it, either.

That’s why pantsing doesn’t work, folks.

Scene 3 – a sequence of cuts as they arrive on the island.  Notice how many armed guards seem to be watching them closely – Teddy even comments on all the firepower – and then admit you didn’t know what it all meant on the first viewing.

In the book this scene blends into what, in the movie, are Scenes 4 and 5.

Scene 4 – a great exchange at the gates of the hospital, where Teddy is asked to surrender his weapon.  Notice how Leo’s acting here seems wooden and the dialogue contrived.  That’s because it is, and by design.  You get a sense that the guards can barely contain a knowing grin.

Imagine the acting challenge before DiCaprio here – playing an insane man who is, from deep within his own neurosis, playing the role of a U.S. Marshal.  A role within a role, one of them scripted and acted by a lunatic.   

There are two Teddys, and DiCaprio has to discover and inhabit both of them.

But first, Lehane had to write them both, coexisting yet unaware of each other.

Scene 5 – as they pass through the gates onto the grounds of the hospital, we learn about the dark and imposing Ward C building, where the real whackos are kept.  There’s a great moment here in which one of the patients looks up from her gardening chores and puts a finger to her lips in a “shhhhh!” gesture.

Ever ask a four year old to keep a secret from someone specific?  Don’t tell grandma?  That’s what’s going on here – the patients are all aware of the ruse being perpetrated on Teddy, and they’ve been told to play their role and to keep the secret.  This “shhhhh!” moment is precisely that.

Sort of like Bubble boy’s first television interview a few months ago… he just couldn’t keep the secret his father had schooled into him.

Kids and insane people are like that.

Scene 6 – the machinations of checking in and getting oriented to the hospital.

Scene 7 – a critical scene in which Teddy and Chuck meet the head hospital cheese, Dr. Cawley, who is enigmatic at best.  We get some backstory on the escaped patient (Rachael Solondo), and we sense that Cawley is being set up as a possible antagonist here.

In truth, though, the sub-text you sense from Cawley later exposes itself as something else entirely.

Again, Lehane’s narrative (and the movie’s screenplay) is so full of sub-text it almost overwhelms the surface drama.

If you aren’t clear on what sub-text is… here you go.  Watch this move and/or read this book and see it blossom gloriously before your eyes.

Scene 8 – in which Scene 7 is interrupted when Teddy sees a picture that triggers his first flashback, wherein we first meet his dead wife, Dolores.  There’s no question at this point that Teddy is not in full command of his senses, and while it seems obvious that we (the viewer/reader) should already be connecting Teddy’s flashback to the case at hand, somehow we don’t.

That’s Lehane again.  He keeps the surface plot so urgent and clear that, in spite of the foreshadowing, we stick with it.

Scene 9 – back in Cawley’s office, where he says that Rachael Solondo “vanished into thin air, as if she just disappeared through the walls.”

Notice the quick and informed eye contact between Cawley and Chuck in this scene.  They are on the same team, and it’s obvious… but only in retrospect.

Scene 10 – major story point here (easily misinterpreted as a first plot point because it’s so significant, but it isn’t, and for many reasons, one of which is it’s just too early in the story for it to be one): they check out Rachael’s room, where Teddy finds a hidden note with the cryptic coded messages on it.

The note doesn’t really change anything for Teddy, it just intensifies and propels the drama forward.

Scene 11 – we see the guards outside the hospital walls and along the rocky shoreline, supposedly looking for signs of how Rachael Solondo might have escaped.  This is perhaps the most obvious of all the scenes in terms of exposing the unspoken truth of this story – the guards are phoning it in, bored, some of them just sitting around as they play their role in this charade.

It’s all for Teddy’s benefit, nothing else.  The charade is in full swing.

Scene 12 – Teddy questions the staff, which has gathered for this purpose.  Again, there is a palpable sense that everyone is hiding something from Teddy, which of course they are.

At this point – again, only in retrospect – it’s clear that the exposition of “the case” where Rachael is concerned is virtually meaningless.  It’s important to Teddy’s experience that he continue the charade of an on-going investigation, but the real story here is how Teddy is being seduced into the fantasy world Dr. Cawley has created.

At the end, the reasons behind the charade are perhaps, more surprising and dramatic than the mechanics of it.  There is only a little foreshadowing on that count, but it’s there.

This scene is where it comes out the Rachael’s doctor – Sheehan – is off on vacation.  Which of course is outrageous in any reality.  Teddy is fuming at this, as an investigator should be, and – precisely because it’s so outrageous — it cements the impression that the entire staff is hiding something. 

