Monday, August 31, 2009

Chameleon or True Blue?

This post isn't really about story structure. It does have something to do with character (in that "there are two types of people in the world" kind of way). But it's not officially fall, yet, right? That would be the day after Labor Day. So technically this is the last week of summer and no one is going to be reading anyway, and I can actually just ramble.

I find myself now, for various reasons, in a sort of therapy (is that vague enough? Because I can easily be more vague…) which requires that I regularly talk about my thoughts and feelings, and things like How I Am.

Some of you who have met me in person have noticed and called me on the fact that I rarely talk much about myself – I’m very good at turning the conversation to YOU so that I don’t have to disclose anything. (Or maybe more because I have no idea How I Am. Remember, I started blogging about story structure primarily so I wouldn’t have to talk about myself anymore… and anyway if I’m at a conference the answer is always the same - I’m deliriously happy. Who wouldn’t be?)

To a certain extent all writers are good at this, turning the conversation onto someone else, because hey, it’s character research. Maybe in fact all good writers are good at it, and only the annoying ones that you would never read anyway talk about themselves all the time (and I know you all know who I mean).

But in this therapy I am very good at talking about myself. I disclose all kinds of things. I even cry. Because I am nothing if not a good student, expert at discerning what a teacher (or director or choreographer) wants from me.

When I was doing improv I had directors who called personal disclosures like the ones I am now engaged in “California Scenes”. It wasn’t a compliment. A California scene is when you just dump every sordid detail of your character’s life onto your scene partner – and never actually tell the real truth.

The thing is, what truth? What real?

What I mean is, how do I know what’s me when I just spent four hours in what was basically a dissociative state as a sixteen-year old girl tracking a potential mass murderer through the back tunnels of a shopping mall? I can tell you her feelings, but those aren’t really my feelings. Except that for the last four hours, they were.

When you spend most of your waking day being someone else, and most of the rest of it dreaming, who are you really?

This is I think why, for so long, actors were shunned by society and not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground. (That I suppose and all that unhallowed sex). Because they’re not really real. You never know who they are. But then what about us writers who play EVERY part, constantly, plus sometimes an omniscient narrator on top of that? How much less real does that make us?

When I and my siblings were in high school, my brother once brought home a Cosmo magazine with one of those great Cosmo quizzes (you know you all love them): Are you a Chameleon or a True Blue? And said to my sister and me: “Right there is the problem. I’m a True Blue and you two are Chameleons.” And okay, yeah, we didn’t even have to take the quiz to know that he was right. But we did take the quiz, and he was right.

Day to day I’m actually quite fine with my Chameleon nature, because it IS who I am. But I’m less comfortable with it in therapy; it makes me feel like I’m lying. Maybe because in the group I seem to be surrounded by True Blues. But maybe those people have a very strong sense of who I am, and I’m the one who doesn’t.

Now, we all write ourselves as characters, to a certain extent or another. I certainly am not as much any character I’ve written as Cornelia is Madeleine Dare, not even in the same universe, but I can point to certain characters in certain books and say definitively that they’re more me than others. I’ve noticed our readers play that game, too (just the other day someone here commented that she sees Tess when she reads Maura Isles, and really, who doesn’t?). Only at least with me, they’re mostly wrong. People think I’m Laurel MacDonald because there are places in THE UNSEEN where she says things in my voice, and I used a lot of my California-to-North Carolina experience in the book. But she’s a lot prettier than I am and also worlds less sure of herself… she’s softer, so much so that I don’t much relate to her. I’ve also had people say to me, “Do you know someone like Robin (in THE HARROWING)? Because she seems so real but you’re not at all like her.” But actually I am very much like her, but that’s just one half of me, and the other half, that masks her, is another character in the book.

I am very grateful for the conference circuit, which for me provides a very grounding, real-life balance to the all that writing and dissociation I do. I can find myself again in large groups of people (well, especially if there’s dancing), and when I am forced to talk about myself (on panels, etc.), I remember who I am, apart from the random dreamlike state that writing is.

But I guess this is what is puzzling me. Are ALL writers Chameleons, or are some of us True Blues who easily snap back into our “real” selves once we turn off the computer for the day? Are some people with “real” jobs as much Chameleons as actors or writers, playing a completely different part or parts during the day, at work, which parts are as much a dissociative state as writing?

What do you think? Are you a Chameleon or a True Blue?

And for bonus points, writers: which characters that you’ve written are most like you? Readers, which characters do YOU think are most like the authors who write them? And most importantly, why do you think actors were not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground?

- Alex


Alex will be in New Orleans this Labor Day weekend for Heather Graham’s unmissable Writers for New Orleans Conference, teaching Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, paneling, and (thank God) being herself by playing a pirate wench and riverboat prostitute with Heather’s Slush Pile Players.

Pitch sessions available with editors and publishers Leslie Wainger, Adam Wilson, Eric Raab, Ali deGray, Kate Duffy and Helen Rosburg, and you still have time to sign up for the best party of the year.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reading and signing in Durham today

I'll be signing THE UNSEEN and talking about the history of the Duke parapsychology lab (that inspired the book) today in Durham, NC:

Saturday, August 29, 2-4 pm
Barnes & Noble, New Hope Commons
5400 New Hope Commons
Durham, NC 27707
(919) 419-8290

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Big Twist

The Big Twist is a highly prized commodity in Hollywood; done well it's as close to a guaranteed script sale as you can get, and over and over has meant gonzo box office even in movies that would have been a hard sell otherwise (think THE CRYING GAME).

