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n the documentary
Bring on the Night,
singer-songwriter Sting
describes the differ-
ence between rock ‘n’
roll and jazz by noting
that “With rock, you
have to burn from the
first bar.” The same can
be said for successful
feature films, which
must burn from the first minute.
You can make your scripts burn
from the beginning by following
the same 10-minute beats master
screenwriters instinctively use.
We all remember The Sixth
Sense’s dramatic twist ending,
where [spoiler alert!] Malcolm,
played by Bruce Willis, discovers
he has been dead the entire time
he has been counseling the young
Cole. But do you remember how
the movie began? M. Night Shya-
malan hooked us by applying the
same universal minute-by-minute
story beats that all successful mov-
ies use. They are:
MINUTE 1: ATTENSION
MINUTE 2: THE BUILD
MINUTE 3: THE RATCHET
MINUTE 4: ANOTHER NOTCH
MINUTE 5: THE JAW DROPPER
MINUTE 6: FRIEND OR FIST
MINUTE 7: FRIEND OR FIST 2
MINUTE 8: SOMETHING STARTLING HAPPENS
MINUTE 9: THE PURSUIT
MINUTE 10: THE DISCUSSION
MINUTE 1: ATTENSION º During Minute
1 of The Sixth Sense, Malcolm’s
wife Anna goes to the basement
to retrieve a bottle of wine. Once
there, she feels a disturbing chill.
Frightened, she hurries back up
the steps. Whether it’s a thriller,
action, drama, comedy, horror,
sci-fi, rom-com or western, all suc-
cessful movies begin with tension.
The best screenwriters choose one
of five ways to hook the audience
with tension: Danger, anxiety,
hostility, unease or sex. Shyamalan
chose unease—with a hint of
danger—to start his film.
MINU!E Z: !HE BUI|0 º Audience an-
ticipation is created by building
upon the tension that’s already
1
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10 BEATS TO A
BETTER
BEGINNING
TAKE A PAGE FROM THE BOOK OF MASTER SCREENWRITERS TO CREATE
A COMPELLING OPENING SCENE
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there. Top screenwriters know that
opening a story with tension will
grab the audience, but if they don’t
escalate that tension, viewers will
lose interest fast.
A good way to escalate tension
in your script is to use the phrase,
“Not only does...” Not only does a
chill frighten Anna (Minute 1), but
now sexual tension builds between
her and Malcolm (Minute 2). Not
only does Indiana Jones find an an-
cient statue (Minute 1) in Raiders of
the Lost Ark, but now he discovers a
deadly arrow (Minute 2).
MINU!E J: !HE RA!0HE! º When I was a
teenager, my dad taught me how
to use a ratchet wrench, which 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 ten-
sion escalate in my wrist. Screen-
writers use this same 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
is there sexual tension between
Anna and Malcolm, but now their
flirting increases.
MINU!E 1: AN0!HER N0!0H º A phrase
to help you ratchet the tension
another notch in Minute 4 is: “If
you thought that was bad...” If you
thought the arrow was bad, now
Indiana Jones’ ally pulls a gun on
him. Or, in Jaws, if you thought that
was bad, now the shark attacks the
girl.
MINU!E 5: !HE IAd-0R0PPER º You’ve
ratcheted the tension for the
first four minutes, but now you
need a twist to keep the audience
off-guard. The masters make the
audience’s jaw drop in Minute 5 by
showing the characters something
extraordinary or astonishing. For
example, in The Sixth Sense, Mal-
colm and Anna find a half-naked
stranger in their bathroom. In Jaws,
the shark yanks the naked girl un-
derneath the water, killing her. In
The Godfather, Bonasera asks Don
Corleone to murder the men who
beat up his daughter—a jaw-drop-
ping request to make of someone.
MINU!E ê: |RIEN0 0R |IS! º These next
two minutes establish the hero’s
relationship with his or her ally.
This is a crucial step, because the
ally will play a big part in the hero’s
life in the near future. We need to
get to know both of them better
so that we care what happens to
them later on. The best way to do
this is to show them either bond-
ing (Friend) or bickering (Fist). In
Spider-Man, Harry encourages Peter
to talk to Mary Jane (Friend). In
Jaws, Chief Brody and his wife joke
around (Friend). In Star Wars: A
New Hope, R2-D2 and C-3P0 bicker
(Friend and Fist).
MINU!E !: |RIEN0 0R |IS! Z º The hero
and ally bond or fight even more
here. In Top Gun, Maverick and
Goose argue about whether they
should land the jet (Fist). In Forrest
Gump, Momma scolds Forrest (Fist).
In Spider-Man, Mary Jane says “yes”
when Peter asks if he may take her
picture (Friend).
MINUTE 8: SOMETHING STARTLING HAPPENS
º Minute 8 startles somebody (usu-
ally the hero) in the movie, which
in turn startles the audience. The
audience needs a jolt here to keep
them interested until the inciting
incident occurs between pages 10
and 12. In Raiders of The Lost Ark,
the crumbling temple startles In-
diana Jones. In The Sixth Sense, the
half-naked man startles Malcolm
by shooting him. In Spider-Man, the
spider startles Peter when it bites
him.
MINU!E 9: !HE PURSUI! º During this
minute, the hero discovers some-
thing extraordinary or astonishing
that must be pursued. Whatever
extraordinary information the hero
learns here, it prods him into ac-
tion, which piques the audience’s
curiosity as to what’s going to
happen next. In Jaws, Chief Brody
discovers that the washed-ashore
girl was killed by a shark, which he
then must hunt down. In The Sixth
Sense, Malcolm discovers that his
new patient has the same disorder
as the man who shot him, and he
must find out why.
MINU!E J0: !HE 0IS0USSI0N º During this
minute, someone important to the
hero wants to discuss something
significant, and their discussion
draws in the audience. When some-
one important to us—a lover, boss,
parent, sibling, enemy or friend—
approaches us with a serious face
and says, “I have something to
discuss with you,” it seizes our
interest.
In Raiders of The Lost Ark, Indy’s
arch enemy Belloq wants to talk to
Indy about the golden idol he has
just retrieved. In The Sixth Sense,
Malcolm wants to discuss Cole’s
condition with him.
Follow these same minute-by-
minute beats used by the masters,
and soon your scripts will burn
from the first bar, too. MM
Todd Klick is author of Something
Startling Happens: The 120 Story
Beats Every Writer Needs To Know,
which was released by Michael Wiese
Productions on October 1, 2011.
“CHOOSE ONE OF FIVE WAYS TO HOOK THE
AUDIENCE WITH TENSION: DANGER, ANXIETY,
HOSTILITY, UNEASE OR SEX.”

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