Category Archives: Side Effects Deconstruction

“Side Effects” (deconstruction #4) – The Debatable First Plot Point

(NOTE: this post is loaded with links that will take you back to basic introductions to the story structure concepts being referenced here… I encourage you to go there if you’re new to, or foggy about, any of these terms.)

Relative to my last post, my wife said, “You sound like a whiny little bitch.”

Some of you may have thought the same thing with regard to my announcing that the “Side Effects” deconstruction is over.

Okay, she didn’t say that… but I realized that’s how I may have sounded.  But the blow-back was clear, and on two fronts — you really did appreciate this (a Sally Fields moment for me), and, you want more.

With the Beat Sheet (scene log) and the summary of the story milestones up and available,  the structural stuff about this story has been covered.  But just as valuable is a discussion of some of the finer points of the story, especially when they translate to an upward view of the learning curve.  So I’m delighted to continue on that track, intermittently with posts on other stuff, over the next couple of weeks.

The finer points are what separates the published from the unpublished, so this is where the gold is.

The movie (“Side Effects”) is still out there.  I encourage you to see it, and warn you that after reading this deconstruction you’ll want to see it again.

The FPP in “Side Effects”

Some stories give us a First Plot Point that is as obvious as spotting an NBA center at a convention of jockeys.  But when a story is peppered with Part 1 Inciting Incidents (“Side Effects” has two, possibly three, depending on what you are about to read), and when the agenda of the story is mischievous and cloaked in stealth (totally the case in “Side Effects”), the FPP can be slippery.

Which is perfectly okay.  Brilliant, even.

This film has a highly debatable First Plot Point (the link here is different than the one above), in terms of what story beat represents it, and where it falls.  In my deconstruction I suggested that the FPP was when Dr. Banks prescribes Albixa to Emily (the anti-depressant drug that becomes the McGuffin of this story), thus lighting the fuse on the whole caper.  He’s been manipulated into doing so, and thus it represents the transition from setup to response.

Debate potentially enters the conversation, though, when you look at what I have already labeled as the first Pinch Point — when Emily stabs her husband to death.  Clearly this is the more dramatic story beat, certainly one that changes the story for the hero (Banks) in a more visible and actionable way than does the Ablixa prescription moment (my FPP nomination) described above.

Compounding this potential confusion is the location of this murderous moment within the story.  The optimal position of the First Pinch Point is the 3/8ths mark (37.5 percent in, squarely in the middle of Part 2).  In “Side Effects,” it happens at the 33rd percentile point.

Which is early.  In this case, perhaps confusingly so.

Which poses the question… is the husband’s murder an early Pinch Point, or a late FPP?

Could be either, and by either standard, since it actually does fit the definition of both milestones.

If the murder is the FPP, then the earlier prescription of Ablixa (which also fits within the classic definition for the FPP) becomes another (the third) Inciting Incident.  Given that (per definition) the “quest” launched by the FPP is that of the hero, and that the earlier (by about ten minutes) Alibxa prescription moment doesn’t visibly begin the hero’s quest in terms of his own awareness (in fact, we don’t even realize that was a potential FPP until later)… gray is cast on which point it was.

Certainly, the husband’s murder fills the FPP bill (as well as the Pinch Point criteria), other than its location (it’s quite late for an FPP, even in a film; a book FPP target is optimally at 20 percent, in a film it’s 25%).  It visibly launches Banks’ problem and the quest that springs from it (classic FPP criteria), it is defined by the conflict it injects into the story (ditto), and it clearly separates a Part 1 setup context from a Part 2 response context.

Just as clearly, in this story, it does everything a Pinch Point is designed to do.

It can’t be both.  A story needs both… and they are always separate story beats.

So which is it?  What’s the point of this discussion?

My answer: it doesn’t matter.

Until Scott Z. Burns weighs in on this, we’ll never really know what he intended in this regard.

Which is my point: we may not ever really know, the audience won’t care from a technical point of view… but THE WRITER MUST KNOW.

The writer needs to be clear on this.  Because success — the optimizing of story physics — depends on a clear contextual shift from Part 1 (setup) and Part 2 (response), with the FPP — like a 21st birthday separating adolescence from adulthood — being that story-changing milestone.

We can be sure Scott Z. Burns was clear… even if we’re not.  Even if he gave us a handful of killer Inciting Incidents that may or may not muddy the water in this story.  The muddiness is by design… it is the narrative strategy (one of the six key realms of story physics) of this film.

And that is the other tasty morsel of learning here.  

As writers we have options.  We always have the latitude, freedom and creative leeway to do it however we want.

