2) The Deconstruction of “Shutter Island” – A Primer

The first in a series of posts that deconstructs and analyzes Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island – both the book and the movie.

Welcome to Shutter Island.  A place – and a story – in which nothing is what it seems.

If you haven’t recently seen the movie or read the novel – preferably both – then I suggest you CLICK HERE to learn the secret of the story, including how it all ends.

What you’ll read there is a total spoiler, by the way.  If you intend to see the film or read the book soon for the purposes of benefitting from this exercise, and you don’t want to know the Big Secret of this story before you do, then I recommend you come back later.


Because you can’t understand how a story is built – especially one as complex as Shutter Island – until you understand how it ends.

And you certainly can’t write one, at least successfully, until you completely know and understand your ending, either.

This series assumes two things.

First, that you’re a writer.  You’re not here reading about Shutter Island because you’re looking for a movie or book review.  You’re a writer seeking to learn from this story’s structure and brilliant execution.  To understand the strategic skeleton of it from the inside out.

Hoping that some of Lehane’s narrative genius might rub off.

Or maybe just because the story completely blew your mind.

This deconstruction series will also assume that you know the secret of the story, including how it ends.   

Especially how it ends. 

Because each and every scene in the story is constructed from that context – the author certainly knew – and we can’t possibly look inside Lehane’s head to see how the story was structured and executed unless we know it, too.

Once again… if you don’t, you can and should CLICK HERE to learn the secret of Shutter Island before reading further.

A Story That Defies Being Stuffed into a Box

Upon your first experience as a viewer or reader, Shutter Island comes off as a complex and sometimes illogical story.  You probably scratched your head and wondered what certain moments were about, how they fit in, even what kind of story you had signed up for here in the first place.

Is this a murder mystery?  A ghost story?  A horror story?  A psychological thriller?  A gothic noir?  Something else entirely?

It is all of those things, but not completely any single one of those things.

Like the movie Jackass, the DVD box should come with a warning to writers: don’t try this at home.  Unless, of course, you know what you’re doing.

Which is precisely the point in this deconstruction. 

The Design of Madness

All this confusion and complexity and head scratching was Dennis Lehane’s intention from the very first page of his novel and the brilliant screenplay (written by Laeta Kalogridis and directed by some guy named Martin Scorsese) that resulted from it.

You weren’t supposed to get it, certainly not right away, and certainly not until you were well into the second half of the story.

Not even the mid-point of the story, where the curtain often parts for the reader/viewer, will most people have even the slightest notion of what’s coming.  (To be fair, the curtain in Shutter Island doesn’t really part at this point, but the context does shift from “response” to “attack,” which is the basic mission of the mid-point transition.)

Some people don’t get it, don’t even come close to guessing it, until the climactic scene where Teddy himself learns the truth.  Which is the third to last major scene in the story, and a whopper at that.

There are those who walk out of the theater or close the book still not getting it.

And yet, once you know the secret of the story, how it all ends, what it all means. 

… and then, if and when you experience the story a second time – something I highly recommend – you’ll see how that secret truth was foreshadowed, hinted at, and in some cases even blatantly handed to you on a narrative platter in nearly every single scene of the movie. 

And, to only a slightly lesser extent, every chapter and scene of the book.

A second viewing – or seeing the film after reading the novel – delivers all kinds of little touches that now seem obvious.  Quick glances between characters behind Teddy’s back.  Out of context moments that are suddenly clear.  Double-entendre dialogue and obvious agenda.

One character (George Noyce) literally spits the truth into Teddy’s face at one point, and neither he nor the reader/viewer comprehends it for what it is.

None of that would be possible unless the author had the ending, and the intended seduction and deception of the audience, already nailed.

All of it boils down to one simple yet brilliant truth:

Shutter Island is told from the point of view of its protagonist, Teddy Daniels.  This is a perspective that never shifts, not even for a moment.  (The novel’s Prologue is an exception here, it comes from another character’s POV, and isn’t included in the film.)

Wire to wire, house lights down to credits, this is Teddy’s story.   

His perspective.  His belief system.  His truth.  His confusion.  His nightmare.  His driving need.  His catharsis and his ultimate decision.

Everything depends on that fact.

Thing is, the reader/viewer can’t possible know it — or what it means – until the story is almost over.

And when that moment finally comes, each and every morsel of deception is explained and clarified.  Both for Teddy and for the audience.

Book vs. Film

Shutter Island, the film, lasts 131 minutes.  (The official running time is listed as 137 minutes, but I timed it at 131, less credits.)

It offers up 52 succinct scenes, give or take a few quick visual transitions. 

Each scene has its own purpose, its own mission.  Its own little chunk of narrative exposition that’s hurled at the reader with deceptive stealth.  When you see the film a second time, you’ll see each scene quite differently than you did upon your first viewing. 

The first plot point occurs at the 32 minute mark, at the end of scene 16.

If you’re doing that math, that’s about the 24th percentile mark, which is right on the money.  Running time (or page count) trumps the number of scenes, by the way. 

The set-up for this plot point – Part 1 of the story in narrative terms, Act I in screenwriting lingo – contains some quick scenes and sequences with edges that blur and make the definition of a distinct “scene” a bit of an inexact science.

The book (I’m referring to the mass market paperback edition, by the way, the one with Leo DeCaprio on the cover) offers only a very slightly different structure in terms of length (it’s spot-on in terms of sequence, though), yet one that completely aligns with both the film and the principles of story structure.

If you’re looking for a story that disproves the principles, this isn’t it.  Good luck with that, by the way.

