Category Archives: An Education– the series

5) “An Education” – The 4th and Final Part of this Story

The Conclusion of a 5-post Deconstruction of the Oscar-Nominated Film and Screenplay

The final act of this highly character-driven story can be broken down into two parts.  The first is launched by the Second Plot Point itself – Jenny discovers letters in David’s glove box from his wife – which soon gives way to what many writers might consider a cop out.

But is it?  Let’s look closer and see.

There are 11 scenes after the Plot Point, comprising only 16 minutes of running time.  That makes the final act/part a bit on the short side – as well as exposing the Second Plot Point as a bit on the late side.

But that call is always up for grabs.  We make or break the destiny of our stories with what we grab and how we hand it back to the reader.

Teachable moment here – the length parameters and placement targets of the structural principles are guidelines.  The degree to which you violate them is the degree to which you may be putting your story at risk, and the degree to which you get away with it may correspond to who you are in the writing business.

Then again, it just might work.  It’s always your call.

Nick Hornby gets a free pass on both counts. 

But it isn’t the length of this story’s final act that risked cutting a corner.  It’s the narrative context of the final scenes.  Hornby took a risk here, one that audiences, critics and Academy voters seemed to approve.

This entire story has been a series of dramatic scenes.  Of the 66 scenes in this film, 62 of them are little one-act plays, each with a mission, an ending that forwards the narrative, and a fresh stage upon which these characters do their thing.

As it should be.  That’s the nuts-and-bolts of scene writing as the building blocks of story architecture.

But then comes a discernable shift in the narrative context. 

Beginning with scene 63, the final push to the ending, everything changes. 

The story hasn’t yet reached its conclusion, but the means of getting there – scenes 63 through 66 – have a completely different narrative perspective.

Up until scene 63 the story has observed the show-don’t-tell mantra. 

From the Second Plot Point, we see Jenny respond to the letters… we see (actually we hear) David drive off forever… we see Jenny’s father’s love for his daughter surface amidst his own complicity… we see Jenny try to get back in school… we see her confront David’s wife… we see her alone with her loss of hope.

But beginning in scene 63 through the ending, the opposite happens – the narrative tells, rather than shows.

Is this okay?  Does it work?

To answer that question, we must return to the most basic and empowering question you, the writer, must answer when you set out to write a story: what is this story really about?

And in the case of An Education, it was about Jenny’s journey with David and how it impacted her life.  Not about the life that ensued from it.

Those final scenes are, in fact, a time-compressed launch of the life that ensued from it.  A preview of the consequences of her choices. 

You don’t have to be psychic to know the news that’s delivered in the final moments.  Hornby never tries to make that a dramatic premise. 

And yet, it works.  We feel it. 

Why?  How?  Did Hornby just get lucky here?  Or did he execute a strategy?

We feel the ending because of the effectiveness of the 62 scenes that preceded the ending 4-scene sequence.  Our emotions aren’t all that involved with those scenes, though – because of the 62 scenes that brought us to that moment – our empathy certainly is

Jenny’s heroism isn’t her decision to focus on her studies without the prep school behind her.  To return to her father’s dream, to the straight and narrow path that she believed would bore her to death.  Rather, her heroism is demonstrated via her summoning of the willpower – which was, in effect, almost literally beaten out of her by David’s deception – to move forward without him.

Her heroism was the realization that the life she sought was still out there, but she had to earn it first.

David was simply a catalyst, a lesson, in Jenny’s life.

This structure and focus speaks directly to the story’s major themes: we are human, we yield to temptation, the flesh is weak and desire is intoxicating, our dreams can seduce us, we can lose ourselves in them, and we sometimes need to be broken before we can clearly see the folly of our own blindness.

Not to mention, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

None of that is the product of accidental storytelling. 

Rather, it is a model of story planning that unfolds in a perfectly natural organic way…

… even if it could never really be written that way.  Hornby had to have those themes at the forefront of his story structure from the opening scene.

In this case, because Hornby was dealing with a memoir, he had to summon the theme from the memoirist’s reality through 62 one-act plays, then drive them home with those four glorious scenes in which we see a learning curve blossom into fruition to save a life.

Which touches us because we’ve all been there, or near there.  This is a story about hope after heartbreak, about the power of one’s belief in themselves, no matter how low we’ve fallen.

And so we, as storytellers, are left with our own questions to answer.  Answers which must crystallize before our story will work.

What is your story really about?  Thematically… dramatically… experientially.  Do you have a strategy for it?  A story plan, even if it’s only in your head?

That answer is the most critical part of your storytelling.  Even before your write a word.

End your story how you need to end your story. 

I hope you got as much out of deconstructing An Education as I did.  If you’d like to see the scene log I used in this series, click here.

Also, please check out my guest post today on Sirius Graphix, on structuring a genre novel.


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4) “An Education” – Part 3 of the Story

The Continuing Deconstruction of the Oscar-Nominated Film

You might like this…

I found the script for An Education online… you can read it free by downloading the PDF from a site called Media Fire.  Just click the download link, it’s safe and it works.  It’s an early draft (David is called Alan at this point), and the entire Part 3 (the “third act” in movie-speak) is different.  But it’s fun to watch how the first three Parts unfold as you saw on screen.

