6) “Shutter Island” – The First Plot Point Cometh

In the 16th scene of Shutter Island, at about the 32 minute mark in the movie, and on the 89th page of the paperback movie reissue of Dennis Lehane’s bestselling novel by the same name, something happens.

Something huge.

Everything changes because of what happens.

And because none of us really understood what this story was actually about on the first pass, none of us got it.  Didn’t see it coming, didn’t assign much meaning to it when it arrived.

At least, not until we were on Shutter Island with Teddy for the second time.

Or for some of us, a third time.

For a few of us, not at all.

What happens is that subtle.  Even though, at the same time, it’s that significant.

In fact, it’s the most important moment of this or any other story.

 Welcome to the First Plot Point.

Everything we’ve just experienced through 15 movie scenes and 88 pages has led us to this moment. 

Everything we’ve read in this series up until this point has led us to it.

The First Plot Point.  The moment when everything shifts.

The moment when the actual story officially, noticeably, begins

Everything in Part 1 that we’ve seen or read prior to the First Plot Point – in virtually any competent story – has existed for the purpose of setting us (the audience) up for it.

Not solely for that purpose, just primarily for that purpose.  It has other work to do, as well.

To wrap your head around all this, you need to understand what a First Plot Point is… where it happens… why it happens… and what happens after it happens.

Once we cover that ground, I’ll tell you what the First Plot Point in Shutter Island was… where it happened (wait, already told you that…)… why it happens… and how it creates the context for everything that takes place after it.

Plot Point One – Generically Revisited

A novel or a movie can be broken down into four distinct parts, each with its own unique mission and context.  (In movie-talk there are only three parts – three Acts – but the middle segment, called The Confrontation, can be broken in half, and when you do that you have a nearly identical structure of four roughly equal parts in terms of length, and four very different parts in terms of mission. 

Part 1 exists to set-up the story. 

To be more precise, to set-up the First Plot Point.  There are a handful of bases it needs to cover to do it – check out the previous two posts in the series to review them.

The scene, or the moment that separates Part 1 from Part 2 is called the First Plot Point.  Some call it the inciting incident… same exact thing.

Prior to the First Plot Point we’ve met the hero, we see what she or he is all about in her or his life, perhaps we even see her or him in the midst of some quest or need or journey – or not – and we know a little about this person. 

Like, their outer persona as well as their inner landscape (demons, preferences, belief systems, etc.), both of which influence how they are perceived and the decisions they make.

We also know what’s at stake in their life.  Which, by the way, is about to change (at the First Plot Point), at least in the near-term.

The showing and telling of all of this is the mission of Part 1. 

The mission of Plot Point One is to throw something new into the narrative mix that changes everything.  And in several critical ways.

Not to say that there haven’t been plot twists prior to the FPP and it’s assigned location, which is between the 20th and 25th percentile of the story’s length.

Always.  No exceptions.  Refer to the previous paragraph.  No matter how many or how pronounced any plot twist in Part 1 may be, you still need a proper First Plot Point moment, and you need to put in the correct place. 

If you doubt this, try to find a commercial movie (not an art film) or a published novel without one. 

By the way, the First Plot Point in Shutter Island – which I’m about to reveal and discuss – occurs at the 24th percentile.  And that’s for both the movie and the novel.

If you’ve got the paperback handy, go ahead, do the math: the FPP occurs on page 89, out of 369 total pages. 

This is not a coincidence. 

Because Lehane and Martin Scorsese know what they’re doing as storytellers.

The mission of the First Plot Point is to inject new information into the mix that either begins, shifts, complicates or otherwise launches the character and the plot down a new and/or altered path. 

A path that is different than it was in the story’s preceding Part 1 scenes.

Because of what happens at Plot Point One, the hero has a new need, a new quest, a new goal, a new journey.  Or, if it isn’t completely new, it’s shifted somehow – it’s harder, it’s more meaningful, it’s complicated in some way.

This Plot Point One change or shift – sometimes an unexpected twist, or sometimes it’s the outcome or fruition of a seed planted earlier (that’s called foreshadowing)… sometimes something very subtle, as seemingly innocent as a softly uttered line of dialogue – actually launches the storyline.

Everything prior to this moment has been incomplete information.

Everything after this moment – even though it may change or evolve even further through more forthcoming plot twists, as it should – is, in this isolated moment, and just for that moment, and for the first time in the story, complete.

Three other things are essential to the First Plot Point.

There are now stakes attached to the forthcoming new or changed hero’s journey.  We understand what she or he has to lose, what she or he has to gain, and why this is meaningful to her or him.