There’s a great moment in this scene when a nurse comments on how handsome the missing Dr. Sheehan is.  It’s great because Chuck is staring right at her… and as it turns out, of course, Chuck actually is Dr. Sheehan.

Foreshadowing with a sense of humor to it.

Scene 13 – alone with Cawley now, Teddy asks him to summon Sheehan back to the island, or at least to call him so Teddy can ask some tough questions about Rachael.  But, conveniently, all the phone lines are down because of the brewing storm.

Some have wondered how Cawley conjured the storm in support of the contrived ruse, or if the storm was part of Teddy’s hallucination.  No, the storm was very real.  In the novel it’s clear (toward the end, when Cawley tells Teddy the truth)  that this experiment depended on a storm in order to work, and that they – Cawey and Sheehan –  simply waited until a storm arrived to pull the trigger on the whole thing.

Which, as it turns out, involves a lot of psychotropic drugs.  Which, if you harken back to Scene 1, is precisely what Teddy awakens from, and why he’s so immersed in his own fantasy world.

Scene 14 – another major scene, this one after dark at Dr. Cawley’s home, where we now meet the scary Dr. Naehring, the German, seemingly evil doctor who it’s easily to visualize in a black apron carving the brain tissue away from skeletal prisoners strapped to a table in a concentration camp.  Remember, this is 1952, not that long after such things actually happened, the memory of which is fresh in Teddy’s mind. 

There is much double-entendre going on in this scene, as if Naehring is talking about one thing – Teddy’s reality – and Teddy is struggling to remain in his alter-ego fantasy identity.

Scene 15 – their conversation triggers Teddy’s flashback of his days as a soldier during the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, which is horrific in many stomach-turning ways.  Enough, you might say, to drive a man insane – which is precisely the point.

Scene 16 — this scene is the First Plot Point.  

More on that day after tomorrow. 

Tomorrow will be about what these scenes mean and why they work. 

Sorry to leave you hanging.  But there’s much more to discuss in evaluating these scenes against the stated criteria for the Part 1 scenes, which are defined in a previous post (#3)

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

3) “Shutter Island” — The Opening Act

Wherein we deconstruct the first quartile – Part 1 of the novel, Act I of the screenplay – of Dennis Lehane’s masterpiece of deception and psychological drama.

The posts in this series are numbered sequentially for your clarity and amusement.  (RSS Feed readers will have received this twice… my bad, I apologize.  It’s a button thing.)

In the film A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson responds from the witness stand in a military courtroom to prosecutor Tom Cruise’s demand for truth with these iconic words: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Such is the case for many viewers of Shutter Island, the movie, and to a lesser extent, the novel upon which it is based (the difference has to do with the visual aspects of the movie being harder to disbelieve – hey, we see what we see – than words on a page).  The truth becomes a bitter pill, not because it doesn’t wash or hold water, but because you were so thoroughly and completely fooled.

And thus, some try to dismantle the ruse that becomes the heart and soul of this story.  They claim that Lehane and Scorsese weren’t playing fair. 

That’s fine for the average viewer, they either get it or they don’t.  If they don’t, then it’s simple: they just can’t handle the truth. 

But if you’re a writer with ambitions to be even a fraction as good as Dennis Lehane, we need to reach for a higher and better understanding of how this story works as well as it does. 

Because there is much to be learned here.

The ultimate truth of this story is, in fact, flawlessly executed. 

The primary reason for any initial resistance to accepting what is revealed at the end of the story, and for any ensuing accusation of unfairness, is its opening scene. 

We are being led down a garden path from the first frame of the film and first page of the novel.

Teddy wakes up on a boat at sea.  He is very sick – an important thing to note, something the reader/viewer doesn’t assign meaning to at the time.  He’s ill because he’s been drugged, a detail we don’t comprehend as meaningful until the end.

When he gathers himself, Teddy goes up on deck to encounter his new partner, Chuck.  Both are U.S. Marshals heading to the Shutter Island mental facility to investigate the disappearance of a patient there.

If this wasn’t all just an elaborate façade, a contrived parlor trick, then the scene would be full of holes and questions and illogic.  The fact of which, by the way, does become irrelevant once we do know the truth. 

Or not.  Truth is, those holes and all that illogic become the first clues that something about this scene is off base, that this is not what it seems.

The illogic keeps on coming.  All of it quite by design.

Would two Feds assigned to the same case meet for the first time on the deck of a ferry they’ve both boarded — and are the only passengers there, by the way – at a point that occurs just before the destination has been reached?  Of course they wouldn’t.   Would two agents from different offices, who have never met, be teamed up for this, without a debriefing of some kind?  No. 

