Black Panther – Part I – Story Structure

Last year I wrote a post about the story structure and character arch of Diana Prince aka  Wonder Woman and thought I go ahead and try the same for Black Panther. Since the post about Wonder Woman turned out quite long, I chose to split the analysis of Black Panther into two parts. First the story structure and later this week the analysis of the corresponding character arch

This post covers my take on the major story structure elements. Please note: all of this is solely my opinion. I neither know what the scriptwriters had in mind nor do I claim to have the ultimate truth on how to interpret this story. This is an exercise in story structure analysis – nothing more and nothing less. 

Attention:
For all who have not yet seen the movie, please be aware of major spoilers in the following text. I obviously have to go into detail when analyzing the story’s structure. I’ll be using the basic Three-Act-Structure to do so. Like most successful stories, Black Panther follows it’s typical outline.

Additionally, and because that’s been one of my chief research topics on the craft, I want to look into the character arch for T’Challa, Black Panther and King of Wakanda. If you are not familiar with the Three-Act-Structure I recommend K.M. Weiland’s blog. It’s a treasure!

Story Structure – Overview:

Hook: old legend/history story about Wakanda
Inciting Event: Young T’Chaka kills his brother N’Jobu, saving Zuri
Key Event: after T’Chaka’s death T’Challa becomes interim King/Black Panther
First Plot Point: T’Challa gains the throne via ritual combat
First Pinch: the capture of Ulysses Klaue fails
Midpoint: Killmonger arrives with dead Klaue and lays claim to the throne
Second Pinch: T’Challa dies (seemingly)
Third Plot Point: T’Challa is resurrected and resumes the fight for his kingdom
Climax: T’Challa and Killmonger fight on the tracks of the Vibranium trains
Climatic Moment: Killmonger chooses death over imprisonment
Resolution: King T’Challa ends the isolation of Wakanda

Story Structure – Detailed Analysis:

The movie starts with an animated legend-story Hook that is a classic “setup via mythology.” The scene serves several purposes: 1) We get an introduction of the treasure hidden in Wakanda (Vibranium), the origin of the Black Panther (Bast/Bastet and heart-shaped herb) and the political/society setup of the four Wakandan tribes. 2) it showcases the longstanding isolation all former Wakandan kings have enforced on the country. This, in fact, informs about the main conflict of the movie, too: the habit of guarding their secret despite chaos, slavery, and war raging just beyond their borders.

With this information set up, the story resumes directly with the Inciting Moment. We witness an incident in Oakland, CA, in the late 20th century between the late King T’Chaka and his brother Prince N’Jobu. We learn about an attack on Wakanda, a lethal robbery of vibranium and the prime suspect, the criminal Ulysses Klaue. The further revelations lead to N’Jobu losing his life by T’Chaka’s hand. But his life, as we will only learn later, will not be the only thing lost that day. The Inciting Moment deepens the main conflict and adds another layer: part of the royal family is no longer willing to hide Wakanda’s power behind the shield of the carefully crafted illusion of a poor third-world-country but instead use it to help overcome the suffering in black communities all over the world.

Following right after that follows the Key Event. We are back to the present day where we get a “newsreel” summary of the events that took place in the “Avengers: Civil War” movie, to bring all those who haven’t seen it (are there any?) up to speed about the death of T’Chaka in Vienna. T’Challa, T’Chaka’s designated successor, is preparing for the sacred ritual that will make him King of Wakanda. I identify this as the Key Event because T’Chaka’s death is the moment when T’Challa gets personally involved with the main conflict: he is the interim ruler and therefore responsible for protecting Wakanda’s future until a new king is chosen.

Even though T’Chaka’s death seems good enough a “doorway of no return”, it is not the First Plot Point. Just now, T’Challa, acting as an interim king, is not yet officially chosen by his people. At this point he could still walk away, decide the burden of kingship is too much to bear and let others step up – his sister Shuri for example. Only when he proceeds with the ritual and defeats the surprise-contender M’Baku from the Jabari Tribe in ritual combat, does he chose the path of kingship and truly takes up responsibility for Wakanda’s future.

