When The Writers Store asked me to write a "missing chapter" for my book, I immediately knew what I wanted to cover! You see, in Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs To Know, I focus on the minute-by-minute beats that all successful movies utilize. The examples we couldn't fit into the book, however, was how the minute-by-minute beats work equally as well for successful TV shows, too! It’s a universal story rhythm that unites all great stories, whether they’re on the big screen or small.
To prove my point, I busted out my faithful stopwatch and broke down two random and wildly different TV shows: Dexter (an hour-long modern day drama) and an old Twilight Zone classic from the ‘50s, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (a half-hour anthology series). Both episodes hit the minute-by-minute beats in succession like a well-oiled metronome, as do all classic stories. You’ll also notice that when Twilight Zone ends at Minute 23, Dexter keeps hitting the set-in-stone beats from Minute 24 onward:
MINUTE 1: ATTENSION!
Tension grabs our attention from the get-go:DEXTER: Dexter says, “Tonight’s the night” (he’s going to murder someone).
TWILIGHT ZONE: The neighbors on Maple Street hear a weird noise and see a strange light.
MINUTE 2: THE BUILD
The tension builds:DEXTER: Dexter wraps a cord around a victim’s neck.
TWILIGHT ZONE: The neighborhood’s electricity and phones cease working
MINUTE 3: THE RATCHET
The tension ratchets up a notch:
DEXTER: Dexter takes his victim into the woods.
TWILIGHT ZONE: Worried neighbors gather.
MINUTE 4: ANOTHER NOTCH
And yet another notch:
DEXTER: Dexter shows the victim (a serial killer) that he’s found the people he’s murdered.
TWILIGHT ZONE: In addition to the electricity not working, Steve’s car won’t start.
MINUTE 5: JAW DROPPER
DEXTER: Dexter admits he’s a serial killer, too, but he has standards (a jaw-dropping statement).
TWILIGHT ZONE: Tommy, a neighbor boy, suggests that aliens from outer space don’t want them to leave (a jaw-dropping comment).
MINUTE 6: FRIEND OR FIST
DEXTER: Dexter uses his forensic tools to torture the killer—his ally in killing people (Friend and Fist).
TWILIGHT ZONE: Steve listens to Tommy’s ideas about aliens (Friend).
MINUTE 7: FRIEND OR FIST 2
DEXTER: Young Dexter and his foster father have a tense conversation on a boat (Friend and Fist).
TWILIGHT ZONE: Steve listens to other neighbor’s thoughts on what’s going on (Friend).
MINUTE 8: SOMETHING STARTLING HAPPENS
DEXTER: Dexter pulls out blood samples from his secret stash hidden in his air conditioner!
TWILIGHT ZONE: Les’s car starts on its own, as if by magic (and startles everyone)!
MINUTE 9: THE PURSUIT
DEXTER: Dexter pursues a crime scene, upon his foster sister’s request.
TWILIGHT ZONE: Neighbors pursue “oddball” Les to see why he didn’t come outside when they did.
MINUTE 10: THE DISCUSSION
DEXTER: Dexter and his detective-sister discuss the serial killer’s motives.
TWILIGHT ZONE: Neighbors discuss the possibility of one of them being a monster.
MINUTE 11: THE WARNING
DEXTER: Dexter warns his sister that if she doesn’t learn to be more diplomatic, it could hurt her career. He also warns her to avoid Lt. LaGuerta.
TWILIGHT ZONE: A neighbor woman warns everyone that Les “stares at the stars in the middle of the night.”
MINUTE 12: HARSHER WARNING
DEXTER: Dexter learns that there is no blood inside the victim (a warning that he’s dealing with a skilled killer).
TWILIGHT ZONE: Les warns them that they’re “starting something that’s a nightmare.”
MINUTE 13: THE SUBMISSION
DEXTER: Dexter says he has to “get out of here” (submits to the main killer).
TWILIGHT ZONE: The worried neighbors retreat to their own lawns and porches, and discuss their situation in private (they submit to the threat).
MINUTE 14: DANGER WATCH
DEXTER: Lt. LaGuerta approaches Dexter and winks at him (she wants to start an affair with him, which is dangerous for his career and relationship).
TWILIGHT ZONE: Les tells his approaching neighbors that there’s going to be trouble if they step onto his property (dangerous for their well-being).
MINUTE 15: WHEW, THAT WAS CLOSE!
DEXTER: A female coworker expresses curiosity about why Dexter is so into blood cases, but he deftly deflects her suspicions (Whew!).
TWILIGHT ZONE: Neighbors accuse Steve of being an alien, but he retaliates verbally and digs himself back out of suspicion (Whew!)
MINUTE 16: THE BIG CONCERN
DEXTER: Dexter’s coworker is concerned she’ll get fired for helping him.
TWILIGHT ZONE: The concerned neighbors want to know what Steve does with that radio he built down in his basement.
MINUTE 17: WORLD UPSIDE DOWN
DEXTER: Sgt. Doakes bosses Dexter around, and says, “You give me the creeps.” (This could turn Dexter’s secret world upside down).
TWILIGHT ZONE: Steve yells at his neighbors and shuts them up (their paranoia could turn Steve’s peaceful life upside down).
MINUTE 18: TROUBLE TURN
DEXTER: Sgt Doakes is the only one who “gets the creeps” from Dexter, could be big trouble for Dexter.
