There’s a reason prospective doctors spend much of their first year in med school poking around the embalmed nether regions of the recently departed.
Would you want your appendix removed by a doctor who hadn’t? Just sayin’.
We have learned how to reverse-engineer the human organism.
At least, right up to the point at which you need to hit the “ON” switch. With apologies to Mary Shelley, that part remains a bit of a mystery.
We can also reverse-engineer a novel or a screenplay. And in that case, what we learn in doing so easily transfers to our work as authors, where we absolutely can bring our creations to literary life.
Or, like those med students, use what we’ve learned to repair that which is broken.
I call this process a deconstruction.
And it’s one of the most valuable learning experiences in which a writer at any level can engage. It’s so powerful, in fact, that once we grasp it we often do it to our own shelved stories to see what we might have done differently.
Our next deconstruction series here on Storyfix will be the 2009 British film, “An Education.”
Which it certainly is. Unlike previous deconstructions – including Avatar and Shutter Island – this story isn’t a thriller or a mystery.
Good news for many of you. And a challenge for us all, because those genres are much easier to slice and dice than character-driven tales.
And An Education is nothing if not character-driven. Just when you thought all the best plot points involved guns, space ships and insane asylums.
One word for the major plot points in An Education: subtle. Which makes it a terrific learning opportunity.
The film was nominated for a Best Picture and Best Actress Oscar. And, more importantly, for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
The screenplay was written by acclaimed novelist Nick Hornby, which should give you confidence that the story comes from the mind of a proven and beloved literary storyteller.
The series begins here next Monday, May 31st. I highly recommend you rent the DVD and get to know your way around this story.
Even better, that you do your own deconstruction ahead of time.
Movie vs. Book Deconstruction
Since there are perhaps more novelists here than screenwriters, one might legitimately ask why I keep deconstructing movies rather than books.
Because the basic structure and flow is very much the same in either medium.
Also, it takes about three hours to thoroughly deconstruct a film. Compared to about 12 to 18 hours to read and deconstruct a novel.
Once you accept the fact that what we are seeking to learn from this process is almost identical for both venues, it makes sense to choose the most efficient process. You can deconstruct five or six films for every novel.
It doesn’t matter that you never intend to write a screenplay. What you learn from deconstructing a movie will prove to be invaluable when you sit down to plan and execute your novel.
Even if it doesn’t involve guns, space ships or asylums.
The Process of Deconstruction
Rent the DVD. Insert it into the player.
Keep the remote handy. Make sure you know how to use two of its functions: the PAUSE button, and the INFO/DISPLAY function, which will allow you to keep a running time code as the movie progresses.
Have a notepad and pen handy. Or a laptop with an open Word page.
Write this at the top, right under the title: 00:00
Then press PLAY.
Watch the first scene. When it cuts to another scene, press PAUSE.
Note the time when the title sequence ends and the first scene begins. This DOESN’T count toward the cumulative running time analysis you’ll be doing relative to plot points and milestones. You’ll need to do the math (total running time minus the length of the title sequence… unless the title sequence is actually part of the story narrative, which it sometimes is… in which case you do count it.
After you hit PAUSE…
Write down what you see.
Make notes on what happened in the scene, and then, the generic meaning of what happened. For example:
- we see hero (name) at work, arguing with boss.
- Then, for the generic version: intro hero, we see his current frustration.
Then, note the current time code where the scene cuts. Such as: 02:30.
Then press PLAY again.
Repeat for every scene.
The only real challenge here are the quick cuts within a movie sequence that are actually a single scene, or would be if you were writing them in a novel. You’ll have to use your best judgment, as films are full of establishing shots and continuation visuals that are interconnected through editing.
For the most part, a scene is noted by a change of location or time, as well as character.
Work through the entire film in this manner.
You’ll end up with anywhere from 45 to 70 separate scenes, each with an identified length, which can be used to determine its percentage placement in context to the entire running time.
Then, try to identify the major story milestones (do this in real-time, if you can, as you make your notes), as well as the contextual missions as executed within each of the four parts of the story.
If you don’t know what that last sentence means, consult prior Storyfix posts, or give my ebook – Story Structure – Demystified – a shot. It’s all there in either case.
Then tune in here next Monday, the 31st, to see if we’re on the same page.
Doesn’t matter if we are or if we aren’t. What matters is how much we’ll learn in the process while quantifying and negotiating the difference.