How and Why to Deconstruct “An Education”

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.

12 Comments

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12 Responses to How and Why to Deconstruct “An Education”

  1. Thanks for this. Since I read your Shutter Island deconstruction I haven’t been able to look at a single movie or book quite the same way. My eyes have been opened – can I get an “amen”?

  2. Fantastic news Larry! My novel, (writing first one), is literary, so, while the deconstruction of Shutter Island was a great learning experience for me, I imagine the deconstruction of An Education will be much more in tune with the elements of my story.

    I look forward to yet another wonderful series from storyfix!

  3. Hey Larry,

    I just put a call to action about this over at our blog ( http://www.creativecopychallenge.com/creative-copy-challenge-43/comment-page-1/#comment-5182 ). Hopefully, lots of the CCC gang will participate.

    Thank you for doing this, Larry.

  4. Just downloaded the (a?) screenplay of the movie. I don’t know if it’s close to the shooting script or not.

    Will have to see about getting the movie before Monday. Might actually force my son to watch it too. He’s been watching too many things blow up lately.

  5. Pingback: Write It Sideways Happenings, May 2010

  6. Larry. I watched it already. I only found what I believe are 3 of your 9 elements in your Fiction Writing Demystified book on p. 125. I’m about to watch it for a second viewing.

    One thing that is confusing me is when I hit the info display button, it has about three different ways to display this information. With all three options, they list that there are a total of 28 scenes. Why do they do this? Aren’t there supposed to be triple that much? The DVD also has the numbers 1/91. I don’t know what this means do you? Does that mean that somehow there are actually 91 scenes?

    Thanks,
    Shane

  7. It’s like fate has been looking over my shoulder and trying so hard to help. ‘An Education’ just popped up today in my ‘Video on Demand’ queue.

    Watching (and following the screenplay).

  8. @Shane — not to worry. The scenes as sectioned-off on the DVD menu really aren’t accurate, they’re more like “chunks” of scenes. I counted 64 scenes, and found all the milestones. Once you see ’em (in the deconstruction), you’ll see how easy it is to miss them in a character-driven story like this. It can be very subtle.

    Thanks for diving in to this, it’ll be worth the effort. By the way, how did you like the film, from a non-analyitical standpoint?

  9. I was planning on renting the movie anyway, so this will make it extra fun (and informative).

    I’ll have to go back and see what you did with Avatar. I broke that movie down according to Joesph Campbell’s mythic structure – but that was almost too easy. An Education will be much harder.

  10. @Larry: The film was awesome. I watched it last night for the 3rd time and believe I found all the milestones. I believe the 2nd plot point is out of place by about 6 minutes though. I’ll have to see on Monday.

    Even with the DVD only showing the chunks, the chunks revealed to me the milestones are in the proper place as a percentage of the number they state, which is pretty cool. I switched back and forth between the two caption setting, viewing the scene chunks, and going back to the overall time so I could find the milestones and see how the scenes worked with them.

  11. garry mcfeeter

    I just felt that I had to point out, with respect, that the overused ward ‘deconstruction,’ coined by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, does not mean ‘analysis’ or stripping something down to its component parts.

    It refers to a quite different and more complex process and as writers we need to be on our guard against lowering our credibility by a visible lack of understanding of a word. Words are, after all, the currency of our craft and need to be valued.

  12. Noel

    I’m going to echo Garry, love what you are doing, love the site, love the book, but totally NOT deconstruction. I’m sure this probably annoys most English majors (of which I can assume there are a few) as Derrida is probably as important a name in contemporary literary criticism as any novelist (Shakespeare included). When you say, I am going to deconstruct a text, you are doing something altogether different and far more complex than simple breaking down its plot structure.

    Though I feel what you are doing could potentially be more valuable for English Majors than anything Derrida ever did, and certainly for writers, It is still kind of weirdly annoying to see this word being used incorrectly.