Book editors swear that a good ending is a good ending, twist or not, and I believe them, but I also believe a good twist can't hurt, so that's what we're going to be talking about today.

If you're interested in learning about twists work, I of course advocate the same method of study I have been preaching... I mean suggesting... all along.

Make a list.

What are ten twist endings that surprised and delighted you, or even sent you right back into the theater or to the first page of the book to see the movie or read the story again?

In this post, I'll lay out twists that I've particularly liked and why they worked for me, and I'm going to put my list up front because there are SPOILERS galore, and it you haven’t read or seen some of these and would like to, unspoiled, you may want to proceed cautiously.

Presumed Innocent
The Others
Oedipus (but honestly, if you don’t know that one…)
The Sixth Sense
The Crying Game
A Kiss Before Dying
Fight Club
The Eyes of Laura Mars
Don’t Look Now
In Bruges
Boxing Helena
Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos)
Falling Angel
Angel Heart
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
No Way Out
Eastern Promises

It should come as a surprise to no one that my list is all thrillers, supernatural and otherwise. Hey, it's MY list!

But surely there are great twists in comedies and romances - I just couldn't seem to think of any except RUTHLESS PEOPLE. Maybe I need to see something light once in a while.

So I'd be very grateful for some suggestions of great twists in OTHER genres, and I would be happy to talk about that in another post.

Of course, as mystery and thriller authors, designing story twists is a regular part of our job. After all, we don’t want our readers to guess the identity of our killers before our detectives do! We employ classic story tricks… I mean, literary devices… like red herrings, misdirection, false leads, false alibis, plants and payoffs, irony and unreliable narrators, to keep our readers (or viewers) guessing.

If you’re interested in building your skill at twisting a story, make your list and start analyzing how the author, screenwriter, or playwright is manipulating you to give that twist its power, so that you can do the same for your readers and viewers.

It's helpful to realize that these techniques have been around since the beginning of drama, or I’m sure really since the cave-dweller storytellers (“The mastodon did it!”). Knowing the names of techniques is always of use to me, anyway!

And I’d also like to note up front that big twists almost always occur at the act climaxes of a story, because a reveal this big will naturally spin the story in a whole other direction. (If you need more explanation about Act Climaxes and Turning Points, read here.)

Let’s break down some different kinds of twists.


The Greeks called twists and reveals Anagnorisis, which means “discovery”: the protagonist's sudden recognition of their own or another character's true identity or nature, or realization of the true nature of a situation.

This is always a great thing if you can pull it off about the protagonist, because we kind of expect to find out unexpected things about other people, or have surprises come up in a situation, but to find out something you never suspected about yourself is generally a life-altering shock.

So here’s a big twist that has worked over and over again:


- We find probably the most famous twist endings of world literature in Sophocles’ OEDIPUS THE KING (429 BCE) in which Oedipus, the king of Thebes, is trying to discover the cause of a devastating plague in the city, only to find that he himself is the culprit, cursed by the gods for killing his father and marrying his own mother.

- I’ve talked at length about the influence of Oedipus on the Polanski/Towne classic film CHINATOWN (discussion here).

- But the noir mystery FALLING ANGEL, by William Hjortsberg, and Alan Parker’s movie adaptation of that book, ANGEL HEART, steals its twists from Oedipus as well: PI Harry Angel is hired by Louis Cyphre to find Johnny Favorite, who owes Cyphre (his soul, turns out!). Angel finds out he himself is the man he’s looking for, Johnny Favorite, and also that he’s slept with and killed his own daughter.

- PRESUMED INNOCENT (book and film) is another take on the Oedipal detective story, in which main character and detective (by dint of being a ADA) Rusty Savage is guilty, not of the murder of his mistress, but of infidelity, so he protects his wife, the real killer, from detection.

PRESUMED INNOCENT also employs a great bit of misdirection, in that the victim was sadomasochistically bound and apparently sexually tortured and raped – there was semen found inside her. So even though the cheated wife would ordinarily be the prime suspect, we and all authorities rule her out.


Another literary device that makes for a powerful twist is the unreliable narrator.

- Agatha Christie surprised and therefore irked some critics with this one in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD.

- THE USUAL SUSPECTS has won classic status for its now famous reveal that meek Verbal Kint is the nefarious Keyser Soze he’s been talking to the police about, using random objects in the police station to add details to his fabricated story.

- FIGHT CLUB puts a spin on the unreliable narrator, as antagonist Tyler Durden is revealed to be an alter ego of split-personality narrator Edward Norton (called just “The Narrator”, which is a sly little hint of the device being used.)

- Of course multiple personality disorder can be used as a twist all on its own, most famously employed in PSYCHO, but also in, hmm, let’s see… THE EYES OF LAURA MARS, and dozens of cheesy ripoffs of the concept (fascinated as I am by MPD, this is one device I’m not sure I’d ever want to tackle, myself).

- The 2003 movie IDENTITY takes the MPD twist several steps further: EVERY character in the movie a different aspect of John Cusack’s fractured personality.


