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An essay on Horror writing and why Jaws is not the same movie as Alien. . .

In 2005, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter named Blake Snyder published a book entitled Save the Cat: The Only Book on Screenwriting, You'll ever Need In the book, he identified ten genres of movies. (These are not what most people think of when they they think of movie genres. We'll discuss (one of) them more fully in a minute) More importantly, he introduced a Beat Sheet, essentially a template for plotting movies which can also be used for plotting novels. You can find a copy of it here:http://www.savethecat.com/tools/the-blake-snyder-beat-sheet-the-bs2  . My understanding is that this has become something of a Bible for screenwriting. Snyder also related a story about how someone once told him that Jaws and Alien were really the same movie. Sadly, he died in 2009, but his students continue to discuss his work at his web site.

One of the genres he identified was called "Monster in the House" (MITH). It covers most of what are commonly called, "Horror Movies". The genre has three main components: (1) A monster. This can be a ghost, a serial killer, a shark, a creature from another planet, or whatever scares you. (2) A House. It doesn't have to be a literal house. It can be a hotel, a spaceship, or water. It could even be "dreams" (e.g. Nightmare on Elm Street) The point is that the protagonists and the monster have to be enclosed together somehow. (3) This is where it gets interesting. These films usually have a "sin" for which the characters are being punished. The sin can be something really lurid like going skinny-dipping or it can be something more academic like putting corporate profits ahead of people's safety.

Anyway, I thought that I would take it upon myself to look at the MITH genre more closely and specifically how the Beat Sheet applies to it. When I tried to do this, I came to some interesting conclusions. Among other things, I humbly decided that Jaws and Alien are not the same movie. Yes, they are both MITH movies with a similar sin, but. . .Well, if you really want to know, keep reading. I'll explain that and many other things in due time.

Two Kinds of First Acts

The first act of a movie consists of an opening image, a period of setup--also called exposition, a catalyst--also called an inciting incident, a period of debate where characters try to decide what they are going to do about the catalyst, and finally ends with a break into two where characters are forced to stop living their lives as usual.

The first act of a MITH movie is essentially the story of how the protagonists ended up in the same house as a monster. When I examined some MITH movies carefully, I realized that there were two possible ways that this could happen. The movie could open with the monster in the house waiting for the protagonists and the first act could then be about the protagonists' journey into the house. Alternatively, it could start with the protagonists in a monster free house and the first act could be about how the monster got in there.

And this is the reason that Jaws and Alien are not the same movie. The former is a monster already in the house movie giving it more in common with Scream or Nightmare on Elm Street. Whereas the latter is a Monster getting into the house movie giving it more in common with Fatal Attraction. Actually, Alien is a little bit trickier. It starts in a monster free house (spaceship). In the first Act, the protagonists journey outside and bring the monster back in. (literally stuck to somebody's face)

By now, you're probably thinking that I'm splitting hairs, but it does make a difference--at least in the first act.

One point is that with a Monster already in the house movie, you can give the film what I have started calling a Barrymore beginning for the opening image. I named it after Drew Barrymore's character in Scream, but anyone who knows Horror knows that it's much older then that. It basically means that for the first scene you have someone other then the protagonist like Drew Barrymore or that female swimmer in Jaws get killed by the monster. It's a crude but effective way to get your audience's attention.

But in a monster getting into the house movie, the Barrymore beginning won't work because the movie starts at a point when the monster is not available to kill yet. Instead, you have to come up with a more subtle way of bringing the audience in. One possibility is to focus on the house. That spaceship in Alien already looks creepy even before the monster gets to it. Similarly, in Fatal Attraction there is something intangibly wrong with Michael Douglas' house even though Glen Close isn't in it.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The movie, Psycho is a Monster already in the House (hotel) movie. As such, it could have easily had the Barrymore begining. Just open with another young girl checking into the Bates motel and getting whacked by Mrs. Bates, but that probably wouldn't have worked as well. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Regardless, the Opening Image needs to be followed by the Setup which generally means showing the protagonists living their monster-free lives. Since MITH movies are supposed to be about a sin, it might help to introduce that theme in the setup by revealing how the characters feel about the sin in question. Is one of the protagonists a virgin while her friends are sleeping around? Here is a good time to reveal it.

