“Side Effects” (deconstruction #3): The Story Milestones… and Beat Sheet

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by Larry Brooks on March 7, 2013

I’ve complied the entire story into what, in the movie biz, is called a “scene log,” but for other/all writers, it’s actually something else, something we can all use.

It’s a BEAT SHEET.  In fact, this scene log from “Side Effects” could double for — and therefore become a model for — a beat sheet, as it identifies every expositional scene, in order, in context to what comes before and after, and in context to the nuances, deception and narrative mind games of the concept and dramatic question.  (I have added some writer-only notes).

This is what our completed Beat Sheets should look like.  Not just exposition (content), but scene mission.

Read it here: side effects scene log.  It’s 12 pages, and if you’ve seen the film I think you’ll find it fun and worthwhile.  Because while the film is running we barely have time to think about what we’ve just seen… this allows it all to sink in.

The Story Milestones

Here is a summary of the major story milestones from “Side Effects.”  Go to the Beat Sheet/scene log (attached, see link above) to see how these are positioned in context to what comes before, and after.  Notice, too, how each of the scenes within each of the four Parts of the story (setup, response, attack, resolution) are completely in context to the mission of each part (again… setup, response, attack, resolution).

Quick note… don’t do the math for milestone placement based on scene numbers. Some of these scenes are actually parts of a scene-sequence, and in a novel would probably be written (and redesigned) as a single scene or chapter.  Some of these scenes are actually “establishing shots” for content-intense scenes that follow, and as such, probably aren’t even in the script itself.

No matter.  It’s all here, in the right order.

What is valid, though, is where these milestones appear relative to running time (story length; the percentage of placement within the narrative).  Those all happen pretty much as optimally defined, and absolutely in alignment with the mission of each milestone.

The HOOK: is the opening Prologue scene, in which we see the toy sailboat, the blood stains and bloody footprints, all without the slightest idea what it means, other than something bad happens.  It poses a question — what does happen? — that is already compelling, because we already know this has something to do with the bad side effects of prescription drugs.  And in this case, because of this Prologue scene, we now know how bad it will be.

Or so we think.  It’s actually much worse than we expect, and something completely different than we expect.

There’s another hook-arc right after that… we see Martin (the husband) being released from jail.  This is inherently interesting, we know we’ll get to vicariously (story physics in play) live that journey with them (and get way more than we bargain for on that count.  (Notice, too, that we aren’t offered a hook into the story’s hero, Dr. Burns, until much later).

Admit it, you were hooked.  Even if you had no idea what the real, forthcoming CORE story was about to hit you upside the head.

Part 1 INCITING INCIDENTS: there are two of them, both necessary to make this story work, and both serving to setup the forthcoming First Plot Point and the story thereafter.

Imagine the story without these two moments… you can’t.  Because it doesn’t work without them.  That’s a great criteria to apply to your Inciting Incidents, too.

The first II is the scene where Emily deliberately drives into the wall of a parking garage (marked as Scene #8).  This is the initial moment we where we know that something is terribly wrong with Emily, and about this whole situation.  It also leads us into the scene in which we do meet the Jude Law/Dr. Banks character, and we’re hooked on his apparent empathy.

Which makes him an easy target for Emily… as we learn much later.

The second is when Dr. Banks meets Dr. Siebert at a medical conference (marked as Scene #15), which is the first place that the centerpiece drug (Ablixa) is brought into the story.  At first viewing we have no idea that Dr. Banks has been manipulated into this meeting… but he was.  See it again, you’ll witness how it happened.

PART 1 NARRATIVE: Complex and misleading as they are, notice how all 21 scenes prior to the First Plot Point (which I’ll discuss next) are in perfect context to the mission of Part 1 — they are all there to SETUP the story.  To create a path toward the FPP.

To mislead us (yet with the truth all there, in plain sight), just as the scam is meant to mislead everyone in the story.

FIRST PLOT POINT: it’s marked as Scene #22, when Dr. Banks finally (after being manipulated toward this moment in the latter half of Part 1), prescribes Ablixa to Emily.

Keep in mind, this was Emily (and Siebert’s) objective all along.  Their plan totally depends on it.  This moment actually begins the story arc for Banks, who IS the hero and protagonist of this story.  Prior to that he’s being SETUP… and now he has something to RESPOND TO (though that remains a bit under the radar for the first half of Part 2… see, we really DO have flexibility with these milestones and Parts).

