Category Archives: An Education– the series

3) “An Education” – the Deconstruction Continues

The last post on this gem of a little movie identified the First Plot Point as the moment when David invited Jenny to skip school to attend an art auction.

As is the function of the FPP, this thrust the story into Part 2, which is all about the response of the hero to the new journey at hand.  In Jenny’s case, she’s just crossed the line from little girl crush to the realm of the morally compromised — the theme is the loss of innocence —  and you just know this is going to get ugly.

Especially for her. 

And that’s why this story works

Because we’ve come to care about her, empathize with her, and most importantly, root for her.

The Part 2 scenes begin with Jenny testing the water with her mother… being picked up on Friday to go to the auction… and then the art auction itself.

This is a key scene, and for two reasons.  First, Helen continues to tip her hand as someone who doesn’t fit in, whose role here is little more than eye candy.  Which implies that perhaps this is Jenny’s intended part in this charade, as well.  This continued dynamic is huge in the strategy to win over this audience, but we’re seeing the shallow world of Jenny’s future if she doesn’t figure out what we’ve already surmissed — these people are bad news.

Later in the auction scene, notice how David allows Jenny to do the bidding for her, which gives her a taste of what she’s already becoming addicted to – the good life, a life of luxury, perhaps a life with David at her side.

Her response to her decision and these first responsive moments after — her first steps down this self-chosen path — seems sweet indeed.  If she’s worried or unsure, it’s not on her face or in her manner.

The next scenes focus on what David does to earn all that money. 

Suddenly he’s not even trying to hide it from Jenny.  Yet he refuses to fully explain, leaving her in the car to observe some strange dynamics between an elderly woman, a black family and the odd exchange of a piece of art.

We can tell that Jenny notices and is confused, but isn’t ready to challenge him.

The next scene shows her getting a failing grade on an exam at school.  The consequences of her decisions are suddenly manifesting in her life.  She gets a strong talking-to by the Principal, but it falls on deaf ears.

We see her arguing with her father about the grade, who believes his Oxford dream for his daughter is over. 

Jenny runs into a young suitor that we’d met earlier, but she dismisses him coldly.  She no longer has time for little boys on bicycles, when grown men offering champagne await her that very evening.

The next scene is the First Pinch Point, coming at the 37 minute mark, right where it should.  In an earlier scene David had bet his friend Danny that he could talk Jenny’s father into allowing Jenny to accompany him on a weekend away, something even Jenny couldn’t resist betting against.

When we see David sweet-talking her parents with a bald-faced lie about introducing Jenny to C.S. Lewis, who supposedly lives in a village near where they will be staying, we finally get to see the full wonder of how well David can slip into a role to get what he wants.

Jenny sees it, too. 

Her boyfriend is a con man, a lair, and he’s very good at it.

This is the Pinch Point because it sticks the story’s primary antagonistic agenda and force right into the viewer’s face, reminding us of the escalating peril into which our little Jenny has been seduced.

They leave.  Jenny discusses sex with Helen, who dotes on her like a big sister.

When they stop for a meal, David pulls out a C.S. Lewis book and shamelessly forges the autograph they will show to Jenny’s father later.  She looks on with a slight doubt evident in her eyes, one she doesn’t want them to see lest they doubt her.

And then comes the inevitable moment when they are to share a bed. 

But to her surprise – and ours – he respects her wish to actually sleep with him, rather than the more common interpretation of the word when two people falling in love share a bed.  David respects this, and we – and perhaps Jenny – are encouraged that maybe his intentions where she is concerned are not as dark as we, the viewers, feared.

Her emerging doubts sated, Jenny attacks the next day in the country with new zeal.  But the fun takes a dark turn when they stop at a home to look at some artwork, leaving Jenny and Helen in the car while the men go in to do their business.

Jenny is curious, and Helen is forthcoming in explaining that this is what they do, it’s what pays for the dinners and the car and the trips.  And sure enough, the men emerge from the house with a piece of art and a sudden need to depart as fast as possible. 

There can be no doubt now.  Not for us, and not for Jenny.  This bunch is nothing more than four very pretty, low-life crooks masquerading as sophisticates.

Jenny is still responding – she’s outraged and suddenly frightened.  She knows what’s just happened and realizes she allowed herself to be sucked into it.

But is she entirely regretful of that fact?  We aren’t so sure.

The issue comes to a head upon returning to Danny’s place, which has become their base of operations.  Where David lives is never mentioned, and Jenny has never asked.

She confronts David with what she believes, and he doesn’t try to bend the truth.  Instead he tries to explain and defend that they are stealing from people who don’t appreciate the art they own or know its value.  Such beauty deserves to be in the hands of sophisticated people, like them, who can love and appreciate the treasure that it actually is.