TWILIGHT ZONE: Someone walks towards the neighbors. They think he’s a monster. Could be trouble. Charlie shoots him.
MINUTE 19: THE THREAT
DEXTER: Dexter learns that the killer “knows how to use a blade” (a threat to his life).
TWILIGHT ZONE: Lights suddenly turn on in Charlie’s house (a threat to their safety).
MINUTE 20: PUSH BACK
DEXTER: Dexter eyes up a sleaze ball killer he wants to murder.
TWILIGHT ZONE: Les, who was accused earlier, now accuses Charlie.
MINUTE 21: THE GREAT AFFECT
DEXTER: A dog charges, which affects Dexter.
TWILIGHT ZONE: They accuse the boy and chase after him. Steve yells “Stop!”
MINUTE 22: TRUTH DECLARED
DEXTER: Young Dexter confesses to his dad that he wants to kill people.
TWILIGHT ZONE: “You fools!” yells a neighbor.
MINUTE 23: SCARY STUFF
DEXTER: Dexter dates someone “as damaged as he is.”
TWILIGHT ZONE: Aliens observe that humans will kill each other if you simply turn off their power. THE END
MINUTE 24: SCARY STUFF 2
DEXTER: Dexter’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend repeatedly raped her.
MINUTE 25: SCARY STUFF 3
DEXTER: “Normal people are so hostile” Dexter says as he watches them bash lobsters.
MINUTE 26: THE BIG UNEXPECTED
DEXTER: The detectives find another mutilated victim, who’s been beheaded!
MINUTE 27: THE MINI-QUEST
DEXTER: Dexter touches his girlfriend’s leg and moves it upwards (his mini-quest towards sex).
MINUTE 28: BIG QUEST PREP
DEXTER: Dexter researches the main killer on the internet (in preparation to find him).
MINUTE 29: BIG QUEST PREP 2
DEXTER: Dexter’s foster father suggests that teenage Dexter channel his need to kill (preparing him to be a killer of bad people).
MINUTE 30: THE NEED
DEXTER: Teenage Dexter needs to kill people.
MINUTE 31: DISTRESS SIGNAL
DEXTER: Dexter’s distressed father says there are bad people that deserve killing.
MINUTE 32: ANXIETY AMP
DEXTER: Dexter’s adrenaline increases. “Preparation is vital” he says.
MINUTE 33: OMINOUS OH NO!
DEXTER: Dexter’s sister asks him about his relationship with his girlfriend (an ominous question for conflicted Dexter).
MINUTE 34: FRIEND AFFECT
DEXTER: Dexter’s sister (his friend) mentions a clue he wishes he had thought of.
MINUTE 35: BAIT & SWITCH
DEXTER: Dexter figures out that the killer uses a refrigerated truck (that’s how he’s been baiting and switching the detectives).
MINUTE 36: HIDE & SEEK
DEXTER: The deft main killer remains hidden while the detectives seek him.
MINUTE 37: OVER HIS HEAD
DEXTER: Dexter’s nervous sister states her theory in front of the detectives (she’s way over her head).
MINUTE 38: POSITIVE RECONNECT
DEXTER: Dexter supports his sister after she fails in the meeting.
MINUTE 39: NEW JOURNEY BOND
DEXTER: Dexter bonds with Lt. LaGuerta because of his new observations about the killer.
MINUTE 40: ALLY’S WORLD
DEXTER: Jaworski cuts chains (Dexter’s ally in this case, who’s helping Dexter channel his desires to kill).
MINUTE 41: THORNY ROSE
DEXTER: Jaworski sees a pretty picture of a woman (the Rose), but it’s someone he murdered (the Thorn).
MINUTE 42: SURPRISE REVEAL
DEXTER: Dexter’s girlfriend calls in the middle of his killing, apologizes and asks what he’s doing now (she reveals she wants to have sex, which surprises Dexter).
MINUTE 43: SURPRISE REVEAL 2
DEXTER: A cold storage truck pulls up—could be the possible main killer. “No way,” Dexter says, surprised.
MINUTE 44: NEW NEWS
DEXTER: Dexter learns that the truck is a Miami Chills Ice Refrigerated Delivery truck (new key information).
MINUTE 45: OUT OF THE ORDINARY
DEXTER: The main killer tosses out a severed human head for Dexter (an out of the ordinary gesture from him).
MINUTE 46: THE REVELATION
DEXTER: Lt. LaGuerta reveals they found the other minor killer. Lt. LaGuerta also reveals that she wants Dexter sexually.
MINUTE 47: THE ESCORT
DEXTER: Dexter’s car takes him to his girlfriend’s place.
MINUTE 48: NEEDED KNOWLEDGE
DEXTER: Dexter’s girlfriend takes off her clothes; she wants to take their relationship to the next level (knowledge that Dexter needed to know from her).
MINUTE 49: FOREBODING FACT
DEXTER: The girlfriend’s kid threw up (foreboding fact)—they won’t be able to have sex, which Dexter now desires.
MINUTE 50: THE PORTENT
DEXTER: Dexter sees a head on his refrigerator door, and a mini-severed body inside.
MINUTE 51: THE ENGAGE DEXTER: Dexter says, “I wanna play, I really do” (he wants to engage with the enemy).
As you can see, the Something Startling Happens beats work minute-by-minute whether it’s a half-hour sci-fi classic from the 1950s, or a successful, modern day hour-long drama.