A while ago I promised you Shutter Island. Specifically, a deconstruction.
I’ve read the novel, seen the movie, read the book again, got the t-shirt. Been there, done that, did it again, loved it even more.
So later this week we’ll launch into this. I highly recommend you see the movie, and if you have time, also read the novel (I’m deconstructing from the mass market version with Leo’s grimacing mug on the cover, the movie-issue reprint). Not only is it one of the finest examples of storytelling craftsmanship I’ve ever seen, it’s a great workshop for comparing the book to the movie and understanding the narrative common ground and parallel structures.
Please do this. I’ve learned so much from this story already, and so will you.
In fact, it was in working on this deconstruction that I stumbled across the Next Great Writing Analogy.
You know how I love these little real-world analogies. I’ve compared the process of effective storytelling to flying airplanes, playing golf, doing surgery, building a house, even making love. None of which you can do at a professional level of competence unless you understand the physics, infrastructure and processes involved.
If you wing it, pants it, underestimate it or otherwise blow it, the airplane crashes, the golf is excruciating, the house collapses under its own weight and looks like a barn designed by pre-schoolers, and your lover will leave you.
Three words: foreplay is everything.
Mental models such as these help clarify the principles we, as storytellers, should hold in the highest regard. Because writing a great novel or screenplay is every bit as hard as these tricky avocations and skills.
Which is why I love this new one.
Because it creates an easily accessed visual snapshot of the story structure model in way that nearly everyone can relate to.
I’m talking about stairs.
Every scene in your story is a stair. Leading somewhere. Connecting to the stair or landing before it, and the stair or landing that follows it.
Picture a stairwell. The kind you find behind a door marked as such in an office building. You’ll need four stories (this is why the English language is so hard… here’s a whole new meaning for the word story) in this visualization. Don’t worry about the building itself or its floors, just picture the stairwell.
Four flights. Each flight separated by a landing. And you know what happens on these landings — you make a turn. You head in a new direction. And yet, you are still going to the destination for which you originally embarked — the ending.
The stairs always take you closer to the goal. To the destination. They take you higher. In effect, they move you forward on your journey.
There are no sidetrips. One stairwell is not noticeably longer, though you do notice that the angle of incline seems to be getting a bit steeper as you get higher.
Now, in this analogy, imagine that each stair is of a unique different height and shape. Sure, they’re all roughly the same in terms of design, but when you look closely they are of different colors, and some have beautiful inscriptions and carvings in them. They are art, as if the builder focused only on that specific step for a period of time, making it the very best and coolest step it can be. Yet always with function, purpose and context.
The mission of each stair relates contextually to the journey the stairwell is taking you on, and specifically to getting you on to the very next step that awaits.
Every stair has a purpose. There are no wasted, frivolous steps on this climb.
Four flights. Each flight with roughly 8 to 15 individual steps. Each of a slightly different height. Some carpeted, some rough.
Now let’s think about the landings.
With four flights, you’ll encounter three landings. At each landing you’ll turn in a new direction, though you’ll still be heading upward. Moving toward the goal.
You will have benefited from everything you discovered at each stair-step along the way.
And, you’ve noticed that the stairs in each flight have a unique look and feel to them. The stairs from the first flight are different than the stairs from the other flights. These first steps ease you into the journey. Some may be challenging, some not.
But they all mean something. They all prepare you for the next three flights.
When you get to the first landing, everything changes.
Perhaps in an unexpected way… or not. But you are definately at a turning point.
Because waiting for you there is new information. It causes you to turn toward the next flight of stairs, which presents slightly different hues of storytelling steps. You immediately notice a new context on this flight, and realize that you care about this climb because what you encountered on the first flight caused you to care. Another eight to fifteen steps are before you, each with its own mission — to take you higher, to get you closer to the next landing.
Chew on this a while. Each scene is a step in the stairwell. The three landings are, in order here, the First Plot Point, the Mid-Point (you’re halfway to the destination), and the Second Plot Point. Each of them sends you in a new direction, each delivers new information, but you’d never get to this point — or understand why you’re there — had you not climbed the flights that preceded it.
You’ll see this at work in Shutter Island.
You’ll actually see it at work in any decent story, but Shutter sticks it in your writerly face.
I’ll do an overview of Lehane’s second career masterpiece prior to the actual deconstruction, alerting you about what to notice, what to look for, and how he lures us into a world and a belief system that is completely and utterly not what you think it is.
I don’t use the word masterpiece lightly.
Shutter Island, both the book and the movie, qualifies as such.