- While I’m thinking about it, PSYCHO has another famous twist, which I’m sure at the time of the film’s release was just about as shocking as the reveal of “Mother”: the apparent main character, Janet Leigh, is murdered (spectacularly) at the first act climax.

- This was copied much less effectively but still successfully in the 1987 thriller NO WAY OUT, in which the apparent love interest dies at the first act climax.

- The Brian DePalma film THE UNTOUCHABLES kills off a beloved sidekick (the Charles Martin Smith character) at the Midpoint, and as I recall I didn’t see that one coming at all (until he got into the elevator, that is…)


The big secret reveal, done well, means a pretty guaranteed sale and often gonzo box office. Some famous examples:

- THE SIXTH SENSE. We all know this one: the child psychiatrist who seems to be treating a little boy who claims to see dead people turns out to be – one of the dead people the boy is seeing. This one is especially interesting to note because writer/director M. Night Shyamalan went through several drafts of the script before he realized that the Bruce Willis character should be a ghost. Which goes to prove you don’t have to have a great twist planned from the very beginning of your writing process – you can discover a perfect twist in the writing of the story.

- THE OTHERS takes a page from SIXTH SENSE and triples it: they’re ALL dead. A young mother and her two light-sensitive children think their creepy old house is haunted. A climactic séance reveals that actually the mother has shot herself and the children and THEY’RE the ones haunting the new family in the house.

- THE CRYING GAME’s famous twist reveals gorgeous, sexy Dil, whom we have fallen in love with just as surely as main character Fergus has, is a man. That was a twist that hit squarely below the belt, as writer/director Neil Jordan forced us to question our own sexuality as well as our concepts about gender.

THE CRYING GAME has a couple of earlier twists at the first act climax, too: IRA soldier Fergus becomes more and more sympathetic to his personable hostage Jody, enough so that Fergus lets Jody run free when he takes him out in the forest to execute him. We kind of saw that one coming. But then there’s a horrifying shock when on his run to freedom Jody is suddenly hit and killed by a truck. Devastating, and totally unexpected.

- EASTERN PROMISES. In one of the most emotionally wrenching reveals I’ve seen in a long time, Viggo Mortensen, the on-his-way-up chauffeur for a prominent leader of the Russian mob, turns out to be a Scotland Yard agent so deep undercover that in the end he is able to take over the whole mob operation – but must give up Naomi Watts in the process. A wonderful “love or duty” choice, which you don’t see often, these days. And if that isn’t enough to convince you to see the film, try: Viggo. Naked and tattooed. In a bathhouse. For a five-minute long fight scene. Did I mention he’s naked?

- We see another great reveal about the nature of a protagonist in BLADERUNNER: Harrison Ford, the replicant hunter Deckard, is himself a replicant.


Actually this whole post was inspired by my recent structure breakdown of THE MIST, the film, which takes the idea of its shocker ending from a line in King's original novella, but gives it an ironic twist that is pure horror: After battling these terrifying creatures for the whole length of the movie, our heroes run out of gas and the protagonist uses the last four bullets in their gun to kill all his companions, including his son (with the agreement of the other adults). And as he stumbles out of the car intending to meet his own death by monster, the mist starts to lift and he sees Army vehicles coming to the rescue. People loved it, people hated it, but it was one of the most devastating and shocking endings I've seen it years.


Here are several twists that we’ve all seen often:

- The “S/he’s not really dead” twist - as in BODY HEAT (and overused in ten zillion low- budget horror movies).

- The “It was all a dream” twist: OPEN YOUR EYES, BOXING HELENA (I’m not sure what you’d have to do to make that one play, it’s so universally loathed.)

- The “ally who turns out to be an enemy” twist: as in John Connolly’s EVERY DEAD THING, William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN,

- And the “enemy who turns out to be an ally” twist: Captain Renault in CASABLANCA, Professor Snape in the first Harry Potter (and then reversed again later…)


A twist doesn’t have to be as cataclysmic as a “big secret” reveal. Sometimes a plot element or action is so unexpected or original that it works as a twist.

- I was watching THE BIG HEAT the other night, shamefully had never seen it, and there are several big surprises. I knew that too-good-to-be-true wife was going to die, but I was totally unnerved by villain Lee Marvin throwing a pot of scalding coffee in girlfriend Gloria Grahame’s face. Although you don’t actually see the burning, that brutality must have made people jump our of their seats in 1953. Then (although she’s one of my favorite actresses of all time and totally up to the task) I was equally shocked to see Grahame’s character take over the movie from hero Glenn Ford (kudos to writer Sydney Boehme and director Fritz Lang for that) and shoot another woman (a co-conspirator of Marvin’s) so that key evidence will be revealed, then go after Marvin herself and burn him in exactly the way he burned her (before he shoots and kills her).

What works as a twist there is the sudden primacy of a seemingly minor character – especially a woman who would normally just be there for eye candy. Sad to say, but portraying a female character who is as interesting as women actually are in real life still counts as a standout.

- In the movie SEVEN there’s a great twist in the second act climax when John Doe, the serial killer the two detectives have been pursuing, walks into the police station and turns himself in. You know he’s up to no good, here, because it’s Kevin Spacey, but you have no idea where the story is going to go next.

