5) “An Education” – The 4th and Final Part of this Story

The Conclusion of a 5-post Deconstruction of the Oscar-Nominated Film and Screenplay

The final act of this highly character-driven story can be broken down into two parts.  The first is launched by the Second Plot Point itself – Jenny discovers letters in David’s glove box from his wife – which soon gives way to what many writers might consider a cop out.

But is it?  Let’s look closer and see.

There are 11 scenes after the Plot Point, comprising only 16 minutes of running time.  That makes the final act/part a bit on the short side – as well as exposing the Second Plot Point as a bit on the late side.

But that call is always up for grabs.  We make or break the destiny of our stories with what we grab and how we hand it back to the reader.

Teachable moment here – the length parameters and placement targets of the structural principles are guidelines.  The degree to which you violate them is the degree to which you may be putting your story at risk, and the degree to which you get away with it may correspond to who you are in the writing business.

Then again, it just might work.  It’s always your call.

Nick Hornby gets a free pass on both counts. 

But it isn’t the length of this story’s final act that risked cutting a corner.  It’s the narrative context of the final scenes.  Hornby took a risk here, one that audiences, critics and Academy voters seemed to approve.

This entire story has been a series of dramatic scenes.  Of the 66 scenes in this film, 62 of them are little one-act plays, each with a mission, an ending that forwards the narrative, and a fresh stage upon which these characters do their thing.

As it should be.  That’s the nuts-and-bolts of scene writing as the building blocks of story architecture.

But then comes a discernable shift in the narrative context. 

Beginning with scene 63, the final push to the ending, everything changes. 

The story hasn’t yet reached its conclusion, but the means of getting there – scenes 63 through 66 – have a completely different narrative perspective.

Up until scene 63 the story has observed the show-don’t-tell mantra. 

From the Second Plot Point, we see Jenny respond to the letters… we see (actually we hear) David drive off forever… we see Jenny’s father’s love for his daughter surface amidst his own complicity… we see Jenny try to get back in school… we see her confront David’s wife… we see her alone with her loss of hope.

But beginning in scene 63 through the ending, the opposite happens – the narrative tells, rather than shows.

Is this okay?  Does it work?

To answer that question, we must return to the most basic and empowering question you, the writer, must answer when you set out to write a story: what is this story really about?

And in the case of An Education, it was about Jenny’s journey with David and how it impacted her life.  Not about the life that ensued from it.

Those final scenes are, in fact, a time-compressed launch of the life that ensued from it.  A preview of the consequences of her choices. 

You don’t have to be psychic to know the news that’s delivered in the final moments.  Hornby never tries to make that a dramatic premise. 

And yet, it works.  We feel it. 

Why?  How?  Did Hornby just get lucky here?  Or did he execute a strategy?

We feel the ending because of the effectiveness of the 62 scenes that preceded the ending 4-scene sequence.  Our emotions aren’t all that involved with those scenes, though – because of the 62 scenes that brought us to that moment – our empathy certainly is

Jenny’s heroism isn’t her decision to focus on her studies without the prep school behind her.  To return to her father’s dream, to the straight and narrow path that she believed would bore her to death.  Rather, her heroism is demonstrated via her summoning of the willpower – which was, in effect, almost literally beaten out of her by David’s deception – to move forward without him.

Her heroism was the realization that the life she sought was still out there, but she had to earn it first.

David was simply a catalyst, a lesson, in Jenny’s life.

This structure and focus speaks directly to the story’s major themes: we are human, we yield to temptation, the flesh is weak and desire is intoxicating, our dreams can seduce us, we can lose ourselves in them, and we sometimes need to be broken before we can clearly see the folly of our own blindness.

Not to mention, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

None of that is the product of accidental storytelling. 

Rather, it is a model of story planning that unfolds in a perfectly natural organic way…

… even if it could never really be written that way.  Hornby had to have those themes at the forefront of his story structure from the opening scene.

In this case, because Hornby was dealing with a memoir, he had to summon the theme from the memoirist’s reality through 62 one-act plays, then drive them home with those four glorious scenes in which we see a learning curve blossom into fruition to save a life.

Which touches us because we’ve all been there, or near there.  This is a story about hope after heartbreak, about the power of one’s belief in themselves, no matter how low we’ve fallen.

And so we, as storytellers, are left with our own questions to answer.  Answers which must crystallize before our story will work.

What is your story really about?  Thematically… dramatically… experientially.  Do you have a strategy for it?  A story plan, even if it’s only in your head?

That answer is the most critical part of your storytelling.  Even before your write a word.

End your story how you need to end your story. 

I hope you got as much out of deconstructing An Education as I did.  If you’d like to see the scene log I used in this series, click here.

Also, please check out my guest post today on Sirius Graphix, on structuring a genre novel.


Filed under An Education-- the series

5 Responses to 5) “An Education” – The 4th and Final Part of this Story

  1. I don’t think there was a problem with the ending scenes.

    In a way, those scenes were a great way for us to exhale and allow ourselves to be “told” how we know it should end.

  2. Martha Miller

    You outdid yourself here, Larry! This was a great analysis and one that hit hard for me. “What is my story really about?”
    I’m going to print this post to refer to now and then because it has some points on story telling I want to be sure to remember.

  3. Monica

    Terrific finish, Larry! You’ve made me take a 2nd look @ my ending – one I had planned early on – if it does not match what my story’s REALLY about, I have to accept that I’ve got to change it.
    Thanks for laying it all out so clearly!

  4. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
    I did like the deconstruction, but I didn’t like the ending of this movie. It seemed too short to cram in all those “scene lessons.” The movie went from an interesting ‘what comes next?’ to ‘she learned her lesson but with very few consequences’– in four scenes, no less. She still accomplished the same goals the same way. Psychic scars as character arc?
    I realize I’m probably alone here on my little interpretation island…
    Thanks– Kelly

  5. Gill Hill

    I agree with Kelly, I was slightly let down by the ending, particularly the last lines. It jarred with me that it was told in a different way to the rest of the story.

    I’m also interested in what you and other commenters think about the feminist perspective which I noticed, and frequently came up with her dad, which is that going to university is just about finding a man, and she short circuited that (or thought she did) with David. I definitely thought of that with the last comment about pretending that she hadn’t been to Paris – now she hides a part of her life which just a few months before made her feel grown up, and she pretends to be young and inexperienced, while having gained something from the experience with David.

    At the moment, I am trying to figure out how I would end it to be more satisfied. I am struggling, but then I am no Nick Hornby !