Your Next Deconstruction Challenge

If you’ve just arrived here via Copyblogger, welcome!  We’re all about going deep into the infrastructure and principles of effective storytelling, and we’d love to have you join us.

shutter island imageJust saw Shutter Island, the Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio based on the Dennis Lehane novel.  And I’m here to tell you, if you’re a writer of novels and/or screenplays who hopes to better wrap your head around the inherent power of narrative structure and character arc — in other words, story architecture — you should see it, too.

Not as a ticket-paying, popcorn-chewing audience peer, but as a note-taking, inquisitive budding author going to school on the best in the business.

Why?  Because I continue to believe that the most empowering skill-building thing we can do as writers is to critically analyze and deconstruct stories other than our own.  We can read the “how-to” until our eyes bleed, but when we see the principles in action we become believers.

Shutter Island is a clinic in delivering a clearly-delinated four part contextual structure, with each quartile separated and empowered by expositional milestones (two plot-points and a mid-point) that define the very essense of their mission.

It is those four very different contexts that make the story work.  That make any story work. 

Of course, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, then the deconsruction process won’t deliver a fraction of the benefit as compared to an informed process.  So I invite you to bone up on four part structure using the archived posts here on Storyfix, or my ebook on the topic.

The Payoff

In a few weeks I’ll post a deconstruction of BOTH the novel and the movie.

For now, see if you can spot the game-changing first plot point, the mid-point context shift and the fuse-igniting second plot point.  If you’re feeling ambitious, try to spot the two pinch points in the middle of Parts 2 and 3. 

At a very minimum, try to sense the different narrtive contexts between each of the four parts — set-up/orhpan… response/wanderer… attack/warrior… hero/martyr.

Fair warning, though.  Shutter Island is dark and frightening, and it isn’t remotely what you think it is, based either on the movie preview or the first half.  And that, in itself, is an opportunity to sit at the feet of perhaps the best literary thriller authors we have in their respective mediums, Dennis Lehane and Martin Scorsese. 

If even a fraction of their genius rubs off, we’ll all be orders of magnitude better for it. 

Image credit: Wolf Gang

Quick note: my publisher has completely revised the website for my new novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder (, with a cool new look and new content.  Please check it out.


Filed under Story Structure Series

12 Responses to Your Next Deconstruction Challenge

  1. Hey Larry,

    I saw Shutter Island just a few days ago as well and though I thought it was executed quite well, I was disappointed to learn that what I had guessed based on the trailer was exactly what I got by the end of the movie.

    I imagine I wouldn’t have guessed it while reading the book, however, I think that since this sort of thing has appeared in other films in recent times, I saw it coming from a mile away.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the movie, I just wish I could have stopped my mind from getting ahead of myself so I could enjoy it like most other people will.

    Take Care,

  2. Lisa Miller

    I went in the Shutter Island yesterday thinking I could study the story structure, but things ticked on so that I couldn’t keep track well. The Hitchcockian visuals distracted me from the story itself. I guessed some of the ending but not all. I really look forward to reading your dissection. Thanks for reading my mind that I was wanting you to do that.

  3. When are you going to do the spreadsheet we talked about, to make it easier for us to note-take when these films come out on DVD! I won’t be able to watch this one – I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to dark films and the trailer made me say Naw, don’t think so.

  4. Martha Miller

    Hi Larry,
    My bud and I who saw “Shutter Island” together must be slow . . . we didn’t have a clue about that final twist. And we talked all the way home about how LeHane put the story together so the reader didn’t feel cheated. In his book, he must have dropped clues along the way without giving the secret away. I was so intrigued by ‘how’d he do that?’, that I ordered a copy of the book. I’ll look forward eagerly to your deconstruction of the plot. Thanks for doing that!

  5. Monica

    Your new book site looks terrific! I really like the look. Your publisher did a fantastic job.

    I don’t know if I’ll get to see the movie Shutter Island before you do your dissection, but I’m sure I’ll gain some benefit nevertheless. Perhaps I will eventually see it and then return to your analysis. I admit it would be better to have seen the movie.

  6. @Martha — Shutter is one of those movies that’s definately seeing twice, especially if you’re a writer trying to figure out how Lehane and Scorsese pulled it off. Once you know the ending (which you would if you’d read the book first, in which case you may not need to see it again), you’ll see the clues, the foreshadowing, even DiCaprio’s over-acting, which in retrospect turns into brilliant acting.

    A masterful example of the principles of structure, chacacter — and most of all, CONCEPT — at work.

  7. Larry,
    Looking forward to your deconstruction, as usual. I just wanted to chime in on your thoughts of how this makes us better writers (and RE-writers). It may seem silly for a novelist to study films, but a well-structured story is a well-structured story, and you can learn from it. Analyzing movies is a good place to start because it’s quick and in-your-face, and you can easily rewind, fast forward, pause, or whatever you need to do (not at the theater, obvs, but I’m a believer in homework). Once you have a good feel for what’s what, you start seeing the structural points in written stories jump off the page as you read, sometimes without even consciously looking for them.
    And that’s when good things start happening in your own writing.

  8. I just started reading the book today; can’t wait for the deconstruction.

  9. Mae

    Reading the book. Wow. Good writing. Bought the Story Structure book, so I can break it down. The book is so good I have a hard time thinking about the story structure. When is the deconstruction going to start?

  10. @Mae — glad you’re enjoying it, Lehane is one of my three favorite authors (Nelson Demille and Colin Harrison are the other two). I’m finishing a massive project for another week or so, then will post the deconstruction of Shutter Island. Thanks for writing and participating, am hoping you’ll continue to get value from this process.

  11. Mae

    Reading Shutter Island on the Kindle. The percentage is easy to see at the bottom of each page, so it’s easy to reread and look for the Plot Points. I’m now looking for the Pinch Points. I printed several p.125’s so I can fill them in. I can see what is wrong with my two novela. Your books are the best and I’ve read a ton of them. Thanks

  12. Mae

    Just finished reading Shutter Island and deconstructed it.
    Wonder how close I came. Ha!!!

    Part 1 : Set up – Background about Teddy’s father-History of the Prison- He and Chuck walk around finding where the buildings are- Interviewing the patients- etc

    Plot Point One_ The storm-can’t leave

    Part two- The response- tells Chuck about Laddiius-try to get the files,

    Midpoint- Migrane – from seeing Rachael

    Attack- Goes to Lighthouse- sees Noyce- loses Chuck- blow up the car- go to ferry-

    Plot Point 2- Meets Cawley – at the Light house

    Resolution- His dream- says he understands- later he becomes Teddy again- They will get him now.