HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU BEGIN
HOW TO BREAK DOWN MOVIES ON YOUR OWN
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
MINUTE 1: IN DA BEGINNING
MINUTE 2: THE BUILD
MINUTE 3: THE RATCHET
MINUTE 4: ANOTHER NOTCH
MINUTE 5: JAW DROPPER
MINUTE 6: FRIEND OR FIST
MINUTE 7: FRIEND OR FIST 2
MINUTE 8: SOMETHING STARTLING HAPPENS
This book’s purpose is to expose and explore the 120 minute-by-minute story beats that unite all successful films. In other words, this book reveals what all great movies do exactly the same during each and every minute, no matter what genre, decade it was made, or nationality of the filmmaker. I hope that the insights unearthed within these pages will give screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, development execs, managers, agents, editors, graphic novelists, and traditional novelists who wish to write more cinematically, the same consecutive page-by-page beats that all influential films utilize.
To prove my theory under rigorous conditions, I chose films made over a 60-year time span. I also picked writer/directors who possess wildly different styles to demonstrate that the minute-by-minute beats universally apply. My goal was to put filmmakers as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Sam Raimi, The Wachowski Brothers, George Lucas, John Carpenter, Robert Zemeckis, Jason Reitman, Francis Ford Coppola, Akira Kurosawa, Tony Scott, John McTiernan, Wes Craven, Judd Apatow, Spike Jonze, Sydney Pollock, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, M. Night Shyamalan, and Quentin Tarantino side-by-side to confirm that supposed highbrow auteurs abide by the same minute-by-minute story rules as independent filmmakers and hip guns-and-guts writer/directors.
The movies that were selected for this book have garnered critical or financial success. Of the 43 movies used as examples, most have been “Certified Fresh” by the popular movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. On the site, movies with a “Tomatometer” of 75% or better, and featuring at least 40 reviews from critics (including five “Top Critics”), receive the “Certified Fresh” seal. Most of the movies in this book are in the 80–100% range, either with the critics or audiences.
As far as terminology goes, my goal was simple: Develop short phrases that encapsulated the core of each movie minute’s commonality. For example, if something jaw dropping happens during a particular minute in every good movie, I called it the “Jaw Dropper.”
I remember exactly when the thunderbolt for this book struck me.
I was living in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in a rented country home close to where the first shots of the famous Civil War battle were fired. I had moved there during the later part of an intensive writing odyssey that took me through France, Italy, Mexico’s Mayan ruins, and finally to this historic battlefield where General Lee once led his Confederate troops on horseback, and Abraham Lincoln delivered his Address for the ages. I had quit the corporate advertising world a year earlier to pursue the study of storytelling. Keeping up the grueling, long hours of advertising at that time while simultaneously pursuing creative writing was wearing me thin. To fit in more writing practice, I would secretly type my plays and screenplays in a tiny text box on my work screen’s lower right hand corner, and then write for hours more in the evenings and weekends. I was able to win a few short story contests with my limited time, and co-write a successful play about Milton Hershey — the founder of Hershey’s Chocolate — that packed theaters for three years in the Pennsylvania heartland where I was raised. But I knew there were volumes more to learn about the craft of storytelling, and the corporate life was slowing me down from gaining that knowledge.
Over the years the advertising agency grew, and more work piled onto my desk to “increase productivity.” As a result, my already tiny writing box shrank smaller and smaller. Before the box vanished completely, I did the unthinkable in the eyes of my coworkers: I quit my job, burned my work ID badge with lighter fluid — the same ID we were forced to wear around our necks like dog leashes — sold my house, cashed out my 401(k), and moved to Europe to flee the ringing phone and focus on writing full time. While there, I wrote faithfully from 8 a.m.–3 p.m. every day, figuring out the inner workings of story, especially movie stories, which moved me to tears quicker than any other art form. During this time I re-studied all the writing and screenwriting books I had previously dog-eared and underlined to tatters. I also filled reams of yellow legal pads as I broke down more than 300 movies, writing in great detail what the filmmakers intended with each scene, and how the scenes fit into the whole.
That’s what I was doing on that humid August night in Gettysburg when it all started coming together. I was analyzing Raiders of the Lost Ark scene by scene. The aroma of a nearby apple orchard wafted in through the screen windows as I scribbled notes on the opening sequence where Indiana Jones stands before the golden idol inside the forbidden temple. Stroking his chin, Indy fills a bag with sand, trying to guess the weight of the coveted booty. Doing a quick swap with the gold artifact, he holds the idol, elated. Suddenly, the idol’s pedestal sinks and the ceiling crumbles, startling the hell out of Indy. As soon as this exciting moment started, I hit pause on my DVD player and re-checked my notes. Something odd was going on during Minute 8, but I wasn’t sure quite what. I then re-examined my notes for The Matrix. During Minute 8 Neo sits alone in his apartment, emailing back and forth with Trinity. Trinity closes the conversation with the words: “Knock Knock, Neo.” Just then, two hard knocks on the door startle Neo.
That was twice something startling happened during that particular minute.
I rifled through my stack of notebooks, searching for what happens during Minute 8 in other movies. What I found astonished me: In The Sixth Sense, a half-naked man startles Malcolm by pointing a gun at him. In Tootsie, Michael’s friends startle him with a surprise birthday party. In Jaws, the gruesome state of the shark-eaten girl startles Chief Brody. In Halloween, an escaped mental patient leaps onto the car and startles the nurse. In Scream, the disturbed caller startles Casey by gutting her boyfriend. Over and over this Minute 8 “startling” phenomenon appeared, no matter what genre I chose. Does this happen even in a Charlie Kaufman movie? I wondered. All my writing friends told me that Kaufman broke all the screenwriting rules. Inserting Being John Malkovich into my DVD player, I queued my stopwatch and pressed play. As the movie entered Minute 8 I leaned forward, wondering if something startling would happen here too. In that scene, John Cusack’s character, Craig, takes a rather boring elevator ride toward his job interview. Suddenly, the woman riding with him presses the stop button. The elevator jerks to an ugly halt and an ear-piercing alarm startles Craig! I about fell off my couch. This was a story insight that every screenwriting book failed to mention. As a result, I spent the entire sleepless night popping in all the movies in my extensive collection, including foreign and independent films, rigorously testing this Minute 8 theory. Startling moment after moment kept happening, without exception. Since each script page represents a minute of screen time, I now knew that something startling had to happen on Page 8 in my screenplays. Why hadn’t anyone written about this? This information could be tremendously helpful to screenwriters.
