7-A) “Shutter Island” – The Part 2 “Response”

The first of two parts on this part of the deconstruction.

Shutter Island gives us one of the most layered and complex opening acts in recent thriller memory, with a First Plot Point that is as understated as it is stealthily ambitious in the way it pivots this story in another direction.

In some ways, after tearing into this with and for you, I’m feeling like it’s not an ideal deconstruction example after all.  It’s one of those “don’t try this at home” stories, best left to the masterful professionals we all aspire to be.

Bestselling authors can get away with almost anything.  And if it doesn’t work, someone in New York will fix it.  When it doesn’t work for us, we get it back in the SASE we enclosed with the manuscript.

Attempting to learn structure, theme and characterization from Shutter Island is like trying to understand classic oil painting technique by taking a microscope to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  The ladder is wicked high and you’ll have to lie flat on your back to make sense of it.

If you’re a painter and you’ve been there, I trust you didn’t fly home and immediately try to sketch out something of comparable complexity.

That said, this story does align with and exemplify the storytelling principles we need to understand to craft publishable work, so with a humble tip of the pen to Dennis Lehane, let us continue.

Part 1 vs. Part 2 Storytelling

Any effective Part 1 in a novel or screenplay is arguably the toughest of the four to pull off.  That’s because it’s the sneakiest and most subtle quartile, it can’t go too far too fast, it can’t say too much, yet it has to lead to someplace very specific.

That specific place is the First Plot Point, which is – in my view – the most important and meaningful moment in your story.  Even more so from a writing point of view (your readers may disagree) than how it all ends.

That said, Part 2 is no piece of storytelling cake.  The trick is in understanding how Part 1 differs from Part 2, and then how Part 2 is unique in terms of mission from Parts 3 and 4.

All four parts of a story have different missions, and therefore different contexts.

This mission and context of Part 1 is to set-up the forthcoming Plot Point One, and to create context (stakes, foreshadowing and characterization) that permeate and affect the rest of the story.

Part 2, on the other hand, has a more direct mission.  Easier to grasp.  Yet still risky, because the overwhelming temptation in Part 2 is, like it was in Part 1, to do too much too soon.  And yet, continue exposition and the building of tension.

The mission of Part 2 is to show how the character responds to what you’ve put before her or him at the First Plot Point, and in context to what we know about our hero from Part 1, inner demons in particular.

In other words, if the hero was broken in Part 1, she or he is still broken in Part 2.  They may wear the hero nametag, but that comes later.

Because, like most of us reading the story, it is those inner demons that will define and drive the hero’s initial reaction to a challenge, to trouble or to opportunity.

And that’s what Part 2 is all about in terms of mission and context.

Part 2 in Shutter Island

While Part 1 may have shown the hero reacting to things that aren’t relevant or fully formed – as it was with Teddy getting all lathered about finding the missing Rachael Solondo – in Part 2 we need to focus the reaction of the hero on what they’ve just learned (or sometimes we’ve just learned) about their forthcoming journey.

In Shutter, Teddy’s First Plot Point revelation is the realization that he’s on the island not to find Rachael, but to find and kill Andrew Laeddis, the whackjob that he believes killed his wife and children in a deliberately-set fire.

New information comes into the story at this point that complicates Teddy’s new quest, which must be undertaken while still engaging in the search for Rachael. 

He begins to suspect the complicity of Cawley and the staff, especially the nefarious Dr. Naehring.

He receives a message to “run” from a patient he is interviewing.

He gets mixed messages from Chuck, his partner in the investigation.

He isn’t feeling well.  In fact, he’s getting sicker and sicker.

He figures out the riddle found in Rachael’s room – “Who is number 67?” and challenges Cawley about it in front of the entire Board of Directors.

An approaching storm removes any hope he might have had of leaving this crazy place.  He has mixed emotions about that, because while he couldn’t care less about finding Rachael, he would really like to find and nail Laeddis.

And then, in what might seem like a late plot point (it’s not) or an early Mid-Point (it’s not), Cawley reveals that they’ve found Rachael.  Proving that you can drop all the bombs you want on your reader and still not get around the need for structural milestones.