And of course then you have that ending: that John Doe has always intended himself as one of the seven victims (his sin is “envy”), and the infamous “head in the box” scene, as Doe has a package delivered to Brad Pitt containing the head of his wife so that Pitt will kill Doe in anger.

Hmm, can’t end this post with that example - too depressing.

- Okay, here’s a favorite of mine, for sheer trippiness: Donald Sutherland being killed by a knife-wielding dwarf in DON’T LOOK NOW – and the delightful homage to the scene in last year’s IN BRUGES.

And the above are not even scratching the surface of great plot twists – I could really write a book.

So, everyone, what are some of your favorite movie and book plot twists? Writers, do you consciously engineer plot twists? And editors (if Neil isn’t in the Hamptons this weekend…), on the level - are you more likely to buy a book that has a big twist?

- Alex

Related posts:

What are Act Breaks, Turning Points, Act Climaxes, Plot Points?

Plants and Payoffs


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors: Table of Contents

For those new to the blog, here's where you can find some of the most important of these articles in a relative order. A lot of the articles link to other articles within them, but this will provide an overall table of contents.

Obviously, you can skip around as much as you like! But for those of you who don't know where to start - it's a map.

If you're tired of clicking around for links, and/or want more than what's on the website, all the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  

Obviously I am going to suggest that to get the most out of these concepts, you'll want to get one or both of the workbooks. I've priced the ebook versions so low so that it's easy for anyone to afford them:   just $3.99 and $2.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:


          SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS (and Screenwriters!)


What you need to know right up front, whether you're writing a novel or a screenplay:

          Introduction: The method behind the madness, here

          What's Your Premise?

          What is High Concept?

          Your First Draft is Always Going to Suck

If you're writing a screenplay, or thinking about it, you'll want to read these screenwriting articles sooner rather than later:

On Screenwriting

          Screenwriting Part One: The Job

          Screenwriting Part Two: The Craft

          Screenwriting Part Three: The Dirty Little Secret

Story structure for both authors AND screenwriters:

          Screenwriting - The Craft

          Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

          Story Elements Checklist

          Why the Three Act Structure?

          What are Act Climaxes, Turning Points, Act Breaks?

          Elements of Act One

Act One Breakdowns:

          Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

          Romancing the Stone

          Chinatown Act I Breakdown

Acts Two and Three

          Elements of Act Two

          Elements of Act Two, Part 2

          Elements of Act Three

          What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling:

          Visual Storytelling Part 1

          Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense:

          Creating Suspense

          Creating Suspense, Part 2

Plants and Payoffs:

          Plants and Payoffs

More structure

          Fairy Tale Structure and the List

          Meta Structure

          What KIND Of Story Is It?

Creating Character:

          The Protagonist

          What Makes a Great Protagonist? Case Study: Jake Gittes

          What Makes a Great Villain?

          Villains: The Forces of Antagonism

          Collecting Character

          Character Introductions

Story Breakdowns

- Act Climaxes Breakdowns:

          What Are Act Breaks, Act Clmaxes, Turning Points, Plot Points? 

          You've Got Mail

          Raiders of the Lost Ark

- Act One Breakdowns: (with more discussion)

          Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

          Romancing the Stone

- Chinatown Full Story Breakdown

          Chinatown Act I Breakdown

          Chinatown - Act II, Part One Breakdown

          Chinatown Second Half Breakdown


          Why do I need an agent, anyway?

          How do I get a literary agent?

          Life is a Pitch Meeting

          The Business of Indie Publishing


If you'd like to to see more of the story elements I discuss on this blog in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one, or much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.

Monday, August 03, 2009

THE MIST - Story Structure Breakdown

People who read my blog and take my workshops often get on my case for using such dark movies as examples, so just out of spite I decided to do a pure horror movie, The Mist. Rubber spiders and all.

I keep saying there is a lot to be learned from movies and books outside your own genre. If you look, you can 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, based on the classic horror novella by Stephen King, and adapted and directed by one of the only writer/directors who has ever been able to do justice to King on screen, Frank Darabont.

The Mist breaks down perfectly into sequences 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



OPENING IMAGE – the paintings protagonist David Drayton is working on for a movie one-sheet. This is a nod to Stephen King; several of the paintings are from his The Dark Tower series (and one is from The Thing) 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 it would have been difficult to make that change to such a well-known and loved story, so I get it.

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.

I have to 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. 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.

1:30 Then in the aftermath of the storm comes a very ordinary scene, the Drayton family, David, Steff, and Billy, checking out the damage. The one ominous moment is the shot of the mist starting to roll down the mountains and over the lake.

4:30 Then we have the great character introduction of the neighbor, Brent Norton, a city lawyer with whom David is barely on speaking terms. Norton 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”.

6 min. So now David, his son Billy, and Norton 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, or in this case, fatal.

It’s only after the men have left Steff 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 mentions the mysterious “Arrowhead Project” at the base (SET UP).
* 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” – it was an unusual storm.
* 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 that a bus is waiting to take them back to the base immediately.

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 most of the players: the feisty schoolteacher, Mrs. Reppler; good guy grocery clerk Ollie Weeks; the prim store manager, Bud; lovely checkout girl Sally, the young soldier who likes her, Private Jessup; and the human ANTAGONIST, religious nut Mrs. Carmody.
11:30 Then while David and Billy are shopping, sirens wail and a convoy of emergency vehicles rush by on the road outside.

