Breaking Down the Story Structure in the Oscar-Nominated Film 'Lion'

A couple weeks back, I went to the theater to see Lion, and I was struck with the power of the story, particularly the simplicity and clarity of the story structure.

and so we thought–what an amazing experience if we could break down the story structure in an oscar-nominated feature.

If you're like most filmmakers, you struggle with plot more than any other pillar of story. And one of the strongest ways to make that plot clearer is to look at powerful examples of how stories you love are structured.

In this post we'll break down the plot structure of Lion, while also giving you the opportunity to join the story in Storybuilder so you can dive deeper into the characters and structure.

Before we get to all that fun stuff, however, here’s a quick synopsis.

At age five, a young Indian boy named Saroo is separated from his mother and brother, and is subsequently adopted by an Australian couple. 25 years later and half a world away, he embarks on a journey to find his birthplace and family.

Here’s the trailer:

Now, there’s a ton to say about this film, at least from a critical perspective. The acting is phenomenal, particularly from Sunny Pawar, who plays young Saroo. The tone is relatively restrained, the pacing is deliberate, and it rarely feels emotionally manipulative or preachy, like many films in this sphere tend to be.

Story-wise, it’s fairly sparse, with minimal dialogue, few supporting characters, and a simple plot that revolves around one big question—will Saroo find his family?

And the only reason that we care about the answer to that question—and why it’s absolutely worth sitting through 120 minutes of film—is simply that we care about Saroo. As an audience member watching this film, it’s very difficult not to be invested in his struggle. And it’s equally difficult not to be turned into a weepy mess as Saroo completes his journey and finds his mother.

That, my friends, is the power of story in a nutshell.

Alright, now let’s get to that story breakdown!

BREAKING DOWN THE STORY IN LION

understanding the main character

The Heart

In the Muse Storytelling Process, the Heart is the singular character who drives the story. They’re the one who’s most empathetically connected to the audience, and the one whose conflicts and desires are the primary forces that move the story from start to finish.

More importantly, the Heart must possess three important and distinct qualities, which we call the Big 3 Things. The qualities help audiences connect and engage with characters in extraordinary ways. The Big 3 Things are uniqueness, desire, and complexity, and I’ll give you an example in a moment.

In Lion, Saroo is clearly and unambiguously the Heart.

It’s his separation from his family, and the emotional turmoil it causes in his adult life, that drives every facet of the story.

Plus, Saroo has the Big 3 Things in spades. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Desire: In the first half of the film, young Saroo desperately searches Calcutta as he seeks a way to return home to his mother and brother. That, my friends, is desire in its purest form. In the second half, despite a comfortable and privileged life in Australia, Saroo longs for answers, and he wants more than anything else to find and reconnect with his family, if they’re still alive.
Uniqueness: Saroo’s background as an Indian boy separated from his family is unique enough on its own, but when added to and contrasted with his privileged life in Australia, it gives us a character unlike any other. We also see early in the film that Saroo wants to take on challenges that most others wouldn't. In every sense of the word, Saroo, and the experiences that have formed him, are completely unique.
Complexity: Throughout the film, Saroo wrestles with questions of what family really means, what his identity is, and how to reconcile the love he feels for both his birth mother and adoptive mother. The deeper drive behind his desire is his connection to his family, and his concern that they've been looking for him every day since he was lost.

Ultimately, Saroo is just about everything you could want from a Heart. Not only is his character overflowing with the Big 3 Things, but he’s got a very singular and powerful desire in his life, which informs the plot on every level.

It's also worth taking a moment to remember that Lion is based on a true story. and That's a powerful reminder that remarkable people make for incredible stories.


Join us in Storybuilder & Interact with the story elements

If you'd like to join the story in Storybuilder, just head on over to 'Collaborate' in the top menu bar. Then you'll see Lion at the top of our featured stories.

Just hit 'Join This Story' and you'll be added shortly (we, as the story creator, have to quickly approve everybody who wants to join).