Up to and including self destruction, if we don’t understand these structural/contextual principles and apply them purposefully and strategically.


Need more basics? Use the SEARCH FUNCTION to the right, enter “First Plot Point” to link to over 100 posts that cover this and related topics (including those linked within this post).  The further back into the archive you go, the more basic and introductory these discussions will be.

Or you could just buy my book, “Story Engineering,” which covers story structure in depth, as well as the other five of the Six Core Competencies of storytelling.


Filed under Side Effects Deconstruction

“Side Effects” (deconstruction #3): The Story Milestones… and Beat Sheet

I’ve complied the entire story into what, in the movie biz, is called a “scene log,” but for other/all writers, it’s actually something else, something we can all use.

It’s a BEAT SHEET.  In fact, this scene log from “Side Effects” could double for — and therefore become a model for — a beat sheet, as it identifies every expositional scene, in order, in context to what comes before and after, and in context to the nuances, deception and narrative mind games of the concept and dramatic question.  (I have added some writer-only notes).

This is what our completed Beat Sheets should look like.  Not just exposition (content), but scene mission.

Read it here: side effects scene log.  It’s 12 pages, and if you’ve seen the film I think you’ll find it fun and worthwhile.  Because while the film is running we barely have time to think about what we’ve just seen… this allows it all to sink in.

The Story Milestones

Here is a summary of the major story milestones from “Side Effects.”  Go to the Beat Sheet/scene log (attached, see link above) to see how these are positioned in context to what comes before, and after.  Notice, too, how each of the scenes within each of the four Parts of the story (setup, response, attack, resolution) are completely in context to the mission of each part (again… setup, response, attack, resolution).

Quick note… don’t do the math for milestone placement based on scene numbers. Some of these scenes are actually parts of a scene-sequence, and in a novel would probably be written (and redesigned) as a single scene or chapter.  Some of these scenes are actually “establishing shots” for content-intense scenes that follow, and as such, probably aren’t even in the script itself.

No matter.  It’s all here, in the right order.

What is valid, though, is where these milestones appear relative to running time (story length; the percentage of placement within the narrative).  Those all happen pretty much as optimally defined, and absolutely in alignment with the mission of each milestone.

The HOOK: is the opening Prologue scene, in which we see the toy sailboat, the blood stains and bloody footprints, all without the slightest idea what it means, other than something bad happens.  It poses a question — what does happen? — that is already compelling, because we already know this has something to do with the bad side effects of prescription drugs.  And in this case, because of this Prologue scene, we now know how bad it will be.

Or so we think.  It’s actually much worse than we expect, and something completely different than we expect.

There’s another hook-arc right after that… we see Martin (the husband) being released from jail.  This is inherently interesting, we know we’ll get to vicariously (story physics in play) live that journey with them (and get way more than we bargain for on that count.  (Notice, too, that we aren’t offered a hook into the story’s hero, Dr. Burns, until much later).

Admit it, you were hooked.  Even if you had no idea what the real, forthcoming CORE story was about to hit you upside the head.

Part 1 INCITING INCIDENTS: there are two of them, both necessary to make this story work, and both serving to setup the forthcoming First Plot Point and the story thereafter.

Imagine the story without these two moments… you can’t.  Because it doesn’t work without them.  That’s a great criteria to apply to your Inciting Incidents, too.

The first II is the scene where Emily deliberately drives into the wall of a parking garage (marked as Scene #8).  This is the initial moment we where we know that something is terribly wrong with Emily, and about this whole situation.  It also leads us into the scene in which we do meet the Jude Law/Dr. Banks character, and we’re hooked on his apparent empathy.

Which makes him an easy target for Emily… as we learn much later.

The second is when Dr. Banks meets Dr. Siebert at a medical conference (marked as Scene #15), which is the first place that the centerpiece drug (Ablixa) is brought into the story.  At first viewing we have no idea that Dr. Banks has been manipulated into this meeting… but he was.  See it again, you’ll witness how it happened.

PART 1 NARRATIVE: Complex and misleading as they are, notice how all 21 scenes prior to the First Plot Point (which I’ll discuss next) are in perfect context to the mission of Part 1 — they are all there to SETUP the story.  To create a path toward the FPP.

To mislead us (yet with the truth all there, in plain sight), just as the scam is meant to mislead everyone in the story.

FIRST PLOT POINT: it’s marked as Scene #22, when Dr. Banks finally (after being manipulated toward this moment in the latter half of Part 1), prescribes Ablixa to Emily.

