Okay, I think I have enough time to write a story structure blog today. Well, actually, that would be because I’m on a plane and there’s not much else to do. But that’s fine.
People have been on my case for using such dark movies as examples, so today, just out of spite, I’m going to go even darker, a pure horror movie, The Mist. Rubber spiders and all.
Come on, now, I have to get in the mood for the Horror Writers Association Stoker Weekend! And besides, as I keep saying, there is a lot to be learned from movies and books outside your own genre. You might find any number of movies in totally different genres from your own that are structurally very similar to your own story, and it’s useful to keep an open mind, look at particular structures, and seize on anything that’s going to help you get your own story written.
And if you’re writing anything takes place in a limited, even one-set location, The Mist is an excellent example of how to do that. It’s as concise and exciting as a good play, and makes terrific dramatic use of its (basically) one set.
It is of course also an excellent example of a horror story.
The Mist breaks down perfectly into sequence and is a great film to watch if you’re having trouble with the concept of sequences. It’s even super easy to name the sequences, to get an even better idea of what unifies a sequence.
And what really, really strikes me about the first act – actually, just even the first sequence – is what a great example of foreshadowing it is. I don’t think you can even call it foreshadowing: it’s just a progressive, relentless series of signs that something is drastically wrong, and it builds that suspense and dread in a beautiful and excruciatingly effective way.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, here. Let me just start this off at the beginning.
Written and directed by Frank Darabont
From the novella by Stephen King
ACT ONE, SEQUENCE ONE
OPENING IMAGE – the paintings David Drayton is working on – for a movie one-sheet. This is a nod to Stephen King – several of the paintings are from The Dark Tower series, and there is something a little otherworldly about the canvases, to set the genre tone. Personally I’m not crazy about those paintings as an opening – I know this is Drayton’s profession in King’s novella, but I don’t really buy actor Thomas Jane as a painter here; he’s got a nice, solid, blue-collar energy, more a local than an out-of-towner. But I realize it would have been difficult to make that change to such a well-known and loved story.
For me the real opening image comes 1 minute 30 seconds into the film: the tree crashing through the plate glass window in the front of the house during the storm. It’s a startling and ominous moment, a nice genre scare, and a great example of a THEMATIC IMAGE: it’s a visual representation of the core premise that some science experiment conducted at the nearby military base has shattered the wall between dimensions and let these creatures from another dimension into our world.
Then in the aftermath of the storm comes a very ordinary scene, the Drayton family checking out the damage. The one ominous moment is the shot of the mist starting to roll down the mountains and over the lake.
Then we have the great character introduction of the neighbor, Brent Norton, with whom David is barely on speaking terms. Brent is an interesting character because he is so ambiguous: he may turn out to be an ally, or a fierce opponent, and that ambivalence is there from the very beginning. And I must admit that there is always something charming to me about the first several words out of a character’s mouth being variations of “motherfucker”.
I have to be honest and say, I didn’t much like the opening when I first saw this movie in the theater and I didn’t like it upon re-viewing. I'm thinking the opening scenes might feel uncomfortable because there was originally a whole other opening in the script, showing the military lab and the actual experiment that caused the rip in reality that brings the mist and all of the creatures into our world. I think Darabont was absolutely right to cut that opening, but it may have left some rough edges in the beginning, which feels sketchy compared to the masterful execution of the rest of the film.
So now David, his son, and Brent head off to town for supplies, leaving the wife behind and thus breaking the cardinal rule of survival in horror stories: never, ever, EVER split up.
However, aside from some mist, there is nothing particularly ominous that has gone on that would make the Draytons think splitting up is bad.
It’s only after the men have left her and they’re on the road into town that we get a series of increasingly ominous signs of how out of whack things are:
- They pass numerous military vehicles on the road, all of which seem to be on a mission.
- David’s cell phone won’t work in town and neither will the pay phone.
- There’s a newspaper headline we see in passing with the headline “Biggest Electrical Storm On Record”
- Inside the grocery store an MP comes for the three young soldiers who were just getting out on leave, and tells them all leaves have been canceled and a bus is waiting to take them back to the base, but won’t tell them why.
These moments all happen one on top of each other in just five to seven minutes, creating a spiraling sense of anxiety and dread, and in between we get quick introductions to all of the players: the feisty schoolteacher, Mrs. Reppler; good guy grocery clerk Ollie Weeks; the prim store manager, Stan; lovely checkout girl Sally, the young soldier who likes her, Private Jessup; and the human antagonist, religious nut Mrs. Carmody.
- Then while David and Billy are shopping, sirens wail and a convoy of emergency vehicles rush by on the road outside.