Teddy interviews Rachael, discover’s she totally, completely out of her mind.  His purpose on the island is gone.  At least on the surface.  What to do, what to do… he hasn’t found Laeddis yet.

And of course, he keeps having those pesky flashbacks and delusions.

This is where sub-text becomes paramount to the storytelling. 

Because while all this on the surface seems to focus on his search for Rachael, the truth is he needs to make forward progress on that front in order to buy time to locate Laeddis.

And when Rachael conveniently shows up, there’s the good fortune of that storm trapping him on the island. 

Through it all he gets more candid and thinks deeper with Chuck as his sounding board.  He explores possible military medical experiments on the mind, which connects to Dr. Naehring’s presense.  It is from within these discussions that the backstory of Laeddis emerges, much to Chuck’s seeming fascination.

Everything we see, while moving the façade of Teddy’s fantasy plotline forward, is in context to Teddy’s search for Laeddis.

All of which is a response to Plot Point One.  Precisely as it should be in Part 2 of this or any story.

Notice that nothing really happens on the Laeddis front, other than a bunch of scary theories on Teddy’s part.  He’s not in active problem-solving mode yet, and as the antagonist – the specter of his own insanity – intensifies, his reactions become more extreme.

Such as his paranoia, as shown when he explains his war-crimes conspiracy theory in detail to Chuck while waiting out the story in a cemetery crypt.

But quickly after that scene, everything is again about to change. 

Tomorrow – the Part 2 Pinch and Mid-Point Analyses.

Blame my wife.  She suggests that this post is too long, and best absorbed in two bite-sized segments. 

I know better than to argue with her.  She’s almost always right.

Unless it’s about directions.  On that issue, I rule.


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction

10 Responses to 7-A) “Shutter Island” – The Part 2 “Response”

  1. So, would your wife telling you to break it up into two segments be your FPP? :)’

    Seriously, thanks for all you are doing here. We should be paying you for this.

  2. I agree with Shane – this deconstruction is well worth a full, and not cheap, writing course.
    This whole series has caused me to completely rethink the novel I’m writing, (my first one – I’ve only been writing short fiction for less than a year). That’s frustrating of course, because I feel all the work I’ve put into it thus far is wasted, but then I remind myself that no time spent writing is wasted at all. It’s only building up to the closest I can get to perfection, (perfectionism = bad habit of mine).

    Yes, (as if you asked), you should always listen to the wife. 🙂

    Thanks so much Larry for this incredibly helpful series!

  3. Sarah Brandel

    I picked up the book and read it over the past few days, inspired by your careful, insightful explanation of how the story works. (I’d already seen the movie.) It really is a different experience, reading the book when you already know the ending and can pick out all the signs of what’s to come.

    One tiny nitpick about this section (I’m an editor, it’s what I do): “In Shutter, Teddy’s First Plot Point revelation is the realization that he’s on the island not to find Rachael, but to find and kill Andrew Laeddis, the whackjob that he believes killed his wife and children in a deliberately-set fire.”

    Teddy doesn’t believe he had children, at this point, and they’re never mentioned as having died in the fire, just his wife.

    I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series! One question: There’s a line at the end of the movie that Teddy says that doesn’t appear in the book, something to the effect of, “I think it’s better to die as a hero than live as a monster.” This difference doesn’t quite fit into the theme of the series you’ve written, but I’m curious as to whether you think that line makes the ending work better in the movie (the book just cuts off abruptly), or if that makes it too much of a Hollywood ending, as it implies that he’s somehow made a rational choice to go mad rather than face what he’s done.

    Thanks for all the work you’ve put into this!

