In Part One of the Talk to Me Podcast, we talked about the first 10 pages of Talk to Me and how the first 10 pages of your script work on three different levels.
On the writing level, they allow you to find your voice and the images that you’re going to build from.
On the structural level, they allow you to have a strong foundation that you’re going to “yes, and…” as you build your character’s journey.
And finally on the commercial level, they grab your audience right away to say, “Hey, pay attention! This is going to be cool.”
In this podcast, we’re going to do some deep script analysis of the structure and theme and world-building of Talk to Me.
We’re going to learn how to build structure organically in your own screenplay through a simple concept called mirrors and foils.
We’re going to talk about how to intuitively build structure in your screenplay in relation to theme.
We’re going to be learning a new approach to creating the rules of your world and allowing your audience to discover them without exposition dumps.
And we’re going to be exploring the essential human drama that we actually connect to underneath all those exciting horror genre elements.
There are going to be a ton of spoilers ahead… so, if you haven’t seen Talk to Me yet, you might want to before listening to the podcast.
Talk to Me is a great example of what’s beautiful about genre movies.
Sure, a horror genre movie can be just a bunch of blood and gore (and Talk to Me certainly has enough blood and gore for years of nightmares).
But great horror movies are not just about blood and gore.
These elevated horror films are not about the horror of monsters. They’re about the horror of families, of relationships, of the personal challenges the audience is actually dealing with.
They’re just personal dramas, blown up in an expressionistic, symbolic way.
Spoiler Alert: There are going to be a bunch of spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen Talk to Me yet, this is a good time to go watch this film. (But be prepared to be scared). Or if you’re not into scary then just read on, because you’re going to learn a ton about how to write in any genre…
When we look underneath the surface at the structure of Mia’s journey in Talk to Me, it’s about so much more than being possessed by a bunch of monsters.
The truth is, (most likely) nobody in your audience has ever been possessed by a monster or shaken hands with a creepy hand that might have been lopped off an actual psychic. No one in the audience is going to live a horror movie.
And at the same time, all of us are living horror movies in some way, because we’re all human beings and life is frickin’ hard and scary and sad.
What we’re watching in Talk to Me is a family story about a girl who lost her mom.
As she tries to deal with this incomprehensible situation, Mia has two competing stories in her head.
She has the story her dad told her, that her mom’s overdose was an accident – which Mia knows isn’t true but still desperately wants to believe.
And she has the story, which she probably knows must be true, that her mom killed herself on purpose.
And then she has this complicated element of the story that definitely did happen and that she can’t quite make sense of. Her mother was scratching at the door trying to get out. Did she change her mind at the last moment? What happened there?
If you’ve seen Talk to Me, you have probably noticed that, like Mia, you have an image in your head of mom’s fingernails scratching at the door, even though that’s not specifically shown in the movie.
And this is not by accident. As we discussed in Part 1, the first image of Mia is her scratching at her own nails. So you can see, as they imagine Mia’s mom’s death, the writers are once again just riffing on the idea of nails to connect the two characters. Mia scratching at her own nails. Mom scratching at the door.
And these images are later going to connect to a horrifying image (discussed in Part 1) of Mia’s mangled fingers.
By the end of the movie, we’re going to discover what that image means.
From the very first image of Mia, the writers are going to riff on fingernails as an object of horror and a structural element of Mia’s journey. Just like we were talking about last time, they take that element, and “yes, and…” it.
You can see that even the central horror element of the whole piece is connected to this image system. There’s a reason it’s a hand that you hold to summon the spirits.
It’s all connected. It’s all connected to the main character.
And these little clues are what make the wonderful trick ending of Talk to Me feel both surprising and inevitable.
The rules of the world of Talk to Me, the nature of the magic, and Mia’s journey all grow out of this simple trick of “yes, and…”
It’s all connected to Mia and Mia’s story.
So let’s talk about Mia. She’s cut off from her dad. Her mom has killed herself. She’s trying to be part of another family, who loves her even though she is troubled. And they’re trying to be warm and welcoming.
She has this beautiful relationship with Riley, her best friend Jade’s younger brother. She has a crush on her ex, Daniel, who’s now Jade’s boyfriend. She wants to belong because she has lost so much, and she is trying to fit in and belong.
Early in the movie, Mia has just picked up Riley and taken him home because Jade–Riley’s sister, her best friend–is ignoring his texts. And they’re rocking it out in the car, and they’re having so much fun.
And then we have this terrifying image: Something is in the road.
It’s a kangaroo writhing in pain. And that kangaroo is going to lead Mia to make a structural choice.
Do you run it over and put it out of its misery? Do you assist it in suicide? Or do you leave it to suffer in horror?
And this question is going to appear again and again and again and again in Mia’s journey. And it’s connected to the story of Mia’s mother’s death, as we’ll learn later in the piece.
