An Interview with Todd Klick about His Book, Something Startling Happens
by William Roby
A few years ago, up-and-coming screenwriter Todd Klick started watching movies. He took his time. Klick would watch a few seconds of a movie at a time and write a little about what was happening every minute. Like humans tend to do, he found a pattern.
Astounded, he started watching every movie he could get his hands on, eventually analyzing more than 300 classic and modern movies for this common structure, these “story beats” he called them. Time and again, he saw the way these common story beats worked together to give the movie that unnameable quality; call it “greatness.”
I sat down with Todd to talk about his book, Something Startling Happens: 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know.
William: First of all, I really liked the book and that surprised the hell out of me. I read a ton of “writer’s improvement” books and—it’s just junk. I wanted you to know, one writer to another, that the material you cover here is really original and smart.
Todd: Well I appreciate that, man. I really appreciate that it’s connecting. I have been getting e-mails from all over the country from writers saying that it’s connecting with them, it’s helping them, they can see the value in the 120 story beats idea. Respect from writers means the most, because I’ve been in that place where, I mean, alone with my laptop working out a story, and any kind of a good guide was always much appreciated.
William: The book we’re talking about is Something Startling Happens: 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know. Klick calls his book a “page-by-page benchmark guide to screen writing.” The book is available now from MWP and can be bought from Amazon.com and Barnes and& Noble.
Actually as of right now, Something Startling Happens is ranked 50th on Amazon in the category of books about television. As we’re taping this interview, you’re one book behind Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader and one ahead of Robert McKee’s book Story.
Todd: Oh yeah. Something Startling Happens had actually zoomed up in the past couple of weeks thanks to these interviews. Last week I got an interview bump, and it was suddenly number six in the television category.
William: Why do you think it is more popular under the TV category rather than movies?
Todd: Sure, the book is about the 120 story beats present in every popular, critical or box-office wise, movie you can name. But even though its about film, a lot of television writers are connecting with it as well. I’m getting e-mails from TV scribes saying how closely my beats apply to their half-hour or forty minute show. Last interview, I broke down Dexter episode by episode to this crazed Dexter fan and that show hits the beats like a well oiled metronome. I looked at my story beats side-by-side with a classic Twilight Zone episode: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street?” and it still hits the same beats, you know, it’s pretty awesome.
William: The writers at OnlyGoodMovies have a running thing about how we’re in the second golden age of television. Shows like Oz, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Walking Dead, Arrested Development–these are all shows are doing something different, they seem to have more to do with classic film than classic TV. What’s been your experience lining up your 120 story beats with TV?
Todd: Well I am starting a lot more. There’s a cursory bit about that in the book, when I was writing the book I’d notice something on TV and think . . . you know, the book is more geared towards screen writers but I started noticing the patterns and in television show and classic stuff as well as modern stuff. Underlying every great narrative are these minute-by-minute beats, especially in TV and cinema. They are cemented into place and good stories, look it doesn’t matter if it’s from the ’40s or ’50s television or film or from today, when you look at them, they all adhere to this rhythm, it’s a kind of universal rhythm that we feel deep inside. And now we’ve been trained as an audience for the last 100 years of film history to get into this rhythm and be comfortable in it. It actually started honing itself in theatre. I used to write for theatre back home in Pennsylvania and with theatre, in a play, the story beats don’t really apply as much, probably because the rhythm varies from night to night, the pacing changes depending on the artist directing that particular production, the beats vary based on what actors are in what parts, and they may move faster or slower, but film used theatre as a stepping stone. What we do in film is we feel ripples of the old way of storytelling through a modern lens. Man, I’m even starting to break down graphic novels too with a great lineup of story beats that jump right out at you. Any visual medium, really. Pull out your copy of the 120 story beats with your favorite graphic novel or video game and see how they line up.
