Read our exclusive interview with screenwriter and producer Todd Klick, whose new book, ‘Something Starling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs To Know,’ is now available in paperback from Michael Weiss Productions. The book offers a minute-by-minute breakdown of classic and contemporary films, and is the first source that reveals the techniques that drive successful movies. Klick also describes how he first realized that all acclaimed films utilize these techniques at the exact same minute, regardless of what’s happening in the plot; for example, at minute 8, in such movies as ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Jaws,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sixth Sense,’ something starling happens. The writer discusses with us, among other things, what his motivation in writing the book was, and how he realized that all films share the same minute-by-minute components.
ShockYa (SY): In ‘Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs To Know,’ you offer a minute-by-minute breakdown of classic and contemporary films. What was your motivation in writing the book?
Todd Klick (TK): Oh, it was to make myself a better writer. I used to break movies down, genre-by-genre, on whatever screenplay I was working on at the time. I’d break them down with a yellow legal pad, and play the movie on a DVD player, and then write down what was happening with every scene. I’d write paragraphs, explaining them. It was during that process that I realized (movies were using the minute-by-minute technique). I broke down about 300 successful movies, and I realized that with certain lines on my legal pad paper, the exact same things were happening across the board, story-wise. I found this very, very interesting, and I realized they were happening at certain minutes, too. This was something in the screenwriting books that I read, and I read quite a bit, and I just found this fascinating. So I started breaking movies scene-by-scene, and minute-by-minute.
SY: Do all genres take part in sharing the same components minute-by-minute?
TD: Yeah, that’s what I found really interesting. Minute-by-minute, the foundation of all movie stories, if they’re good, they’re doing the exact same things, story-wise. It’s the base of everything. It’s set in stone, it’s cemented there, and placed. Great writers take these beats, no matter what genre they’re doing. In the book, I show how ‘Halloween’ is doing the same thing as ‘Jaws’ and a Woody Allen comedy. They’re all doing the exact same thing, which I found very exciting. Once I found these beats, I knew what the masters are doing, and now I can my own thing, in my original voice. Then I can put all my focus into making that page better and original. It gave me more focus.
SY: Do you feel the minute-by-minute component benefits movies?
TK: Oh, my gosh, most certainly. It really helped my screenwriting, because up until that point, I wasn’t getting through with screenplays yet. When I started applying these beats, doing the same beats as the great storytellers were doing, my screenplays started shooting up to the top of contests. My first one went to the quarters of the Nicholl Fellowship. The one after that, I made the finals at the Page (International). My screenplays after that all got optioned. I got a manager. In addition to that, I just did a deal, two deals, in the past few months. I’m simply following the beats, and just doing what the greats are doing.
SY: Going back to the Nicholl Fellowship, what was your reaction when you found out you had received that acknowledgment?
TK: Oh, I was over the moon about that, because it’s such a prestigious screenwriting competition. To be mentioned up there, towards the top, was unbelievable for me, and gave me confidence as a writer. I knew I was onto something, when all of a sudden, my scripts were getting noticed now. I’m going to keep hitting these beats, telling my stories, but hitting the universal beats all the greats are using.
SY: As you also mentioned, you currently have two options for your latest feature-length screenplays. Are there any details you can share about the films?
TK: Oh, sure. Let’s see, I wrote a Hallmark one for my mom, because my mom loves, adores, Hallmark (laughs). So I wrote her one. I just did a deal for that. Then there’s one I just wrote, that’s been getting me some notice around town here in Los Angeles. I’ve had some meetings with studios. So yeah, these doors are opening up in the last year-and-a-half, it’s pretty amazing.
But I’m the kind of person that loves sharing knowledge with other screenwriters. The book I read on screenwriting when I was living in Pennsylvania were really helpful, to give me a guide on structure and how to write. As I’m getting success, I want to share with other writers out there, who are just like me, what I learned, and am learning. That’s why I put the book out there. Originally, I wrote it for myself, to better myself as a writer, but I want to help other writers out there reach my dreams, as well.
SY: What are some of the more current successful films that use the minute-by-minute blueprint, and what are some examples of the technique?
TD: One of the movies I just broke down was ‘Thor,’ minute-by-minute. I saw it in the theater, and it did really, really well at the box office (earning almost $267.5 million worldwide). So I broke it down, minute-by-minute. It hit every beat, like a well oiled metronome. (laughs) It’s pretty amazing. I kind of know going in now that if a movie’s successful, it’s definitely adhering to these beats.
For example, minute five (of ‘Thor’), the Jawdropper-all of a sudden, a great war erupts. Going down the line here, minute 10, Odin says to Thor, “Do you swear to guard the nine realms?” Thor says “I swear.” There’s a huge discussion during that minute, that father and son have, and it’s up for greater stakes.
Keep going down the line here, minute 20, the Push-back, Thor talks back to the Frost Giants’ leader. That’s a massive Push-back, Thor says I’m not going to take your crap, basically. (laughs) There’s a moment right before (that Push-back moment) where Thor gets a little intimidated, but we need our hero to push-back. That shows us that we get respect for him when he pushes back. If he pushes back, maybe we can push back too, when we’re intimated by the bad guy.
Minute 26, the Big Unexpected, Thor and his friends are all getting surrounded by the Frost Giants. Right then, boom, minute 26, the Big Unexpected. Odin arrives on his horse to save them. I mean, I can go on and on. The movie is 104 minutes, and it hits all the beats faithfully.
SY: You’re one of the co-founders of the website Writerwrench, which offers advice for screenwriters struggling with projects. What inspired you to launch the website?
TK: Industry friends and I had been secretly swapping these links. There are links and articles for any kind of screenwriting problem you come across. Say you come to the midpoint, and you say, oh, what’s supposed to happen at the midpoint, boom, you can go right on the site. I collect all the links onto one site. Again, I want to help screenwriters out there, and give them the same knowledge that we have out here. So if you’re struggling with an inciting incident, boom, you can go to the site. It’s all free, you just click on inciting incident. All the articles on there explain what inciting incidents are, and how you can use them in your script. (Also) character arc, it goes on and on right there. So I’m very proud of that, I developed that with my friend, Rick Clark. He worked in the music division for George Clooney’s ‘Up In The Air.’ He just did Billy Bob Thronton’s movie, ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car,’ as well. He’s a writer, on top of being a terrific music producer, and a great guy.
SY: You also serve as the Vice President and Directory of Story Development for White Oak Films. Do you currently have any projects currently lined up there?
TK: Yeah, we’re looking at a television series based on Ray Bradbury’s work, his short stories. We signed a deal with him. There’s actually a couple projects, I can’t say which ones exactly. But I’ve been over to his house many times. He’s become a mentor to me, which is a thrill, because I used to read his books in the library back in Pennsylvania, when I was growing up. He was one of my inspirations to be a writer. To all of a sudden be out here, and to be able to gain his wisdom, and to be able to work with him, is thrilling.
Written by: Karen Benardello