A deconstruction wherein we analyze this critically-acclaimed story… part by part, milestone by milestone, scene by scene.
Let’s do this.
I always get a little nervous when I tear into a deconstruction. What if the milestones are in the wrong place? What if the storytelling principles I write about are contradicted and blown to smithereens?
This is why I don’t deconstruct foreign films. Or art-house films. Or classic movies. Or Quentin Tarantino flicks.
It’s also why I don’t try to write them. This is about mainstream storytelling… even if it has an edge.
Using an iconic classic novel to challenge today’s storytelling standards – like Don Quixote, which is what one self-proclaimed and unpublished blogging “guru” tried to do recently – is like referencing 18th century tribal potions and campfire rituals to refute the merits of modern chemotherapy and radiology.
So far, though, the principles have proven valid.
The Oscar-nominated film An Education doesn’t disappoint. It’s spot-on in terms of four-part linear structure, four contextually-evolving realms of plot and character, the location of milestones and the essence of character arc.
It has much to teach us. Because while thrillers, mysteries and even romances – or any other genre story – often have milestones that leap off the page to seize you by the throat, An Education is nothing if not a character-driven story.
Many of you have asked for this. So here you go.
We’re going to see how a softer, slice-of-life story in which nobody dies and nothing gets blown up – a love story, a coming-of-age story, a family story – is rendered effective and astoundingly compelling by virtue of the very narrative and structural principles we study here.
Effective storytelling isn’t just about drama. It’s also about humanity. About hope and loss. And that’s precisely where An Education shines.
A Bit ‘O Background
The screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, the British equivalent of John Irving in terms of literary niche and cache’. It was based on an article by the renowned and sometimes edgy British journalist Lynn Barber, and as Hornby was adapting it into a screenplay she was expanding it into an autobiography, which was published in June 2009, four months prior to the release of the film.
Some call that a coincidence, I call it killer marketing.
The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, as was the film and its lead actress, Carey Mullligan. Google the reviews – across the board this story is heralded as nothing short of spectacular. And while Mulligan gets much of that acclaim, the screenplay is frequently mentioned as the foundation of making this thing work.
Writing is like that. Too often in movies the writer gets blamed for a dud and gets pushed out of camera range when the raves start rolling in.
As for novelists, we stand alone in the crosshairs of reader judgment. There are no directors and actors to make us look good. We need to do those jobs ourselves, on every page.
Which is why deconstructing a movie is every bit as valuable as analyzing a novel across the same criteria.
An Icon of Narrative Symmetry
The film is listed at 100 minutes, but from the opening title frame to the beginning of the credits, my DVR clock-counter showed 96 minutes of running time. Which makes the math easy when we start looking at percentage-of-completion relative to the major story milestones.
Spoiler – they’re right where they’re supposed to be. Almost to the exact minute.
I logged 66 separate scenes, though this might differ from your analysis because sometimes the camera cuts imply a new scene when it’s really not, and sometimes it’s a judgment call. My criteria for a new scene is a change of location and a time-shift, rather than where the camera is pointing.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, I encourage you to rent the DVD before moving forward with this series of analytical posts. We’ll be here waiting for you when you’re ready.
To make this easier, I’ve posted my real-time scene log HERE.
You can follow the story scene by scene in very abbreviated, shorthanded form, along with the time-codes of where each begins and ends, and the sequential scene number. This is raw, unedited stuff, and may not make complete sense until you’ve seen the film.
I’ve marked the two plot points, the mid-point and the two pinch points in bold. In the analysis we’ll look at each of those milestones and juxtapose what happens there against the criteria for each given story transition.
This is learning by example. And in the act of recognition, it is also learning by doing.
The next post will begin looking at the story in the order in which it unfolds.
For now, though, let me close with this.
No matter how many times I do this exercise, I always learn something new. And/or, I deepen my understanding of, and belief in, the liberating and empowering nature of story structure and the six core competencies model to which it belongs.
Sometimes we look at a story from the consumer side, as a reader or a viewer, and we marvel at what the writer has managed to achieve. Shutter Island was certainly such an experience for me, and the more I studied it the more complex and nuanced I realized it was.
Sometimes this isn’t a good thing. It’s downright intimidating. It’s like watching Roger Federer play tennis, watching Baryshnikov dance or listening to Pavarotti sing. How can we ever aspire to even a fraction of such greatness?
One answer is to grasp the fundamentals upon which they have built their own level of craft and art. That’s where they started, and it’s where we should continue to focus, even as our learning curve goes vertical.
It also begins by immersing yourself in the work – the specific story – to the same degree the author had to.
Once you get inside a story – be it a Shutter Island or An Education – and see how it ticks, how it fits together seamlessly, you realize how critical it is for the writer to completely own that highest-level, nuance-laden architecture and mission-driven scene execution in their head.
Because in a story like this, every moment is interconnected. It’s like blood chemistry streaming to all extremities of the body. It has to be right or the muscle won’t grow, the wound won’t heal and the body won’t flourish.
At the end of the storytelling day the sum must exceed the total of the parts. Once you own it, you can render it. And not until.
What’s particularly fascinating to me is this:
What we’re doing here in the deconstruction process is almost precisely the same exercise, in reverse, that a writer must complete in terms of depth of understanding before it can be written wisely.
In fact, if you can create a document for your story that looks somewhat similar (in terms of scene identification and sequence; the Cliff-notes nature of that is your call) to the scene log I’ve provided HERE, minus the time codes and typos, you have the skeleton of a functional story on your hands. Provided, of course, that your choices are enlightened in terms of the principles, rather than random.
Such a document — called a beat sheet — is a critically important step in the story development process.
Which means, to some extent, we benefit from the deconstruction process almost as much as we benefit from the experience of actually writing a story of this psychological sensitivity and complexity.
It’s all just storytelling, inside and out, frontwards and backwards.
Plan it or pants it, it won’t work until… well, until it does.
If you’d like a primer on some fresh techniques of characterization, allow me to suggest my ebook, The Three Dimensions of Character.