William: For those not in the know, Todd Klick’s 120 story beats are literally minute-by-minute breakdowns of the action in a movie, or, as we’re finding out, in TV, in comic books, and even in video games. For example, you get one of two “surprise reveals” at beat 42, usually (according to Klick’s theory and research) around minute 42. Todd, is your theory similar then to . . . let’s go all the way back to Aristotle here and say that “every moment should do something” or “there should never be a moment that just sits there” doing nothing for the movie?
Todd: Oh exactly. It’s like I wrote in the book, singer/songwriter Sting has this quote, he says “In rock and roll, you gotta burn from the first bar,” and film and TV are just like that, and so is good theater in my opinion. You got to hit the ground running with the moment of tension or crisis right out front and you don’t let up because you only have 90 minutes to maybe two hours to hold someone’s attention with, you know, a lot of stuff going on out there in the movie, distractions, some guy coughing in the back row, and with every one of these 120 beats, every minute has to mean something. It’s got to be kind of like Jenga, you can pull one scene away your whole thing should crumble, it should be that tight.
William: Todd, we talked a little before the interview, you’ve got some big projects you’re working on, including a possible shot at Broadway . . . why write this book now, why are you doing this now?
Todd: Oh well I started to study movies about five years ago, really seriously, because I wanted to do well in screen writing. How’d I do that? I broke down literally over 300 successful movies, movies with critical or popular success, and I used to write paragraphs of the movies, what happened like scene-by-scene, what exactly was happening. Like a person who studies architecture building a bridge that can hold up to a certain amount of weight or an artist building a mock up, I started to notice like within these paragraphs certain lines across the board. As I lined up my various yellow legal pads side-by-side these exact same things were happening dramatically in the story and this was blowing me away. I was looking for the in between stuff, the ways and means, the little benchmarks to get from one plot place to another, but the answer was right there. I was looking at exactly what should happen at every page. The three act structure comes to us from the greats, the greats who came before, who tell you in a detailed way its all about the structure.
William: While we’re on the subject of your beginnings in film studies . . . if you were a young writer maybe just starting out, you’re 18, writing in coffee shops and somebody handed you this book, you know, what do you think your own reaction would be?
Todd: Well my personal reaction? I’ll tell you exactly how it was when I was first starting out. I spent hours back home at Barnes & Noble or Borders or any bookstore looking for any books about screenwriting. Even at that age I was just hungry to learn and learn from masters or from people that studied any form of story, visual or otherwise. So I would like gobble these books and read extensively and underline things and my bookshelf literally is toppling over. I feel like, if you get one great idea from a book I mean you elevated yourself and you are successful and it’s been worth your time. I would have loved to have been handed a book like this. That’s who I wrote it for.
William: Glad you mentioned highlighting—I’ve highlighted here in your book, actually. Early on, Roman numeral XI, you say that “the minute-by-minute beats you are about to read are not taken from the original screenplay, the shooting scripts, they are drawn from far purer material, the final stories you see on the big screen after they go through the studio distilling process.” So my question to you is: how much do you think there is a successful formula that comes directly up from the writer or the creative artist and how much of this 120 story beats idea comes from post-production. In other words, are the movies made this way because it worked for a studio in the past, or?
Todd: Well it’s an intuitive thing but it’s a collaborative effort for sure with filmmakers. Writers will either write very fatty like way more than they need in a story and then what happens is that the director gets involved when they are doing scenes–they realize you know an actor can just say these three lines with a look, you don’t need these three lines and they start fine tuning it, and then the editor comes in and he gives his little input, he starts whittling away and showing it to test audiences before as they are turning it down and the movie just starts chipping away to its best form, its purest form, chipping away until it binds itself to a very specific minute-by-minute rhythm. And I remember I was reading about making the movie Jaws and Steven Spielberg realized after he shot the movie that they . . . I believe he said “We undershot it, we need more scenes in here.” He kind of felt this intuitively from seeing so many great movies, so he added a couple scenes here and there until the movie found this perfect rhythm we all love.