12 min. 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 I discuss in Chapter 28), 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. 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.

(Sequence Two takes place in real time, which gives it a great immediacy and even more terror. The whole movie is a good example of unity of place, time and action.)

17:40 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, attractive Amanda Dumfries; Sally the checkout girl, and another sympathetic older woman, Hattie. (This is the beginning of GATHERING THE TEAM; these are the good guys that we will be rooting for throughout.).

19:30 The women stay with Billy while David goes back into the loading dock to get blankets for Billy. 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 (Well, okay, it was all there in the novella). David hears some huge thing outside battering against the metal door, then pressing it inward. He runs back out into the store to get help and two mechanics, local yahoos, Myron and Jim; good guy clerk Ollie Weeks (a brilliant bit of casting there of the fantastic 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. This is 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, and gives us HOPE that these enterprising good guys will triumph. Hope for survival and triumph is an essential throughline of horror; the horror will never be as effective if the reader or audience is not strongly invested in at least some of the characters’ survival.).

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?” (One of the more effective techniques of horror is: “Keep the monster behind the door. Let the audience or reader imagine what’s attached to those tentacles.)

28 min. So the bag boy is killed, Ollie and David get the loading dock gate shut and the tentacles withdraw. 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. (Good realistic reaction to a profoundly unreal situation).

31 min. 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.

And the sequence, and Act One, end as David and Ollie go back into the market to face the others (location change to end the act).



32 min. Inside the market, David quickly changes his bloody shirt so Billy doesn’t see the blood. Jim and Myron and Ollie are already breaking into the beer.

Here 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, and asking a question creates speculation in a reader’s or audience’s mind. (FEAR).

Ollie thinks they should start to inform people by telling Brent Norton what they’ve seen, because he’s a prestigious lawyer (therefore good to have on their side for persuasive purposes). David approaches Norton and we see the conversation from a distance (so we don’t have to hear the story multiple times). It’s obviously not going well. David brings Norton back to hear the other men corroborate the facts, but Norton simply refuses to believe them. He is certain the locals are trying to play a prank on him, to make him look stupid, and as payback for his lawsuit against David. There is a subtext of the racism Norton has experienced from the locals underneath this whole exchange that is very uncomfortable but makes the scene believable. Norton flat-out refuses to go back into the loading dock to see the evidence of the tentacle, and when David tries to physically pull him toward the door, Norton accuses David of assaulting him and threatens him with prosecution, making his case to the manager, Bud. Bud accuses Ollie and the others of drinking, but Ollie tells him to shut up and calls for the others in the store to gather around and listen.

David tells the gathered people, “There are things in the mist just like Dan Miller said”, and describes Norm being carried off by tentacles. Norton and Bud laugh it off, but Bud goes back to the loading dock with the other men to look. The piece of tentacle is still there, and first flops, then dissolves into acid when prodded by a pole.

Bud comes back into the market and announces, “It appears we may have a problem of some magnitude.”

39 min A shot of the mist outside to indicate some time passage.

Inside the store one group of people is stacking bags of dog food and fertilizer against the plate glass front of the store.

Alone in the dark bathroom, Mrs. Carmody prays: “Let me help. Let me preach Your Word. They can’t all be bad. Some can be saved.” It’s an increasingly psychotic scene in which she is playing both the part of God and herself. Amanda interrupts her as she comes in to use the bathroom. Amanda tries to comfort Mrs. Carmody, telling her, “It’s all right to be scared,” and Mrs. Carmody goes off on her: “The day I need a friend like you I’ll just have myself a little squat and shit one out.” Amanda is shocked, as are we, and we realize how gone Mrs. Carmody is (a NATURE OF OPPONENT scene – the creatures out there may not be the only danger.).

41:30 Back in the store, Norton is talking to a small group of people about “flimsy evidence”. David argues that this is not a court case and that Norton is making things worse. Mrs. Carmody tells Norton there is no defense against the will of God. We see that the trapped people are dividing into three separate groups: the practical ones who are creating the barricade and making weapons to defend themselves (David’s group); the deniers (Norton’s group) and Mrs. Carmody with her religious explanation.

(Norton and Mrs. Carmody are part of the FORCES OF ANTAGONISM).

Mrs. Carmody starts quoting Revelations about the End of Days, insisting, “We must prepare to meet our Maker.” Jim, now very drunk, harasses her. Amanda politely asks her to stop, “You’re scaring the children.” Mrs. Carmody says they should be scared, and starts on a rant about expiation and Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son to God’s will. (THEME of sacrifice to God). Amanda slaps her, and it’s clear Mrs. Carmody will have her revenge one way or another. She threatens that “They’ll come in the night and take someone else.” (Sequence Three Climax).


47 min. Billy approaches the soldiers who are off by themselves talking furtively, and asks them why “their friends”, the military, haven’t come to save them all, yet. The soldiers are evasive. (CLUE). David takes Billy away and tries to comfort him, saying that he will do everything he can to get them home to Mom.