The next evening, I delved deeper into movies and my notes, breaking them down minute by minute instead of the traditional scene by scene. What I discovered raised goose bumps on my arms, and continues to do so to this day. Good movies do the exact same things, across the board, in succession, during each and every minute. Doesn’t matter if it’s Minute 1 or 101. Even if one movie ends at Minute 85 and the next ends at 120, they still abide by this strict minute-by-minute blueprint.
This was an unbelievable revelation — one that made total sense once I understood why. On average, movies only have 90 to 120 minutes to tell a complete, satisfying story. That’s hardly any time compared to the breadth of a novel. The singer-songwriter, Sting, once said that rock-and-roll has to “burn from the first bar,” meaning that the song has to hit the ground running and not let up until it’s finished. So do films. Every minute in a movie must count. Every minute has to satisfy a specific story function. If it doesn’t adhere to this minute-by-minute rhythm, the audience feels it. It’s a deep psychological structure that’s been honed for more than a century by audiences and filmmakers. All great writers, directors, and editors seem to have this innate minute-by-minute rhythm, or eventually find the rhythm through thousands of hours of hard work and study.
It’s like this: Good films go through an extensive distilling process that eventually forces the movie to fall into step with this universal, minute-to-minute cadence. The process starts with the screenwriter who bangs his or her head for weeks, months, or even years, figuring out the initial story; then the directors and actors add more insights as they film the pages; then the editor whittles and tightens the story even further. More shaping and additions occur after executives’ notes and test screenings. The entire process chips away the unnecessary and adds the necessary until it becomes the classic we all know and love today.
If I dare say, this book has captured that rhythm. This is the guide I’ve been searching the shelves for my entire writing life, and I’d like to share it with you. I did the legwork so you don’t have to. Using a stopwatch, I took meticulous notes while analyzing hundreds of movies during a three-year period. I took the job seriously because I take writing and movies seriously. At times I had three films screening simultaneously: One movie on a laptop, another on a bigger TV, and yet another on a flip-open DVD player. When you study films side by side like this, the minute-by-minute commonalities become glaringly, and excitingly, obvious. Another benefit of this book is that it walks you through each script page’s beat instead of avoiding the vast — but crucially important — chasms between major plot points ignored by all other resources. This book shows you the desperately needed “in betweens.” As soon as I started applying these minute-by-minute beats to my newest scripts, as if by magic I attracted my first manager, made the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinals, the PAGE International Screenplay finals, received four options, signed a deal with the Hallmark Channel, and became a Director of Story Development in Los Angeles. What you will learn in this book works if applied with passion and commitment. Flip through the pages and you’ll immediately experience the same “Aha!” moments I was having. I promise.
Let the thunderbolts begin! [top]
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
The best way to use Something Startling Happens depends on what type of writer you are. Are you a Stephen King type, or a John Irving type? King said his writing process is “like walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there’s a house down there, and I’m pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want.” Without a complete idea of where his story is headed, King starts writing the book, making the discoveries as he plows forward. John Irving, on the other hand, outlines extensively, knowing the fine details of each scene and chapter before he even begins writing his novel.
Whether you are a King or an Irving type of writer, or you approach story from a completely different place altogether, you can use Something Startling Happens as a page-by-page metaphor or checklist whenever you’re ready for it, or as an idea booster if you get stuck. If you’re an Irving type of writer, you may want to do your research first, develop your extensive outline, write your first draft, then reference this book to see if you’re addressing each minute-by-minute guideline. Or maybe you want to find your story on your own, and write a voluminous 300-page first draft to get it all out of your head. Cool, go do it. That’s fantastic. But eventually you may want to visit this book to see if your script addresses the successful minute-by-minute beats. Whatever type of writer you are, this book is here to help during any stage of your personal process.
When in need, this book can assist in filling in weak spots while developing your overall outline or treatment structure. Or you can use it to brainstorm with other writers on how your story should advance or conclude, or to think up fresh ways to surprise the audience that is consistent with the minute beats and genre.
When it comes to my own process, I hone a 17-page outline until the story is structurally sound, then when I write the script I reference the Something Startling Happens beats as I enter each page. When I first applied the minute-by-minute beats (as mentioned earlier), that’s when I attracted my first manager and advanced quickly to the Nicholl Fellowship quarters. Soon after, I had to hustle to meet another contest deadline with a new script. I didn’t have two months to outline like I usually did, so I decided to jump right in and “bang it out blind.” Starting at page one with only a grabber opening in mind, I wrote like Stephen King — discovering the story as I went along. As I approached each script page, I referenced Something Startling Happens to keep me on track so I didn’t waste time. I wrote the script in two weeks (a personal record), and sent it off immediately to the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards, where I eventually made the finals. My latest script using Something Startling Happens as my guide has recently attracted A-list creative talent who have worked on such blockbuster movies as Spider-Man, Wall-E, Forrest Gump, and Up In The Air. I owe this attention to the minute-by-minute insights revealed in this book.