This occurs 24 minutes into the story… or at the 22nd percentile.  Right on the mark for an optimal First Plot Point.

FIRST PINCH POINT: probably the most dramatically significant First Pinch Point I’ve ever seen… which teaches us that the degree of drama isn’t the issue, but rather, how the scene flows and serves the overall story arc.

This is when the body hits the floor.  Emily kills Martin in chillingly cold blood.

Certainly, this is the CORE DRAMA coming front and center, which is the mission of both Pinch Points.  Something need to HAPPEN as a result of this building scam/drama… and this was it.  Boy howdy, was it ever.

It’s at 36 minutes in, or the 33rd percentile.  A little early, but inside the window.

A lot of folks may be misled by this scene, because it feels like  First Plot Point.  But consider what the CORE story is here… it’ s the scam… not the murder itself (because the murder is one of a handful of crimes associated with the scam), and the scam kicks of when Emily is prescribed Ablixa by Dr. Banks.

It’s always the hero’s story.  The hero here is Dr. Banks.  And thus, it’s HIS story arc that determines the milestones.

MID-POINT: the mission of the Mid-Point is to introduce new information that changes the story, contextually and expostionally.  This sure does.

It’s when a desperate Banks is researching Ablixa online, and discovers an article written by Dr. Siebert about the side effects of sleep walking while on this drug.  Which is key to the insanity plea Emily has been offered (itself a seemingly mid-point, but it was too early).  Siebert knew all along.  Siebert has been coaching Emily.  She’s in on it.  She’s running it from the sidelines.

Notice that these milestones are less about what happens than they are about what it MEANS to the story arc.  That’s a huge, 404-level of learning that escapes a lot of writers, and almost all viewers and readers.

We don’t know why, precisely, but now Banks has another villain he can go up against.

Everything changes here, because now it’s all out, everything Banks needs  is on the table.  Now he has to prove it.  His path has shifted.  He has a new target, a new path toward redemption: he has to nail Dr. Siebert.

This happens in Scene #57, at the 58th minute of the story, right at the 50 percent mark.  Nails it.

SECOND PLOT POINT: A lot happens in Part 3 (prior to the Second Plot Point), and quickly.  So much so that it’s challenging to pin down the actual Second Plot Point.  The important learning here, though, is that THE WRITER KNEW.  Which enabled him to inject specific story beats that lead up to it, many of which are just as dramatic (which teaches us that major turns and information is NOT reserved solely for the major milestones).

But this one, the one that is the Second Plot Point, changes the game from Banks’ POV, creating a new context for his quest… which is the mission of the Second Plot Point.

It’s in Scene #74, when Dr. Siebert, having just been exposed by Banks (who she knows will now come after her), shows us those seemingly incriminating photos she took of Banks and Emily, which we know she’s going to use to leverage his silence.  It’s a gun to Banks’ head.  It puts her on the offensive, in a more threatening and dramatic way.  Banks now has an even bigger problem than before, big as it was.

This happens at the 80 minute mark, or the 73rd percentile… close enough to count.

THE RESOLUTION: a great resolution is an outcome that exceeds the sum of its parts, and any one of those parts might be interpreted as the specific moment of resolution.  That pegging doesn’t matter, as long as the sum of those parts delivers the emotional satisfaction, vindication and villain blow-back desired.

In a story like this, Part 4 is where the fun is.  Where the hero gets his cape on and the villain gets what’s coming to her/them.  So much so, that the writer gives us a deliciously extended Part 4, so we can savor the ride and the finish.

It happens at the very end when, after manipulating Emily to scam Siebert into incriminating herself, in the belief she will earn her freedom in doing so, Banks (and Burns, the writer) turns the tables and puts her back in prison after all.

Burns (the writer) even gives us a moment of resolution for Banks (the hero) and his family drama.  Notice that drama wasn’t a side show, it was always connected to the CORE story arc for the protagonist.  It influenced and pressured him, and provided a sounding board for expository information.

All of these story milestones are best understood in context to the generic definitions and missions for them.  Then, with that in your head, you can see how they are applied here… brilliantly, artfully, and with a whopper of both an emotional and intellectual ride for the movie-viewer.

Feel free to share your thoughts and your story experience with “Side Effects” here.