The good guys: David, Amanda, Dan Miller, Ollie, and Bud, gather by themselves to discuss options. Amanda has a handgun in her purse, and Ollie reveals he is a champion target shooter (a characteristic of action and horror movies is this kind of “discovering hidden talents” reveal. The book The Poseidon Adventure is a great one to read for this kind of “unlikely hero” character reveal.). Again, this reveal gives us HOPE for the triumph of the good guys. Of course the FEAR is – what good is a gun against what’s out there?

49: There is a commotion in the front of the store as Norton and his small group of followers announce they are leaving. Norton explains calmly: “It’s clear we’re experiencing some kind of natural disaster, but it’s definitely not supernatural.” He’s going to lead people out to seek help. David asks him to tie a clothesline around his waist when he goes – so they’ll know if the group got at least 300 feet out. Norton is offended and refuses, but an old hippie says he’ll do it. He’s not going with the group, but he is going to make a try for the shotgun that another local man says he has in his car.

Norton and a handful of others walk out of the store and disappear into the mist. Then come a long, highly suspenseful scene as the people in the store play out the rope through their hands in total silence. The rope stops moving… then moves again… then suddenly starts to reel out so fast it burns people’s hands. Mrs. Reppler, thinking quickly in crisis, tosses David a towel to protect his hands. (TEAMWORK). The rope suddenly jerks up, and up – like a kite string as a kite lifts into the air. Then the rope thrashes and jerks, and all tension drops. The people holding on fall to the floor.

They frantically pull the rope back in, to find foot after foot of it soaked in blood. And then people start to scream as they see what’s at the end of it – the legs and bottom torso of the old hippie, who has been torn in half. They cut the rope and slam shut the door, and Mrs. Carmody asks, “Now do you believe?” 54 minutes.

(This is such a powerful scene climax that I am not going to argue if someone wants to say there are actually three sequences, rather than two, in Act Two, Part One: The Splitting Up Into Camps sequence, the Norton Goes Out Into The Mist sequence, and the next: Bugs and Birds sequence.)

Fade out, and dissolve up.

It’s night, now, and Jim and Ollie and Myron are rigging lights up.

Sally the checkout girl is by herself in the locker room and gets a scare when young soldier Jessup comes in looking for her. They talk about their families and then she asks why he never asked her out in high school – she knows he liked her. “I’m stupid, I guess,” he answers, and they kiss.

57 min. Outside in the store, a man is keeping watch at the window barricade, and gets a huge shock when an enormous bug flies up and lands on the glass. It’s hideous, but also fascinating. Everyone gathers to look out in awe at the softly buzzing bugs in the mist outside, which land and crawl on the windows. This is a scene you see often in horror films: there’s almost an awe of the monster. It’s a mesmerizing, hypnotic scene, which is also a trick of horror films: lower the audience’s defenses, make them relax so you can really get in a huge scare.

And true to form, a pterodactyl-like creature suddenly crashes against the window as it swoops in to eat one of the bugs, beginning a ten-minute sequence of non-stop mayhem. More pterodactyls swoop down, crashing through the window. Jim and Myron turn on all the lights they’ve rigged while Ollie shouts at them to douse the lights – the creatures are attracted to the lights. Mrs. Carmody mutters scripture while bugs get in through the broken windows. Amanda kills one of them, but another stings Sally, who has an instant and severe allergic reaction: her throat and face swell up hideously and she chokes to death. A pterodactyl gets in and flies clumsily through the store, knocking cans off shelves as people run from it. One young local man lights a torch mop to try to kill it but trips over the gas can and sets himself on fire instead. Ollie tries to get a clear shot at the creature, and David lights another torch to go after another. He and Amanda work together to light the thing on fire and kill it. (There is a lot of TEAMWORK going on in this action scene – the good guys working together. It makes us love the characters and commit to them more).

Meanwhile a bug lands on Mrs. Carmody and crawls up her chest while she stares at it, paralyzed (creating intense HOPE in the audience that she will be killed) – but she chants, “Thy will be done” and the bug flies away (and we know that will only intensify her mission).

David keeps beating a bird creature long after it has obviously died. The last bird creature goes after Billy, but Ollie shoots it just in time. The burned young man is put out, but continues to scream in agony as the completely traumatized others assess the damage.

A woman says numbly that Mrs. Carmody was right 1:06 MIDPOINT CLIMAX

(This is all a horrific scene to watch, but it was especially so the first time I saw it, with the war in Iraq blazing and the monstrous political situation in our own country, supported by evangelical fervor. In that context this scene was almost unbearable, with the military references and the evangelical ranting of Mrs. Carmody. The burning of the young man is still too much for me to sit through; I always have to be doing something else.)



(The Pharmacy Sequence)

1:06 Cut to outside the store: something we can’t see comes in the mist and drags away the half torso that is still lying on the pavement.

Billy wakes from a nightmare and Amanda comforts him. She and David talk quietly while they both stroke Billy’s hair; Amanda says she always wanted kids. This is one of those HOPE scenes: this is what we want for them, that David and Amanda and Billy will survive this and go on as a family.

Ollie interrupts the scene to tell David the burned man is getting worse. David goes back with Ollie to the office, where the burned man begs them to shoot him, or give him the gun so he can shoot himself. (FORESHADOWING). David asks him to hang on and they’ll figure something out. (Again, this is pretty unbearable. But the storytellers had to create a situation bad enough for the good guys to venture outside).