  4. @ Shane, @ Deanna,
    Shhhhhhhh! Larry’s course would be worth a fortune, and having attended writers’ conferences and workshops and paid a bunch that didn’t come close to this information…. Shhhhhhhh!
    Dr. Kris

  5. @Sarah, I’m going to bet you money that we’ll have a lively discussion in the comments when Larry finishes his deconstruction about the end of the book. Honestly? I liked the statement at the end–and yeah, I read the book first. It didn’t really make it too “Hollywood” for me and Dennis Lehane talks about it in an interview: http://moviesblog.mtv.com/2010/03/03/shutter-island-author-dennis-lehane-gives-his-read-on-the-movies-ending/

    I like the idea of “leaving it open” where you don’t quite know if Teddy’s pretending or not. But BOTH ways work for me–personally, if I were Teddy, I don’t know if I would really want to remember what had happened. As a parent, I ached just thinking about it as I watched the movie, knowing what Teddy was going to find out.

    @Larry, yes, Dennis Lehane is a masterful storyteller and this is a good book, but I think you’re putting too much of an emphasis on the final product. I’m rather curious as to how much rewriting Lehane did and adding in AFTER his first draft. Yes, I agree that he did have to know what his ending was going to be, but he could also go back after that initial draft and fix things up, change it here, change it there, making it better.

    And if you “don’t try this at home,” how do you know if you would ever be successful at it? 🙂

  6. @Sarah — ah, we aren’t at the end yet. The theme fits perfectly. The reason for Teddy’s fantasy identity, self-chosen and created within his own subconscious, is precisely centered on the theme — Teddy can’t live with himself and what he did. So he needs to become someone else. That’s what is discovered at the end… and it MUST be something the writer has in mind from the beginning.

    I promise you, Lehane didn’t pants this. Or if he did — like any pantser who succeeds — he couldn’t write a draft that works until all of the Big Ideas and ah-hah! moments have crystalized, in which case he has to start over on a new draft that foreshadows and contextualizes what he now knows about his story (and didn’t when he was pantsing).

    Lehane isn’t returning my emails, do I don’t know how he did it, process-wise. But it doesn’t matter — you can’t write a book this complicated without knowing precisely how it ends, what it means, why it happens this way, and what the structural parts. Absolutely impossible to make up as you go along.

  7. Kelly

    Hello Larry. Kelly here.
    Teddy’s flashback under the breezeway seems to have been precipitated by the rain- water being a recurring theme throughout this work. It’s interesting that Dolores was “…terrified of fire”, and she died in a fire. Was Dolores actually terrified of water, and T has processed water into fire to fit his delusion?
    Is there some special significance to George Noyce, other than as a vehicle for T to discuss transorbital lobotomies and relay his theories about what goes on at Asheville?
    The book is a complicated masterpiece- few can breathe the rarified air of a Dennis Lehane- but very interesting for dissection in my view. I’m enjoying it.
    Thanks– Kelly

  8. @Kelly — you are analytical, aren’t you. 🙂

    Not sure about the water – fire thing, you may be right… but I can explain George Noyce.

    Remember, nothing about the Teddy we’ve met (as a U.S. Marshall) is real. Fact is, he’s been an inmate/patient at the hospital for the past two years. Noyce was another patient there. Andrew Laeddis (who it Teddy), the patient, had assumed a false identity, one that all the other patients knew was false. Noyce called him on it a few weeks before our story started, and Laeddis/Teddy beat the crap out of him. Then, when Teddy breaks into Ward C to find Laeddis, he finds Noyce (everything he’d told Chuck about Noyce was a lie, Noyce never left the hospital) instead. And once again — read that dialogue and you’ll see — Noyce called Teddy out, speaks the truth. Only this time, Teddy seems to recognize some truth in it, or at least it confuses rather than enrages him.

    That moment, by the way, is the Part 3 Pinch Point — the truth of Teddy’s antagonist (himself) coming front and center for the reader/viewer. And for the first time, in a clear, non-Dolores-crazy way.

    Noyce isn’t really a vehicle for Teddy, he’s an integral part of the truth that resides behind Teddy’s fictional world.

  9. Pingback: 10) “Shutter Island” – How It All Ends, and What to Make of It

  10. Naval

    this is such a great to read ,i will like to know , is there 2nd part of this movie ? cause it keeps me thinking, what happend in last, i just wanna know , if anyone know please help me and tell me if there is 2nd part of this movie