Anointed and made Black Panther again by means of the heart-shaped herb, T’Challa’s first challenge as King comes by way of the discovery of the long-time fugitive and enemy of the state number one – Ulysses Klaue. The mission to extract the man from Busan, South Korea, fails and marks the First Pinch Point. Klaue, who’s unscrupulous methods have been showcased in earlier scenes, wrecks havoc in the underground casino and escapes at first, gets then taken after a wild car-chase through Busan’s streets with the help of CIA agent Everett Ross, but is ultimately broken free from CIA custody by his gangster-crew, severely wounding Ross in the process.

Coming back to Wakanda empty-handed is a bitter setback for T’Challa. He not only falls short of his pledge to W’Kabi to bring back or kill the criminal Klaue, but he’s brought back a stranger/colonizer/white man on the brink of death, who is a CIA agent to boot, choosing to help the man who saved Nakia in favour of going after Klaue right away. Naturally, W’Kabi is upset. The will prove to be important soon after, when the Midpoint comes along in form of Eric Killmonger, disposing of Klaue and his team and delivering Klaue’s body to W’Kabi.

The Midpoint is an excellent plot twist and picks up on a “loose end” of the early setup-scene in Oakland. The audience learns that Eric Stevens aka Killmonger is not only of Wakandan heritage but of royal blood and T’Challa’s cousin. Shaped by his father N’Jobu’s views and later radicalized by his own experiences, first as a young boy left behind and later as a back ops soldier for the US special forces, Killmonger is after the throne and determined to use Wakanda’s technological advancements to strike back against the ongoing white suppression all over the world. This raises the overall tension somewhat. Not only do we know he’s got the means to overthrow T’Challa, he is in a way entitled to claim the throne by ritual combat. Furthermore, his presumed plan to end Wakanda’s reclusion and openly fight white suppression is antithetical to what Wakanda has been standing for centuries. 

T’Challa, having learned about the events leading up to the abandonment of Eric Stevens as a young boy, agrees to a ritual combat for the crown. The Second Pinch Point arrives when this fight takes a turn for the worst possible outcome. T’Challa struggles to fight the experienced Killmonger, Zuri tries to intervene and is killed, which in turn upsets T’Challa in such a way that he can’t win the fight against Killmonger. He is overpowered and thrown into the river.

With T’Challa presumably dead and Killmonger anointed as king, Nakia rushes to bring the rest of the royal family and Agent Ross to safety and elicit help from whatever sources possible. Okoye declines to turn against the throne, her sense of duty does not allow it. Short of allies and just in time before Killmonger orders the whole stock to be burnt, Nakia manages to steal one heart-shaped herb, hoping to coax M’Baku of the Jabari Tribe into taking it, fighting to free Wakanda from the rule of a war-crazy outsider. The story arrives at the Third Plot Point, when Nakia, T’Challa’s mother, his sister, and Agent Ross arrive at the M’Baku’s seat and offer the herb to him, he leads them to a not-yet-but-almost-dead T’Challa who is then revived and restored to full health and the power of the Black Panther with the help of the heart-shaped herb. The prominent death that’s usually featured with the Third Plot Point is inverted here. The presumed death took place at the 2nd  Pinch Point and now we witness a resurrection instead. 

T’Challa’s revival wraps up the 2nd half of the 2nd act neatly by pitching the two main characters against each other in open fight. Their views regarding the main conflict are diametrically opposed. With both of them clad in Black Panther suits and enhanced by the heart-shaped herb, this fight is quite balanced. Nakia, Shuri, and Agent Ross join in the fight on T’Challa’s side, as does Okoye as soon as she realizes the ritual combat is not finished.

We near the Climax, when the Jabari Tribe joins the melee while T’Challa and Killmonger duel on the train tracks in the vibranium mine. There’s a side-climatic moment when W’Kabi yields to Okoye, ending the fighting between Wakanda’s citizens. But T’Challa and Killmonger are still hacking away at each other in the train tracks. The sonic disruptors mess with both their suits, exposing vulnerable spots. Exploiting Killmongers arrogance and certainty to win, T’Challa manages to stab him.   

Critically wounded, Killmonger reveals a shred of humanness as he remembers his father and all the broken promises and lost opportunities. We get a glimpse of a deeply troubled and lonely person. T’Challa, recognizing at last part of Eric’s state of mind as a direct consequence of T’Chaka’s actions, shows compassion and leads Eric, the deadly weapon still embedded in his chest, up to the mouth of the Black Panther cave/mine to witness the fabled and longed for sunset in Wakanda. This leads directly to the climatic moment. Eric/Killmonger isn’t dead yet. When T’Challa offers to heal Eric, he declines, choosing death over life in prison, forced to witness the ongoing suppression of his people. He pulls out the lance, sealing his fate and leaving T’Challa the rightful king and sole Black Panther once more.