Something Startling Happens is not limited only to writers and novelists who desire to write more cinematically. Directors, producers, actors, and editors may also find this book beneficial as a production checklist. Are you, as a director, producer or editor, hitting these minute-to-minute beats while you’re filming and editing? If not, you may be in for expensive re-shoots to eventually capture these moments after test screenings. [top]
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU BEGIN
1) I want to make something clear: The minute-by-minute beats you are about to read are not taken from the original screenplays or shooting scripts. They are drawn from far superior material: The final stories you see on the big screen after they were filtered through the studio distilling process.
2) You need to understand that the terms used in this book (like Hero, Ally, Bad Guy, Enemy) are flexible and interchangeable from page to page.
Sometimes the enemy becomes the hero for a page (in Spider-Man, Osborn becomes the hero when the evil board members want to sell his company); or the ally becomes the enemy (in Top Gun, Commander Metcalf becomes Maverick’s enemy in the training session); or the hero can become the bad guy (Peter argues with Uncle Ben, who is only trying to help him).
Sometimes the ally can be an inanimate object (in The Sixth Sense, the cassette player becomes Malcolm’s ally, revealing information he needs to know), or the hero’s conscience can become the bad guy (in Spider-Man, Peter’s conscience becomes his enemy). You must be flexible with these terms or the beats won’t work for you.
I also use words like explosion, damage, warning, or threat. Most times an “explosion” will be a literal explosion, or the explosion could be more figurative, like an explosion of emotion. A warning can sometimes be very dramatic, or inconspicuous. The dramatic level of these words can change from page to page, or story to story. But what’s important to realize is that they are there. These beats should be represented on every page, grand or small, or your screenplay may fall short. The reader or audience expects these patterns subconsciously. If you neglect to include them, they may feel gypped.
3) You need to use the minute-by-minute catch phrases. I spent months paring down the phrases so they are descriptive and precise. The phrases were initially one sentence long, but after using them while wrestling with my own scripts, I found myself paraphrasing: “This is Minute 63, I need an Ally Attack.” Or, “This is Minute 77, I gotta have The Rumble.” These fun phrases get to the point of what needs to happen in the script — a tremendous timesaver. Writing partners and I use the catch phrases as shorthand. We even use the phrases while developing stories with clients, with other screenwriters, and during pitch meetings. The phrases work for us, and they’ll work for you too.
4) If you’re fond of using index cards while developing your story, this is a technique you’ll find helpful. After you’ve outlined your movie, scribble the minute-by-minute catch phrases onto 120 individual index cards, each card representing one minute. Then write down on the card original ways you can demonstrate that minute in your story. For example, write as many Friend Or Fist moments you can think of on Card 6 (Minute 6), or write as many Whew, That Was Close! moments as you can on Card 15 (Minute 15). This will help you to focus your creativity and force originality.
5) You must put in the hard work. The beats are laid out nicely for you in this book, but you still must roll up your sleeves and write and rewrite obsessively. In other words, precision white lines are painted onto the tennis court, and the net is raised to the official 36 inches, but the player must still step within those rigidly structured lines and exert the tremendous physical effort required to finish the match. And if the player expects to win, he must play the match with creative ground strokes and effective net play.
You must do the same with your story. [top]
HOW TO BREAK DOWN MOVIES ON YOUR OWN
“How do I break down movies minute-by-minute for myself?” you may ask. It’s easy, and I’ll walk you through a few exercises in this book to help you get the hang of it. But if you want to start now, rent the movie you want to analyze. I recommend Netflix because of their immense catalog, much of which you can stream instantly online. Or Redbox for newer movies. Grab a stopwatch and click it on until it reaches 1:00 (one minute). Why 1:00? Starting your stopwatch at 1:00 instead of 0:00 will create less confusion with your analysis, believe me. It’s simply easier for 1:00 to equal Page 1 of your screenplay than for 0:00 to equal Page 1. Starting at 1:00 means that 1:00 = the top of Page 1, 2:00 = the top of Page 2 and 3:00 = the top of Page 3, etc. When you use 1:00 as your starting point while studying any movie, you’ll know instantly, for example, that when your stopwatch reaches 5:30 that you’re halfway through your screenplay’s Page 5, or that 53:45 means that you’re three-quarters of the way through your script’s Page 53.
Okay, begin the movie. Now, when you restart your stopwatch is crucial. Don’t click on your stopwatch as soon as the credits begin. Start when the story begins. How do you know when the story begins? It’s where the screenwriter most likely began writing the movie after typing FADE IN. Don’t start when the credits are running, unless the credits are shown while the story is unfolding (as in Raiders of the Lost Ark). And also be on the lookout for what I call “James Bond credits,” meaning: Credits that appear after the big movie opening. Click your stopwatch off during the James Bond credits and music, unless of course they’re part of the story. Use this book as a guide as you stop and start each minute, jotting down your own insights.
NOTE: This is an advanced screenwriting book. Before you begin it, I’d recommend that you know story basics first, like character arc, theme, sequences, Inciting Incidents, beats, etc. You need to understand these foundational elements before you start writing to these minute-by-minute rhythms. If you lack storytelling basics, you’ll get frustrated pretty quickly while writing. I highly recommend Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder, Essentials of Screenwriting by Richard Walter, and Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno. These books will get you quickly up to speed. [top]
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What happens if a film is only 85 minutes long? Do the beats you describe get compressed — sometimes two per page?
“ Whether the story stops at Minute 86 (like Halloween) or 120 (like Jaws), the minute-by-minute (page-by-page) beats remain steadfastly consistent. Halloween and Jaws do the exact same minute-by-minute beats up until Minute 86. Halloween ends there. Jaws continues, adhering to the remaining minute-by-minute beats. Therefore, compressing story beats is unnecessary.
If every good movie sticks to these minute-by-minute beats, then why are some movies longer than others?