Or them.  Or it… whatever your protagonist may be in your story.

If the writer has done the job in Part 1, we also are invested in the hero’s success or failure on this new or shifted quest.  We feel for them.  We empathize with their need.  And most of all, we root for them.

And thirdly, the First Plot Point is the first comprehensible, meaningful look (or understanding) at an antagonistic force that will oppose, seek to block or hinder, or otherwise defeat the hero along the way. 

The bad guy. 

Or, if you’re writing about the Titanic, an iceberg.  Or if you’re writing about a natural disaster, the instrument of Mother Nature’s fury. 

Whatever – the antagonist/bad guy is the obstacle that stands between what the hero now (at the FPP) wants and needs and the achievement of that goal.

Which, if you’ve done this right, is different than it was before.

Don’t blink, you might miss it.

Here it is.  The First Plot Point in Shutter Island occurs during one of Teddy’s delusional fantasies.  He’s with his wife in some twilight zone of a room.  She’s wearing the dress she wore when she was killed.  She’s speaking cryptically to him about needing to let her go, and that she’s there with him, but she’s not.

And then, right before she incinerates in his arms, she says it.  Dolores — the vision that is the voice of Teddy’s subconscious guilt, the voice of truth in this story – tells him that “Laeddis is here.”

That’s it?  Really?

Yup.  That’s the First Plot Point of Shutter Island.

Because everything changes for Teddy from that moment onward. 

 He has a new goal – to find and kill Laeddis

He has stakes – revenge for his wife’s death on one level (his), and the validation of Cawley and his treatment (on a realistic level, rather than Teddy’s delusional one).   

Everything in this story depends on Teddy’s new goal.

What we thought was Teddy’s quest in Part 1 – finding the missing Rachael Solondo – was only partial, incomplete and diversionary information, one that  was largely without stakes for Teddy.  Finding Rachael, it turns out, never was Teddy’s reason for “being” here.

He suspected Laeddis was on Shutter Island (he admits this later to Chuck).  And now, Dolores has confirmed it.  Which serves to alter the story – it shifts Teddy’s need and quest and stakes – to something new.

The real story of this movie and this novel begins right there.  Everything prior to this moment was just a set-up for it.

The opposing force?  Teddy’s insanity.  His ability to finally recognize and comprehend the truth.  Not Cawley… he’s actually on Teddy’s side in this, with much to gain from his success.

Teddy is his own bad guy.  Or rather, his inner demon is.

There you have it. 

Chew on this, it’s both challenging and meaty food for writerly thought.

Test it against the criteria for an effective First Plot Point, and you’ll see how this moment was not only needed and inevitable, you’ll also see why it – or any effective First Plot Point – couldn’t have come much earlier in the sequence of the story.

This is the genius of Shutter Island.  It’s a perfect model of Part 1 storytelling, because only by establishing the ruse, the set-up, would the rest of the story be possible.

And the rest of Shutter Island doesn’t begin until Plot Point One has hit the page or screen.

7) Coming Monday – the Part 2 quartile of Shutter Island.

CLICK HERE for more 101 on story structure.

CLICK HERE for an interview inspired by this series, from www.imperfectclarity.net.


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction

9 Responses to 6) “Shutter Island” – The First Plot Point Cometh

  1. For those that are following this with the Mass Market paperback in Australia, this plot point occurs on page 111. With the novel clocking in at 413 pages (in the Aussie version), it’s at the 27% mark, but that includes the prologue (which isn’t in the movie, and I don’t think is necessary in the book).

    The body of the story starts on page 21, making the FPP on page 90 of 392, or the 23% mark. Pretty darn close…

  2. Monica Rodriguez

    Cool interview at Imperfect Clarity. Great point you made when you said, you learn the principles first, then go over examples, as with your deconstructions, to absorb the knowledge. It’s working for me!

    If I can say, I think Nanowrimo can be a positive process for writers. I’ll admit most people participating are pantsing it. But when I participated last Nov., I found it more an exercise to build a daily writing habit, to work – or blow – past inhibitions, and to fight procrastination. BUT, I did not 1 but 3-4 weeks of planning before I started writing. I then put it aside until March and started revising, and I still am. No, I didn’t need to tear it apart and start over. But it did need a lot more work on it. That I attribute to holes in my original plan – and that this is my first novel. Just my two cents. 😉

  3. Monica Rodriguez

    Now to get to your post…

    You know, when I got to the part where you said you were going to review the concept of the FPP, I almost skipped over it. [shaking my head] Then I thought that would be a mistake – there’s always a nugget, even when you’re reviewing things. And yes, I was right. Even though I’ve read Story Structure, and most of your blog posts on it, my understanding was still improved a fraction by reading your review here of the FPP. Maybe it’s just using different words this time than last time. It always helps.