Outside in the store, Amanda discovers that Hattie has killed herself with pills. (More FORESHADOWING and fear: people are just giving up).

1:09 David gathers Ollie and Bud and Dan and says they must get pain medication and antibiotics for the burned man. Bud says there will be supplies in the pharmacy, just next door. David says they have to think beyond that, too, to getting out of there entirely. Amanda interrupts the scene to tell them about Hattie, and the men carry her body into the loading dock. In the loading dock the scene continues: David says they should hit the pharmacy, get drugs for the burned man, then get in his cruiser and drive as far as they can. Others, especially Amanda, argue vehemently, but David persists – Norton’s group got at least 200 feet and David’s car is closer than that. They have only 10 rounds left in the gun, and they have to get out before Mrs. Carmody takes over completely. She will demand a sacrifice and David is afraid it’s going to be Billy, maybe Amanda. Amanda doesn’t believe it – she insists people are basically good and will see through Mrs. Carmody. But the men all believe that people who are scared enough will do anything. (THEMATIC ARGUMENT).

(I have to say I’m not really sure I buy that this many people letting one crazy woman dominate the situation so completely; this has always been my problem with this story.)

David ends the argument by saying they don’t have to commit now; they’ll go to the pharmacy first and then they can decide.

1:13 Back in the store, David tells Billy he’s going next door. Billy weeps and begs him not to go. David promises he’ll be back. Amanda tells David roughly to get his ass back for his boy: another HOPE moment that they will survive and become a family.

1:15 As the group heads for the door, Mrs. Carmody blocks them and says they can’t leave; they’ll draw the creatures to the others. The burned man’s brother says he’ll go alone if he has to. Mrs. Carmody says that he’ll die out there. She starts on a rant again and Mrs. Reppler throws a can of peas, hitting her in the head and silencing her momentarily. Mrs. Reppler and Jessup join the search party.

1:17 The group moves out the door into the mist, armed with axes, sharpened poles, a can of Raid. It’s almost total invisibility.

They hurry to the pharmacy, where the doors are standing wide open. David and Ollie hop the counter to grab drugs from the office. The other men hear skittering sounds. They all start out, then see cocoons hanging from the ceiling: it’s people wrapped in spiderwebs. One is the MP from the beginning of the movie. As they all start to flee, the MP grabs Jim’s shoulder (HUGE SCARE) and Jim screams. The MP chokes out “It’s all our fault… I’m so sorry” – then baby spiders burst out of his face and abdomen (Stephen King, in his classic book on horror, Danse Macabre, calls this a “grue” scene, a staple of horror, but cautions that suspense and dread are a higher form of horror.). Larger spiders appear to attack as the team starts to run from the store. Ollie shoots one, David axes one, Mrs. Reppler sprays one with Raid and lights it on fire; but the webbing proves acidic – it burns the face of one man and sizzles through the leg of the burned man’s brother. The others try to drag him out but he dies, and they leave him, while Dan spears the last spider in their way. (Each of our core good guys has his or her own battle within this scene, and each one wins. HOPE.).

1:24 Cut to the grocery store where the others are waiting in silence. Big scare as Jim’s screaming face collides with the glass door. The survivors pile into the store and David drops to his knees, clutching Billy in terror as Jim continues to scream, his mind totally gone.


1:25 David wakes to Mrs. Carmody preaching to a much larger congregation, now including Jim. He’s slept through most of the day – passed out from exhaustion and terror (very realistic reaction and time passage). Ollie tells him the burned man died. Mrs. Reppler says she wants to come with them when they leave, but David says the plan’s off. He’s not going to be responsible for any more deaths. Ollie makes him listen to Mrs. Carmody; she’s calling for expiation again, a sacrifice. In two days people have reverted to complete barbarity. It’s too dangerous to say. Ollie says, “Let’s hide groceries and get out in the early morning.” (PLAN).

David says he wants to talk to the soldiers; the MP said that it was “our fault” and David thinks it all has to do with the Arrowhead Project. David looks for Jessup, first, and confronts him: “What do you know about this mist?” Jessup insists he has no idea. They can’t find the soldiers in the store, so they go into the loading dock to look for them. At the front of the store, Jim watches them go in, which we feel can’t be good. (FEAR).

1:29 David and the others find the soldiers have hung themselves in the loading dock. David turns on Jessup and demands to know “What was the Arrowhead Project?” Before Jessup can answer, Jim bursts in on them and drags Jessup out before Mrs. Carmody, saying it was his fault. Mrs. Carmody grabs Jessup by the throat and demands that he tell what he knows. Jessup says that they all heard “stuff” – that the military scientists believed there were other dimensions all around us and they were trying to create a window to look through. The other soldiers who killed themselves thought that the military had ripped through to another dimension. Mrs. Carmody blames Jessup and the crowd surrounds him; holding David and the good guys back. A man stabs Jessup with a butcher knife and Mrs. Carmody shouts: “Feed him to the Beast!”

The crowd lifts him on their shoulders and throws him out the door. As he pleads to be let back in, a giant lobster-like thing comes out of the mist and snatches him away.

Mrs. Carmody says to the stunned crowd, “The Beast will leave us alone tonight. Tomorrow… we’ll just have to see”. She’s clearly implying another sacrifice. FEAR, THEME.


