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

7 Responses to 3) “Shutter Island” — The Opening Act

  1. That is so great i don’t quite know what to say; what I missed in the story is so much more than what I got!

  2. I’m an Electrical Engineer. Full 4 year Bachelor’s degree and even the first few courses into a Masters (digital communications).

    All of this schooling SHOULD have taught me that if you don’t what it is you’re building, you better not start.

    Yet my first (and a half) novels were ‘pantsed’.

    Going back to the beginning and putting the structure in place first ACTUALLY MADE THE PROCESS SIGNIFICANTLY EASIER.

    I’m sold. And to anyone that thinks ‘winging it’ is the best way to write, I suggest just try the structure approach once.

    You’ll be amazed.

  3. I’m a wimp and friends told me not to watch this film, but I trust you and know that for you to have found perfect parallels between the film and novel structures, then I have to read this series. What an amazing summary you just gave of how to write the first part of a novel or screenplay!

  4. kelly

    Went to see the movie last night. It did track with the book, but I was disappointed that the code portions had been nearly eliminated. As threads to unravel the mystery, I thought the codes played a significant role. Any thoughts?
    Never having written a screenplay, I suppose it is challenging to decide what to use to best convey the story when adapting a 26 chapter book into a 138 minute film…
    The little covert looks between the actors (hinting at something going on behind the scenes) was like watching foreshadowing in motion.
    Thanks– Kelly

  5. Martha Miller

    I’m completely amazed at the amount of very thorough work you’ve done to present this series. It’s fascinating and a tremendous help in understanding what/how Lehane did what he did, especially for those of us who hope to write effective thrillers. It’s like taking a class — for free. Thank you, thank you! Can’t wait to read it all.

  6. Monica Rodriguez

    As I was forewarned about some twist at the end, I was _looking_ for things that were off as I read. And yet, I STILL didn’t figure out what was really going on. I did have my suspicions though (many of which were close to the mark), and so the ending was easier for me to accept perhaps than the reader who had no warning.

    Martha’s right, this is like taking a class for free. Breaking down each part in such detail is so, so helpful! Thank you!!!

  7. Pingback: Shutter Island and Storyfix.com « Chris Negron