Other than the Second Plot Point (which is late in the script, at Page 100; movie folk are fussy about their plot points, so it’s no surprise to see the edited version right on the money), you’ll see that the story milestones we’ve identified here are precisely where they are supposed to be, page-count-wise.  Which translates to running-time-wise.

Love it when that happens. (Click here for my real-time scene log, which shows PP2 in the right place.)

We’ve seen the First Plot Point in this story: scene 17 (page 27 of the script), at about the 24-minute mark, when David invites Jenny to attend an art auction on a Friday, either forgetting about or not caring about the fact that she’s still in Prep school.

Not exactly an iceberg or an earthquake, but it’s completely in keeping with the tone and direction of the story.  This moment signifies Jenny’s loss of innocence as she puts her Oxford future and family values up for grabs, thus defining her journey going forward.

Everything prior to this moment has been a set-up for it. 

Everything that follows is a response to it, contextually-speaking.  As a writer, this is what I want you to notice.  It’s a subtle Plot Point One, but it’s completely in keeping with the mission of this milestone.

Then we identified the Mid-Point, when Jenny witnesses David’s theft of a presumably valuable painting and calls him on it.  He calls her right back, throwing out a you’re-in-or-you’re out ultimatum as he confesses and rationalizes his thieving ways. 

Love is blind once again.  Stupid, too.

Almost exactly as she did at the First Plot Point, Jenny must choose between losing David and his lifestyle and her return to the straight-and-narrow path of school and her father’s hopes for her.

If this was a garden and he was a snake, David just offered Jenny an apple.

She chooses David. 

Of course she chooses David, it’s only the Mid-Point and therefore far too early for her to have learned her lessons, conquered her inner demons (a childlike lust for life) and benefited from the ensuing character arc.

Instead she thrusts herself into Part 3 of this story (notice how the curtain has parted, there’s no more charade on David’s part, at least about his business), heading even further into the darkness that awaits as the girlfriend of a con man.

Things quickly kick into a higher, hotter gear.

In the scene following the Mid-Point Jenny and David share their first real kiss.   Nothing sexier than a little larceny among friends.

Then she goes home and shows her father the fake autograph from C.S. Lewis – she knows it’s fake, she watched David sign it – thus making herself more than an observer of the fraud, but the co-conspiring author of it. 

Are her motives pure?  Of course they aren’t. 

But she thinks so.  It’s all in the name of love, and her parents are unreasonable bores anyhow.  She’s already lost her soul and doesn’t even realize it.

According to the principles of structure, Part 3 is about the hero pro-actively attacking the obstacles that block her quest.  She believes her parents are that obstacle – what is more proactive than lying to them? – and that her quest is to break free and disappear into the adventurous, sophisticated (and carcinogenic) lifestyle promised by David and his friends.

Jenny believes her father is the bad guy.  The antagonist.  But, while he’s no party, we know better.

It’s an interesting twist, in that the hero isn’t pursuing the light – even though she’s talked herself into believing she is – she’s diving headfirst into the deep end of darkness.  It is the consequences of those choices that will mark her journey, and become the essence of the story going forward. 

Jenny is proactively attacking her desire to escape her old life.  Once she chose David with an awareness of his thieving ways, she was no longer a wide-eyed passenger.  At that point she began driving her own bus.

Jenny tries to impress her friends with tales of her nightlife, but we can see what she can’t – she’s leaving them behind.  Losing them.  And when she does, all she’ll have on her team is this band of poseurs, which elicits our empathy because we know what she doesn’t.

This is the writer’s strategy, and it’s brilliant. 

We’re not rooting for the character, we’re rooting against her, but in a totally caring, almost parental way (okay, you can rationalize we’re still rooting for her, just not rooting for what she thinks she wants).  We can see the oncoming darkness that she can’t, and the drama ensues from wondering how far she’ll sink before waking up to it.

Jenny and David have an inevitable near miss with sex (he actually offers her a banana to get the virginity-related “messy part” out of the way)… he deepens her attraction to him by not forcing the issue (and in doing so he layers on the complexity for us, as well, we aren’t quite sure what he’s after now)…

… she gets called into her Principal’s office and is directly threatened with consequences (expulsion) if she gets in trouble with this older man…

… David’s friend Danny makes a subtle play for her in the guise of protection (that’s the second pinch point, as Danny’s warning is precisely the heart and soul of the conflict here)… Helen continues to expose herself as a window dressing Bimbo along for the ride…  

… and we all get a poignant lecture on the nature of life and old school religious prejudice from Emma Thompson in the role of Jenny’s Principle.

After more messy relationship business — including a ring — as David and his lifestyle start to veer off the tracks…

… we finally come to Plot Point Two. 

Even if you haven’t guessed it by now, if not specifically then at least in essence, you’re still not all that surprised when it arrives.

And even then –more genius writing from Hornby – it still works.  We feel the moment on Jenny’s behalf.

Plot Point Two

While waiting in the car with her parents on their way to a Big Night Out with the showboating, tab-paying David (he’s stepped out to make a call), Jenny opens the glove box for cigarettes.

This action was foreshadowed earlier, at the moment of Jenny’s first hint of something amiss regarding David’s world.  The camera (equal to the narrative in a novel) lingered a bit too long on that the first time, always a sure sign of foreshadowing in progress.

Now, however, she finds more than cigarettes. 

She finds letters.  From David’s wife.

And now, Jenny is very much alone with the consequences of her own naïveté.

 Next Up – The resolution of “An Education.” 


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