Getting Smart with Story Structure: Prisoners

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

 

“Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you may have encountered our analysis of antiheroes in film, in which I referenced the breakdown sessions my friends and I hosted when we lived in the same city. Essentially, we met every other week to screen a film or television pilot and discuss its strengths and weaknesses, with particular emphasis on structure.

What makes a story tick? What is its A-to-B-to-C progression? How are the characters developed, and how do they move the plot? Over the years, I’ve come to believe that film breakdowns are one of the best investments of time a filmmaker can make. A breakdown reveals a story’s inner workings for study and application. It puts narrative principles into practice, sharpens your understanding of visual language, and trains you to watch film and television actively.

So, we invite you to participate in our first ever breakdown session here at Lights Online Film School. We may not be in the same room, but we can discuss virtually in the comments below! Granted, it’s an investment of time – you’ll want to budget between 3.5-4 hours for this month’s breakdown – but I promise you this: if you move forward, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of filmmaking that you can apply to your own projects.

Our subject of study is 2013s Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve. It recouped its $46 million budget and then some, realizing $122 million at the box office worldwide.

Why Prisoners? I chose it for three reasons.

First, Prisoners is a thriller. Its A-to-B-to-C progression is fairly evident, since the plot hinges on the resolution of a mystery.

Second, it was recently announced that Villeneuve and Roger Deakins, Prisoners‘ cinematographer – best known for his work with The Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes – will collaborate on the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. I’m a huge fan of Deakins and Blade Runner and was unfamiliar with Villeneuve’s work, so Prisoners seemed instructive, especially considering the critical acclaim it received.

Finally, Prisoners has an unconventional running time, clocking in at 153 minutes with credits. I was curious to see how the film puts narrative principles into practice.

Check out the trailer:

Break It Down

If you’re ready to jump into our breakdown session, you’ll need a copy of Prisoners, a notebook, and a stopwatch of some sort.

When you start the film, start your stopwatch. In your notebook, timestamp and record every important event. By the end of the film, you’ll have several pages’ worth of notes you can go back and analyze for our discussion.

For your reference, here’s the first page of my notes, unedited:

FilmBreakdown_PrisonersNotes780

The important thing is to keep up with the film. Don’t pause if you can help it! Pausing interrupts the flow and threatens to confuse your sense of the story’s pacing.

When the film ended, I went back and analyzed my notes, adding the comments and red text. Ultimately, I decided to identify act breaks as well as some key structural points:

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

Here at Lights Online Film School, we discuss these concepts extensively in our filmmaking course. It’s worth noting there’re many different ways to talk about a film’s structure. I use Lights’ approach and terminology; feel free to use whatever you’re accustomed to.

I also decided to track “plants” and “payoffs”, those breadcrumbs that propel the story and shade it with meaning.

When you have your materials together and know what you’re looking for, hit play! I’ll see you back here when you’ve watched the film and analyzed your notes for key structural points, smaller plot points, and other noteworthy findings.

Warner Bros. Pictures

From Prisoners | Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013

Describe Your Findings

So what did you think?

It reminds me a bit of David Fincher’s Zodiac and even Gone Girl, with its sense of dread and disembodied, locked-down shots. In particular, I like the ending. The whistle pays off beautifully, and the specifics of the resolution are implied – Villeneuve leaves us with questions that linger in the mind long after the credits roll.

Similarly, the film doesn’t shy away from exploring the morality of torture. Hugh Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, forces us to ask ourselves how far we might go to save our loved ones. We understand Keller’s motivation, but can we condone his actions?

I was impressed by how efficiently the first two scenes set up the film’s world, tone, and characters. The wintery woods of Pennsylvania, still and unforgiving; the Lord’s Prayer suggesting Keller’s faith and eventual moral struggle; Keller’s conversation with his son about “the most important thing” his granddad told him: “be ready”. We understand Keller is a man obsessed with control; as he loses control, he loses himself. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Detective Loki, is a sort of mirror of Keller’s character arc, believing he can solve the case even as it spirals out of his control. The film explores the tension between doing whatever is necessary (Keller) and the rule of law (Detective Loki) in extreme situations, suggesting control is fleeting at best.

But I digress. To help us compare notes, I’ve synthesized my findings in the chart below. The timecode along the top corresponds to the film’s running time; the timecode along the bottom corresponds to my stopwatch, so it’s not exact. Click through for a high resolution PDF:

FilmBreakdown_PrisonersStill780

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 invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below!

 Michael Koehler, with


Want to learn more about story structure and screenwriting more generally?

Then join our online film school, complete with a comprehensive filmmaking course. It’s everything you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.

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