DON'T HAVE AN ACCOUNT BUT WANT TO TRY
STORYBUILDER AND CHECK OUT LION?

A Free 14-day Trial will give you full access to the Storybuilder software. Hit the button below and you can dive in immediately:

Breaking Down the plot's core question in lion

In all forms of storytelling, plot is what keeps us engaged from start to finish. Without a strong plot, even the most compelling characters aren’t enough to keep audiences invested.

So let’s dive into how the writer, director, and editor shaped this film in such a way as to keep the audience engaged.

The Core Question

At the core of every story, there’s usually one question that fuels everything. There may be countless characters and plot twists, but in the end, what keeps the audience in their seats is curiosity. They want to know the answer to that core question

That question is born out of a character, with strong desire, running into conflict. Whether Hollywood or real-life, those two simple concepts of conflict and character are so foundational to story.

And in Lion, that question is simple: Will Saroo find his family? That’s essentially the whole film right there, boiled down to five words.

Now, in terms of plot, there are actually three different plot points that revolve around this core question. They are the Ask, Acceptance, and Answer.

The Ask is when the character runs into the conflict. Something huge is asked of them. The Acceptance is when the character accepts and takes on the challenge, which signals them wanting to overcome. And the Answer would be the resolution.

Let's look at each within Lion.

The Ask–when the character runs into conflict.

The Ask–when the character runs into conflict.

Ask: This is when the Heart is presented with conflict. In Lion, the Ask is the moment when Saroo and his brother are separated at the train station. It’s when the core question of whether he’ll find his family is planted in his and our minds.

Throughout the film we see this question reinforced. Upon seeing an Indian pastry that reminds him of this brother, the core question of the film is restated, and Saroo is presented with the opportunity to start his journey again.

The Acceptance–when the character decides to take on the challenge in an attempt to overcome.

The Acceptance–when the character decides to take on the challenge in an attempt to overcome.

Acceptance: This is the moment the Heart chooses to accept the challenge in an attempt to overcome the conflict. As stated at the end of the film, there are an enormous amount of children in India who become orphans. Each one of them will face the Ask above.

Yet this story exists because Saroo took on the challenge with a desire to overcome. We see this right away as he starts searching for his family, and how he never seems to settle or give up.

The answer–the moment when the character reaches the resolution to the question setup in the film.

The answer–the moment when the character reaches the resolution to the question setup in the film.

Answer: The Answer is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the answer to our core question, the resolution to our conflict. In Lion, this moment comes at the end when (spoiler alert) Saroo reconnects with his mother. In a deeper sense, the film questions the meaning of family–and to see how that's answered you'll need to watch it for yourself.

bringing it all together

So there you have it, a look at the Muse Storytelling Process applied to one of the year’s most compelling narrative films.

Again, if you’re interested in seeing all of this information built out in Storybuilder (our rad storytelling software that we use for all our projects), hit the button below and you can get a free full access two-week trial. Once you’re in there, just look for Lion under public projects and dive right in.

IN THE END, LION MAKES FOR A GREAT STORYTELLING CASE STUDY BECAUSE OF ITS SIMPLICITY. IT’S A FILM THAT DOESN’T TRY TO IMPRESS YOU WITH CLEVER PLOT TWISTS AND OVER-THE-TOP CHARACTERS. INSTEAD, IT RELIES ON THE POWER OF ONE STRONG LEAD CHARACTER, A CLEAR AND COMPELLING CONFLICT, AND A JOURNEY THAT’S WORTH FOLLOWING ALONG WITH. THAT’S IT.

And yet Lion was nominated for a whopping six Oscars, and is continuing to do extremely well at the box office. It just goes to show that when audiences are genuinely affected by a film (and they don’t feel manipulated by it), word of mouth can keep those box office numbers going strong.

This should all serve as a inspirational tale for anyone interested in telling stories through film and being successful with it. Audiences are craving great stories, and it’s in our power to deliver them.

Did you enjoy seeing a real-world example of how the Muse concepts apply to a film? If so, let us know in the comments below so we can create more like this!