Story Structure: Titanic (1997)
Written by James Cameron

Introduction:  Too many people make the mistake of thinking that James Cameron is a director of action pictures and don’t understand that it’s not the action alone that makes his pictures so successful.  Yes, Cameron is a master at creating exciting set pieces, but more importantly, he knows how to structure his stories quite well, and bases that structure around solid characters with whom we sympathize.  Titanic is a great example of this.  Sure, the concept of a doomed luxury liner is something that has an inherent drawing interest, but I assure you, the film wasn’t successful merely because people wanted to see a sinking ship.  It was successful because of the story of two star-crossed lovers that is at its very center.  Theirs is a compelling story involving characters that are richly detailed.  This is why so many teenagers (and lots of others) went to see it over and over again.

Who’s Story Is It? Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslett)
 
Act Structure: 3 Act

Act I Basic Action:
The opening images are prophetic: the irony of happy passengers waving to friends and relatives from the deck of the Titanic as it leaves port, then transitions to the present day as the submarine finds the wreckage of the ship on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.  This is the framing story around which we base the history of Titanic, told entirely in flashback.  Who says flashbacks don’t work?  The salvage crew finds the safe and in it is the drawing of Rose wearing the diamond they seek.  The picture draws reaction from Old Rose, now living with her granddaughter, who sees it on TV.  This leads Old Rose to being taken with her granddaughter to the salvage ship where she relates her story.  

As the Titanic gets underway, Rose is an unhappy rich girl engaged to someone she detests, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).  The Titanic is about to set sail from England to America with Rose, Cal and Rose’s mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) on board.  Rose tells how, for her, Titanic is a slave ship, taking her into a life of bondage to Cal.  Then we cut to poor street urchin Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) winning his passage on the Titanic in a dockside card game. Rose’s character is broadened as she unpacks the paintings she’s bringing with her, all by famous artists, and ridiculed by Cal.  We see the clash of social classes, as Rose is introduced to Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) who is looked down upon by Rose’s mother as she comes from “new money.”  Rose is also shown as a modern woman who bothers her mother by smoking cigarettes.  We see the friction between Rose and Cal, and learn through voiceovers just how miserable she is in her present situation.

Inciting Event 1: Rose flees from the high society in the dining room and attempts to commit suicide by climbing over the back rail of the ship.  She is disarmed by Jack, and talked into climbing back onto the boat.  Then she is saved by Jack from falling.  Rose and Jack begin a friendship with the secret of her suicide attempt kept by him.

But Rose is not yet ready for her Turning Point decision.  In her cabin, she is given the “Heart of the Ocean” diamond by Cal, but it’s clear she doesn’t love him.  She subsequently gets to know Jack the next day on deck as he shows her the drawings he does.  Her interest in art makes her even more interested in him.  Then, she supports him as he is invited to dinner in the first class dining room, and then, later goes with him to a dance in the lower decks of the ship.  They are spied on by Cal’s manservant Lovejoy (David Warner).  Cal is furious when he finds out and forbids her from seeing Jack again.  Rose’s dilemma is pressed further when her mother tells her that they are essentially broke and they need Cal’s money in order to survive.  Jack surprises Rose on the upper deck and takes her into the gym where he tells her to leave Cal.  But Rose, in true “refusal of the call” mode, tells Jack that she loves Cal and that he should not worry about her. 

Inciting Event 2: Later, Rose sees a young girl being instructed by her upper class mother and realizes that this ritual is all that life will ever give her.  

Act I Turning Point: Rose changes her mind and comes to Jack as he waits on the bow of the ship.  She decides to begin a relationship with Jack.  This is a BIG moment, and you only have to look at the combination of the cinematography (seen in the above picture), the music and the romance created by the actors and director to know just how much importance this scene has in the overall scheme of things.

It’s also interesting to point out that this three-hour plus film has really taken its time to get to Act II.  That’s because of all the really interesting character moments that have been set up in Act I.  Act I also introduces a good number of allies, opponents and sub-plot characters who will also share the fate of Rose and Jack on the Titanic.