The book has 369 pages and presents 25 “chapters.”  But remember, chapters are not scenes, per se (though they can be).  A chapter can contain several scenes, often (but not always) separated by a skipped line or two.  In fact, several of Lehane’s chapters contain as many as six to eight discreet scenes.

The opening chapter (after a Prologue that serves up some tasty foreshadowing) itself contains three scenes, the second two of which are hard to separate until you look closely for the transition from boat to dock arrival.

Anytime the narrative point of view switches locations or timeframes, it’s most likely, by intention and by definition, a new scene.

From that context, there are 77 scenes scattered over the novel’s 25 chapters.

In terms of pinning down story milestones, again it’s critical to look at page count as a percentage of total story length rather than scene number.  Some of the novel’s scenes are very short – a few sentences – while others are as long as 10 pages or so. 

Here’s the takeaway, though, and it illustrates one of the most critical principles of scene writing: each time Lehane begins heading toward the delivery of a new piece of necessary narrative information – a new mission to be accomplished – it results in a new scene.

Every scene has multiple purposes – characterization, mood and setting, etc. –  but really only one mission: the delivery of the next piece of the puzzle.

The first plot point in the novel occurs on Page 89, or at the 24th percentile of the story.

Just like the movie. 

Coincidence?  I think not.

And in case you’re wondering, it’s the exact same plot point.  In fact, the movie is a very close adaptation of the novel, with nearly every scene being a direct lifting of a scene from the novel, both in form and function.

And that includes the major story points (both plot points, the pinch points and the mid-point). 

In fact, the novel has a completely new section as the transition between what we’re calling the four parts of the story, each with its own sub-title and a blank page to make sure you comprehend the transition.  (The exception is the transition from Part 3 to Part 4 on page 276 – the 75th percentile, again right on the money – which is merely a new chapter.)

The only real creative and noticeable difference between the novel and the movie is the way Lehane handles Teddy’s flashbacks, dreams and visions, which are critical to the storytelling.  

In the book those sometimes occur in quick flashes of thought, dreams and visions within what is otherwise a real-time dramatic moment, whereas in the film these moments occur as completely separate, non-integrated visualizations. 

In fact, the First Plot Point comes to us from within one of those flashbacks.  Teddy’s warped memories and fantasies are, in fact, his only connection to the truth that surrounds and awaits him.  The voice of his dead wife, Dolores, is the only voice of truth and sanity that comes his way.

Everything else is either deception or his own madness.

Other than the form of his delusions, what you read in the book is precisely what you get in the film.

There is one difference, though, that causes many people to ask if the book and the film have the same ending.  Which they do.

In the film, the screenwriter leaves us with a very blatant statement of the story’s intended theme.  Teddy speaks it aloud (which happens frequently in films, by the way), even though it doesn’t appear, in this form at least, in the novel.

It’s implied in the novel — theme is always implied in a good story, spoken or not — but not spoken. 

Other than the absence of this line of dialogue, the book and the film have exactly the same ending, down to the detail of a quick visual glimpse of something sinister that an approaching orderly is unsuccessfully trying to conceal.

Here’s what Teddy says — thus defining the story’s theme — in the form of a question to Chuck, his partner in crime-solving turned apparition turned primary therapist: “Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?”

Shutter Island is completely about the exploration of that question.

Tomorrow’s post: The Opening Act of Shutter Island.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the basic principles of story structure.

Image courtesy of Marshillonline


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction

10 Responses to 2) The Deconstruction of “Shutter Island” – A Primer

  1. Excellent.

    You are provided quite a wonderful literary public service here, Larry. Thank you.

  2. BigW

    Shutter Island was a brilliantly constructed story. You’re right, I didn’t get it until close to the end of the movie. However, the entire time I watched the story unfold, I had an intuitive nudge telling me there was something obvious I was missing. That there’s something not quite right, but couldn’t identify what it was.

    When I watched it a second time, those “subtle hints” were fairly apparent.

    Thanks for this post Larry. It’s great to have someone like yourself reverse-engineer a story to show us how it all comes together. It’s like watching the inner workings of the writer’s brain.

  3. trudy

    can’t wait to get into the nitty gritty of the plot points. i’m enjoying this deconstruct exercise. i found it interesting that the screenplay leaves out the prologue’s intro into the story. And yet, I liked that the movie didn’t start with it; you begin never doubting teddy. sigh. we have to wait until tomorrow for more!

  4. Debbie Burke

    I read the book about two weeks ago, but don’t have access to the movie. So…I plan to read the book AGAIN while reading your deconstruction, following point by point. Great to study your “reverse engineering,” as BigW so aptly put it. Your meticulous analysis is invaluable. Thanks a million, Larry!

  5. Marshall Reeves

    Wow, thanks for putting this online! The deconstruction of Shutter Island is off to a great start and is very interesting. Your work on storyfix.com is the first creative writing material I’ve come across in a long time that actually makes me get really excited about trying to create something!

  6. kelly

    Regading the the division between the second and third scenes in opening: is this division where Chuck and Teddy begin to discuss the death of T’s wife?
    Could you clarify?
    Thanks– Kelly

  7. @Kelly – great question. One could make an argument that this chapter is really only two scene, separated by that skipped line/white space transition on page 10. Then again, one could easily insert another white space right where you suggest. It’s a major transition, and just as easily could be a new scene. Tough call, though. For the most part, Lehane uses the skipped line, so if we asked him he’d probably say the chapter has two scenes.

  8. I should proof these things. Slow it down a bit — “two scenes,” not “two scene.” Dang.

  9. Brilliant!
    I have to watch it a 3rd time…

  10. Pingback: Shutter Island and Storyfix.com « Chris Negron