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Book Review: Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan by Dan Calvisi and William Robert Rich

When Story Analyst Dan Calvisi published Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay a few years ago, he presented screenwriters with a detailed look inside his own personalized method for breaking down a story. His unique approach to constructing a story in the grand tradition of Syd Field, Blake Snyder, and others, allowed any screenwriter an easily accessible template for structuring their screenplays or analyzing the work of others. And now he’s back, this time with co-author William Robert Rich, bringing the story mapping analysis techniques to one of the most respected directors working today, Christopher Nolan. In Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan, Calvisi and Rich take an in-depth look at Nolan’s most seminal works - Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and all three films from Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy – and provides both a basic analysis and a complete story map breakdown for each film, as well as a more over-arching look at Nolan’s filmography as a whole.

Thankfully, there’s no need to have read Calvisi’s previous book as this installment kicks off with a brief recap of exactly what story maps are and how they can be used to effectively break down any film into their main dramatic elements and a beat sheet. While I would have liked to see a little bit more detail in this section (a sample story map for the uninitiated would have been a nice touch), this section does prepare you enough that you can move onto the rest of the book without feeling like you’re missing something.

Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan

In a smart move, Calvisi and Rich kick off the meat of the book by diving into Nolan’s filmography as a whole. By taking the time to discuss aspects of Nolan’s personal style up front, including a run-down of tropes that repeat themselves throughout his films – ideas like utilizing a fractured narrative, parallel lines of action, thematic explorations of time and memory, and an obsessive and/or haunted hero – they lay the groundwork for their analysis of each individual film later on. When you finally dive into their discussion on Memento in their first story map segment, you’re comfortable enough with both Nolan’s tendencies and the author’s interpretation of them that these ideas need only be referenced rather than explained over and over again to the reader.

As you delve into the heart of the analysis, I found Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan to both excel and lag for the same reason: it’s essentially variations of the same information repeated six times.

Each chapter begins with a short plot synopsis of the featured film and ties it back into the overarching analysis of Nolan that was presented earlier in the book, which then transitions into a two part analysis. First is the “Basic Story Map” which identifies key features of the story – internal and external goals, character arcs, the central dramatic question, themes, and even a logline. Following that is the “Full Story Map” which is essentially a beat sheet; breaking down the story into a collection of scenes that illustrate how each film falls into the mold of basic story structure (breaks out of each act, midpoints, climaxes, etc.) and pinpointing the scenes identified as the unique terms utilized in the story maps process. These terms, like Point of No Return, Strong Movement Forward, and Assumption of Power, among others, aren’t specifically defined (I’m sure they are in Calvisi’s previous Story Maps book), but their meaning is straightforward enough to not cause any real confusion. While these breakdowns are competent and well thought out, there’s nothing groundbreaking, and by the third or fourth one, you might start to feel like you’re treading water.

By the same token, Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan functions quite eloquently as an intricately detailed and compelling look into one of today’s most successful working directors. Each film, individually analyzed with the story maps system, works to bolster Calvisi and Rich’s original analysis of Nolan’s filmography and functions as much as an analysis of Nolan the filmmaker as it does an analysis of story structure within his films.


The bottom-line is that, while the story maps themselves might not be filled with any groundbreaking new story analysis techniques for more seasoned writers, fans of Nolan’s work, or writers looking for exposure to more complex story structure will still find quite a bit of useful information. Add in the fact that Calvisi and Rich include a story map worksheet to use on your own screenplay, or to analyze other scripts on your own, and you’ll more than get your money’s worth with this new addition to the Story Maps series.

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