Getting Smart with Story Structure: Primer

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

“I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”

– Aaron, Primer

From Primer | THINKFilm & IFC Films, 2004

From Primer | THINKFilm & IFC Films, 2004

Does Aaron’s line above make your head hurt? If so, you’re not alone. My friends have raved about Primer for years, working to solve the puzzle at the heart of the film.

How difficult could it be?, I thought. There’s only so much you can cram into a running time of one-hour-and-change. Two viewings later, I stand corrected. Primer is the most complicated film I’ve seen to date. In the words of film critic Mike D’Angelo, “Anybody who claims he fully understands what’s going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar.”

In Primer, writer-director Shane Carruth applies his background in mathematics and software engineering to a byzantine story about the accidental discovery of time travel. He doesn’t dilute the pervasive technical jargon or otherwise simplify the film’s permutations. “I’ve watched it seven or eight times and I still don’t totally know how it works,” Chuck Klosterman writes in Eating the Dinosaur, “[but it is] the finest movie about time travel I’ve ever seen… because it’s the most realistic”:

It’s not that the time machine in “Primer” seems more authentic; it’s that the time travelers themselves seem more believable. They talk and act (and think) like the kind of people who might accidentally figure out how to move through time, which is why it’s the best depiction we have of the ethical quandaries that would emerge from such a discovery.

The film’s density is a part of its purpose – and its charm. Primer won both the Alfred P. Sloan Prize and Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and today it’s a cult classic.

It’s also an inspiration to indie filmmakers. In addition to writing and directing, Carruth produced, edited, scored, and co-starred in Primer, ensuring complete creative control and helping to keep the budget to a mere $7000! “The movie never looks cheap, because every shot looks as it must look,” Ebert explains in his review. It’s a testament to the power of creating with the tools you have on hand. Primer went on to make almost $425,000, a 5968% Return on Investment.

Not surprisingly, then, Carruth’s success story 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 month’s lesson:

Break It Down

Set aside at least 2.5 hours for the breakdown: 1.5 to watch the film and take notes; 1 to gather your thoughts. If you’re as befuddled as I was, you’ll want an additional 1.5 hours for a second viewing.

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 Primer 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 Primer | THINKFilm & IFC Films, 2004

From Primer | THINKFilm & IFC Films, 2004

Describe Your Findings

So what did you think?

Personally, I’m fascinated by the film’s relationship to time. How does one tell a multi-linear story using an inherently linear medium? Once the end credits rolled, I scoured the internet for analyses, poring over countless theories and elaborate diagrams to help me make sense of what I’d just seen.

It took me a while to realize that, for all its complexity, Primer plays out like a traditional thriller. We can identify its act breaks and structural points like we would with any other film.

How does one map a multi-linear story to a linear medium? By applying a tried-and-true narrative progression. This was a powerful moment of realization for me: even the most unconventional of plots can benefit from the dictates of structure; it keeps us grounded and engaged.

Here’s my attempt at delineating that structure. Click through for a high resolution PDF:

FilmBreakdown_PrimerStill780

How do our breakdowns compare?

Did we locate the First, Second, and Third Acts in roughly the same places? What about key structural points? If one of us is wrong, don’t worry; we can always time travel back and fix it.

Maybe.

Actually that’s probably a terrible idea.

 Michael Koehler, with


Want to learn more about screenwriting and story structure?

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