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.