9) “Shutter Island” – Plot Point Two and the Final Act

The latest in a series of posts that deconstructs Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island” – both book and movie.

If you’d like to review or catch up on previous posts, you’ll find those links at the end of this article.

According to the principles of story structure, Part 3 of a well-told story (roughly the third quartile) is all about the hero getting into the game. 

About taking action, becoming proactive.

The second half of Part 3, after a bruised and bloody George Noyce plants a seed of doubt in Teddy’s mind that maybe Chuck isn’t his friend after all, or even who he  claims to be – which is, of course, spot-on accurate – Teddy does the most assertive thing he’s done yet in this story – he ditches Chuck. 

This is just the place for that aggression.  It’s Part 3, after all.

His goal at this point is to make his way to the lighthouse to find Laeddis.  He’s talked himself into the validity of this goal, with Chuck playing along all the while.

But suddenly, he’s not so sure.

This happens after Chuck flashes a morsel of real-world truth to see how Teddy might react, hoping it might jar his memory back to reality, which it doesn’t.

Chuck shows Teddy Andrew Laeddis’ two-year-old admittance paperwork, signed at the time of his committal to the institution.  But rather than jarring him back to sanity, it only confirms the Noyce-inspired suspicion that Chuck is playing for the other team. 

Messing with him.  Just like everyone else.

And so Teddy tells Chuck to take a hike.

The rest of Part 3 shows Teddy making his way alone, then doubling back to see the body of Chuck on the rocks at the base of a cliff.  We don’t know if he jumped, or if one of the evil-doers on the island did him in.

It’s a hallucination, we ultimately learn, but one the audience buys at this point because we were all still under Lehane’s narrative spell.

Teddy works his way down the rocks.  But there is no Chuck at the waterline.  No dead body.  Just more confusion… for Teddy and for us.

Evil-doers, indeed.

On his way back up, after encountering a few thousand resident rodents, Teddy finds Chuck’s paperwork, which had flown away in the wind.  You can tell he senses something disturbing about it, something confusing, but all suspicion is put aside when he sees something else entirely.

What he sees is the coming of Plot Point Two.

The flickering light of a fire can be seen coming from the mouth of a cave. 

When he climbs up and goes inside, he encounters a woman who claims to be the missing Rachael Solondo.   

Like Teddy, she’s been victimized by Dr. Cawley.  That she was, in fact, not a patient at all, but a doctor.  One who didn’t buy into Cawley’s agenda.

She explains all the dark doings that Cawley and Naehring are up to, medical experiments and lobotomies and pharmaceutical mayhem, all with the distinct odor of military intelligence.

All of which confirms Teddy’s suspicions. 

This is an important context to understand in retrospect.  Because everything about this scene was a hallucination on Teddy’s part.

And thus, the moment their encounter is over, it becomes Plot Point Two.

Because from Teddy’s point of view, all of his suspicions have been confirmed.  All of his doubts put to rest.

It’s new narrative information that lights the fuse on the final act. 

Teddy has to act.  To expose the dark agenda of Shutter Island.  To nail Cawley and Naehring.

Just as any self-respecting U.S. Marshall would do.

And in the process, he’ll find Laeddis there.

This is what a good man would do.  And Teddy is, above all else, a good man.

In Part 4 the hero rises.  And that is precisely Teddy’s intention.

The Launch of Part 4 

The final act of the movie – Part 4 of the story – is a linear series of scenes that show Teddy making his way toward the lighthouse.  He climbs up… he traverses the rocks… he swims for it… he clobbers a guard… he climbs stairs with gun in hand… and then…

… he finds Dr. Cawley.  Waiting for him.  Expecting him.

The rest of the story – which comprises the second half of Part 4 – involves the tying up of loose ends.  It is an amazing revelation, both to Teddy and to the reader/viewer, who for the first time is let in on the truth behind the entire narrative charade.

That thud you heard was your jaw hitting the floor.

Part 4, perfectly executed.  The hero rising, risking courageously, finding the truth.  Confronting inner demons, seemingly conquering them.  Loose ends neatly connected.  Shock and awe for everyone, with a heavy dose of mind-bending theme slathered over everything.

But then, just when you think this revelation and the horrific flashback that explains it all is enough to bring this story to a close, Teddy and Dennis Lehane have one more killer twist in store.