    Spelling out the stakes, the antagonistic force, the moment of the FPP, it all helps. Because for us newbies, there’s always this bit of doubt – maybe I understand it, but maybe I’ve got it wrong. So, when you spell out what seems obvious, you’re confirming what I’m pretty sure I know. ‘I’m pretty sure I’ve got that – but…’ No, you erase the ‘buts’. And of course there are the times I’m off. You straighten me out before too much time goes by. So I appreciate all the spelling out.

    And Teddy’s his own bad guy. _That’s_ a story. Love seeing this through the writer’s lens. Can’t wait for Monday.

    Btw, you are clear that the FPP is the ‘inciting incident.’ No argument with you. But I recently read a book that equated the “hook” with the inciting incident (and besides, implied it should be the first scene or so in the book). This was very confusing – is it all a matter of semantics?


  4. Kelly

    In Shutter Island, Teddy isn’t even aware of the biggest stakes, at least not on a conscious level.
    If the opposing force puts obstacles in the way of the protagonist accomplishing his goal, does T’s insanity do this by providing diversionary information?
    It seems to me that the Dolores of his subconsious represents T’s inner demon-
    Thanks– Kelly

  5. @Kelly — you’re right, Dolores does represent Teddy’s inner demon. But in a way — and perhaps this is uniquely complex in Shutter Island — Teddy’s inner demon is already in control of him. It is his insanity, his inability to cope with the truth so he creates a fictional identity and scenario that preserves his “good man” identity. That means while Dolores is a product of his insanity (inner demon), she’s also the voice of truth from within it. Teddy knows what’s true, but he’s buried. Deep within that space where it is buried is where the image of Dolores dwells (lets’ be clear here, she’s not a ghost, it’s Teddy’s own subconscious conjured the truth), and she speak the truth to him from there.

    This twisted complexity of inner demon on the outside is one of the reasons this story is so brilliant. In some ways it’s not a great learning tool because we shouldn’t try to do what Lehane has done. And yet, it illustrates what’s possilbe, and how to do the seemingly impossible.

    Thanks for contributing, Kelly, your questions are always good ones.

  6. Derek

    Once again, I need to praise this blog/site. I first came to it to learn about Story Structure…then I tried to apply it to a story I have had rutting around in my mind for some time. It worked out some of the holes in it that were nagging me and I finally have a synapsis for all the major points in my story. But even after studying story structure, as always with the first time, one always has a nagging doubt that it isn’t applied correctly.

    Then I saw the deconstructions you have provided us. Breaking down every not so agonizing point. I love it and it reinforces what you teach and helps at least this virtual student.

    Thanks again.

  7. Rick

    I just found your site and really appreciate it. I ordered “Story Engineering” and can’t wait to dig into it!

    I have a question about our perception of the role Delores plays during our first trip to Shutter Island with Teddy. Why did we accept the notion that a dream about a dead wife could impart valid information: that Laeddis is on the island? I’ve only seen the movie version, but I never suspected Teddy was crazy until just moments before being told so. Nevertheless, I went along for the “Laeddis is here” ride anyway, based on a dream. Why, as readers and viewers, do we do that? Is it because we know books and movies do goofy things like that, so we play along? I’d like to say, “I thought it was his subconscious interpreting something he’d seen on the island as evidence Laeddis was there”, but that’s baloney. I just accepted it and went on with the story.

  8. @Rick — great question, not sure I have a definitive answer. Just a gut hunch. I think that we buy into the dangled possibilities of stories like this because we know we’re in a story in which things aren’t what they seem, either for us or the character. So we’re open, we’re hopeful, and we’re already looking behind the curtain in anticipation. Lehane masterfully manipulated all of these, turning the reader into a pawn as much as the characaters themselves (this is the genius of this story, I think). Certainly much harder to pull off than it looks, and oh-so-fun when it works. That’s my take… thoughts? Larry

  9. Charley Smith

    Hey Larry,

    Just thought I would say a big thank you!!!!!!!! I am currently hunting the web for sources on Shutter Island and your posts are so helpful. I am currently desperate for anything on the genre of the film and the influences behind it. If anyone has anywhere I could find info (which could be referenced if possible) on this pleaaaase post?? Thanks again.