Getting Smart with Story Structure: Open Water

Grow your understanding of screenwriting and visual language with our film breakdown.

“Unbelievable! …The best part is that we paid to do this.”

– Daniel, Open Water

From Open Water | Lionsgate, 2004

From Open Water | Lionsgate, 2004

Namely, float in the ocean forgotten by civilization while fighting the cold and thirst and, yes, sharks.

Open Water works on a visceral level.

It preys on our childhood fear of being left behind and the adult counterpart of dying alone. A couple takes a break from their busy lives and scuba dives in the Atlantic, only to be abandoned at sea on account of an administrative error aboard their boat. They spend the next twenty-four hours drifting where the current takes them, waiting for rescue and struggling to survive. There’s a directness to the narrative that belies its deeper themes; questions of humankind’s purpose and place in the world.

Writer-director Chris Kentis, himself an avid scuba diver, based the story on real events. The film was made for some $130,000, shot on weekends and holidays over three years, with real sharks. Chris and his wife, Laura Lau, also the film’s producer, took 120 hours of footage from their DV cameras into the editing room and emerged with a 79 minute horror-thriller.

After its Sundance screening, Open Water was bought by Lions Gate Entertainment for $2.5 million and went on to gross $55 million worldwide.

Like Primer, It’s a testament to the power of creating with the tools you have on hand; you don’t need the latest and greatest gadgets and a star-studded cast to reach audiences and realize a massive Return on Investment.

Yes, such resources have their advantages, but the secret of this shoestring success is in the popularity of its genre and simplicity of its telling. People love scary movies. The DV camerawork lures us with its documentary aesthetic, compounding the horror of the film’s events. It’s a perfect match between style and subject matter.

We can apply this approach to our own films. There are lessons to be learned, here; hence Open Water is the next installment of our “Getting Smart with Story Structure” series, in which we invite you to analyze a film to discover how it works.

A breakdown bares a story’s mechanics. It reveals screenwriting principles you can apply to your own projects, sharpens your command of visual language, and trains you to watch films actively – every film is, after all, a lesson that rewards study.

Without further ado, let’s check out the trailer for this lesson:

Break It Down

Set aside at least 2.5 hours for this month’s breakdown: 1.5 to watch the film and take notes; 1 to gather your thoughts. Ultimately, we’ll identify three act breaks along with nine structural points:

  • Inciting Incident
  • Pinch Point #1
  • Plot Point #1
  • Obstacle
  • Midpoint
  • False Sense of Security
  • Plot Point #2
  • Climax
  • Denouement

If you’re not sure what these points mean, you might enroll in our online filmmaking course, where we’ll discuss them in depth as a part of your dedicated Screenwriting Module.

Regardless, as Open Water plays, also keep an eye out for “plants” and “payoffs”, those breadcrumbs that propel the story and shade it with meaning.

Alright, enjoy the show! We’ll see you back here once you’ve watched the film and analyzed your notes for act breaks, key structural points, and plants and payoffs.

From Open Water | Lionsgate, 2004

From Open Water | Lionsgate, 2004

Describe Your Findings

So what did you think?

Personally, I left feeling drained to empty, as hopeless as Susan right before her final decision. My respect for and fear of the “open water” has been further cemented. Not pleasant emotions, but undoubtedly the film’s intention!

I must admit I was skeptical of the beginning – the dramatic angles and quick editing around the ordinary action of Susan and Daniel packing reminded me of a bad B-movie. Thankfully, we move past this quickly and are in the water by minute twenty-five, after which it becomes a fascinating study in the dramatic escalation of stakes.

Here’s my attempt to chart the film’s structure; click through for a high resolution PDF:

How do our breakdowns compare?

Did we locate the First, Second, and Third Acts in roughly the same places? What about key structural points? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

 Michael Koehler, with


Want to learn more about screenwriting and story structure?

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