Screenwriter, producer, and bestselling author Todd Klick is a VP and Director of Story Development in Los Angeles. His stories have earned accolades with the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and the PAGE International screenwriting competitions. He has sold and optioned numerous scripts for stage and screen, and inked deals to develop stories for the London and Broadway stages. In his screenwriting book, Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know, he reveals the 120 minute-by-minute story genome that unites all successful films. It shows you what makes great movies tick. Below is an excerpt.
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?