5 minutes with ‘Oppenheimer’ (or a single sentence) to become a better storyteller
Never underestimate the vast energy that can be unleashed through story structure.
One of the many things I love about blockbuster biopic “Oppenheimer” is its spoiler-proof plot.
Notwithstanding dismal data from nationwide history test scores, everybody more or less already knows the film’s basic outline. The technical ending of the external action in the movie—horrific nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the mushroom-cloud exclamation points of a horrific war—isn’t the key moment.
We know J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project was successful. We know how World War II ended. We’ve all lived through and felt some portion of the high-stakes nuclear era in the decades since.
“Oppenheimer” certainly relies on the context of our lingering paranoia over nukes, but its narrative doesn’t need any of those obvious events.
I’ve been thinking a lot about story structure lately as I prepare for the third annual Okoboji Writers Retreat. The retreat, produced by Iowa Writers’ Collaborative ringleader Julie Gammack, is a rare chance for creatives of all kinds to educate and support each other on the shores of the Iowa Great Lakes. (There may be only one or two remaining available spots for this year’s retreat; if nothing else, check it out for next year.) I’m leading a session on story structure (while also participating in panels on storytelling generally, plus one on artificial intelligence—speaking of paranoia).
“Oppenheimer” arguably is this year’s most prominent example—in both quality and reach—of elegant story structure.
The film interlaces two narratives: one (in color) about the development of the atomic bomb and the other (in black and white) about the petty political machinations as a different sort of fallout.
Its three hours are neatly bookended by a brief 1947 conversation between two scientific icons, Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. But we don’t hear what the two men say to each other at the start of the film. We only hear speculation about that conversation until the final minutes of dialogue.
Oppenheimer reminds Einstein of a conversation years before when the younger physicist worried that detonating the atomic bomb might trigger a chain reaction to destroy the world.
“I remember it well,” Einstein says. “What of it?”
“I believe we did,” Oppenheimer says.
The perpetual explosion of a dark, fearful mushroom cloud inside Oppenheimer’s mind is the real climax of the film. Director Christopher Nolan lingers on a visual image of ripples in water to help drive home both his bookended plot and the metaphorical ripples that haunt Oppenheimer.
As story structure, consider how tightly Nolan pivots his script around that simple chat.
The small mystery at the start of the film (What did Oppy and Einstein say to each other?) obviously works well as a hook. But even more I appreciate the principle of boiling down the most massive imaginable plot (civilization’s extinction) to a quiet conversation by two men standing by a pond.
Another mark of a good story: the wealth of information that doesn’t appear, to help focus our attention and clarify the narrative. For instance, we never set foot onto the World War II battlefield or see the effects of the bombings in Japan. At first blush you might consider this a moral failing on the part of the storyteller: How could Nolan gloss over the effects of what we’ve spent hours watching the characters build?
The truth is just the opposite: Trying to credibly introduce visuals from Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably would’ve only undermined the movie—not to mention kill its near-perfect pacing and bloat the plot. Remember, the real story here exists inside Oppenheimer’s mind, and keeping us squarely focused on his worldview drives home the key message.
As atrocious as anything that happened in World War II or in wars since, the movie amplifies Oppenheimer’s vision of global apocalypse. The final lines of the film perfectly juxtapose the everyday insanity of our societies: People obsess and jockey over power, politics, and reputation (summed up in Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Admiral Lewis Strauss) while civilization hangs in the balance.
We come out of the theater feeling not only afraid but guilty, because maybe we as a species have yet to truly open our eyes.
I stand by my statement that “Oppenheimer” has a spoiler-proof plot. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, my guess is that this storytelling dissection will help you enjoy it only more.
But don’t worry: You don’t have to interrogate the structure of your own stories on the grand historical scale of “Oppenheimer.” I could fill the internet talking about all kinds of formal storytelling frameworks, but let me leave you with one of the most powerful writing tips that drills down to the atomic level of storytelling (not to be too flip): a single sentence and the arrangement of each word within it.
The importance of emphatic word order is one of my favorite quick nuggets of writing advice, courtesy of veteran Poynter writing coach Roy Peter Clark.
He sums up his rule with a line from Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”:
“The Queen, my lord, is dead.”
These six monosyllabic words perfectly illustrate how a sentence packs more power when you position them for greatest emphasis.
“The Queen,” the subject, appears first.
The least important words, “my lord,” are buried in the middle.
The crucial information, the death of the queen, comes last. That’s where it can have the greatest impact, because the entire sentence drives toward that moment, followed by the pause of the period to let the news sink in.
“This rhetorical strategy — placing the most emphatic word in a sentence at the end — is more than 2,000 years old, but it felt new to me until Shakespeare’s words slapped me good and hard,” Clark writers. “It has become for me weightier than a strategy, more like a theory of reading and writing, the fact that any phrase that appears near the end of a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter will receive special attention.”
The line I remember best from three hours of “Oppenheimer”?
“I believe we did.”
That final word, “did,” indicts us. The blandest of verbs explodes off the screen because the storyteller flexes it to entirely reshape our view of reality. We thought we knew what happened in the desert in New Mexico and on the World War II battlefields, but it turns out the chain reaction has only begun.
Any other way actor Cillian Murphy would’ve uttered his last line—“I believe we did trigger a chain reaction,” or some other variation—would’ve been too much.
Standing on the shores of Okoboji later this month, I have a feeling I’ll find it hard to turn my gaze away from the ripples in the water.