The Resolution of the story wraps up several story strands. We see M’Baku join the tribal council, uniting all Wakandan tribes for the first time. T’Challa, changed by the events, reconsiders Wakanda’s stance on secrecy, rejects the isolationism of all the past kings, and moves to set up the first outreach-center in Oakland. In the first post-credit scene, the movie comes full circle, wrapping up the sincerity of T’Challa’s plans by showing him back in Vienna, announcing Wakanda’s new stance in front of the United Nations council.   

Conclusion:

Black Panther is a well structured and expertly crafted movie. The story hits the major structural points just right. Any variations made, add to the overall tension and enjoyment. 

Do you agree? Please comment!

And here’s the linkt to Part II – Character Arch again.

Idea development

Reflecting on the lessons I learned this year, one stands out: A better grip on the meaning of terms like premise, concept and plot and their respective purpose helps to solidify an idea. It also helps to judge if the idea is viable as a story worth telling.

Looking back to Dire Tidings, I now realise that I had no clear concept for the series, I had only a murky premise for the first book and don’t get me started on plot… After three month with my new WIP I can proudly say: I am doing better. So I thought I share with you my take on the subject, perhaps someone will find it helpful.

The basic ideas are collected and combined from what I read in (or heard about) not only but primarily works and ideas from K.M. Weiland, James Scott Bell, Jo Nassise & Nick Stephenson, Karl Iglesias and countless blogposts and online articles.

IDEA DEVELOPMENT

I think it all comes down to these beats: 1) find a concept, 2) conceive a character, 3) spin it both into a premise, 4) build the plot starting at the ending.

Between concept vs premise, premise vs plot, premise vs story, and some more comparisons along that line, it often get muddy. Some use concept and premise synonymously, some have another take on it. So for the safe of clarity, I’ll elaborate on my take on the terms concept, premise and plot. (I don’t think I need to talk about what a character is…:-) )

Concept:

I think of the concept as an idea that can be advanced from a simple “low” form to a more advanced “high” form by giving it an original spin. It states the general topic.

The “low concept” can be a statement like “The ruling class exploits everyone else” (Hunger Games) or “Magic is real” (Harry Potter) or “Mankind has found a way to do manned Mars missions” (The Martian) or “Evil tries to rule the world” (LotR)
There are not yet any characters in the low concept but there’s a landscape, a stage or setting of sorts. It’s a basic idea, sometimes even a common or well know sentiment.

To get from there to the “high concept” you then ask a what-if-question, that adds a unique spin it. What-if the ruling class forces everyone else into submission by having children fight to the death on live TV each year (Hunger Games)? What-if real witches and wizards live among us undetected (Harry Potter)? What-if there is a botched Mars mission turning into a rescue operation (The Martian)? What-if the power to rule is tied to a piece of jewellery (LotR)?

There’s still no character here, but the simple idea gets a fresh twist, or an unfamiliar take or an individual spin.

It can even be “just” a new setting. The Martians low concept could very well be “A member of a research team is accidently abandoned and has to be rescued” taken a step “higher” with an individual spin on the setting: “What if that happened on effing Mars?”

The concept pins down the seed of the idea.

Premise:

The premise is the story. Take the high concept and populate it with one or more characters who happen to have a goal. We all have goals. And wishes. And dreams. And motives. So do our characters and et voila – we have a story.

Without a character, the concept is nothing but an empty world. The character adds depths and focus. Imagine a pizza. Pizza is a well know concept. But plain dough? The character equals the toppings. She brings in backstory and goals and flaws and assets that enrich the formerly plain idea.

There are several takes on how to formulate a premise. Jo Nassise+Nick Stephenson describe it as a simple X must to Y in order to Z. The peace and freedom loving inhabitants of Middle Earth must destroy the Ring of Power in order to banish the dangers of enslavement. Or an abandoned astronaut has to survive alone on Mars for a time in order to get rescued.

That _is_ essentially the whole story. But it is not the plot. The plot is, how that comes to pass, all the obstacles the cast of characters has to face in order to succeed (or utterly fail).

