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You’ve arrived at a place where serious writers – novelists, screenwriters, memoirists, short story writers and anyone else with an interest in writing, even bloggers – delve deep into the craft of storytelling, with an emphasis on the principles of narrative structure and the techniques of characterization.
We’re currently deconstructing Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island” – both the book and the movie. You can link to the previous posts in this series below. Also, feel free to explore the Archives here on Storyfix, it’s full of concise information on structure, and on the rest of The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.
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On to today’s post.
The great Liberating Truth About Writing a Story
The unexpected “ah-hah!” and perhaps most empowering thing about understanding the principles of story structure is what I like to call mission-driven storytelling.
Four parts to a story, four different contextual “missions” for the scenes that comprise them. Wow.
Why didn’t somebody tell us this a long time ago? It answers the burning question writers ask, whether they even admit to themselves or not, and sometimes over decades of study: what do I write next, and how do I know if that’s the right choice?
Think of writing a story as something akin to raising a child.
Your parenting has a very different and distinct contextual mission over the life of your child, defined in blocks of years: infant, toddler, snot-nosed kid, teen, clueless young adult, and then… too late now, they’re on their own.
We’re just lucky if they’re even talking to us at this point.
The reasonable parent doesn’t treat a teen the same way they’d treat an adult. And you don’t write a Part 1 scene the way you’d write a Part 3 scene… or any other scene that isn’t in Part 1.
The mission of Part 3 is to show the hero/protagonist becoming proactive. To turn her or him into a warrior.
In Part 2 your hero – if you executed it properly – was mostly just wandering and responding.
To what? he First Plot Point that launched it (Part 2, or the second quartile of our story).
Your hero didn’t get very far, she or he didn’t make great decisions, and she or he basically just tried to stay alive and in the game (that, of course, depending on genre, not all stories are life and death).
If you have them doing too much in Part 2, you’ve made a mistake.
Then the Mid-Point hits… new information enters the picture… and now the hero has turned a corner. She or he is going after it. Trying things. Being courageous and strategic.
What they try to do to reach their goal (or fill their need) in Part 3 doesn’t always work – in fact, it shouldn’t – but this is the place in the story where the hero is taking destiny into her or his own hands.
Part 3 in Shutter Island
The Part 3 scenes in Shutter Island – all nine of them – show Teddy invading Ward C to find Andrew Laeddis… so he can kill him. This is the very essence of a protagonist being proactive… he’s literally knocking over anything and anyone in his way to find what he wants.
Back in Part 2, all he did was ask questions and offer theories. Nothing at all was accomplished, other than the deepening of the reader/viewer’s confusion.
The running time of the movie (and number of pages in the book) in these scenes comprises roughly 25 percent of the total, as they should. And if you want to dispute the number of scenes, be my guest… because what we have here in Part 3 is a series of sequences, each of which depicts quick moments and, in the movie, edits.
One could argue that Part 3 is really only three scenes (better described here as sequences – charging into Ward C… talking to George Noyce… and shaking loose of Chuck in the woods), and that case could be won.
Doesn’t matter. It’s volume — pages and percentages — not breakdown, that counts at this point.
The context of everything in this part of the story is different than before.
The Part 3 Pinch Point
Like Part 2, Part 3 benefits from the insertion of a moment in the middle – squarely – that brings the primary conflict of the story back to center stage. Which is to say, Teddy and his pursuit step aside for a moment while the narrative, in whatever form, focuses on what the drama is all about, and perhaps the stakes.
This is the definition of a Pinch Point.
In Part 3 of Shutter (which began at the Mid-Point showing Teddy and Chuck at the beginning of their assault on Ward C), the precise moment of the Pinch Point is at the end of one of the most dramatic – and confusing if you don’t know what’s really going on – in the entire story. It’s where Teddy finds George Noyce shivering in his cell, when we see his face we see that someone has beaten the holy hell out of him.
The Pinch Point moment is when the very cranky and cryptic George tells Teddy that it was he – Teddy – who delivered that beating.
The second viewing of this scene, in context to what you know to be the truth and the destination of the story, is amazingly on the nose. It tells everything from Noyce’s real world POV context (rather than Teddy’s fantasized context, which is all we’ve had until this very moment) – you need to let Dolores go… you did this to me… you’re crazy… Chuck isn’t who you think he is… they’re going to cut your brain out of your head… everything you think is real is not real… and so forth.
In plain English. Noyce reveals every secret of Shutter Island.
And virtually nobody in the audience, or reading the book, gets that on the first pass.
The rest of Part 3 is a dramatic sequence in which Teddy acts on this new information. He suddenly suspects Chuck of being something other than what he presents himself to be, and as a result shakes him loose going forward.
Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Teddy believes Chuck fell to his death – remember, we’re back in Teddy’s warped fantasy world now – which turns out to be another hallucination.
Teddy’s going to the lighthouse now.
Because – remember again, Teddy doesn’t really understanding everything Noyce told him – that’s where Laeddis is being kept.
Which is precisely what Dr. Cawley, the enigmatic puppet-master scripting this entire therapeutic charade, had intended all along.
Tomorrow’s post: The Second Plot Point and Part 4.
Interested in revisiting prior posts in this series?
For installment 1, an Introduction to the series, click here.
For installment 2, a Structural Primer, click here.
For installment 3, the Opening Act, click here.
For installment 4, more on the Opening Act, click here.
For installment 5, Evaluating the Part 1 scenes, click here.
For installment 6, the First Plot Point, click here.
For installment 7A, overview of Part 2, click here.
For installment 7B, more on Part 2 and the Mid-Point, click here.
And… for more information about story structure (this will send you to a description of my ebook on the subject), click HERE.
Rather read more about building credible and compelling characters? Click HERE for that one.