If you ever thought that it was possible to formularise films then Todd Klick’s book, ‘Something Startling Happens’ goes someway to establishing that most successful films have similar moments or beats. That is, a particular event happens in each minute.
To prove the point, Klick illustrates this with the following films:-
Bring John Malkovich (1999)
Die Hard (1988)
Forrest Gump (1994)
The Godfather (1972 – although in this book it says 1992!)
Knocked Up (2007)
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Match Point (2005)
The Matrix (1999)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Star Wars (1977)
Top Gun (1986)
Quite a wide spread and I hope you’ll notice that there are several from our genre. Although in the back of the book he indicates the production company, I think it would have helped his case if he had also noted the scriptwriters and possibly the editors just to prove that there was a diversity of people and not the same ones coming up all the time. Considering the sample is from a 40 year period that would seem less likely but could show or disprove any lineage going on. With Hollywood, where successful films or trends are copied, the same is still likely to apply even with beats as something of this nature must surely be taught in film schools over there.
Logistically, I do have to wonder if the various scriptwriters actually knew this or it was done purely instinctively or this kind of book would have been written much earlier.
Having said that, Klick makes a very good case as he compares minute by minute across these films as well as giving examples of other films so you can do the timing yourself. I suspect the latter will be more for the more earnest film-maker to try out. Two of the films, ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Godfather’ are shorter and longer respectively than the nominal 120 minute film length. Klick makes a point of mentioning this in his introduction to prove that a cut-off point isn’t dependent on the beats.
Having read this book, I have to confess to seeing a pattern of ups and downs which tends to be true of any story in any medium. You build up to a crescendo, a touch of emotional impact and the pay-off before doing it again in different densities across the film with different people and events. The main difference with films, because of the two hour or so restriction, it just goes through the repetitive pattern faster. I suspect the normal film viewer doesn’t actually realise just how much is packed into a single minute and what follows through to keep their interest on the screen.
It does make me think if anyone can use this book and adopt their plot to work in a similar way though. I mean, for every minute and for every scene you would have to make these beats. Klick does point out that it doesn’t necessarily have to happen to the lead characters or even to people at all, just has to roller-coast in this fashion.
To me, this is the shape of films and like the standard romance plot repetition, viewers don’t get tired of particular patterns because they like to see it time and again. How else do you explain why we genre fans never tire of re-watching our favourites?
For the scriptwriter, I do think if there is a problem with a plot, checking that the beats are in order isn’t a bad place to start. Certainly, script doctors must surely be looking at such things anyway. If it means shortening a film, even at an editing stage, to make it work then that can’t be a bad thing. If you’re just starting out in this field then you will undoubtedly pick up something here and those in film school will no doubt get a few brownie points by demonstrating these kinds of patterns. As a prose writer, I saw these things as a normal thing to do although the apprentice scriptwriter might not have caught all of these beats. Don’t be startled. Do it to the viewer.
(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 199 page illustrated small enlarged paperback. Price: $24.95 (US), £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-059-3)