I like K.M. Weiland’s approach on the premise sentence best. She first defines several key components a premise sentence might include, like the setup situation, the lead, the lead’s key objective, the conflict and the opponent. As soon as these items are determined, you can use different templates to mould it into a viable premise.

For example:
(LEAD) is in (situation) and wants change. To have (objective) would be great if accomplished but (opponent) stands in the way leading to (disaster).
OR
(LEAD) is in (situation) and forms (objective) relating to it. But (opponent) stirs up (conflict) that might lead to (disaster).

These are still simple statements with you might consider lacking in depth. But of course you can elaborate. Take for example this extended lineup of components: Situation and/or Setup: launching point or main plot threat, sometimes the hook; Lead: the main character and your hero; specifics of the Lead: details about your hero, heroic quality or promising character trait; Objective: what the Lead wants badly (from the start OR after the story’s launch); Obstacle or conflict: is holding back the Lead from winning objective; Opponent: who is trying to prevent the Lead from success?; Disaster: what will happen as worst outcome?

These components form a longer and more detailed kind of template:
After (setup) a (specifics) (Lead) is in (situation). In order to (objective) (Lead) must (Conflict) against (opponent) before (disaster).
Or if you have an important support character or a sub-goal, you could add those like this:
After (setup) a (specifics) (Lead) is in (situation). In order to (objective) (Lead) must (Conflict) with (supporting character) to (subgoal) before (opponent’s) action lead to (disaster).

Lets try the simpler version with The Martian: the components Lead: Mark Whatney; situation: thought dead and abandoned on Mars; objective: survive till rescue; opponent: Mars and disaster: death, take us to the following possible premise sentence:
After being thought dead, Mark Whatney is all alone and abandoned on Mars. To survive until he can be rescued would be great, but Mars is quite the harsh environment and will surely kill him.

And the more elaborate version for Hunger Games: setup: volunteered for sister Prim to take part in the hunger Games, Lead: Katniss Everdeen; specifics of the Lead: Seventeen year old survival expert; Objective: survive the Hunger Games; obstacle or conflict: evade her pursuers, navigate the arena, kill the other Tributes; Opponent: other competing tributes; Disaster: get killed:
After volunteering for her sister Prim, 17 year old Katniss Everdeen must compete in the Hunger Games. In order to survive, she must evade her pursuers, navigate the arena and if possible kill the other Tributes before the get her instead.

Plot:

Note, that the premise does only state the overall goal, not all the subgoals, that will emerge due to event-driven conflicts and obstacles. Therefore I would define the term plot here in accordance with Karl Iglesias’ definition of a story: A series of events that result in the Lead achieving or failing his main goal.

The character starts out at some point (or something happens to kick it of) with a goal, a mission, an objective. The plot is then the logically following events that lead up to the climax where success or failure of said goal is determined.

To achieve a logical progression from setup to climax, I find it helpful to know what the ending will be. Otherwise it is hard to set up convincing events that lead up to it. Furthermore stories are chiefly about change. The character or the situation at the end of the story is expected to be different from the outset. No change = boring story. If my Lead is as sad and miserable at the end of the book as she was in the beginning, my reader would disappointed and rightly so.

So what I think can work well, is to flip either the intended setup to have a contrary ending, or flip the desired ending to start from an opposing setup.

Andy Weir wanted Mark Whatney to survive in the end, so he made sure the outset was less than promising. Same goes for Suzanne Collins and Hunger Games. The ending of the book is in direct contrast to Katniss’ assessment of her situation at the beginning, too: “In District 12, where the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the corpse,…”

Summary:

If you have a concept and an idea for population the landscape of this concept with interesting characters with a viable opposition, you should be able to construct a striking premise. With that condensed information about your story, you can go ahead and construct a series of events and have a fitting plot at hand that will lead you from setup to resolution in a logical way.

Easy, right?

If only. 🙂

Bonus: the Main Dramatic Question (MDQ):

From the premise you can derive the MDQ: will the Lead succeed in his pursuit of his objective?

This, the overall goal of the Lead will be solved at the climax, more specifically at the climatic moment. At this point, the MDQ will be answered and the story is finished. The plot should bring up this question as early as possible, but at least with the end of Act I.

But more on this in another post.