Movie lengths vary for this reason: The number and complexity of characters and subplots change from film to film, requiring different lengths to satisfy each unique story arc. But whether the film has a handful of subplots, or just one, the writer must still address each minute-by-minute benchmark mentioned in this book if they wish to avoid boring the audience — an audience, by the way, who inherently expects this underlying story rhythm in all the movies they watch.
Sometimes movies are more than 120 minutes long. Do the minute-by-minute beats extend beyond the two hours mentioned in your book?
“ Yes, I originally wrote this book to address movies up to 3 hours long, but since the majority of movies sold and distributed are under 120 minutes, I decided to trim the book to accommodate the practical needs of the average working screenwriter and filmmaker.
Do these beats work with different genres?
Yes, which I will demonstrate by using five different genres in a case study throughout this book. What’s great about these beats is that it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a thriller, a romantic comedy, horror, drama, action adventure, or a combination of two or three genres, the underlining minute-by-minute beats are still represented in all successful movies. It’s the ground floor of what all movie stories are built upon.
Is this a formula way of storytelling? Won’t a formula stifle my creativity?
The definition of “formula” is: “A conventionalized statement expressing some fundamental principle.” Is Something Startling Happens a fundamental principle? Absolutely yes. It’s a universal principle that is common in all successful movie stories. You’re welcome to avoid these fundamental principles in your storytelling, but don’t be surprised if agents, managers, studio execs, or production companies don’t return your phone calls or emails after you send them your script or independent movie. In addition to looking for a fresh voice in your work, they are subconsciously looking for these universal beats when they’re reading your screenplay or viewing your film — it’s a primal need fashioned over a hundred years of industry storytelling. If you’re an experimental independent filmmaker who is fiercely against anything that whiffs of a set way of doing things, fine, go do your thing. But don’t be shocked when your audience falls asleep during your screenings, or walks out altogether. There’s a reason why fundamental principles, like geometry or physics, keep a plane in the air, or prevent a skyscraper from toppling over: They work! So it is with the fundamentals of storytelling. Will these fundamental principles stifle your creativity? Quite the opposite! Once you know the fundamental beats, it frees you to spend your creative time thinking of original ways of telling your story each and every minute! For example, once Picasso mastered the fundamental principles of color and design, it freed him to go in a completely different direction visually than all the other painters who preceded him. But here’s the thing: Even though Picasso’s cubist creations looked radically different than anything else the gallery audiences had seen up until that point, each of Pablo’s successful paintings, at their core, still adhered to the basic fundamental principles of color and design. Once he mastered the universal basics and applied them, it freed him to spend all of his energy creating original, timeless pieces! So it can be with your stories!
Will these beats work for short films?
Whether your short film is 5 minutes long, 20 minutes long, or 45 minutes long, the minute-by-minute beats apply. You still must satisfy Socrates’ theory that all stories need a beginning, middle, and end, but underneath the beginning-middle-end, no matter what your story’s length, the Something Startling Happens beats remain a universal rhythm for any visual storytelling length.
Can I use these beats when writing television pilots?
Yes, the minute-by-minute beats work whether you’re writing a 22-minute comedy pilot, an hour-long crime drama, or a two-hour TV movie. Something Startling Happens’ universal story rhythms apply whether you’re watching a blockbuster on a giant Cineplex screen, or a popular series on a tiny home television. All visual stories still need Minute 5’s Jaw Dropper, Minute 14’s Danger Watch, or Minute 22’s Truth Declared, etc.
How about a webisode? Do the Something Startling Happens patterns work for those?
Yes, whether your webisode is 3 minutes long or up to 10 minutes long, the opening minute-by-minute beats need to be applied — along with Socrates’ beginning-middle-end storytelling theory — to satisfy the audience’s inherent rhythms and expectations. During Minutes 1 through 10 the audience will need to experience Attension, The Build, The Ratchet, Another Notch, Jaw Dropper, Friend Or Fist, Friend Or Fist 2, Something Startling Happens, The Pursuit, The Discussion, etc.
How can a director use Something Startling Happens?
A director can use the minute-by-minute beats in this book as a checklist while working with a writer, developing storyboards with an artist, or on-set while working with the director of photography. A director can also use the phrases in this book as verbal shorthand when discussing a story with a producer, actor, or DP.
How can a producer use Something Startling Happens?
If a producer finds a script he likes, but feels there’s something missing in its storytelling, the producer can use Something Startling Happens to diagnose what’s missing. The producer can also refer to this book while working with a director to assure that his movie is hitting all the same rhythms that all successful movies are utilizing.
How can an editor use Something Startling Happens?
An editor can use the beats in this book as a minute-by-minute checklist while trimming down a movie. This guide will be a tremendous benefit and timesaver in finding any movie’s story rhythm.
How can an actor use Something Startling Happens?
Actors are the visual conduit for expressing the all-important minute-by-minute story rhythms to the audience. If an actor fails to touch upon each minute’s specific rhythm or benchmark, then the director and audience will feel that something is lacking in his performance. An actor who has the Something Startling Happens beats in his arsenal will have a distinct subconscious advantage over actors who don’t.
Does Something Startling Happens work in foreign films as well? Don’t the cultural differences affect the beats?
The beats described in this book apply to all successful films, no matter which country they are developed in. Though some of the themes and political concerns may vary from culture to culture, the story rhythms are universal and are at the foundation of every good movie. That’s why I included an Akira Kurosawa film, Rashomon, as one of the examples. Even though the Japanese culture may be distinctively different from the American, Italian, German, or French cultures, their movie storytelling techniques, at the core, still use the exact same beats.
I don’t understand: How can a romantic comedy be the same as a horror movie?
Movies are strikingly similar to architecture. Just as a romantic villa built in a sunflower meadow in Tuscany looks wildly different in appearance to an eerie Transylvania castle once owned by Vlad the Impaler, the architectural principles upon which those uniquely different buildings were designed and constructed are exactly the same. So it is with movie stories.
