Something Startling Happens

Shortly after we moved to Pasadena in 2002, some friends came out to visit from Boston. Their daughter – a year shy of becoming a teenager – had brought along a new book to quietly entertain herself while the adults caught up on news at a neighborhood restaurant. Just before the entrees were served, Katie suddenly issued a small gasp, closed the book and leaned back in her chair with a look of astonishment on her face. “What’s going on?” I asked. She turned to me in complete seriousness, tapped the cover and remarked, “Something startling happens.”

I was reminded of that unabashed display of delight when I recently acquired a copy of Todd Klick’s new book, a how-to guide for any raconteur who wants to inject “Aha!” moments that will keep readers and audiences off-balance. Coincidentally titled  Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know , it cleverly delivers the minute-by-minute structural skinny on how to keep a screenplay moving from start to finish with no shortage of snappy surprises in-between. Not only does Klick use lots of humor to effectively dispense advice but he also knows how to keep an interview lively and replete with mirth.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let’s start with some background on who you are, where you came from, and what you do for a living when you’re not writing fun books like this one.

I’m Todd Klick and I live in Los Angeles, but I’m originally from two formative places for me: Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, which is an old fashioned summer resort community, kind of like in Dirty Dancing. Before that, however, I was raised in the Pennsylvania farmlands, living almost a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn existence: fishing in ponds, climbing out of my bedroom window at night to go on adventures in the woods with my friends, getting into mischief. I started writing for theater in Mount Gretna. Co-wrote a play about Milton Hershey that sold out shows for three years. That led me to screenwriting. When I’m not writing books, I’m working on TV and feature scripts. I was also hired by the guy who put the Cirque Du Soleil/Beatles’ show together. He asked me write two original shows for the London and Broadway stages, both of which sold. I’m also producing a film.

When did you first know you wanted a career in the movie business?    

I knew I wanted to do this when I found Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs script at an Amish flea market in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Some elderly guy was selling a box of screenplays for a couple bucks. I read that script and the heavens opened up for me! I had no idea until the point that people wrote movies.

How did you go about getting your first break?

My first break was in theatre. Then I broke in L.A. when I attracted a bunch of options and sold a TV movie to the Hallmark Channel (still waiting for it to be produced). Then both my books became bestsellers on Amazon in screenwriting.

Who would you say were your mentors on this exciting journey?

My mentors are Ray Bradbury, who recently passed away (June 5), John Dayton, who used to work for CBS, and Dale Olson, who used to be a publicist for a lot of the old school movie stars. They’ve seen it all and offer advice to help me out.

Through adolescence and into adulthood, what movies had the most profound impact on your perspective as a teller of tales?

Schindler’s List rocked me to the core. It wiped me out for a few days. I want to tell powerful stories like that. Tarantino does it for me, too, as does Scorsese, David Fincher, James Cameron and, of course, Steven Spielberg. They know how to entertain you in a movie theatre, and occasionally they’ll teach you something as well.

When was the last time a movie totally surprised you and made you say, “I didn’t see that coming at all”?

Prometheus. Mind blown.

So what was the inspiration to write Something Startling Happens? And how did you come up with 120 as the number of beats every writer needs to know? Assuming that the average movie length is two hours, doesn’t this mean that something is happening every single minute?

Years ago I started studying successful movies scene by scene, scribbling down their dramatic nuances on yellow legal pads. I did this analysis to improve my storytelling. After awhile, I noticed that on one particular legal pad line I had written the words “something startling happens” over and over again. If I would have lined up all my legal pads side by side, that phrase would have appeared shoulder to shoulder across the board. Now, “startling” moments happen sporadically in every movie, but this was a very specific moment that kept reappearing over and over again during a very specific time. So I timed each movie to see what minute this moment occurred. It was Minute 8. This was a tremendous insight for my writing. Knowing that one minute of screen time equals one screenplay page, I now knew something startling had to happen, usually to the hero, on page 8. This led me to studying great movies minute-by-minute. Once I figured out the minute-by-minute story beats that united them all together, I applied what I learned into my scripts. As if by magic, my screenplays immediately soared to the top of screenwriting competitions and attracted options and sales.

And yes, there is a specific dramatic nuance happening each minute. It’s beautiful to see it unfold in movies, and incredible to see how skilled writers and directors hit the beats in fresh ways.

What was the most fun chapter for you to write?

I loved writing the “Story” section at the beginning. It goes into much more detail about where I was at the time in my life, and how I made a big sacrifice to follow my dream of writing. But once I did, that’s when the story insights started to come and my work got attention.

Contrivance is truly one of the worst sins that writers make in their stories (i.e., “Suddenly the unmistakable sound of a Harrier broke through the midnight sky and seconds later appeared right outside the trapped hero’s 27th floor window just as the villain broke down the hotel room door with the intent to kill him.”). While it’s important that something startling and unexpected happens to make an audience say “Wow!”, there also has to be an adequate set-up to make such zero-hour miracles plausible within the context of the story. Tell us about some of the things that writers can do – including skillful foreshadowing – to avoid a lame “save.”

Storytelling is like architecture, you have to work weeks, sometimes months to figure out how to design an original building that won’t collapse over time. You do that by following the universal structure that holds everyone up, but if you want to make it beautiful and original, then you put the extra effort into making that happen. If something sniffs of cliché or contrived, delete it immediately. Lazy writers write contrivances.

What do Spielberg and Shakespeare have in common insofar as finding their story groove?