Robert Jones March 8, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Hi Larry,

I’ll go first here and start the ball rolling. I haven’t seen this film, but I’m impressed with your deconstruction so far. The plot-points and structural shifts seem quite brilliantly done. That alone is a bar-raiser for me.

On a side note, I watched the film, “The Double Hour” last night, which was recommended by FD in his post back in #2 of this series. It was a 2009 Italian film, which still followed the basic structural guidlines, but also played with them. This was both interesting, and a bit of a cheat at the same time.

Everything after the FPP, up to some point early on in part three (as I figured it percentage-wise), was a coma dream…hence the feeling I had been cheated. The woman who is the main character wakes up and much of what was interesting about the plot got trashed, or put off as a jumble of fantasy mixed with some tid-bits of reality. The most interesting part was that the mid-point within the coma dream held true–the woman was in with the criminals. So the “parting of the curtain” held its criteria/mission. As did the other parts. However, things were getting fairly interesting in the dream sequence–more interesting than the actual story–which was fairly basic stuff. It left me feeling almost like the writer wrote himself into a corner with what was going down in the dream sequence, had the woman wake up and move on with a simpler, more predictible plot that would more easily support what had been offered in the set-up.

We could say all this was there to intentionally mislead the audience–and maybe it was. Probaly it was. but when a third of the movie turns out to be a dream, simply to throw the audience off their game, it smells a bit like that ghost in the machine just dropped a load of ectoplasmic dung right in the middle of the story. The best, or most educational part, was the use of some of the plot points, especially the mid-point, IMHO.

Be interested in hearing your views.

Speaking of mid-points…if that parting of the curtain is a glimps into the villain’s ultimate plan, and is only shown to the audience, not the hero, do you have any tips for how this might still raise the stakes? Or is it enough to simply do that in the reader’s mind because they are now aware of that master plan?

Thanks :)

Larry March 8, 2013 at 5:11 pm

@Robert – haven’t seen “The Double Hour,” and to be honest I doubt I’ll go there, since I really only have time and head-space for stories I’m deconstructing on the site (versus one-off inquiries in the comment thread).

You ask about the Mid-Point, and give a specific example: “if that parting of the curtain is a glimps into the villain’s ultimate plan, and is only shown to the audience, not the hero, do you have any tips for how this might still raise the stakes?” Allow me to clarify: the MP isn’t defined quite that narrowly. The curtain can part for the reader, the hero, or for BOTH, at the author’s discretion. As to whether that raises the stakes, that depends on the nature of the “reveal” (the parting curtain) at the MP, which may or may not include a shift/twist, in addition to the visibility of already-in-play exposition.

This all is good news, the author can really go in any direction here, and we live and die by those choices. Raise the stakes, or not… keep the hero in the dark, or not… show the audience something nobody in the story knows yet, or not… all are on the table. This is why, when someone naively calls this stuff “formulaic” I want to scream through the screen at them… the options here, combined with the myriad options available for ALL the major story milestones, result in a nearly infinite combinations of core competencies, story physics and expositional story beats. Which is why, even with a deep and evolved understanding of these things, it’s still hard, still elusive, and at best allows one to cultivate a shot at it. Which is the best we can ever hope for. That shot deserves the best chance we can bring to it, and these principles are what makes that happen.

Thanks for your continued interest and support. Very valuable and much appreciated. L.

Robert Jones March 8, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Thank you, Larry. I did read the material and recalled that part about the curtain being able to part for the audience, or hero, or both. However, I’ve gone over my plot and questionnaire pretty meticulously these weeks. And every time I come to that part of the question concerning mid-point, “and how does this shift the hero’s context from responder/wanderer to attacker/warrior?” I keep pausing, wondering if this shift should have a more immediate effect.

I needed to keep the villain’s plans on hold until things go into overdrive in part four. In part three, I needed to create a space for the hero to begin to physically recover–and get over those inner demons– in the first half. Of course, he’s still drawn into the fray before he can fully recover, leading up to his trying to resolve things and seeming to fail miserably–leading up to the lull and then a twist for PP2.

There’s a lot to wrap up in part four, but I’m planning to have hardly a beat, (or two at most), between scenes once the hero catapults from PP2, in an attempt to keep the wrap-up building at a pretty rapid pace towards the conclusion.

That’s the plan anyway. Guess I just needed a little moral support here.

Thanks again!