Can I use Something Startling Happens to write a novel?
Novelists have the luxury of exploring and expanding upon the inner workings of their characters, and the ability to allow page upon page of bountiful description. Despite this literary freedom, however, their main function is to tell a good story. Since Something Startling Happens lays out the consecutive beats of successful storytelling in movies, the novelist can borrow these beats as a guide or checklist, especially if he or she wishes to eventually develop their novel into a feature-length film.
Sometimes when I break down movies, as suggested in your book, the movie I’m studying doesn’t show your beats. Why is this?
Successful movies adhere strictly to the minute-by-minute beats, as demonstrated over and over in this book. On rare occasions the beats are slightly early or late (usually within 5 to 20 seconds), but the point is: The beats are there, or at least in the vicinity. If finding the beats is difficult for you, try reviewing Step 2 in Five Things You Need To Know Before You Begin This Book (pg. xxi) and re-read How To Break Down Movies On Your Own (pg. xxiii) until these concepts become crystal clear in your mind. Just like any skill, you have to master the basics and then practice them until they become second nature.
Can Something Startling Happens be used for graphic novels?
The beats described in this book would be ideal for the visual medium of graphic novels, especially if the writer pens the story between 70 and 120 pages. In such a case, the minute-by-minute beats could be applied page-by-page, much like a film script.
Can development executives, managers, or agents use this book?
Although there are many astute agents, managers, and development execs in the business, some still struggle to explain exactly what is wrong with a particular script to their clients. While some executives, managers, and agents demonstrate adequate skill at explaining character arc or the requirements of a three-act structure, they can still find it difficult to troubleshoot those numerous pages between major plot points. That’s where this book comes in handy: It explores, in depth, all those in-between pages. For example, if you feel that your client’s script is lagging during Pages 51–59, you can flip to Minutes 51–59 in this book to see exactly what needs to happen during those pages.
I trust that all of your questions have been answered, or will be answered by the time you finish this book. Now let’s have some fun while we break down movies minute-by-minute! [top]
IN DA BEGINNING
Minute 1: Attension!
Whether it’s action, drama, comedy, horror, western, or suspense thriller, all successful movies start with tension: Anxiety, apprehension, danger, discomfort, crisis, distress, hostility, or sexual tension. Tension grabs attention, as the classic theater adage goes. When you hear the couple arguing in the apartment below you, it grabs your attention. When you see an overturned school bus on the highway, it grabs your attention. Even though you try not to look, a man and woman kissing passionately in a parked car draws your eye (sexual tension). Other people’s tension peaks our curiosity, it yanks us from our everyday existence and injects us with a sudden rush of adrenaline.
One of the most popular tension-grabbers in film is DANGER. In Halloween, someone creeps toward an average-looking house and secretly watches the teenagers make out in the kitchen. In Jaws, something ominous moves through the water. In Knocked Up, Ben and his friends fight with boxing gloves that are on fire. In Star Wars, the opening text warns of Civil War. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his crew head deep into a dangerous jungle. In Scream, a mysterious stranger calls Casey when she’s home by herself.
Minute 1 in The Sixth Sense: A sudden basement chill frightens Anna — Attension.
When we see something dangerous happening to others, our attention peaks because we feel, deep down, that we have to keep an eye on it for self-preservation. If Ben and his buddies are fighting with on-fire boxing gloves, they could accidentally stumble over to where I’m sitting and catch me on fire! So I’d better pay attention. If someone warns of war, I’d better pay attention, because that war could end up in my own backyard, or I may get drafted. If a guy creeps toward someone else’s house and peers through their windows, someone could be looking through my windows, too.
Another attention grabber is ANXIETY. Most of us do not enjoy feeling anxious, but boy are we intrigued to see others experiencing it. In Die Hard’s first minute, John McClane, who’s afraid of flying, death-grips the plane’s armrest. In Little Miss Sunshine, anxious beauty contestants wait to see who will be voted Miss America. In Spider-Man, Peter Parker sprints after the bus, anxious because he might be late for school. In Rashomon, an angst-ridden commoner says to the priest, “I don’t understand.”
HOSTILITY also grabs our attention. When we’re at the store and we see a customer yelling at the cashier, our eyes snap toward the yeller. Why? Because we’re curious how the cashier is going to handle the situation. Will she get the manager? Will she yell back? Hostility comes in two forms: verbal and physical. Say the customer throws a punch at the manager. Now they have our undivided attention — that fight might spill over to my lane and I could get a broken nose. I better keep my eye on the situation.
Another attention grabber is SEXUAL TENSION. Say we’re hiking in the woods and we see, in the distance, a naked couple having sex. It immediately grabs our attention, doesn’t it? It’s something forbidden. It’s something we’re not supposed to watch, but we’re drawn to it. Basic Instinct’s first minute begins with a rock star having sex with a beautiful blonde woman in his mansion. We know we shouldn’t be looking, but we can’t help it. Their sexual tension creates tension inside us.
UNEASE subtly grabs our attention, too. In The Godfather, an uneasy Bonasera tells Don Corleone that boys beat up his daughter. Why is Bonasera uneasy around this guy? Should I be uneasy, too? In Match Point, Chris Wilton is uneasy about the randomness of the world. “It’s scary to think how much is out of our control,” he observes. In Forrest Gump, Forrest starts telling his story to a stranger at the bus stop. She has no idea who this odd person is and why he’s talking to her, which makes her uneasy.
Now, as case studies, let’s look at the first minute of a few wildly different films — Juno, The Matrix, Pulp Fiction, Being John Malkovich, and Halloween — and see which attention grabber they used. I’ll be referencing these case studies throughout the book to prove that the beats consistently work, no matter what genre you choose to write.
