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If you’re new to this series or this site, you’ll find links to all of the posts thus far at the end of this article. Then… choose in if you like.
As for today… let’s talk about how Shutter Island ends. And the storytelling principles that got it to that point.
It’s no coincidence that the further you travel into a story from the opening quartile – Part 1, called the set-up – the fewer storytelling principles there are to guide you.
Oh, there are enough of them that stick around, that’s for sure. But it’s a diminishing list the further you go, with less precision and more latitude. Why?
Because the creative decisions you make along the way become the defining essence of what comes next, rather than a somewhat precise list of generic criteria, like those that rule Part 1.
After that we are left with only high-level guidelines for Parts 2, 3 and 4. But I assure you that, if you’ve assembled your Part 1 properly, these remaining high-altitude contextual criteria will keep you from wandering too far from the prescribed storytelling path.
Without them, we are writing blind.
And our only chance then is pure blind luck. Unless you’re a raving, proven literary genius.
Are you raving, proven literary genius? Me neither.
Nope, the rest of us need to lean hard on the principles, or we’re done before we hit the print button.
Part 1 is chock-full of storytelling principles, positioned as mission statements, or at least as a grocery list of things you need to get on paper before you reach the First Plot Point, which happens at the 20th to 25th percentile of your story’s total length.
In Part 1 you need to introduce and position the hero… a deft and subtle backstory… the hero’s inner landscape… the hero’s exterior armour… a pre-Plot Point world view and goals and circumstance… critical stakes… foreshadowing… hints at forthcoming dramatic tension (the collision of stakes and obstacles)… preliminary plot point mechanics… not to mention a killer opening hook, all without crossing the line of giving too much away too soon.
Try all that without a set of principles to guide you.
Timing, patience and a good dose of narrative juice is what will make your Part 1 sizzle. As it did for Dennis Lehane in Shutter Island.
I assure you, Lehane writes with these principles at the forefront of every instinctive, intuitive storytelling decision he makes, as does any successful writer of fiction.
But what about the pants?
At this point a died-in-the-wool pantser might ask… but how do you know the total story length when you’re only through Part 1?
Answer… and there is a totally dependable answer here: because if you’re writing the story properly, each of the four parts will be of about the same length, give or take, with a prescribed contextual mission for each, and succinct and definable narrative milestones separating them.
And, each of those parts has a prescribed mission and context.
Another answer: your novel better be more than 300 manuscript pages and shorter than 600. Or, generally speaking (and more than generally if you’ve never published before, thus making you a newbie), you’re toast.
If you don’t accept that, then you aren’t writing according to the accepted (by New York publishers) principles of effective storytelling.
But I digress. I often do when the word “pants” appears in my posts.
Usually I have to take a short walk and calm down… but that’s just me.
Just to be clear… the principles of storytelling structure don’t have any preference for pantsers or planners. Outlining is always just a tool, a choice and a methodology, no different in purpose than discovery-via-drafting (pantsing).
At the end of the storytelling day, both roads need to end up at the same destination, and, in the final draft at least, along a proven path.
By definition, though, applying them makes you a planner to some degree. Because it makes you focus. And focus is good.
The structural integrity of Shutter Island proves all this to be true.
Parts 2 and 3, other than asking for a Pinch Point smack in the middle of each, don’t ask much of you other than suggesting you observe the unique context of the scenes that comprise them: Part 2 shows the response of the hero to the First Plot Point shift that commences it, and Part 3 kicks the hero from response mode into attack mode with a series of proactive efforts.
As for Part 4, the contextual mission is even simpler: wrap it up.
No new characters here, and no new information that hasn’t already been introduced earlier.
That last part is what makes the Part 4 of Shutter so tricky, and causes some to question its adherence to the principles. Because for some, it seems as if new information is indeed suddenly entering the narrative debate.
But in truth, it’s not. It’s just viewed differently than before.
In the scene in which Cawley explains the reality of Teddy’s experience to him, none of that stuff is new. We’ve seen everything that Cawley talks about. Teddy’s reality was there for us to see all along.
Watch the movie or read the book twice, you’ll see it again and again.
