Story Structure in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," by Ken Kesey

Every writer or aspiring writer should read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and dissect it. It’s very well-written, nicely paced, and perfectly structured. It’s a study in how to construct and write a novel. The structure is what concerns us here.

A writer can learn a lot about structure from this book. Every writer struggles with structure, particularly those trying to learn the craft. We’re told that a story has a beginning, middle, and end, which is not a particularly helpful description. We’re told there are three acts, four acts, or even seven or eight. There are “pinch points” and “beats.” It’s all very confusing jargon, and the descriptions in the literature are often opaque.

I’ve recently read Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. That book lays out story structure in a way that makes more sense to me than most other books on the topic. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest follows Brooks’ system perfectly.

This is not an analysis of Brooks’ structure, but you need a basic understanding of it to understand what I’m talking about. Briefly, Brooks divides the story into four sections, each about 25% of the book: Setup, Response, Attack, and Resolution. In the middle of the Reaction and Attack sections, there are “pinch points,” which I’ll talk about later. Do yourself a favor and read that book to get a clearer and deeper understanding of these principles, and other things you need to know to write a novel.

There are three major plot points or turning points in any story: they take place at 25%, 50%, and 75% of the way through the book. In addition to these, there are two “pinch points,” where, as Brooks puts it, we are reminded of the power of the antagonistic force. That’s the best description of pinch point I’ve seen. The first pinch point is half way through part two (about the 37.5% point of the book), and the other is half  way through part three (about 60% of the way through the book). Cuckoo’s Nest has all these points lined up perfectly.

Larry Brooks’ System

In the Setup, we learn about the protagonist, antagonist (or the antagonistic force), the setting, and what the conflict will be. The mission of this section, according to Brooks, “is to set up the plot by creating stakes, backstory, and character empathy, while foreshadowing the forthcoming conflict.” This section ends with the 25% turning point, which propels the character into the second part.

The Response is essentially how the protagonist reacts to the turning point at the end of part one. The hero is, according to Brooks, “running, hiding, analyzing, observing, recalculating, planning, recruiting, or doing whatever else required to move forward. At the end of part two is the 50% turning point. It’s what James Scott Bell, in his book “Write Your Novel from the Middle,” calls the “look in the mirror point.” This is where the hero is reflecting on what he has to do, and is often looking in the mirror talking to himself. It’s when the hero decides with conviction to confront the antagonist.

In the middle of part two (the 37.5% point) is the first “pinch point” where we are reminded of the power of the antagonist, and just how bad he is.

The Attack is when the hero stops running and hiding, etc., and mounts an attack on the antagonist. He puts his plan into action. At the end of this section is the 75% turning point. Sometimes this is called the “all is lost” point, or the “belly of the whale.” The hero is often in deep shit, his plan has failed, and it looks like it’s curtains. But he manages to escape and gets the last bit of information he needs for the final battle.

In the middle of the Attack is the second pinch point (the 60% point), where we are again reminded of the power of the antagonist, and of the stakes.

In the Resolution, the hero summons the courage to mount the final attack to destroy the antagonist, or die trying. At about the 90-99% point, the story climaxes, the antagonist is destroyed or the hero killed, and the story ends with the denouement.

Structure in Cuckoo’s Nest

The first turning point in Cuckoo’s Nest is at about 24% of the way through when McMurphy bets the other patients that he can get under Nurse Ratched’s skin. This drives his actions in part two. It’s why he tries to make her angry. (Pay attention to how Kesey describes Nurse Ratched, using terms to invoke cold.)

The first pinch point occurs at about 36% of the way through. During one of the group meetings McMurphy is dominating the conversation to try to rile the nurse. Chief observes that she’s too big to be beat. That she’s got all the power of what he calls “the Combine,” or society, behind her. 

To beat her you don’t have to whip her two out of three or three out of five, but every time you meet. As soon as you let down your guard, as soon as you lose once, she’s won for good.

The second turning point comes at exactly 50% of the way through Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief is in the bathroom looking into a mirror thinking about what McMurphy was, and thinking that he was now seeing things a lot differently. This leads us into part three, where McMurphy takes a more aggressive approach to getting under the nurse’s skin.

It’s arguable that it’s also a look in the mirror point when McMurphy discovers that he could be kept in the asylum past his sentence. He had finagled a trip to the hospital to get out of working on a prison farm. He saw it as a way of having an easy time of it.

The second pinch point comes right at 60% when McMurphy and the others are waiting to get chest X-rays. They are outside the room where they do shock therapy discussing the fact that McMurphy is committed, which means he gets out when Nurse Ratched says he can. In the mean time, they are discussing how shock therapy works.

. . . when the door whooshes open you can smell the acid in the air like when they recharge a battery. McMurphy sits there, looking at that door.

“I don’t seem able to get it straight in my mind . . . .”

The third turning point is right around 74% to 75% when McMurphy takes them fishing. McMurphy seems to have won his war with the nurse. During the previous series of scenes, Nurse Ratched was working against him, posting information about the dangers of deep sea fishing. He comes up against a number of other obstacles, but in the end he wins the round, and they have a lovely fishing trip. Nurse Ratched, however, is even more determined than ever to destroy McMurphy.

The climax comes at the 98% point when McMurphy attacks and nearly kills Nurse Ratched. This leads to his lobotomy, and murder at the hands of Chief.

A note on the inciting incident. 

This term is dealt with in confusing ways. Some gurus say it’s a big event that sets the hero on his path. It’s not. That’s the first plot point at 25%. According to Brooks, if there is a big event prior to 25%, then it is not, by definition, the first plot point. It’s an inciting incident that is part of the setup. The example he uses is the scene in Thelma & Louise where they shoot the guy in the parking lot. It’s at about 19% of the way through. Too early to be the first plot point, but right at the 10% point, making it an inciting incident. According to Brooks, the first plot point in Thelma and Louise is at the 31% point, when they decide to go on the run.

In Cuckoo’s Nest, the inciting incident is probably the arrival of McMurphy to the ward. It’s not the first plot point because it’s too early, and it does not define their actions going into part two.

Conclusion

You will always find the discussion of these plot points in the contexts of movies. If you watch a movie, you will find them where they are supposed to be, almost to the second. These plot points are the tenants of screenwriting. In novel writing, there is more flexibility. But I urge you to consider applying them fairly strictly to your novel.