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The nature and components of an effective opening act is often the place unpublished authors trip themselves up.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

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

  1. Monica Rodriguez

    I am TOTALLY loving this! (and yes, all caught up) The way you’re going so in depth into this is downright enlightening. You’re not just analyzing the story scene by scene, you then show how it fits into traditional story structure, hits all the required points, etc. All those things Lehane did perfectly. It’s like show and tell! Here’s story structure, and here’s an example of how you do it.

    I’m learning tons from this. I feel like I should print out these posts and keep them by my computer when I write!
    Thank you!

  2. @Monica — glad you’re getting a lot out of this. Not many comments recently… my wife suggests I’m posting these too quickly (daily). I’ll have another post tomorrow (Friday) about the First Plot Point, then give everyone the weekend to absorb and catch up. Then back in on Monday being Part 2. Because Part 1 is so critical and has so many dimensions, I spent more time here than I will on the other three “parts,” mainly focusing on how they conform to their assigned contexts (response to the plot point/conflict, attacking the quest and moving forward, and the resolving it in Part 4… and it’s quite a resolution, in this case.)

    Thanks for participating.

  3. Stephanie St.Clair

    Excellent post!

    I’m about halfway through your book, “Story Structure – Demystified” and these series of posts have helped my understanding of your concepts. (I bought “Shutter Island” just so I could follow your analysis.)

    Now, I need to hurry up and finish your book (and “Shutter Island”) before next week’s post. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your expertise!

  4. Kelly

    Curiouser and curiouser.
    Regarding the stakes-
    Initially, T’s goal is to find the missing patient. The stakes associated with this (presumably) are a dangerous patient/prisoner on the loose, and possibly escaping off the island to wreak havoc on the mainland.
    The real stakes are the hunt for Andrew Laeddis, which the first plot point reveals…
    Thanks– Kelly

  5. @kelly – you’re right on. But the stakes are greater than simply finding Laeddis… finding him is key to Teddy’s sanity, and Cawley’s continued survival within the hospital hierachy, perhaps even the viability of the hospital itself. Cawley cares about his patient (Teddy/Andrew), certainly, but his stakes are his own career and his belief in the methodology he believes will help people. It all depends on Teddy discovering who he is, through “finding” Laeddis, even though he has no idea of the depth of that meaning and outcome.

  6. Monica Rodriguez

    Thanks for that comment on stakes, Larry. Helps to clarify it a bit more. You know I’m always foggy on that one. I think I can see it here now.

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