For us… for Dr. Cawley… for the newly-identified Dr. Sheehan (heretofore known to him and us as Chuck)… and, we are left to surmise, perhaps to Teddy himself.

Is he cured?  Or is he insane?

This is Lehane’s final expository triumph in this story.  Because you and I get to decide.

And even – in the movie at least – when Teddy actually tells us, we still aren’t quite sure.

Tomorrow’s post: The Conclusion of Shutter Island

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.

And finally, for your consideration… click HERE to see a video trailer for my new/current novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder.


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction

9 Responses to 9) “Shutter Island” – Plot Point Two and the Final Act

  1. Can the Setup/Response/Attack/Resolution structure, with appropriate plot points, be used for short stories? I used this structure for a 1500 word (max) short story and while I found it difficult to include any meaningful pinch points, I found that the final result really flowed well.

  2. I wonder the same as Tony – can this be accomplished with a short? It seems to me, if you’ve honed your craft well enough, it CAN be done, but I imagine it would take a lot of practice to perfect that. Kudos to you Tony, for making it happen in a short!

    This is the part that made me wish I’d seen the movie before reading the book, (I missed it in theaters and have to wait a whole month more for the DVD). I’m glad to know confusion was the point in this part of the story, as I was thoroughly confused and wondered if it was just me. 🙂

    I’m anxious for the next installment!

  3. @Tony & Deanna — great question, one I get a lot, and one that is a tough answer, too. Yes, you certain can use the 4-part structure for short stories. But you don’t have to.

    Short stories are, in some ways, a more complex and challenge form of writing fiction. Because unlike novels and screenplays, you can get away with less (or no) conflict, you can write the story as a slice of life, a stream of consciousness rant, a moment in time. Which means, you can slice into the 4-part structure and grab a small portion, then craft it into a perfectly fine short story.

    In Shutter, for example, that whole scene in the case with his imaginary Rachael could be lifted out and, with minimal changing (a short intro and exit line or two), become a short story.

    You both are deeply engaged in this structure that I’m betting you see this right off. In a short story some of the elements can be implied rather than fully executed, where in long-form fiction you need to cover all the bases.

    Hope this helps, thanks for participating!

  4. trudy

    And the end of the movie, I went back to the scene with the second rachel in the cave because I found that the most confusing part, even more than the george noyes scene. but in the context of teddy’s insanity, it does. i think that is what is most intriguing about the story, and what you conclude this post with- do we ever really know if teddy is insane or not. This question ties back to the prologue, with the Dr.’s reminising about this patient and his story. excellent series, Larry. thanks, t

  5. Kelly

    In part three, T does not read the intake form (the information about Laeddis). I don’t recall that he ever reads it. Denial?
    I’m glad to see your thoughts about the cave encounter being a hallucination; it’s less clear in the movie, IMHO.
    Cured versus insane… I vote T clings to the security of insanity (in both the movie and the book).
    Liked your comments above about structure- just sent in my first 1500 word short story, waiting to see what happens.
    Thanks– Kelly

  6. @Kelly — to clarify, you’re right about Teddy not looking at the intake form when Chuck gives it to him. But he does look at it when he’s climbing up the rocks, reads it, and it clearly troubles him.

    As for the cave hallucination, by design it’s not clear that this is all inside his head at the time. We’re supposed to buy into it. But it is very clear at the end that this was so, as Cawley explains to him. This isn’t one of those fuzzy areas where we’re supposed to make up our own mind (like his ultimate sanity, as you point out), it was a successful deception that isn’t exposed as such until Cawley lays everything out in the final lighthouse scene.

    I appreciate the depth with which you’re participating here, there’s much to learn from all of us. I’m reading Lehane’s next book now — “The Given Day,” and it’s brilliant beyond belief. Just as much if not more so than Shutter, if nothing else than the fact that it’s a historical, character-driven story (very different from his other stuff), very literary, and therefore somewhat under the commercial weather. It’s inspiring and intimidating at the same time… what are we to think when, as we read, we realize we can never reach that level? Guess we’re not supposed to think that way… but damn, that guy can write.

  7. Kelly

    Will go look for the new Lehane. If it’s better than Shutter Island… hard to believe he can outdo himself, but I’d like to see it.
    I really enjoy your perspectives on writing. What is next after the deconstruction here is finished?

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

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