Today I'm starting a new series in which I break down the structural points of a well-known movie and apply it to fiction writing. Story structure is one of my most favorite topics to discuss, so if you have any questions at all please post them in the comments and I'll answer as best I can.
In each post I will focus on a 25% chunk of the story. Act One, the first half of Act Two, the second half of Act Two, and Act Three. That's four posts, one per week, so a total of four weeks for one movie. Or, about one movie per month.
This month I'm breaking down the childrens' fantasy classic, Labyrinth.
The movie has a run time of one hour and forty minutes. If we don't count the opening credits and the closing credits, it's about an hour and a half long, or, ninety minutes. And every last one of those ninety minutes is important. So here we go.
Like the first pages of a novel, the first images you see in a movie set the tone for everything that follows. If your story is meant to be humorous, that first page better have something funny on it. If your story is meant to be gritty, that first page better have some kind of shock factor. Etc, etc.
The first thing we see in Labyrinth is Sarah, all dressed up like a medieval princess, reciting something that sounds like either poetry or an old play. Right away we get a sense of fantasy from this. But what we don't realize is that these words she is reciting are vitally important to the plot later.
Also noteworthy is that Sarah fumbles the last line of her recital. As a first-time viewer you will likely remember that she forgot certain words rather than the exact words she said, and that's just what the writers want you to do.
So we've met our protagonist. We've shown the setting (made clear when we see Sarah's jeans peeking from beneath her costume and hear her revert to modern lingo). We've set the tone. We've hinted at foreshadowing. All of that was accomplished in UNDER ONE MINUTE.
The next scene puts Sarah into an immediately tough situation. This is our inciting incident, bridged to the opening by the fact that she was out later than she should have been. When she returns home, she and her stepmother go a few rounds before Sarah storms off into her room, utterly disgusted with her unfair life.
This is all very teen angsty and cheesy, but it's important setup for what follows. The point here is basically that Sarah has a troubled home life and she's at her breaking point with having to babysit her brother all the time.
While all of this is going on, the filmmakers are throwing clues at us left and right about what's to come. Sarah's bedroom is FULL TO THE BRIM with toys and books that either relate directly to the world of the labyrinth or simply emphasize her fantasy-crazed personality. As the camera pans her room we hear her reciting those same lines again.
And she gets interrupted before those final words. Again. It's been shoved right into our faces twice now in under five minutes.
By the time Sarah is left alone with her brother for the night, she is so angry about her situation that she's literally screaming. Yes, it's melodramatic, but at least we're not missing the point. She hates her life. Something needs to change or she'll... die? Yes.
Not physically, but psychologically. Her attitude is ripe for the story ahead to bring about a drastic change. Remember that some form of death needs to hang over the protagonist from the very beginning until the resolution. "Death" is not always physical (depending on your story) and it often changes form as the conflict progresses.
At the five minute mark, I'm pretty much ready to punch Sarah in the face. This is arguably her most unflattering scene in the entire movie. She's being completely selfish and hateful toward her baby brother, and all the while trying to make it seem like she is the victim. Again, this is all just setup for a change about to come. If things were perfect for her at this point, people would stop watching.
Then we creep into the catalyst. Sarah starts telling her brother a story, one that she's read from her Labyrinth book so many times she has it memorized. As she's talking about goblins and the goblin king and the girl and the girl's brother... we see a parallel. And immediately wonder, Is this just a story, or is it real?
We get our answer about two seconds later (quick quick quick, keep it moving!) when we're shown a bunch of goblins hiding under the bed. This IS real. Sarah just doesn't know it yet. She doesn't realize the danger she's putting her brother into, out of petty frustration. This creates tension--we know something she doesn't and we see her heading blindly toward a fall. By the end of this bit she inadvertently sends her brother off to the Goblin King and we've officially reached our catalyst.
It's right around ten minutes into the movie when Sarah gets a bitter dose of reality. Her brother is gone. There are goblins scurrying around the bedroom. Everything she thought was fantasy is now real. And then, to make her mistake abundantly clear, the Goblin King himself pays her a visit to offer a deal.
Jareth, the Goblin King, is the antagonist. As I've discussed before (here), the antagonist should make an appearance (either directly or indirectly) by the time we reach the catalyst. In true antagonist form, Jareth pushes Sarah into a debate period. A tough choice. Either she accepts his gift--a magic crystal that will make all of her wildest dreams come true--and forget about her brother. Or she takes the hard route of traveling through the labyrinth to rescue her brother at the center, at Jareth's castle beyond the Goblin City.
We've already seen how terribly selfish Sarah can be, so we aren't really sure at this point what her decision will be. This kind of tension keeps the audience fixed on the edge of their seat.
Jareth and Sarah go back and forth for a bit, and then Sarah refuses his gift and says she's going to save her brother. Jareth tries again. And again. Sarah stands firm. His last resort in this debate is to give her a time limit of 13 hours to solve the labyrinth.
Adding a ticking clock is one of the most tried-and-true ways to increase tension in a story. It's been done a million times--and it works every time. We automatically ask now, Will she get to her brother in time? Will she get lost in the labyrinth forever? What's in there, anyway?
And we're hooked. Act One has done its job beautifully. We follow Sarah into the labyrinth, into the meat of the premise.
The story breaks into Act Two at the twelve minute mark. That isn't quite 25%, but in a childrens' movie a short beginning is forgivable. The same is true for MG and YA novels. I'd prefer to get to the meat of the story too soon rather than too late. The screenwriters here did have some room to develop things more in the beginning, without hurting the overall feel of the movie, but it's not a major fault. Likely what happened was they needed more room in the middle for something they felt was more important.
And that's perfectly okay. Story structure is not meant to be a strict minute-by-minute guide. You can flex things a bit here and there and the story usually doesn't suffer for it.
So here's the gist of Act One:
Opening image - sets the tone for the rest of the story
Setup - clearly shows how the protagonist and her situation are ripe for drastic change; she should feel on the verge of a "breaking point"; filled with foreshadowing, only recognized as such when looking back after the story is done; quick pacing or you'll risk losing the audience before they're hooked
Catalyst - first major turning point; involves the antagonist either directly or indirectly, which pushes the protagonist into a mental debate
Debate - protagonist faced with her first tough choice; she weighs both sides and ultimately decides to take the hard route; moves on to the meat of the premise in the first half of Act Two
Doesn't look like much when you reduce it to those basics, but it is so SO important. Without proper execution in Act One, your audience may never reach the juicy parts of your story in Act Two. In this way, you could say that the entire first act is your Hook Zone. Because that is where most readers will either put the book down or decide it's worth reading to the end.
Next Wednesday we'll break down Labyrinth's first half of Act Two, aka "the promise of the premise."