Juno uses SEXUAL TENSION to grab us. Juno MacGuff and Paulie Bleeker are about to have sex on his recliner. We’ve all experienced that awkward first sexual encounter and we’re instantly intrigued to see how Juno and Paulie will handle it. Will they be graceful about it, or clumsy? Their sexual tension also ignites those same feelings inside us.
The Matrix and Pulp Fiction use DANGER. In The Matrix, Cypher tells Trinity, “We’re going to kill him.” Sounds dangerous. Kill who? Why do they want to kill him? If they kill him, will they also kill me? In Pulp Fiction, Pumpkin tells Honey Bunny that robbing the restaurant is “too risky.” If we were sitting in the booth behind them and overheard their conversation, our ears would perk up immediately. If they rob the restaurant, they could hurt me, or take my money. I better keep listening to see if they are actually serious.
Being John Malkovich uses ANXIETY during its first minute. The male puppet that Craig manipulates is distressed and anxious about his life. If the puppet is distressed and anxious, will I someday become stressed and anxious? I want to know why the puppet is anxious so I can avoid that same miserable feeling.
Halloween uses three-tension-builders-in-one. The hand-held camera, simulating our point of view, makes us UNEASY. Suddenly we are the voyeur, and we’re the one who is DANGEROUS. Then, through the creepy person’s eyes, we peer into a kitchen window and see teenagers making out — SEXUAL TENSION.
Which type of tension will you choose for your script’s first page? Once you figure it out, move to Minute 2. [top]
MINUTE 2: THE BUILD
Not only does….
Audience anticipation is increased by “building upon” already existing tension. Good screenwriters know that opening a story with tension will grab an audience, but just as in real life, if you don’t escalate that tension, people will lose interest. If the arguing couple downstairs stops yelling at each other, or the tone of their argument drones on, we soon turn up our TV to drown them out. But if we hear a sudden hard Slap! — well, we keep listening, don’t we? The tension escalates, and so does our interest.
For example, in Spider-Man, after Peter barely makes it onto the school bus, how does the screenwriter build tension to keep us interested? By showing the other students refusing to let Peter sit with them. In Star Wars, ships fire at each other. In Knocked Up, Pete and Debbie argue because Pete can’t take the kids to school. In Being John Malkovich, the puppet overturns the table.
A great way to help you escalate the tension in your story is to use the phrase, Not only does…. For example, here’s how now-famous movies handled Minute 2:
The Build during Minute 2 of Raiders of the Lost Ark: Not only does Indiana Jones find a threatening statue, but he also discovers a deadly arrow.
Not only does Bonasera say that the boys beat his daughter, but he says that she will never be beautiful again.
Not only does the enemy’s plane pursue the American pilots, but now the MiG wants to go head-to-head with Maverick.
Not only does a shark swim nearby, but now sexual tension escalates between two nearby college students.
Not only does Casey get a mysterious call from a stranger, but the stranger calls a third time.
Not only does Payne stab a security guard in the ear, but now executives enter an elevator Payne rigged with explosives.
Now, let’s look at the second minute of our case studies and see how they built the tension.
Juno uses URGENCY to build tension. After drinking a lot of Sunny D, Juno desperately has to use the bathroom. And why did she drink all that Sunny D? Because she’s taking her third pregnancy test of the day. (Not only does Juno desperately have to pee, but now she has to take her third pregnancy test of the day.)
The Matrix uses URGENCY as well. Not only do the police break down the door and find Trinity by herself, but now agents show up outside and argue with the Police Chief.
Pulp Fiction uses a THREAT to build tension. In Pumpkin’s story, the bank robbers threaten to kill a little girl. (Not only does Pumpkin say the robbery is too risky, but now the bank robbers in his story threaten to harm a little girl.)
Being John Malkovich uses FRUSTRATION. The male puppet overturns the table in frustration. (Not only does the male puppet pace around his room in distress, but now he flips over the table.)
Halloween uses LIFE THREATENING DANGER. Whoever was watching the teenagers making out now enters the kitchen and grabs a knife. (Not only does the stranger enter the kitchen, but now he grabs a sharp blade.)
Now, let’s keep the tension rolling into…. [top]
MINUTE 3: THE RATCHET
Not only that, but now…. My dad is quite the handyman and taught me how to use a ratchet wrench when I was a teenager. The ratchet was perfect for tightening bolts in small spaces, like inside the engine block of my Chevy Nova. As the ratchet screwed the bolt closer to the metal plate, I could feel the tension escalate in my wrist and forearm. We use that same ratchet principle during Minutes 3 and 4.
Following the hard Slap! we heard in the apartment below us, we now hear a loud scream and dishes crashing. The tension builds even more. We want to know what’s going to happen next. A great phrase to help you build the tension even more is Not only that, but now…. For example:
Not only that, but now more cops arrive on the scene.
Not only that, but now casting directors reject Michael.
Not only that, but now the caller growls, “Don’t hang up on me!”
Not only that, but now young Forrest falls while using his arm braces.
Not only that, but now one of Debbie’s daughters said she Googled “murder.”
Not only that, but now C-3P0 says, “We’re doomed.”
Anxiety and life-threatening danger seem to be the best ways to build the tension even more. Let’s look at our case studies:
Juno uses ANXIETY to build tension. Juno takes the pregnancy test and finds out that she is definitely pregnant — the last thing on earth she wants to be. (Not only that, but now she’s pregnant.)
Being John Malkovich also uses ANXIETY. Craig’s wife, Lotte, suggests that Craig get a job — the last thing he wants to do because it will take him away from puppeteering. (Not only that, but now Craig’s wife wants him to get a job.)
Pulp Fiction uses ANXIETY as well. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s robbing-the-restaurant debate grows more serious. (Not only that, but now Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are talking more seriously about robbing everyone in the restaurant.)