The secret that her dad’s been hiding from Mia, is that there is a letter from her mother: a suicide note that her mother wrote, that says that Mom felt hope for the first time as she made the choice to kill herself, knowing that her suffering was over, that suicide gave her hope that there was a way out.
Throughout the structure of Talk to Me, Mia is wrestling with this profound moral question relating to her mother’s suicide and her own life: Do you help put that suffering animal out of its misery (like Mom did for herself)? Or do you do no harm and leave it to suffer?
Not knowing what’s going to happen, what is the right thing to do?
And that connects to a question inside of Mia herself. “Do I stay here with my suffering? Or do I find a way to put myself out of my misery?”
And that’s going to lead to a question related to Riley, which we’ll get to shortly. But the movie is going to be framed by this dying kangaroo, which will come back later in the film (at what would be the end of Act Six in the 7 Act Structure we teach here at the studio).
Right before Mia makes the huge choice that will complete her journey, that kangaroo is going to appear again. Mia has a vision of the kangaroo dripping blood on the hospital hallway, where a dying Riley is barely clinging onto life due to Mia’s choices.
And we’re going to start to realize if we’re really looking closely – the kangaroo is Mia.
That kangaroo is her mother.
That kangaroo is Riley.
That kangaroo is a symbol.
Now, when you first write the kangaroo, there’s a good chance you don’t know it’s a symbol. You write a dying kangaroo in the roadway because it’s creepy.
And you’re playing with a trope. “There’s something out there. Don’t get out of the car, don’t get out of the car. Oh, it’s just a cat!” Well, in this case, it’s just a dying kangaroo.
But it’s connected to a moral choice that’s connected to the theme. And this is what heightens the piece. It’s not just a cat. It’s not just a jumpscare.
It’s a thematic image, which only becomes a thematic image when you start to “yes, and…” it. When you start to get curious about it. When you start to build from and around it.
Let’s take a moment to analyze the structure of Mia’s journey and Riley’s journey in Talk to Me and how they connect.
At the inciting incident, Mia has shaken the hand and invited a spirit into her. And just like a powerful, addictive drug, it feels great! And it’s celebrated as a giant party that Mia’s the center of. As awful and horrifying as it looks from our perspective, it’s everything Mia’s been looking for.
Mia finally feels good, after not feeling good for so long.
So, of course, Mia starts to do the ritual again – and again – getting addicted to it just like a drug.
The way the writers of Talk to Me handle this element of the storytelling is through a concept called mirroring and foiling.
A mirror means you look at your first cool element, and you find a creative way to do it again in a way that outdoes the previous version
For a foil, you look at the same cool element and find a creative way to generate an element that strongly contrasts with the initial element.
By the time you’ve reached the final draft of your screenplay, nearly every image of every character is going to be a mirror or a foil to an earlier image.
As you build your script, you can imagine that nearly everything you write is just a “yes, and …” It’s just a mirror or a foil to something that came earlier.
And if you’re really building organically, you can also work backwards, writing stuff that comes later, and then using mirrors and foils to discover things that have to happen earlier.
You can write around your script. Maybe you first see the terrifying image of a kangaroo dripping blood in a hospital room. You don’t know how you’re getting to it yet. You don’t know what it means yet. But you’re asking yourself “if this is true, what else is true?” Maybe there’s a kangaroo earlier… and that’s how you come up with the kangaroo in the road.
So you can mirror and foil in both directions as you write.
As you start to use mirrors and foils in your writing, your mind will start to make patterns. It will start to build structure out of those patterns because your mind is programmed to recognize patterns.
Your mind is programmed to find the meaning out of related images.
And here’s what’s really cool: the mind of your reader and your viewer are trained to do the same thing.
When you start to write with mirrors and foils, you stop having to spoon feed your reader information. Instead, you allow your reader to start to tell themselves a story. And this is how you start to hypnotize your reader.
The reader has stopped thinking, “OK, I understand what she’s saying.”
Instead, they’re telling themselves the story. “Oh, wow, I’m realizing this is what’s happening! Oh, wow, I’m pretty sure this is what actually happened.”
As we look at the way the structure of Talk to Me is built, we can see how the use of mirrors and foils allows us to understand the rules of a complicated world of magic that is transforming in front of our eyes.
We’re realizing, “Oh, I get it, I get it, I get it.” Not because it’s being spoon fed to us with words, but because it’s being given to us with images.
Here’s an example. Mia is attracted to Jade’s boyfriend, Daniel, who’s also her ex. And things have gone really, really wrong for Mia. For reasons we’ll talk about later, Daniel has reluctantly agreed that Mia can stay with him, since she can no longer stay with Jade and Riley and their mom, the family who loves her.
Metaphorically, Mia’s “addiction” problem has gotten to the point where she has caused so much damage that they’ve said, “No, no, we love you, but no longer.”