Deanna March 12, 2013 at 2:32 am

Thanks for the deconstruction, Larry. I saw this film the other night and remembered you’d written these posts, so I came back to them.

I enjoyed the movie but unfortunately it’s one of those stories that the more you think about it, the less it makes sense. It seems to me this is more acceptable in movie-making, where “just do whatever is the coolest!” (especially what LOOKS the coolest) goes down a lot easier with an audience than it does with readers (although less so these days – the Rule of Cool is invading everything).

I appreciate the brilliant structure of the storytelling, but it’s built on a shaky foundation that I just couldn’t swallow: we’re told that a Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity defense has a 1% success rate, yet our two villains build their entire scam on those odds. Their failure (which was a 99% probability) would have put them both in jail for decades. So it was a really stupid scam.

A few other points: Channing Tatum was physically miscast. This guy is LITERALLY G.I. Joe. His tiny wife could not have stabbed him to death. Even if she got really lucky and hit a vital artery with the first stab, she couldn’t have *known* she’d get lucky.

She was supposedly penniless after he went to jail yet she needed a great lawyer to win her NGRI defence – how fortunate her mother-in-law (inexplicably) sided with her and paid for one. Again, Emily couldn’t have predicted this.

Our hero Banks had an easy ride in the last part of the movie – nothing went wrong for him, perhaps because the writer didn’t want to add more complications, but it’s not exactly the Hero’s Journey. He did some rather unheroic things, too – faking Emily’s psych test, inciting her to violence to get her put away again. I wish the writer hadn’t done that to him. Her final scene suggests she’s been left to rot in an asylum, but Banks would never be allowed to remain as her doctor now the truth is out, so there’s no way he could keep her committed.

Finally, he deserved much better than that awful, unsympathetic wife, who refused to stand by him (even before he was implicated in an affair with Emily) or understand his need to clear his name. For some reason he took her back and their marriage was peachy again.

So, overall, a good enough movie, but a scam with a 1% chance of success and a 99% chance of a life sentence for 1st degree murder isn’t the best foundation to build a plot.

Larry March 12, 2013 at 9:23 am

@Deanna – this is brilliant. And so true. It’s a great example of two things, I believe: first, that solid story architecture can hide and forgive a lot of sins, and b) films get away with this stuff much more frequently, and more effectively, than books. Technically, it all “could have” happened, and the filmmakers hung their hat on that (this perhaps mirrors real life, where one-offs and unlikely outcomes do happen, especially within the legal system)… but I tell writers with shaky concepts to NOT bet on those one-offs (like the 1%) in their stories.

What was true for me, though, even though I agree with and marvel at your insights here, is that the movie was a brilliant seduction nonetheless, both for its players (they were all seduced) and for the viewer. It was a trip, a puzzle, a poke in the side, a bit of a headache, and for us, a great clinic on how to use structure to hide what needs to be hidden until it needs to be put into play. So much fun for the price of a ticket.

Thanks for chipping in, very valuable. L.

Robert Jones March 12, 2013 at 11:18 am

@Deanna–I really like what you’re saying here in terms of how these things seem to have become the norm in so many films. Not having seen the film, I will be keeping these things in mind when I do.

I think the 1% chance of success on the insanity defense could actually be played to good effect though. As writers, we are constantly faced with having to overcome things like this. If the idea is good, however, we don’t want to toss it out simply because the odds are against it.

I would use the ego, or greed, factors of both Emily and her attorney to compensate. Lawyers who are successful, or egotistical, certainly do a great many things that could get them disbarred, or arrested, all the time. So this is not as far-fetched as it may seem on the surface. But they better play that lawyer in the movie correctly. Plus hopefully give some reasons for taking this risk–which for all we know might’ve been in the script, even if it didn’t show up in the movie. Editors sometimes leave the strangest things on those cutting room floors. I suppose it might be assumed by the rest of the material that it had to be “That kind of a lawyer,” or they wouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place.

Be interesting to watch the DVD extras, where you’ll often catch things that aren’t in the movie for reasons of pacing, or deemed unnecessary. Most cuts I agree with. But sometimes they can gut a character’s motivation. Anything below the main characters isn’t going to get all that much attention in films.