He goes on to explain that this is the way they fund their lifestyle, reminding her that he shares her dreams and wants her to join him on this life journey.  But she needs to choose, right here and now.

David is every bit as seductive here with her as he was while talking her parents into allowing their prep school daughter to leave town with a 30-year old man.

We watch Jenny crack at this point.  Her dream, which is actually her inner demon, stops her from yielding to higher callings.  She rationalizes it as harmless, and David does have that legitmate business downtown with the rental flats.

Maybe she wants to change him.  To save him.  Or maybe she wants to ride at his side and feed off the adrenalin and night life.  We aren’t sure… and neither is she.

This moment of capitulation is the Mid-Point of the story.

The context going forward has shifted from Jenny as innocent passenger to Jenny as fully aware and endorsing player, a girl who has earned her smoky wings much sooner than even she would have imagined.

We are now embarking on Part 3, where Jenny leaves her wandering, following ways behind and begins a proactive role in understanding the mechanics of what they do – steal art – and the chemistry of her complex relationship with David.

At home she shows her father the signed C.S. Lewis book, which impresses him mightily and buys her some space as she continues to sink into the depth of the night into which she is seemingly destined to disappear.

The deeper they go the harder it is for David to control all the variables of his façade, and soon Jenny will discover that David isn’t the player he has positioned himself to be. 

And once again, Jenny is facing a decision that could affect her life. 

Will she yield to David’s significant charms and follow him into darkness?  Or will she wake up and finish school, in the hope that it’s not too late to snag that scholarship to Oxford.

So far, from a structural standpoint, this story has been flawless.  When this happens it makes all the other elements look good, too, which is why An Education received an Oscar Nomination for Best Picture and for Best Actress.

Both are well deserved.  As well deserved, perhaps, as the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination that it also received, but like the others, didn’t win.

British film in a hot commercial U.S. market… tough sell to the Academy membership.  But nonetheless, completely worthy of all three statues.

In the next post we’ll see why.

Next up – the wrapping up of An Education… and then some.

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2) “An Education” – the First Plot Point

The thing I like most about the First Plot Point in this story is the way it illustrates the absolute need for the 16 scenes that precede it.  That set it up.

In An Education, it’s a subtle and delicate moment, indeed.

Some people argue that something huge and compelling that occurs within the first few pages or scenes is, in fact, the First Plot Point.  Or at least “a” first plot point.

Know this: there can only be one First Plot Point in your story.  You can have all the plot twists and surprises you want, but the First Plot Point is like a 21st birthday – everything changes, and you only get it once, at a prescribed time.

Others don’t argue this, they are simply confused by the difference between a killer hook, an Inciting Incident and a viable First Plot Point.

We’re deconstructing this story not so much to turn us into raving fans, but to learn from it.  Toward that, I’d like to return to some fundaments about the First Plot Point to create context for our look at how An Education pulls it off.

As formulaic – and therefore distasteful – as it may sound, perhaps the primary criteria of a First Plot Point is where it appears in the story.  If it happens too early, it’s simple not one and the story is already broken.  No matter how dramatic such a false plot point is, and no matter how much it shakes things up.

That doesn’t mean you can’t insert a “big moment” in the opening quartile of your story.  That you can’t change the game.  Have at it.  But it’s not the First Plot Point – also known as the Inciting Incident – unless it happens between the 20th and 25th percentile mark in the story.

Why?  Because like a 21st birthday, your story isn’t ready to stand on its own legs until that point.  Not enough foundation has been put in place.

If what you call your Inciting Incident happens on page 10, then it’s just a hook.  You still owe the reader a First Plot Point at about page 80 to 100.  And yes, you can have both, no matter what you call them, as long as you’re clear on the differences.

Of course, there are other criteria for the First Plot Point, and they substantiate both the timing and the necessity of the various Part 1 set-up scenes that precede it.

The First Plot Point has a mission to accomplish.  

A specific set of things it must do.

It changes the story.  In many ways, it actually commences the story.  Because everything that preceded it, no matter how dramatic, was there to set it up.

Allow me to repeat.  The mission of the scenes in Part 1 is to set-up the arrival of the Plot Point and the story that ensues from it.

Let’s look at an example that illustrates this. 

Let’s say your story is about a guy who is in an irreversible coma after an accident.  Your hero is the only one who refuses to pull the plug, believing that the strength of her belief and faith will pull her lover through.  That’s the premise, easily converted into a “what if?” proposition: what if you could conquer death through faith?

Big-time theme in such a concept.