Halloween increases the LIFE THREATENING DANGER. The stranger creeps upstairs with the knife. (Not only that, but now the stranger sneaks upstairs with a sharp blade.)
The Matrix increases the LIFE THREATENING DANGER as well. (Not only that, but now Morpheus tells Trinity that they’ve been compromised — agents are outside!)
And don’t be afraid to switch the tension to another character besides the hero. For example, in Spider-Man, they switch the tension to Harry, who doesn’t want his dad to drop him off in front of the school — a tense moment between father and son.
Once you’ve done that, turn the heat up even more…. [top]
MINUTE 4: ANOTHER NOTCH
If you thought that was bad….
After hearing the slap in the downstairs apartment, the boyfriend now screams, “I’m gonna kill you!” We are riveted. What’s going to happen next? Should I do something to help? Call the police?
A phrase to help you ratchet up the tension another notch is: If you thought that was bad….
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
If you thought that was bad, now Indy’s ally pulls a gun on him.
If you thought that was bad, now the shark bites the girl and drags her around.
If you thought that was bad, now Sadie conks her sister with the doll and Allison scolds her.
If you thought that was bad, now Stormtroopers burst through the door.
If you thought that was bad, the caller now threatens to cut Casey like a fish.
If you thought that was bad, now Michael is ignored during an audition.
If you thought that was bad, now Forrest’s leg brace gets caught in a grate.
How do our case studies ratchet up the tension another notch?
Juno uses the THREAT OF SUICIDE to ratchet the tension. (If you thought that was bad, now Juno makes a noose with her string candy.)
The Matrix amps up the LIFE THREATENING DANGER by having the cops chase Trinity onto rooftops, where anyone could fall to their deaths. (If you thought that was bad, now cops chase Trinity at death-defying heights.)
Halloween uses DEATH to ratchet the tension. (If you though that was bad, now the stranger repeatedly stabs the naked girl.)
Being John Malkovich uses ENVY. (If you thought that was bad, now jealous Craig sees another puppeteer having wild television success.)
Pulp Fiction amps the tension by showing a SYMBOL OF DEATH. (If you thought that was bad, now Pumpkin places a handgun onto the table.)
Now that we’ve built the tension, we need to add a little twist…. [top]
MINUTE 5: JAW DROPPER
Something extraordinary/astonishing happens.
This minute makes the audience’s jaw drop. The story seduces us even further by showing us something extraordinary or astonishing. Things that we don’t see or hear every day fascinate us. It grabs our attention and dazzles us. A minute ago, in the downstairs apartment, we heard the boyfriend threaten his girlfriend’s life. But what if, during the next minute, we heard a gunshot? This astonishing event would rock our world.
What Jaw Dropper happens in Jaws? The shark yanks the naked girl away from the buoy and pulls her underneath the water — an extraordinary event in her life, to say the least.
What extraordinary event happens in Top Gun? Maverick flies upside down and overtop the enemy’s fighter plane — an extraordinary flying feat. What astonishing event happens in The Sixth Sense? Anna and Malcolm see a half-naked man standing in their bathroom. What about Star Wars? Ominous Darth Vadar enters the story for the first time, an astonishing moment in movie history. The Godfather? Bonasera asks Don Corleone to murder the men who beat up his daughter — an extraordinary request to make of someone.
Tootsie? Michael storms out of a play because he disagrees with the director — an extraordinary thing for a struggling actor, who hasn’t worked in two years, to do. Raiders of the Lost Ark? An extraordinary number of spiders crawl onto Indy and his ally’s back. These are all things that would provoke us to say, “Hey, that’s something you don’t see everyday!” In Rashomon, the priest says that the story he’s about to tell may make the listener lose his faith in the human soul — a jaw-dropping thing for a man of God to say!
How do our case studies drop our jaws in Minute 5?
In The Matrix, Trinity executes an extraordinary superhuman leap through a far away window (which astonishes the cops). In Halloween, we find out that the person who stabbed the naked girl is a little boy. In Being John Malkovich, Craig performs a remarkably beautiful puppet performance on the city sidewalk — he has extraordinary talent. In Pulp Fiction, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny hold up the restaurant, an astonishing occurrence in the patrons’ lives. In Juno, Juno tells Leah her extraordinary news — she’s pregnant. (Leah’s jaw literally drops open in astonishment.)
Is something Jaw Dropping happening on Page 5 of your script? [top]
MINUTE 6: FRIEND OR FIST
Hero and ally(s) bond or fight.
You hear the gunshot in the apartment below you. Scared, your eyes flick toward your stunned roommate, who’s sitting on the nearby couch. You press your trembling pointer finger against your lips and whisper, “Shhh!” Your roommate insists on calling 911, but his cell phone is charging across the room. You don’t want the psycho neighbor to know you’re home, so you order your roommate to stay still….
These next two minutes are about establishing the hero and ally’s relationship. This is a crucial step because the ally plays a big part in the hero’s life later on. Because of this fact, we need to get to know him, and the hero, a bit better. Why? So we care what happens between them, and to them, further down the road. The best way to do this is by showing them either bonding (FRIEND) or fighting (FIST). How do the successful movies show the hero and ally bonding during Minute 6?
In Spider-Man, Peter encourages Harry to talk with Mary Jane (FRIEND). In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy saves his ally from falling (FRIEND). In Jaws, Brody and his wife joke around (FRIEND). In Forrest Gump, Mama Gump reads to young Forrest (FRIEND). In Little Miss Sunshine, Sheryl brings her suicidal brother home (FRIEND). In Top Gun, Maverick and Goose prepare themselves for an air fight (FRIEND). In Match Point, Chris, Tom, and Chloe watch an opera together (FRIEND). In The Godfather, Bonasera asks Don Corleone to be his friend (FRIEND). In Tootsie, Michael and his roommate chat during their waitering job (FRIEND). In Speed, Jack and Detective Harold Temple work together to break into the elevator shaft (FRIEND). In Scream, Casey and her tied-up boyfriend make eye contact through the window (FRIEND).