Lynette Robey March 12, 2013 at 12:33 pm

I am devastated that you won’t be continuing the deconstruction of Side Effects. I went to see the movie, per your recommendation, and thought it was great. I am not good at analyzing so I was thrilled to read your deconstruction and wish you would continue. Don’t give up. People like me need you.

Deanna March 12, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Robert – Just wanted to point out it was Emily’s psychiatrist, Siebert, not her lawyer, who dreamed up the scam with Emily. Actually, I’m not sure who dreamed it up – it’s not clear how their relationship developed. It seems she went to Siebert for genuine reasons, but at some point she seduced Siebert, Siebert taught her “how to be sad”, she instructed Siebert on insider trading, and the plot with the drug with sleepwalking side-effects was hatched. I did think it was a nice twist that Siebert was female, otherwise the audience would have guessed/assumed much earlier that Emily and that first doctor were romantically involved.

Deanna March 12, 2013 at 10:39 pm

Larry, the term “hanging a lantern on it” comes to mind, but it’s misused here. I’m reminded of a Star Trek episode where the villain manages to take over Engineering and put the warp core into meltdown. Geordi says, and I paraphrase, “He had to have overridden umpteen security protocols to do that!” We never see him override those protocols, but it’s what the audience are asking themselves – How come it looked so easy? Geordi hangs a lantern on it, and we move on.

Here, the lawyer advises Emily to take the NGRI, saying “only 1% of NGRI defenses work, and they’re handing it to you.” She hangs a lantern on how improbable it is – which is fine, except that it’s not the audience who have to accept the unlikelihood. It’s Emily, right from the start, who had to accept it before putting the scam in motion. Again this would be fine, except that the penalty for her very likely failure was enormous.

Many films and books rely on improbable luck or coincidence, of course, but we accept it by saying: “99 out of 100 times, that wouldn’t happen; here’s the story of the 1 time it did happen.” Writers can get away with it, readers accept it… but the character in the story shouldn’t be thinking this way.

Solution: Just don’t have the lawyer say that. If we don’t know the odds, we’ll assume Emily (more likely Siebert) didn’t know the odds either, or that in this fictional world the odds were more in her favor.

The story was indeed a seduction. I knew all was not as it seemed because of skimming your first post before I saw the movie. My husband said afterwards he guessed something was up when Emily was reluctant to be committed after the murder. Most of us who killed someone we loved, and didn’t remember it afterwards, would be keen to get help to find out why! Then again, a mental institution is a scary proposition.

And it’s true (grumble grumble), we writers do have to pay more attention to plot holes and plausibility than filmmakers. Partly I think it’s because the viewer accepts the actor’s interpretation of a character’s motivations and reactions. A reader has fewer clues, no matter how the writer tries to make it clear, and so every reader interprets the character a little differently, and some readers will find a character’s action “out of character” while others won’t.

Robert Jones March 13, 2013 at 9:37 am

Good point from where I’m sitting. Why would the writer hand that lantern by mentioning the terrible odds? Not all research facts should be used.

Another writer mentioned a very good reason why films get away with more than books. In a book, we can pause any time and pick up where we left off later. And while the same may be true of movies we watch at home, the next frame carries us forward visually, keeps our attention moving forward as the story plays onward.

For a non-writer, or the twelve year old mentality Hollywood is aiming for, much is forgiven in this medium. Too much. Because it has changed the way people have grown accustomed to stories and the way they are played out.

A novelist has to be more clever these days. We need to not only be more visual (have something immediate happening for the reader to latch onto) but all the gears and inner working have to be placed within the context of those immediate scenes. If our story stops, or lags, due to lengthy explanations or descriptions, we risk losing our audience.

So I think the way Larry has fused movie techniques into his Story Engineering, is not only good sense, it’s a fact that has already been widely accepted by the audience we are currently writing for. Writers who fight this, are writing for an audience that is pre-film and television–in other words, an audience that is either dead, or too old to give a damn.

Paula March 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Larry, please never stop your excellent deconstructs. I have learned so much from you and I’m sincerely grateful. Paula

Monica Rodriguez March 21, 2013 at 9:13 am

I finally finished reading this! I couldn’t get to it right away, because, well life. But I always come back. I appreciate having the Beat Sheet. Reading along with the post, it’s such an excellent teaching device.

I felt another light bulb go on when you said “Notice that these milestones are less about what happens than they are about what it MEANS to the story arc.” Excellent and something I have to keep in mind when I return to my WIP.

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