So what’s this story about?  The accident, or the coma, or the theme?

It’s about the coma in terms of storytelling.  It only becomes about the theme if you do the storytelling properly. 

Which means if you wait until the 20th percentile to show us the accident, and if you’re calling it your First Plot Point, you haven’t nailed it.  Because the First Plot Point is always what the story is about.  

The accident is just a set-up for the coma. 

In this example, the First Plot Point would be the moment the doctors tell the hero that no recovery is possible, and that they’ll need to pull the plug.   Notice this isn’t as visual or even dramatic as the accident itself, nor does it need to be. 

Without a proper set-up, such a moment wouldn’t be functional or effective. 

We wouldn’t be as emotionally invested as we need to be, as established through a series of Part 1 scenes that show us the strength of their love and shared faith, and the stakes – part of the mission of the opening quartile – of a future together.

The accident, which is integral to the story, is better placed as a hook.   Either in the beginning of the story, followed by a series of flashbacks that define their relationship, or a bit later but still early in Part 1, followed by a series of dramatic scenes in which the hero pushes the doctors toward the right outcome.

The First Plot Point defines – at least for the time being, until something else changes – the impending need, the quest, the journey of the hero, in context to established stakes.  It isn’t complete until it also defines or at least introduces the obstacles that will stand in the way of that need.

If stakes aren’t yet in place, then it is the First Plot Point that defines them.   

The fact that we’ve seen all three – the need, the obstacle, and the stakes – prior to this First Plot Point moment doesn’t change anything.   When the First Plot Point arrives something new and urgent is always exposed, thus igniting the fuse and commencing the journey of the hero toward her goal.

In An Education, this moment meets all of this criteria in a subtle, easily-missed way.

In scene #17, we find Jenny sitting at a table with her friends in a dance club after an evening of music, dinner and dancing. 

It is clear that David, her suitor, is moving fast.  Assumptively so.  And that this is a bit awkward for all, since Jenny is still in prep school and David is north of 30 and slightly slimy.

How do we know that?  Because we saw it in a prior set-up scene that showed him sucking up to her parents.  Among other foreshadowing that includes Helen’s (the other woman at the table) barely hidden inner bimbo.

The preceding Part 1 scenes also showed us Jenny’s burning desire to escape her dreary existence and jackass father for a life of sophistication and adventure.  These define the stakes, the emotional investment, that make the First Plot Point work.

That moment arrives, both literally and symbolically, while sitting at that table.

It’s as simple as this: David invites Jenny to accompany him to an art auction.  It’s on Friday.

Friday is a school day.  David knows this, but suggests that it isn’t that big a deal.  Jenny must skip school – this, in the midst of striving to get into Oxford with her grades and teacher assessments – to stay in this fantasy romance with David.  To say no is to allow the reality of her age to sabotage her dreams.

This is classic temptation versus conscience.  The apple has been offered.

Jenny says yes.  And thus, the First Plot Point cometh.

Because everything changes at that moment.  The story, one with stakes and conflict, really begins here.

Jenny has just taken a sharp turn in her life. 

She’s heading down a new path with David, the devil in this scenario, at her side.  She’s blind to his motives and his true character.  Her challenge will be to conquer her own naiveté and desires before they ruin her.  Before David takes her past a point of no return.

Notice how this moment fulfills all of the criteria for an effective Plot Point One.

Notice how it wouldn’t work as such had it not been preceded by those 16 set-up scenes.  How, without our emotional investment and our growing sense of dread and suspicion, combined with our empathy regarding her attraction to him and her desire to leap aboard this dark train, the moment wouldn’t work had it come any earlier.

Now notice how this happens, in this same manner, in every novel you read and movie you see.

This is the physics, the law, of effective storytelling.

You don’t have to kill someone, blow something up or have the sky fall to introduce an effective First Plot Point.  You need a moment that fulfills the criteria, yet melds seamlessly into the tone and established direction of the story.

A direction which you, as the architect of it all, are fully aware of long before this moment arrives.  How else could you make it happen if you weren’t?

You couldn’t. 

If you don’t plan your story ahead of time – if you’re an organic writer, or a pantser – rest assured that your first drafts will be a search for that direction and architecture.  Which is valid if that’s your choice, it can and does happen.  Rest assured, also, that if you don’t start over when it finally dawns on you, your story won’t work.

But… if you do plan your story with this knowledge and aforethought in mind – something that, once you understand story structure, is entirely possible to the point of necessity – you actually can make it work on the first draft you write.

Want more story structure?  Please consider my ebook, Story Structure Demystified.

Next: Part 2 of “An Education.”

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