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.