It’s illogical.  It’s not realistic.  It’s as awkward as the dialogue between them.

At first we think this is just Hollywood playing fast and loose with credibility.  Bad screenwriting and lousy acting.  Or maybe we don’t care about that, the popcorn is still warm and you’ve seen the preview – the story isn’t about a boat – so you go with it. 

It’s Scorsese and DiCaprio, after all.  And – though you don’t realize this at the time – it’s mostly Dennis Lehane.

Which is why it’s not bad acting or screenwriting.  It’s brilliant layering and shading.

The opening scene doesn’t explain itself, it doesn’t apologize later and it doesn’t seem even a bit fishy at the time (although it certainly does when you see the film a second time). It simply is what it is.

Or so we think.   Right up until the Big Reveal at the end.

And we think it, we buy into it, because of two things – the author wants us to accept what we’re seeing as literal and true… and ultimately, we learn, the Doctor behind the charade being perpetrated upon Teddy Daniels (the Leo character) wants him to buy into it, and has gone to great lengths to make sure he does.

This story is told from Teddy’s point of view from the outset.  And that’s the magic of this story.  Teddy gets sucked in, and we go right in with him.

If you want to know what makes this story work, beyond the intimidating perfection of its technical execution – and this is something I’ve written about here and elsewhere – is that this story takes us for a killer ride.

We don’t just root for Teddy, we empathize with him to an extent that, in some ways, we become him.  Our emotions – fear, confusion, hope, sense of stakes and outcome – are involved.   Sure, we’re watching and/or reading, but we’re also feeling.

If you want to learn something from Shutter Island, let’s start right there.  This is a clinic in vicarious storytelling and point of view narrative. 

The Part 1 Scenes

The novel begins with a Prologue that doesn’t appear in the film.  One reason is that the filmmakers may have feared it would give too much away too soon, and from a narrative sense, isn’t really necessary to make the exposition work.

These pages are from the point of view of Dr. Sheehan four decades after the fact, and the reader does not yet understand that he is, in fact, the U.S. Marshal named Chuck, who appears in the story as Teddy’s sidekick, his sounding board, and ultimately, his stealth navigator.

After the Prologue, though, the book and the movie track in almost perfect parallel as it launches down a dark and twisting course toward the First Plot Point.

Please pay attention to that language. 

All effective stories bring two primary contexts to their first quartile: they are written with knowledge and aforethought (context) of the ultimate ending of the story… and, as its primary narrative mission, it is setting up the moment we call the First Plot Point.

Three words: impossible to pants.  Story planning is required.

Nothing really happens in the opening act.  It’s all just information, backstory and layered context.

As it should be, the opening act is just a set-up for things to come.

Of course, the opening act of Shutter Island (Part 1 of a novel, Act I of a screenplay, both being roughly just short of the first quartile of the entire story’s length) or any other story has other things it needs to accomplish:

–  introduce the hero, expose her or his life status and goals and current (pre-Plot Point) direction, values and needs…

–  establish the dramatic premise, in context to what’s coming…

–  set a dramatic hook within the first five minutes of film or 20 pages of the novel…

–  show us the hero’s inner landscape, including the demons that reside there (fears, phobias, scars of childhood trauma, values and world view, etc.) and how it aligns with exterior persona…

–  foreshadow the story to come, including the First Plot Point…

– move the audience toward caring about and rooting for the hero, even though we aren’t yet sure what’s ahead… it should plant the seeds of a sub-plot and, in doing so, establish a sub-text for the story…

– establish or at least introduce the stakes of the story…

– do what is necessary to set up the First Plot Point – for the characters and for the reader or viewer.

The above paragraph is an entire semester in a creative writing course.  And that’s only the opening act.

Shutter Island does all this, and with seeming effortless.  On the surface it all comes off like a linear flow of story points… they arrive… they case the joint… they meet the head doctor, who seems imposing… they sense things aren’t what they seem… they gather information as they begin their investigation… and Teddy is exposed as a tough guy with violent leanings and a no-nonsense persona.

That effortlessness is our goal.  What it takes to get there, though, is our challenge.

Tomorrow’s post: The Opening Act – Continued.

A scene-by-scene breakdown of the opening act, exposing the mission and narrative technique of each, leading up to the arrival of the First Plot Point.

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.

Image courtesy of Marshillonline

Personal P.S. — a reader just posted a pretty cool little video referencing my new novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, on YouTube… you can see it HERE


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction