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The finer points are what separates the published from the unpublished, so this is where the gold is.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