Then comes the Catalyst. Ideally, I think a few things should happen here. I would say this is usually the scene where the protagonists learn about the monster's existance. (Or at least get some clue about it). How does that happen? Well, if the movie has a Barrymore begining, the catalyst could be ithe protagonist's finding out about the Barrymore's death. That's the methodology in Jaws Brody finding the female swimmer's body on the beach is the catalyst. If you don't have a Barrymore begining, the catalyst has to happen some other way like getting signals from a planet's surface. On a deeper level, I think the catlayst should be the planting of the Tree of Knowledge. By that, I mean it's when the protagonist is first tempted to sin. For example, if you know there's a shark near the beach, will you be a good person and close the beach or will you put money first and keep the beach open? If you're a married man who has met Glen Close, will you be good and leave her alone or will you have sex with her? If your boss asks you to deposit $400,000 in the bank, will you do the right thing and deposit it or will you try to run off with it?

This brings us to the debate section of the movie where characters have to decide what they will do about the catalyst. In a MITH movie, it's either a question of will the protagonists enter the monster's house or will the protagonists let the monster in their house depending on which of the two "subgenres" one is writing. At least sometimes there should be a sutext of will the protagonists be good and stay safe or will they sin. Obviously, these debates are always resolved the same way. Otherwise, it would be a very short movie.

From Act 1 to Act 2

An event called the Break into two serves to end the first Act. Obviously, in a MITH, the Break into two is where the protagonists first end up in the house with the monster probably through their sin. So what does that mean exactly? Well, when I was considering the various movies in this genre, I decided that one common denominator for all Breaks into Two is contact between the protagonists and the monster. The contact could be sexual (Fatal Attraction) or having the monster attach itself to a protagonist's face (Alien), but contact.

A brief look ahead here. When I was first studying different movies for this essay, I thought that one possibility for the MITH Midpoint (see a little later) would be that the Midpoint occurs when the monster actually kills someone for the first time. The problem is that in a movie with a Barrymore begining, that ship has kind of sailed. Therefor movies with the Barrymore begining often decide to use a second killing from the monster as the Break into Two. In Jaws the death of a kid named Alex serves as the Break into Two. There is a certain amount of contrast between the first and second killings. The Barrymore begining usually involves some lonely soul getting killed in a dark place. But the Break into Two can have the monster killing someone on a crowded day at the beach which removes any doubt that the monster is there.

There are variations on this too. Nightmare on Elm Street has a Barrymore Begining with a girl getting chased by Freddie Krueger and narrowly surviving. Krueger then kills the same girl while her boyfriend watches for the film's Break into Two.

Fun in the Second Act

The first part of the second Act is a long section called the "Fun and Games" or sometimes "F&G" This is the section where the film entertains the audience with the fact that the characters have departed from their normal lives. So what's entertaining about having a monster in the house?

One possibility is to have the monster be more of a nuisance then a real threat, at least to the main characters. Glenn Close harasses Michael Douglas after she has sex with him, but doesn't start threatening to hurt him or his family until later. The Alien is attached to the astronaut's face and is bleeding acid, but nobody's dead yet. I tend to think this works better in films that don't use the Barrymore beginning since, as I already said, once the monster has started killing people, it's past being a nuisance, but, of course, there are exceptions. Freddie Krueger goes after Nancy when she's daydreaming in class causing her to have an embarrassing--but not fatal--moment.

Another possibility for this section is a character that I call the Winkler, after Henry Winkler's character in Scream. The Winkler is a character with some authority who thinks he knows everything. In teen slasher movies, the Winkler is an adult such as a principal, teacher, or parent. Other possible occupations for the Winkler can include cop, detective, or even a "professional monster hunter" of some sort. Characters like this serve a few purposes. One is to provide fun in the F&G section. Their incompetence can be very entertaining. On a deeper level, I think Winklers can make a point about the film's sin theme. The movie seems to be warning us that the authorities cannot protect us from our sins. We have to confront sins for ourselves.

A Plots and B Plots

An A plot is the main storyline of a movie. Most films and novels also have a B plot. (And incidentally, some have C, D, or even E plots) Snyder argued for introducing the B plot in the Second Act during the F&G section, although there are quite a few exceptions to this rule. The B plot is also supposed to touch on the film's theme. In a MITH film, that translates to being about how the protagonists deal with the sin and the guilt that they feel over it. Is this a movie about sex? Then the B plot can be the developing relationship between the virgin and her first boyfriend. Is it about adultery? Then the B plot can be rediscovering one's relationship with one's spouse.

I suppose the main reason for keeping introducing the B plot in the F&G section is that it keeps the movie serious. The A plot may be at an entertaining point, but the B plot reminds us that there is more going on.

The Second Half of the Second Act

The second Act of a screenplay is divided into two halves. (It's almost tempting to think of the Beat sheet as having four acts rather then three, but that's an argument for another day) The first half is the F&G. The second is more complex. It starts with a Midpoint, continues with a section called Bad Guys Close in culminates with something called The All is Lost Moment, moves into a section called Dark Night of the Soul.