Both use the exact same story rhythm that Mr. Shakespeare and other playwrights developed for the stage centuries ago, and successful filmmakers borrow for the big screen today.

The Globe Theatre, which hosted Shakespeare’s plays, attracted a tough audience. The Groundlings would crowd the stage and jeer if an actor or play dared to be boring. Shakespeare quickly developed writing tricks to fend off the fickle spectators, and keep their attentions riveted to the story instead.

It was all about rhythm for the English playwrights: rhythm that created a mood or feeling, like the beats of a beautiful balled. In the early 1900s, screenwriters – most of whom were weaned on stage plays – adopted these same rhythms in their early screen stories. In the crucial opening minutes of successful plays and movies, there were specific story beats the playwrights and screenwriters would consciously or subconsciously hit. I’ll give you a couple examples using Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hamlet:

Minute 1: At-tension

During Minute 1 of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his crew head deep into a dangerous jungle. During Minute 1 of Hamlet, Bernado wonders who lurks nearby in the dark. Whether it’s a drama, thriller, comedy, horror, sci-fi, rom-com or western, successful movies and plays start with tension. The best writers choose one of five ways to hook you with tension: Danger, Anxiety, Hostility, Unease, or Sex. Spielberg and Shakespeare chose Unease with a hint of Danger to start their stories.

Minute 2: The Build

Audience anticipation is built by “building upon” already existing tension. Professional writers know that opening a story with tension will grab the audience, but if they don’t escalate the tension, audiences will lose interest fast. A good way to prompt an escalating tension is by using the phrase, “Not only does.” Not only does Indiana Jones head deep into a dangerous jungle {Minute 1}, but now Indy finds a deadly arrow {Minute 2}. Not only does Bernado wonder who lurks in the dark {Minute 1 in Hamlet), but now Marcellus claims to have seen a dreaded apparition {Minute 2}.

Minute 3: The Ratchet

Next is what I call “The Ratchet.” My dad taught me how to use a ratchet wrench when I was a teenager. The ratchet was perfect for tightening bolts inside my old Chevy’s engine block. As the ratchet screwed the bolt closer to the metal plate, I could feel the tension escalate in my wrist. Great writers use this same ratchet principle during Minutes 3 and 4. A phrase to help you build the tension even more from the previous minute is: “Not only that, but now.” Not only that, but now “The Hovitos are near” as Satipo says in Raiders of the Lost Ark – “the poison is still fresh.” Not only that, but now a scary ghost enters the stage in Hamlet!

And on and on.

Hypothetically: If Shakespeare had lived in the 21st century, which of these two men do you think would have written the more compelling stories for the screen?

Shakespeare because, like I mentioned above, he was writing and acting in front of tough live audiences all the time, and he understood the story archetypes that unite all of us for all time. If he applied that today, he would hit the structure beats, but tell them in fresh ways that connect with modern day audiences. Get Spielberg to direct his stories and I think you’ve got a winner.

Any insider tips on what writers can do to improve their screenplays’ chances of getting past the studio gatekeepers (story readers)?

Realize that you’re competing with professional writers who’ve managed to find a way to carve out 3-4 hours a day to write. The more they’re writing, the better they’re getting. You must do the same to keep up. Every successful writer I’ve met sacrificed something to make that writing time happen. What will you have to sacrifice? Television shows? Sleep? A hobby? Whatever it is, make it happen.

Tell us about what you call “The Minute 5 Jaw Dropper”.

You’ve ratcheted the tension the first four minutes, but now you need a twist to keep the audience off guard. The masters make the audience’s jaw drop during minute 5. They do this by showing the characters doing something extraordinary or astonishing – something they’ve never seen before. It’s a subtle nuance that’s distinct from the previous four minutes. For example, in Hamlet Horatio says the ghost looks just like the dead King of Denmark – the dead father of his friend Hamlet! Truly a jaw-dropping experience for him. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, a jaw-dropping number of black poisonous spiders crawl onto Indy and his friend’s backs! Spielberg uses the Minute 5 Jaw Dropper again and again, like in Jaws when the shark yanks the naked female swimmer underneath the water and devours her – a jaw-dropping event in her life, to say the least.

Once you start applying formulaic devices to a craft such as screenwriting, isn’t there a danger of things becoming predictable?

Not for pro writers, who used formulas and structures over and over again since the early days of feature-length filmmaking. Amateur writers, however, are in danger because they use clichés within structure. Structure has been around since the Greeks, it’s set in stone and it’ll work as long as man keeps reproducing. Shakespeare, as mentioned above, used the same “archetypal formula’ as all the great writers and directors today. But they all work(ed) really hard not to be predictable when hitting archetypal moments.

You’re the co-founder of a story fix-it site. Tell us about it and how it works.

Industry friends and I would email each other the best story fix-it links that answered our story trouble spots. I decided to put all the best links on one website for all of us to use. I then expanded it all screenwriters out there. It’s called writerwrench.com

What’s next on your plate?

Producing a film I wrote and writing my next book.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for such great questions. Pleasure answering them!

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Screenwriter and producer Todd Klick is the bestselling author of Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know and The Screenwriter’s Fairy Tale. His stories have earned him recognition with the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and the PAGE International screenwriting competitions. In addition to optioning 5 scripts, he recently sold a full-length screenplay and inked two deals to develop stories for the London and Broadway stages. Todd is a contributor to The Huffington Post and MovieMaker Magazine, and has also appeared on Dateline NBC and NPR. His books are available through Amazon.com.

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