- And shortly after an alarm that sounds like an air raid siren blasts outside, and a man (Dan Miller) with a bloody nose runs down the middle of the street shouting, “Something in the mist! It took John Lee!” He runs into the store, and as the crowd gathers at the windows to look out, we see the mist rolling through town and overtaking the parking lot. One man panics and runs out to his car, and the mist swallows him, then we hear horrifying screams. And then the mist surrounds the grocery store, obscuring everything, and there is silence…. Then an earthquake hits, sending groceries flying and people falling to the floor, lights swaying and people screaming.
But that’s not even the sequence climax. Just as Spielberg did so effectively in Jaws (as we discussed here), that action climax is followed by an even more powerful emotional one, in which a mother says to the stunned crowed that she has to go back to her two young children and begs someone, anyone, to go with her, and no one will – all the assembled crowd turn their heads away. That’s when we know that everyone in the store knows there is something profoundly unnatural out there.
The woman tells them, “I hope you all rot in hell,” and walks out by herself to be swallowed by the mist.
David takes a weeping Billy back into the back of the store, and the lights fade on Sequence One, a classic curtain. (17 minutes).
Not hard to name this one: The Loading Dock.
Before David actually goes back into the loading dock, there’s a short scene in which some of the women have gathered around David as he tends to Billy: Mrs. Reppler, the elderly teacher, and another teacher, Amanda Dumfries; Sally, and another sympathetic older woman, Hattie. (this is the beginning of GATHERING THE TEAM).
The women stay with Billy while David goes back into the loading dock to see what’s going on with the generator. In a great, low budget move, Darabont takes the action into the dark loading dock, creating a whole spooky new atmosphere and isolated location within the grocery store (okay, King conceived the whole thing, but Darabont knew not to mess with perfection!) David hears some huge thing outside battering against the metal door. He goes back out into the store to get help and two mechanics, local yahoos; good guy clerk Ollie Weeks (a brilliant bit of casting there of Toby Jones) and teenage bag boy Norm follow him back into the room.
The yahoos ignore David’s warnings about something dangerous out there, and raise the door. A huge tentacle slides in and snatches the bag boy. A prolonged and horrific struggle ensues, with David and Ollie trying valiantly but vainly to save the kid while the yahoos freeze in terror. (A TEST, which in a horror movie separates the sheep from the goats. David finds a strong and unlikely ALLY in Ollie in this battle; another GATHERING THE TEAM moment).
This is also a revelation of the NATURE OF THE OPPONENT: there is definitely something otherworldly menacing them, and David’s line really drives it home: “What the hell was even attached to those tentacles?”
So the bag boy is killed, David has a violent reaction and punches out one of the mechanics, accusing them of getting the kid killed, and then collapses to his knees and dry heaves – overcome with adrenaline and terror.
Now they know what they’re up against, and David and Ollie have a quiet scene in which they discuss what they’re going to do next (PLAN). They know they have to tell the others in the grocery store what happened, and they talk about the serious problem of getting the others to actually believe what’s out there. David says, “I saw it and I’m not even sure I believe it.” This is a great example of STATING the problem that the characters are about to encounter so the audience can start to anticipate the reactions – it’s a good technique for keeping the audience engaged in the action. Ollie also states another huge PROBLEM: “How are we going to keep that thing from getting in? The whole front of the store is plate glass.” Again, stating the problem creates dread in the audience/reader. Ask a question like that and the audience engages fully in the action.
So the sequence, and Act Two, end as David and Ollie go back into the market to face the others (location change to end the act).
Sequence Two takes place in real time, which gives it a great immediacy and even more terror. In fact the whole movie is a good example of unity of place, time and action.
(I'll keep going with this movie breakdown, because it just gets better - but possibly not again until next week - see below insane schedule.)
Previous story structure articles, now in order!
I am on tour for my new supernatural thriller, THE UNSEEN.
In the next two weeks you can catch me at:
The Horror Writers Association Stoker Weekend in Burbank, June 11-14: I'm reading, singing, paneling, presenting an award at the banquet AND singing at the Ball - with the Slush Pile Band, the latest incarnation of the Killer Thriller Band crossed with Heather Graham's Slush Pile Players theater troupe.
I will be teaching teaching the Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop this Saturday (and it's open to the public if anyone wants to sign up without attending the Stoker conference).
I will be doing bookstore signings at:
- Dark Delicacies in Burbank, Thursday June 11 at 7 pm
- Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, Tuesday June 16 at 7 pm
- The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, Saturday, June 20 at 11 pm
All interspersed with as many drivebys as I can fit in, in L.A., the Valley, the O.C., San Diego, San Gabriel, and Riverside. Maybe on up to Santa Barbara if I don't drop dead, first.
And I will be guest blogging:
Wednesday June 10 at The Blood Red Pencil
Tuesday, June 16 at The Romance Bandits
Saturday, June 20, at The Lipstick Chronicles, where I have been told I must talk about sex. These constant demands of the author life...