It’s just that now, with Dr.Cawley in the lighthouse suddenly doing the storytelling, the point of view has shifted to him.
The entire story until this point has been presented through Teddy’s perspective. His point of view. His eyes, his perception, even his insanity-created hallucinations. The scene in which Cawley reveals what’s really been happening – the backstory, the drugs, the fantasy scenario and its therapeutic objective, even the flashbacks and hallucinations – is the very first and only moment in the story in which Teddy is really hearing.
Once Cawley shows Teddy the pictures of his dead children, the fantasy stands no chance. Teddy has to either own who he really is… or… he’s incurably insane after all.
Even the scene with George Noyce, who throws Teddy’s reality right into his face, is hard for us to grasp because we are still hearing it through Teddy’s ears and foggy sense of interpretation. It made no sense to Teddy, so it made no sense to us.
Watch that scene a second time, after digesting this series, and you’ll be blown away at how clearly Noyce tells it like it really is.
When you break it down, the ending of Shutter Island is very straight-forward.
It consists of four primary elements: Cawley’s explanation… the visualization/flashback of what really happened that day in the backyard beside the pond between Teddy, Dolores and his children… Teddy soon thereafter claiming that the therapy worked and swearing to Cawley that he grasps his reality clearly now… and then the final scene, where he chooses which reality he would like to accept.
That last one is a real piece of work, too.
In the book, the reader is left with a more nebulous sense of vague bewilderment when Teddy suddenly reverts to his old U.S. Marshall identity.
It’s the final scene of the story, leaving what may have happened to him after that moment up to the reader.
Or not. In my view, Teddy’s fate is very clear. Lehane puts it right on the page for us.
Was Teddy once again insane, or was he, in effect, choosing to allow them to cut out half his brain because he couldn’t continue to live with the truth?
Ever heard of suicide by cop? This was suicide, in effect, by lobotomy. By a totally sane man. A man completely overcome with grief and guilt.
His original insanity, the very reason he was sent to Shutter Island in the first place, rather than prison, occurred precisely because he couldn’t live with the truth of what had happened, and what he’d done as a result.
And now, after being “cured,” he still can’t.
Before it was his subconscious doing the choosing. Now, after Cawley’s therapy, it’s his conscious mind, in full command of itself, that chooses.
In the movie, though, this outcome is much more clearly stated than it is in the book, and by Teddy himself.
His final words to Chuck, sitting on the hospital steps as he sees the orderlies coming for him – and in both the book and the movie, the audience is “shown” the surgical instrument that will be used on his frontal lobe, so there is no question what Teddy’s destiny is after the story concludes – are this:
“Is it better to live as a monster, or die a good man?”
Teddy chooses the latter.
The entire story was about this moment.
This moment defines the theme of the story. Without it, you have no story, at least in this form.
The question we need to ask ourselves as supplicant writers who are reading this for inspiration and modeling as to how to write something of this complexity at this level of competence, is… did Lehane back into that theme, did he stumble on it, did he pants it… or did he begin with it?
Hard saying. Like I said, Lehane isn’t returning my calls on that one.
Either way, though, one thing is unquestionably true. He couldn’t have written the final draft without knowing that theme. If he pants it, everything he’d done prior to discovering it was… not wasted, but just a planning step.
Which is why theme is one of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.
Which is why you can’t write a publishable story or a saleable screenplay until all six of them are solid.
You don’t always have to have your hero speak it aloud on the last page, but you do need it to fuel the context and content of your scenes in a way that lends weight, meaning and sheer poetry to the reading experience.
Theme, more than your words, is the true art of storytelling. The rest is pure mechanics, driven by criteria, checklists and choice.
And yet, you never realized that theme was afoot as you experienced this story.
It simply penetrated your consciousness like protein enters your system via a tasty cut of steak. You go there for the taste, not the nutrition.
The best stories, the best writing, are always food for the soul.
And you, the writer, wear three hats: chef, server and nutritionist.
Make it tasty, sure. But make it count, too.
That will get you published one day.
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.
For installment 8, the Part 3 Scenes, click here.
For installment 9, PP2 and the Final Act, click here.
For more information about story structure (this will send you to a description of my ebook on the subject), click HERE.