Three Shadows Story Structure
Whether it is a story about an underdog sports team (Bad News Bears, Slap Shot, Rocky, Rudy), a person dealing with addiction (Ray, Walk the Line) or a road trip (Thelma & Louise, Lord of the Rings, Finding Nemo, The Odyssey), each story is about a character traveling from point A to a [hopefully] challenging point B whereupon they intend to earn a prize.
They may not achieve that prize, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it takes trying to get something and failing in order to learn what’s truly important.
Typically, these stories encourage that their characters (and us readers) take the challenge and “go the distance.” But Three Shadows questions that mentality.
Is “going the distance” always a good thing? …
Spoiler Warning! Below is the plot structure of Three Shadows using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet as the basis for the breakdown (see my review of Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, an excellent storytelling resource). For an explanation of each “beat” please refer to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Thanks!
PREMISE: Three Shadows follows a father and son as they try to escape from three shadowed figures and the certain death they will bring.
Opening Image: Louis and Joachim (father and son) plant a sapling in their orchard. For them, life is simple… blissful…
Theme Stated: Isolated, safe and as the narration points out, “Ignorant of the world…and untroubled”, they and Lise (Joachim’s mother) live on an Eden-like spread of land. As a smiling family they work in the fields, skinny-dip in the pond and watch the sun set. That is, until…
Set Up: One night, Joachim sees three shadowed figures on a nearby hillside. As they debate what to do, Louis shows his first signs of willful ignorance by logically assuming that the figures must be traveling passersby; the family should just ignore their eerie presence. The next morning, their Eden-like land starts to get eerie as well. Fast-moving fog fills the air, the weather grows chilly and their family dog, Diego runs away.
Catalyst: Plus, the shadows are getting closer to the house, frightening Joachim and Lise. No longer able to ignore their presence, Louis goes out to confront them but once he’s out there, the shadows seem to disappear into the fog. Wary, Louis begins their fight to protect Joachim by warning him to not go anywhere alone.
Debate: Something must be done about the shadows, but what? Louis tries to guard the house, but there’s only so much he can do and with the shadows creeping nearer, even using the ghost of Diego to lure Joachim outside, Lise can’t sit back and wait.
Choosing Act Two: One morning, Louis wakes up to find a note from Lise saying that “fear and anger won’t protect Joachim” so she has gone to town to see Mistress Pike, a seer, for advice.
B-Story: From Mistress Pike, Lise learns that the shadows are not people but rather, mystical “things”. They have come for Joachim and they will succeed, there is no use fighting it, it is inevitable as fate. No longer ignorant about their situation, Lise returns to Louis saying they should make the most of each moment they have left with Joachim. But Louis refuses to listen, maintaining his willful ignorance, and chooses to run. Lise cannot persuade him and lets him leave, praying they won’t lose their marriage as well as their son.
Fun n’ Games (Promise of the Premise): Louis takes Joachim in his arms and together they hope to outrun the shadows. Hiding in the density of the forest, they run until they reach water and must take a boat. On the boat, they meet a number of colorful characters: a nice elderly couple, a slave trader and the African slave he hopes to sell, the boatswain, the captain, a palm reader, etc. Unintentionally, Louis makes enemies with the slave and the palm reader.
Mid-point: Bedding down for the night, Joachim asks Louis if they’ve beaten the shadows; he wants to go home. Louis assures Joachim they will return home “when it’s safe”, uncertain of when that will be. How long can they keep running?
Bad Guys Close In: During the night, the palm reader and her two henchmen murder the slave trader (in revenge for injures he did to her). Half dreaming, Louis witnesses the act and thinks he sees the three shadows. The next day, Louis is framed for the murder (by the palm reader and the slave) and sent to the brig.
All is Lost (& Whiff of Death): As a storm brews and tears the ship apart, Louis remembers witnessing the murder and thinks he brought the three shadows upon the boat (“I killed us all”). As the ship sinks, Louis and Joachim escape, leaping into the stormy water and the three shadows appear on the sinking ship’s mast. They have caught up and they’re close.
Rewrite Advice – “Cut to the Chase”; A Tip for Tightening: The boat trip is where things get a little drawn out (no pun intended) and the story slows down.
The point of having the murder in the plot is so Louis confuses the murderers for the shadows and THINKS the shadows have followed him and Joachim, thus resulting in guilt for bringing death to everyone on the boat. But, once the ship sinks, we see that the shadows actually ARE there so… why have the murder?
Why introduce a whole slew of new characters and their plot to frame Louis in order for Louis to think he sees the shadows instead of actually just seeing the shadows?
Why not have Louis make a bunch of friends on board so when the three shadows appear (perhaps brought on by his and Joachim’s presence, perhaps not) and kill all his new friends, he feels even MORE guilty for pursuing this desperate attempt to hold on to his ignorance in the first place?
The murder is interesting but ultimately unnecessary drama. Cut to the chase – in this case the literal chase – between Louis and the shadows.
Dark Night of the Soul: Louis wakes up, sick and weary, in the hut of a peasant man. There were no other survivors from the shipwreck and Louis, plagued by guilt, realizes the futility of running. He wants to return to Lise and spend what little time he has left with Joachim at home.
Choosing Act Three: But the peasant offers him one last chance to hold on to his ignorance and protect Joachim from death: all the power necessary to save Joachim for… Louis’ soul. Tempted, Louis agrees and becomes a giant, powerful, mad shell of a man. Wandering the land, Louis protects Joachim within his closed fist, not letting him die while also not letting him live.
Finale: He is like that for a limited yet timeless period ragging war upon the world until he tires and falls, exhausted by the constant battle. As Louis sleeps, Joachim emerges from his captivity and is immediately met by the three shadows (appearing as three lovely sisters). Joachim is ready to go but first there is something they must do. The three shadows retrieve Louis’ soul from the devilish peasant and Joachim returns his father’s soul, saying goodbye. Somehow, as if by a dream, Louis returns home to Lise’s embrace. The arduous journey is over.
Final Image: In an epilogue, their land has returned to an Eden-like state. Time has passed and Louis and Lise now have two daughters. They will always have heart-aching memories, but overall things are good and they intend to make the most of summer.