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
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
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
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.
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”
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!