Keep in mind, this was Emily (and Siebert’s) objective all along.  Their plan totally depends on it.  This moment actually begins the story arc for Banks, who IS the hero and protagonist of this story.  Prior to that he’s being SETUP… and now he has something to RESPOND TO (though that remains a bit under the radar for the first half of Part 2… see, we really DO have flexibility with these milestones and Parts).

This occurs 24 minutes into the story… or at the 22nd percentile.  Right on the mark for an optimal First Plot Point.

FIRST PINCH POINT: probably the most dramatically significant First Pinch Point I’ve ever seen… which teaches us that the degree of drama isn’t the issue, but rather, how the scene flows and serves the overall story arc.

This is when the body hits the floor.  Emily kills Martin in chillingly cold blood.

Certainly, this is the CORE DRAMA coming front and center, which is the mission of both Pinch Points.  Something need to HAPPEN as a result of this building scam/drama… and this was it.  Boy howdy, was it ever.

It’s at 36 minutes in, or the 33rd percentile.  A little early, but inside the window.

A lot of folks may be misled by this scene, because it feels like  First Plot Point.  But consider what the CORE story is here… it’ s the scam… not the murder itself (because the murder is one of a handful of crimes associated with the scam), and the scam kicks of when Emily is prescribed Ablixa by Dr. Banks.

It’s always the hero’s story.  The hero here is Dr. Banks.  And thus, it’s HIS story arc that determines the milestones.

MID-POINT: the mission of the Mid-Point is to introduce new information that changes the story, contextually and expostionally.  This sure does.

It’s when a desperate Banks is researching Ablixa online, and discovers an article written by Dr. Siebert about the side effects of sleep walking while on this drug.  Which is key to the insanity plea Emily has been offered (itself a seemingly mid-point, but it was too early).  Siebert knew all along.  Siebert has been coaching Emily.  She’s in on it.  She’s running it from the sidelines.

Notice that these milestones are less about what happens than they are about what it MEANS to the story arc.  That’s a huge, 404-level of learning that escapes a lot of writers, and almost all viewers and readers.

We don’t know why, precisely, but now Banks has another villain he can go up against.

Everything changes here, because now it’s all out, everything Banks needs  is on the table.  Now he has to prove it.  His path has shifted.  He has a new target, a new path toward redemption: he has to nail Dr. Siebert.

This happens in Scene #57, at the 58th minute of the story, right at the 50 percent mark.  Nails it.

SECOND PLOT POINT: A lot happens in Part 3 (prior to the Second Plot Point), and quickly.  So much so that it’s challenging to pin down the actual Second Plot Point.  The important learning here, though, is that THE WRITER KNEW.  Which enabled him to inject specific story beats that lead up to it, many of which are just as dramatic (which teaches us that major turns and information is NOT reserved solely for the major milestones).

But this one, the one that is the Second Plot Point, changes the game from Banks’ POV, creating a new context for his quest… which is the mission of the Second Plot Point.

It’s in Scene #74, when Dr. Siebert, having just been exposed by Banks (who she knows will now come after her), shows us those seemingly incriminating photos she took of Banks and Emily, which we know she’s going to use to leverage his silence.  It’s a gun to Banks’ head.  It puts her on the offensive, in a more threatening and dramatic way.  Banks now has an even bigger problem than before, big as it was.

This happens at the 80 minute mark, or the 73rd percentile… close enough to count.

THE RESOLUTION: a great resolution is an outcome that exceeds the sum of its parts, and any one of those parts might be interpreted as the specific moment of resolution.  That pegging doesn’t matter, as long as the sum of those parts delivers the emotional satisfaction, vindication and villain blow-back desired.

In a story like this, Part 4 is where the fun is.  Where the hero gets his cape on and the villain gets what’s coming to her/them.  So much so, that the writer gives us a deliciously extended Part 4, so we can savor the ride and the finish.

It happens at the very end when, after manipulating Emily to scam Siebert into incriminating herself, in the belief she will earn her freedom in doing so, Banks (and Burns, the writer) turns the tables and puts her back in prison after all.

Burns (the writer) even gives us a moment of resolution for Banks (the hero) and his family drama.  Notice that drama wasn’t a side show, it was always connected to the CORE story arc for the protagonist.  It influenced and pressured him, and provided a sounding board for expository information.

All of these story milestones are best understood in context to the generic definitions and missions for them.  Then, with that in your head, you can see how they are applied here… brilliantly, artfully, and with a whopper of both an emotional and intellectual ride for the movie-viewer.

Feel free to share your thoughts and your story experience with “Side Effects” here.


Filed under Side Effects Deconstruction