Story Skeleton—The Shining
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.
Structure Isn’t Scary
By Tara Gilboy
Around Halloween each year, The Shining seems to play endlessly on television, but Stephen King’s second novel is much more complex than the movie version many of us are more familiar with. Yes, there are still plenty of scary moments and ghosts and even a haunted hotel, but the psychological turmoil of its characters is at the heart of this complex novel about alcoholism and family violence. In the end, the characters’ psychological turmoils haunt them as much as any ghost.
The novel tells the story of Jack and Wendy Torrance and their son, Danny, who seems to have a kind of psychic gift he calls “the shining.” Jack, a recovering alcoholic, has been given the job of caretaker at a Colorado hotel for the winter. Jack lost his last job as a high school English teacher after physically attacking a student. His marriage is also in jeopardy, as he broke Danny’s arm when he was drunk. The family hopes that their time at the hotel will allow Jack to get sober and finish writing the play he is working on. But alone at the hotel, the family begins hearing sounds of parties going on in the empty halls, and seeing visions of long-dead guests. Worse, Jack seems to be sliding into ever-dark places, losing his touch on reality and giving in to the dark forces at work.
Despite the complexities of any novel, I think it’s useful when studying structure to see if a novel’s plot can be distilled into one line. (Screenwriters might call this a logline.) For an example, we can use Hannah Sheppard’s pitch test:
"When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe)."
In The Shining, this might be:
When Jack Torrance becomes caretaker at the haunted Overlook Hotel, his family must escape and destroy the hotel before the forces at work drive Jack to kill them all.
Probably the most important (and difficult) part of writing any novel is figuring out what the protagonist’s main goal will be. This can be difficult to put our finger on, as characters often have many goals along the way, as well as deeper psychological and emotional needs, which we will get to in a bit. This is particularly complicated in The Shining, as the novel doesn’t have a clear single protagonist. On the face of it, Jack Torrance seems to be the protagonist, but by the end of the novel, he’s become the antagonist, and Wendy and Danny both serve as protagonists.
In a terrifying novel like this one, the stakes are obviously high, and Wendy and Danny’s main goal is simply: don’t die. But there are other goals driving them as well. Wendy, in particular, is driven by the goal to protect her son and husband. She agrees to winter at the Overlook in an attempt to earn money, help Jack become sober, and keep her family together.
Danny, too, is driven by love for his parents and his wish to protect them. His psychic gift allows him to connect even more deeply with his parents than most children, as he often knows what they are thinking and doing even when he is not with them. Wendy often asks Danny about Jack’s mental state, and Danny is able to know pretty accurately whether or not Jack has been drinking. Danny’s goal is to protect his parents and keep his family together.
Jack’s main goal is initially to support his family, stay sober, and finish his play. However, we see flashes of malice and a desire to “punish” people who have wronged him from early in the novel, and as the story progresses, his desire to punish his wife and child for perceived slights grows more and more intense.
Let’s break down the novel further and delve into its plot points. You probably are somewhat familiar with the common plot points found in most novels. These are:
(a) Stasis or status quo—what’s normal life like for the protagonist?
(b) Inciting incident—what sets the story in motion?
(c) Point of no return—the event that ensures the protagonist can never go back to the way their life was before the novel opened.
(d) Rising action—what stands in the protagonist’s way?
(e) All is lost—the dark moment.
(f) Resurgence—the key to overcoming the dark moment.
(g) Climax—does the protagonist succeed, or do they fail while learning something important?
Let’s dive in and see how these function in The Shining.
Plot Points in The Shining by Stephen King
Jack, Wendy, and Danny are struggling financially ever since Jack lost his job. Jack and Wendy’s marriage is on the rocks, but Wendy has decided to give Jack another chance to get sober and repair their relationship.
Jack takes a job as caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.
POINT OF NO RETURN
All three of them move into the hotel. They will be alone at the hotel, and once the snows come in, they will be cut off from the outside world, with only a radio to connect them.
From the moment they move into the hotel, things start to go wrong:
Danny begins having visions about the hotel, along with what seems like some type of seizure.
Jack must keep the pressure in the boiler that heats the hotel low so that it doesn’t explode. He has to release steam from it every day.