Minute 6 in Die Hard: John and his limo driver, Argyle, chat (FRIEND).
And how do successful movies show the hero and ally(s) fighting?
In Star Wars, R2-D2 and C-3P0 argue (FIST). In Knocked Up, Alison and Ryan Seacrest argue about the next guest (FIST). Alison then offers Ryan a cookie to calm him down (FRIEND).
Our case studies show a variety of ways to show heroes and allies bonding, which seems to be the popular choice for Minute 6.
In Juno, Juno’s BEST FRIEND, Leah, helps Juno carry the chair (FRIEND). In Halloween, Dr. Loomis chats with his ASSOCIATE, the nurse, on their drive toward the mental hospital (FRIEND). In Pulp Fiction, Jules and Vincent, CO-HITMEN, chat in the car about Vincent’s recent trip to Europe (FRIEND).
Charlie Kaufman uses a unique angle in Being John Malkovich to explore this Minute 6 pattern: The male and female PUPPETS that Craig manipulates long for each other through the wall (FRIEND).
“What about The Matrix?” you ask, “Agent Smith can’t be the hero, he’s the bad guy!” Remember when you first saw The Matrix, though? At Minute 6, we knew nothing about The Matrix. As far as we were concerned, the agents were trying to capture a creepy woman (Trinity) who just killed a bunch of cops. Agent Smith is a hero at this point, and his FELLOW AGENTS are his allies in the task (we learn later that they are the bad guys).
And this leads us to…. [top]
MINUTE 7: FRIEND OR FIST 2
Hero and/or ally(s) bond or fight more.
There’s eerie silence in the apartment below us. What is going to happen next? Your roommate disregards your order to stay put. He tiptoes across the wood floor toward his cell phone. You whisper for him to stop! (FIST.) The floor creaks. You draw in a hiss of breath as your eyes widen in fear….
In Tootsie, Michael and Jeff argue about Jeff’s play (FIST). In Knocked Up, Alison and Ryan Seacrest’s argument escalates (FIST). In Top Gun, Maverick and Goose argue about whether they should land or not (FIST). In Forrest Gump, Mama Gump scolds Forrest (FIST). Minute 7 in Match Point: Tom and Chris play tennis (FRIEND).
In Spider-Man, Mary Jane smiles and says “yes” when Peter asks to take her picture for the school newspaper (FRIEND). In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy saves his companion’s life… again (FRIEND). In Jaws, Mrs. Brody tells her husband to be careful, then his youngest son waves to him (FRIEND). In The Godfather, Don Corleone gathers with his wife and children for a family photograph (FRIEND). In Die Hard, John continues his friendly chat with Argyle (FRIEND). In Speed, Jack and Harold examine the bomb together (FRIEND). In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm talks to his former patient in soothing tones (FRIEND).
Need more convincing? Let’s see what our case studies do:
In Juno, Juno and Leah chat more about Juno having sex with Paulie (FRIEND).
In The Matrix, Trinity sends Neo an email, telling him the Matrix has him (FRIEND).
In Halloween, Dr. Loomis and the nurse discuss Michael Myers even more (FRIEND).
In Being John Malkovich, the young girl’s father — who was letting his daughter watch Craig’s puppet show (Craig’s temporary ally) — punches Craig when he sees the puppets’ sexual gestures (FIST).
In Pulp Fiction, Jules and Vincent grab guns out of the trunk and chat more (FRIEND). [top]
MINUTE 8: SOMETHING STARTLING HAPPENS
Suddenly, downstairs, the boyfriend kicks open his apartment door. Startled, you spring off the couch and deadbolt your door!
Minute 8 startles somebody in the movie — mostly the hero — and in turn startles the audience. The audience needs a jolt here to keep them awake until the Inciting Incident happens between Pages 10 and 12. The Minute 8 startling event comes in all shapes and sizes. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the crumbling temple startles Indy. In Knocked Up, Alison’s boss startles Alison by offering her an on-air job. In Tootsie, Michael’s friends startle him by surprising him with a birthday party. (30 seconds earlier in this case.) In Jaws, the gruesome state of the dead girl’s body startles Brody. In The Sixth Sense, the half-naked man startles Malcolm by pointing a gun at him and shooting him. In Scream, the caller startles Casey by gutting her boyfriend. The enormity of his wife’s office building startles John in Die Hard. In Top Gun, Maverick is startled by the news that Cougar is in trouble.
Minute 8 in Spider-Man: The spider bites Peter, which startles him.
In Match Point, something startling happens to middle-class Chris — wealthy Chloe falls in love with him! Something startling happens at Don Corleone’s daughter’s wedding: FBI agents write down license plate numbers in the driveway.
Is something startling happening on Page 8 of your script? You’d better startle the reader, or they’re going to get restless here. What startling event happens in our case studies?
In Juno, Juno startles Paulie when she tells him she’s pregnant (the startled look on Paulie’s face is priceless).
In Halloween, an escaped mental patient leaps onto the car and startles the nurse.
In Pulp Fiction, Vincent is startled to learn that his boss murdered a man over a simple foot massage.
This startling event not only startles the characters in the movie, but it startles us as well. If we’re surprised, we wonder what other surprises await us….
To see all 120 beat-by-beat minutes, get this book!
Something Startling Happens
Screenwriter/producer Todd Klick is the bestselling author of Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know; The Screenwriter’s Fairy Tale; and Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror: Speculative Genre Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers. Todd’s stories have earned him recognition with the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and the PAGE International screenwriting competitions. Todd is a contributor to The Huffington Post and MovieMaker Magazine, and has also appeared on Dateline NBC and NPR.