Act II Basic Action: This is all about Rose’s relationship with Jack, her problems with Cal and her mother.  These relations play out on the final day aboard Titanic.  Their relationship deepens  as Rose takes Jack to her cabin where he draws her portrait as she lies naked, wearing the diamond necklace.  Later, escaping once again from Lovejoy, they make it to the storage decks and they make love in the back seat of a car.  Rose tells Jack that when he gets off the ship, she is going with him.  At about the middle of Act II, and about the middle of the film, the ship hits the iceberg.  This begins a series of intercuts as we move around various parts of the Titanic to see reactions from the Captain, crew, and passengers both above and below decks.  Jack is arrested for stealing the diamond which was planted in his coat pocket by Lovejoy.  Jack is taken below decks and locked up in the quartermaster’s office.  Subsequently, Rose leaves Cal, races to the lower decks to find Cal and rescue him.  After that, Rose and Jack encounter ship designer Andrews (Victor Garber) who tells her to get on a lifeboat without delay.  Rose and Jack make it to the deck in time for Rose to board a lifeboat.  Cal tells her that he and Jack will catch another lifeboat on the other side of the ship.

Hero's Low Point: Rose descends on the lifeboat, but realizes that Cal is lying about having a place for Jack on another lifeboat.  She knows now that Jack will die on the ship without her. 

Act II Turning Point: Rose decides to get out of the lifeboat and face death on the sinking ship with Jack.  Is the act of getting back on a ship you know is sinking a pretty big decision?  Yeah, thought so, too.

Act III Basic Action: The final battle is the action of Rose and Jack trying to escape from the sinking Titanic.  They reunite briefly after Rose gets back on the ship, but are set upon by Cal who shoots at them with the pistol taken from Lovejoy.  They flee to the lower decks to escape him.  Cal eventually gives up the chase and heads back to the upper deck and a lifeboat.  Rose and Jack struggle through flooded hallways and become trapped behind a locked gate, escaping at the last possible moment.  They encounter the doomed ship designer Andrews who says goodbye to them.  Then we see a series of intercuts in which story lines resolve for the various characters who we have come to know during Act I and Act II.  The Captain, the crew, Jack’s friends Fabrizio and Tommy, the band, mothers and children, the Astors and Guggenheims all meet their fate.  Jack and Rose eventually make it to the stern of the ship, where they first met.  The ship sinks and they enter the water.  Jack manages to save Rose by hoisting her on some wreckage, but it won’t sustain his weight.  He ultimately freezes in the water.  Rose is able to take a whistle from a dead crewman and alert Crewman Lowe that she is alive.  She has won her final battle, but lost her beloved Jack.

Denouement: Old Rose finishes her story about how Jack saved her, not just from drowning, but from a life of slavery to Cal and society.  Again in flashback, we see the faces of the many survivors and learn that while Cal survived Titanic, he didn’t survive the 1929 stock market crash.  Then, in the present, we see Rose give back the diamond, and then pass away as the pictures of her life show how Jack saved her.  Then, finally, Rose and Jack are reunited on the stairway of the Titanic, applauded by the other souls who were also lost aboard the ship.

Hero’s Outer Need: To develop a relationship with Jack and escape Cal.

Hero’s Inner Need: To break free of her bondage and express herself as an individual.

Central Question: Will Rose break free of Cal?  Will Rose and Jack survive the sinking of the Titanic.

Unity of Opposites: Rose wants to be with Jack.  Cal wants Rose to be with him.

Subplots: Molly Brown and her nouveau riche ways.  Jack’s poor friends in steerage.  The wrap-around story with Brock Lovett the salvage operator. J. Bruce  Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) demanding yet cowardly ship company manager who pushes the Captain to set a speed record.

Theme:  Follow your heart and “your love will go on.”

Opponent: Cal, Lovejoy, Ruth, 1st class passengers, ship’s crew.

Allies: Molly Brown, Thomas Andrews, other 2nd and 3rd class passengers.

The MacGuffin: the “Heart of the Ocean”

Posted: 05.06.15


In the other files in this section, I have done an analysis of the story structures of several feature films.  My hope is that if you've learned something from this dialogue that you will show your appreciation by picking up my newest novel (link below).  And then let me know what you think of its structure! 

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