Danny finds an empty wasp nest outside, and Jack lets him bring it into the hotel, but in the middle of the night, it is suddenly filled with wasps again, and they attack Danny.
Jack does research into the hotel’s history and learns that the last caretaker killed his entire family at the hotel.
Jack confronts the manager about what he’s learned via telephone and threatens to write a book about it. The manager almost fires him.
Jack is not drinking, but he begins to develop all of his old drinking habits, like chewing aspirin and wiping his mouth.
The snow starts, trapping the family in the hotel.
Danny wanders into room 217 and is attacked by a dead woman in a bathtub.
Jack sleepwalks and destroys the CB radio, one of the family’s only connections to the outside world.
Wendy sees the marks on Danny’s neck from the dead woman and accuses Jack of hurting Danny.
Jack goes outside to the shed to look for the snowmobile, which could help them escape from the the hotel, but when he finds it, he destroys the snowmobile’s battery, so that this chance for escape, too, is lost.
Danny plays outside in the snow and is attacked by the garden hedges.
The elevator begins going up and down in the middle of the night, and the family hears the sounds of a party and sees confetti in the empty elevator.
Danny is threatened by the ghost of a partygoer, who is dressed like a dog.
Jack talks to ghost-people at the hotel bar, who give him alcohol. Jack gets drunk.
ALL IS LOST
Jack attacks Wendy and Danny and nearly strangles Wendy to death.
Wendy knocks Jack out, and she and Danny are able to lock him in the pantry.
Jack escapes the pantry after a ghost unbolts the door and releases him. He stalks the hotel with a roque mallet, saying he needs to give Wendy and Danny their “medicine” for locking him in the pantry. He brutally beats Wendy with it, breaking her ribs, and she stabs him. As Jack prepares to kill Danny, Danny faces him and tells him he knows that he’s not really his daddy, that he’s the hotel, but he thinks there might be part of his daddy left inside. Jack regains his senses for a moment, tells Danny that he loves him, and instructs him to run away. Danny refuses to leave him, and Jack’s body turns on itself, smashing himself in the head with the mallet, and destroying his own face.
Wendy and Danny are able to escape when the boiler explodes, destroying the hotel.
There are two storylines going on in this novel. First, we have the external events of the hotel. Something frightening and deadly is haunting this hotel, and it wants to kill Jack, Wendy, and Danny.
But what makes this novel complex and interesting is the second storyline: the psychological and emotional dramas that haunt this family from before they ever came to the Overlook. This is a family with a history of alcoholism and violence, and they are placed into a pressure cooker situation (not unlike the ever-present threat of the hotel boiler that could explode at any moment) when they are all trapped alone together in a hotel.
The worst comes out when they are forced together, and their own descent into dysfunction both parallels and becomes entangled with the escalating tension as the hotel’s ghosts come out and work their evil on them, even giving Jack the alcohol that sets him on his rampage.
None of the characters are the same at the end of this novel as they were at the beginning. Jack is dead. Wendy and Danny are both sad, but they are moving on, and Wendy is given a job as caretaker at a different property on the east coast where she thinks she can give Danny a nice childhood. Along with the money from her job, she also has money from Jack’s life insurance policy to send Danny to college.
We get the sense that this family is wounded from the events of the novel, but Wendy and Danny are able to move on and be self-sufficient, no longer dependent on Jack: they are free from alcoholism and violence, if not the scars it has left.
A large part of the art of a novel is in its structure. I’ve come across some writers who worry that adhering to this kind of structure makes a novel feel formulaic, but hopefully as you can see from the many iterations of structure we explore in this blog series that it is nothing of the sort! The Shining uses structure to ensure this scary story feels satisfying to the reader, exploring deeper themes and the darkest family secrets alongside ghosts and haunted hotels.
Tara Gilboy is an award-winning short fiction writer and author of the middle-grade fantasy Unwritten and its sequel Rewritten. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and teaches for San Diego Community College District. She's also worked as a fiction editor at Straylight Literary Magazine, served on the editorial board of PRISM International, and mentored for the PEN Writers in Prisons Program. As an editor, she pays particular attention to plot, structure, and character arcs.