William: Yeah. Jaws—that’s one of those “movies I want to watch when I’m sick.” You know? That’s how I know when a great movie is great . . . when I watch it when I got the flu.
Todd: There’s a reason these movies are comforting. The structure is comforting. And what I am trying to do with the book is to say “Hey guys, here is what the masters are doing, once the whittling process is all done.” The 120 story beats idea gives you like a little step up in your writing, you know, going in now and seeing that on page eight you have to have the “something startling moment,” or that on page five you ought to have “the jaw dropper” or something. All this does is make your script more like the greatest scripts in history, and what’s bad about that? So if you learn those you know “what to do little kicker moments” then at certain points in your writing you’ve got that leg up. I gotta tell you, when I started using these beats in my own scripts that’s when they started to shoot towards the top of screenplay competitions and then I started getting the options on my scripts. I did a couple of projects and a couple of sales in just the last few months here and all I am doing is what I teach in the book, simply following what the masters saying to us through their work, through the frame of their work.
William: A sticking point for some creative artists with your theory is that you focus on what you call “financial and critical successes,” and I guarantee there will be plenty of film students and hipster types lining up to point fingers and say you’re taking some of the art out of the creative writing process.
Todd: Oh I am not. Oh boy it’s quite the opposite because what happens once, you know, the universal underlying minute-by-minute beats appear to you, I mean they are set in stone. Whether you like it or not, and I prove it over and over again in the book. You can do this really quick for yourself if you want—grab a movie you love, go to the 8th minute, and look for Something Startling to Happen. On a certain minute or in a certain page of a script, you can see what the greats did, and now you can use all your creative focus and energy on writing something original on that page, something that hasn’t been done before, something that expresses your own voice. You hit the story beat and it doesn’t matter if you’re writing an avant-garde play or whatever, in minute 71 you’re going to have your “Bad to the Bone” bad guy or secondary bad guy showing aggression. If your script is successful, you will. How your script deals with the bad guy, how the bad guy appears, the story behind the bad guy, what happens to him, and how this is told visually—these are all up to you as the creative artist. But in an original way, you’re stealing from the greats in cinema and theatre, you say “That’s what the greats do, that’s what the greats do,” and now we can do it. You can do it. You can take a really good shot at it.
William: When you’re writing along with these story beats, does it ever feel formulaic?
Todd: Well I have dealt with it on my own. I mean I am the toughest critic out here on my own scripts and I don’t want anything to feel like a formula but I realize formula films are the ones . . . they have a bad reputation. The formulaic films that suck to me are the ones that aren’t doing something original every minute. They are doing something that we’ve seen before that’s safe. I mean it’s just universal beginning all the way back with Aristotle who figured this out 2000 years ago, that action is the stepping stone to story, and whether we want to deny it or not, its set in stone. You’re going to end up writing like this if you want to sell a story, whether you know it or not.
William: Is there something you are working on now, your next project you want to talk about or something exciting I can pump up for you?
Todd: I don’t want to talk too much about this, but I’m talking about working on a musical headed for Broadway . . . and yeah I am working on three more feature films and I wrote a script that’s gotten me a lot of attention, I’m at the studios going into the meetings with the suits, so I got those three things going. And then I am also launching my website WriterWrench.com.
William: What’s that?
Todd: A few industry friends and I have been swapping these “what are the best story fix-it” links that we have found for any kind of barrier that you hit when you are writing your screenplay. And so we’ve been sharing those among ourselves for years, so what I did was I put them all on one site. So say you are struggling with the midpoint where you are not really sure what’s supposed to go on there . . . you can go to WriterWrench.com and it’s all free, you can get the best story advice, best articles written about the midpoint or the inciting incident or themes or whatever else you’re worried about as a dramatic writer. The whole point of this book and the website is to help writers who were struggling like I was only a few years ago.
Todd Klick is a writer and producer. He lives in Los Angeles.
William Roby is a freelance writer and poet. He lives in Texas.