1:35 In a quiet epilogue to the climax, or bridge scene, Billy wakes David as he sleeps and asks him not to let the monsters get him. After the scene we’ve just seen, we don’t know if he’s talking about the monsters inside or the monsters outside. David promises him. (SET UP. This is one of those PROMISE SCENES I talked about: when another character extracts a promise from the hero/ine, you know the final battle, or at least part of it, is going to come down to that.).



1:36 Now Amanda wakes David again and says it’s time. They go over the PLAN once more – they will grab the groceries from checkout stand 2, then get out of the store and run for the car; whoever gets there first opens both doors so everyone can pile in as fast as they can. Our good guys creep to the front of the store to checkout stand 2 – but the groceries are gone. Mrs. Carmody is blocking the door, holding a knife, and there are other men with knives in the aisles. Mrs. Carmody says they can’t leave – it’s not God’s will. As her congregation gathers around, Mrs. Carmody says that the sacrifice must come from them. “Grab the boy! And the whore!”

As the congregation surrounds Billy and Amanda, Ollie shoots Mrs. Carmody dead, then turns the gun on the other knife-carriers, who drop their weapons. The good guys race out the door with Ollie saying he wouldn’t have shot her if there’d been any other way. (BATTLE WITH SECONDARY OPPONENT. Our heroes will have to go through three separate battles in a row in this ending: first with Mrs. Carmody and her congregation, second with the creatures in the parking lot, and the third, in the final scene, in which they have to confront their own fear.).

The good guys run for the car. Ollie gets there first and opens the doors, then is snatched by the lobster creature. He screams as he is cut in half; the gun falls to the hood of the car (the gun is a PLANT). (We may have an uneasy feeling that Ollie was killed because he shot Mrs. Carmody; perhaps Mrs. Carmody was right and God really is taking revenge. THEME.). Now spiders attack and kill two of the other men as David and Amanda and Billy and Dan and Mrs. Reppler scramble into the car. Bud is cut off and runs back for the grocery. In the car, David sees the gun on the hood and reaches out to get it as the others scream; he barely grabs it before a spider attacks. The spider crawls over the roof of the car and disappears.

The survivors sit in the car in silence and shock, then David finally starts the engine and they drive past the grocery store, past the rows of watching people inside, out into the mist.


1:44 As bleak as all this looks, there’s still almost a parody of hope for this motley family: they are a shadow reflection of the typical mother, father, son and grandparents in the family car starting off on vacation. But as grotesque as the parody is, there is still that HOPE that they might be the only survivors on earth, who can start over. (Although the haunting Dead Can Dance music on the soundtrack undercuts that possibility – FORESHADOWING.)

David first drives back to his house, where they find his wife dead, wrapped like Sleeping Beauty in a cocoon of spiderweb. David breaks down and cries. Then they drive on, hoping to get past the mist.

They pass wrecked cars and downed telephone poles, and stop in the middle of a field as a skyscraper-sized creature thuds by above them. They can only stare up in shock (and again, awe) and silence.

Then finally, the gas runs out and the car stops. Billy is sleeping in Amanda’s arms. Dan says, “No one could say we didn’t give it our best shot.” David lifts the gun – and the adults all look at each other in agreement. This is a highly unusual FINAL BATTLE; instead of another horrifying confrontation with monsters, it’s a quiet and even more horrific scene as the good guys decide the only course of action left to them is suicide. There are only four bullets left, and five of them. David says, “I’ll work something out.” We cut to outside the car, where we hear four shots and see four flashes of gunfire, then hear David’s screams.

Cut back to inside the car, as David tries to turn the empty gun on himself. He stumbles out of the car, shouting – “Come on! Come on!” inviting the monsters to get him. He hears rumbling that sounds like a beast, and turns to face it – only to see a tank emerge from the mist… then more tanks, and then convoys of rescued people, including the woman who left the grocery to go back to her kids, who are now with her. (IRONY). The mist lifts as the army moves along, killing creatures with flamethrowers. David drops to his knees, screaming in now total madness.

(RESOLUTION and NEW WAY OF LIFE: Our hero has physically survived the ordeal, but we understand he is a dead man walking).


This TWIST ending was one of the most bleak, shocking and hotly debated in recent film history. People loved it, people hated it. I’ve seen horror aficionados pick it apart in every detail, but personally I think it was a great, King-worthy ending, for sheer emotional impact and ultimate horror. And as Darabont points out – the idea of the four bullets left and David’s line, “I’ll figure something out” are in the novella; King brings up the possibility, but ends his story with the possibility of hope.

It’s an interesting thing that David’s killing of the others, including his son, seems to bring on rescue and the end of the ordeal, almost as Mrs. Carmody has prophesied (a very dark point of view!) Personally I think that thread would have been more effective if the film had kept the sex scene between David and Amanda (from the novella), which gave David something he would have needed to atone for, but a thematic nuance like that is really, really hard to pull off, and might not have worked at all. All in all, I think this is a splendid adaptation of a classic tale that would have been hard to pull off even on a hundred million dollar budget, let alone the shoestring (and impossibly short production schedule) that Darabont had to work with.

(And the twist ending has made me remember that I'm supposed to do a post on twists and reversals, so it's got me thinking about that again. Stay tuned...)


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