The Midpoint is roughly the middle of the film. Snyder suggests that there should be a "false victory" or alternatively a "false defeat". The point is that here is where the F&G ends and things start getting more serious. So what are the possibilities for the Midpoint in a MITH movie? I already mentioned that in some cases the first death can be a Midpoint. That's the deal in Alien where the infamous chest-bursting scene is the Midpoint. Also, in Fatal Attraction the Midpoint is the death of a rabbit. The problem here is, as I have stated, some horror fans might not have the patience for a movie where it takes that long to get a killing.

Another possibility is to Kill the Winkler, which sounds like something dirty when I say it, but all I mean is that in Scream, Henry Winkler's character gets killed for the Midpoint and it serves the purpose well because it gets rid of the fun character and also hammers home the point that authorities are not that helpful against monsters.

Jaws contains a Midpoint which is a good example of a "False Victory". Someone, a sort of less obvious Winkler, catches a smaller less dangerous shark. This illustrates an obvious false victory. Kill the monster's baby or little brother or something like that.

The immediate follow-up to the Midpoint is called "Bad Guys Close In" and it represents a section where things get considerably more serious for the protagonists. This happens because of both the "A" plot(the fact that there's a monster in the house) and the "B" plot (the guilt over the sin.) And that's another issue. After the midpoint, the A plot and the B plot are usually not as separate as they were before the Midpoint. So what exactly happens in this section? Well, in both Alien and Scream, this is where they decided to put the killing spree, where the monster starts killing people off one by one. If the Midpoint involved killing a baby monster, then a possibility for this section is go the way of Jaws and gradually have the protagonists learn (by cutting the baby shark open in this case) that the real monster is still alive in the house. And that makes a final point. Often the "Bad Guys Close In" section involves learning more about the monster and how it ties to the sin. This is also true in Nightmare on Elm Street where Nancy learns that the killer's name is Fred Kruger and begins to get some idea of who he is.

The "All is Lost Moment" is the culmination of the "Bad Guys Close In". If the "Bad Guys Close In" was a killing spree, then this is the moment when all but a few of the protagonists are left alive. Of course, it's also the point at which the characters learn the whole truth about the monster. Nancy learns that Fred Kruger was savagely murdered by her own parents and that they kept it a secret from her all these years. And if the revelation is not about the monster, then it can be about the sin. The surviving crew of Alien learn that one of them has been an android controlled by the corporation all this time. It can also be the moment when the monster gets truly personal for the protagonist. For example, in Jaws, the shark endangers Roy Sheider's own son. The point is that this is it. There is no escaping the sins you've committed.

After that the rest of the second Act is called, "The Dark Night of the Soul". This is the main character receiving the punishment for the sin and and ultimately owning it. Save the Cat makes the point that the end of the second Act is usally when the "B" plot is resolved. In MITH, this means that the protagonists finally stop feeling guilty about their sins and make a decision to go up against the monster.

The Third Act

The Third Act is the one which Blake Snyder had the least to say about. Basically, it's the "Final Exam" of the story. The "B" plot has been resolved so presumably the characters have learned the theme and are now ready to quickly tidy up the loose ends of the "A" plot. Of course, it's never quite that simple. There always has to be one or two last things that go wrong before the protagonist can live happily ever after.

In a MITH, the third Act is, like I said before, the end of the guilt for the sin when all that remains is to get the monsteer out of the house. But monsters never die that easily. They always end up in the shuttle with you or barely still alive in the bathtub. Still, when the monster is finally killed it's the ultimate exoneration. The protagonists have successfully won out over the dark side.

The very last beat in a movie is the Final Image. There is a theory that the Final Image should contrast with the Opening Image in some way, but this might not always be obvious. I can think of two basic choices for the Final Image in a MITH movie. The first is the truly happy ending which shows the protagonists free of the monster in the house. Either they're leaving the house or their enjoying the fact that the monster is no longer in the house. In the latter case, maybe there should be some effort to make the house look no longer scary.

The other somewhat scarier ending is the implication that the monster might still be out there somewhere. Endings like this are creepier, and perhaps more cynically, they set up sequals, but there is a more aesthetic point to them. Namely, they serve as last minute warnings that what happened to the protagonists could happen to us again if we fall away from the straight and narrow path.

A Very Brief Conclusion

So that is the basic method for writing a Monster in the House movie. Of course, it can also be used to write a novel. I said before that what Snyder calls Monster in the House includes most stories which we would designate as Horror, but there are some exceptions. It has been implied that movies like Dracula and The Wolfman are not MITH movies, but belong to another genre which Snyder designates as Superhero. But that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps, I will write an essay on it sometime.

Or Perhaps not.

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