So now she is trying to connect to anybody.
She has a crush on Daniel. And they’re trying to keep it platonic. He’s really trying, she’s kind of trying, but she just wants some contact, some connection. She just wants her arm to touch his leg.
And then, Mia witnesses an image of a horrifying ghost-demon-woman sucking Daniel’s foot. Mia is screaming to wake him up, to make it stop. And when he wakes up and looks at her, it’s Mia who is sucking his foot!
This is a disturbing image for both of them, and it feels like an infidelity for Daniel.
But this is also the first time we, as an audience, learn a new rule about the magic of the world: “Oh, I get the rules. Sometimes she is seeing somebody else but it’s really her doing it. Sometimes she can be in two places at once.”
This is going to be so important later, after Mia’s father finally reads Mia her mother’s suicide note.
Let’s analyze a few more structural elements of Talk to Me so you can see how this is built.
We start with Mia. She’s a wholesome girl who has been through some horrible shit. She’s more reliable than her best friend who doesn’t even pick up her brother.
And she loves Riley.
Mia tries this creepy hand thing; she tries her “drug.” She invites the demon in. It’s horrifying to watch but everyone’s celebrating it.
And inside– even though what we see on the outside is horrible–on the inside she feels great. She feels the kind of hope and joy that her mother felt anticipating an end to her suffering.
And she wants to do it again and again.
So we have this simple structure of one creepy “hand-seance” after another. We have the hand, we’re going to keep using the hand.
The first thing the writers of Talk to Me do is a mirror.
And the key, whenever you’re using a mirror, is that the mirror needs to outdo the image you’re mirroring.
So we’re going to watch Mia take the hand the first time. And, of course, the first time something’s going to go wrong. You’re only supposed to do it for 90 seconds and they go a little bit over.
The second time, Daniel’s going to do it.
And he’s going to end up making out with a dog! And it’s gross and he’s embarrassed and he’s humiliated and everyone’s taking pictures.
You can see this is just another “yes, and…” to that very first image of Cole trying to save his brother while everyone’s taking pictures.
It’s a mirror to the first image when everyone’s recording Mia doing it.
And now we’re going to see Daniel do it, the good kid who doesn’t even kiss.
He does it. But for him, it’s not this awesome experience; it’s a horrible experience.
And Mia sees that horrible experience and she sees his humiliation. But her thought is not, “I’m never doing this again.”
Her thought is “I want to do it again.”
You see how that mirrors what we just built, how it builds around the main character. Mia’s growing and changing.
But if we do it a third time the same way, it’s going to get boring.
So instead of breaking it down scene by scene, we then just have a montage where we see them conjuring the magic again and again, in a giant mirror to the two sequences that have come before.
It’s just a giant party. And you can see that even this is a “yes, and …” of the first image of Talk to Me – the giant party where everyone’s partying and getting drunk and having a good time. Everyone gets to do this horrifying thing. And it’s awesome.
We’re building the metaphor of escape and addiction and the thing that’s awful on the outside but feels good on the inside. That thing that you think is your salvation that’s actually your destruction. We’re building that metaphor. This montage is just an amplified version of that first image.
Now we’re going to have a fourth beat. We’ve just had mirror-mirror-mirror. Now we’re going to have a foil – a contrasting image.
We’re now at the sea change of Talk to Me in a seven-act structure. (You may know it as the midpoint if you’re more familiar with three-act structure.)
All of these things have felt good. We’ve just been doing (and out-doing) the same thing, and we’ve built this primary relationship between Mia and Riley, this little boy whom she loves, the kid who wouldn’t even smoke a cigarette in his first scene.
Now Riley wants to do it.
And an interesting flip happens. This is the first little foil.
Jade, who wasn’t interested in her brother and didn’t even want to pick him up, is the one that says “No, no, no, no, no!” to her brother’s request, out of a desire to protect him.
And Mia, who’s had such a good experience, again and again and again in mirror after mirror, wants Riley to be able to experience what she did, but with little thought for his safety.
Jade and Mia get into an argument. Jade leaves, thinking that her brother’s not going to do this, but Mia convinces the others, because Riley wants it so much.
She loves him and she wants Riley to have this and he wants to have it. She convinces the others to let him do it.
It starts off just like all the other creepy-hand-seances, and it’s only supposed to go for 60 seconds because he’s so young. And then this really cool thing happens…
Throughout the first half of Talk To Me, we’ve been building this question in Mia’s mind: Did Mom intentionally kill herself?
And Mia’s answer for herself is essentially, “I don’t know. I know the story my dad’s telling me is not true. But I also know that is what I want to believe…”
So who is the ghost that enters Riley? The ghost is Mia’s mom.
And it’s such a wonderful turn. It’s a foil to all the other spirit experiences.
Mom is not like the other horrifying demons. Mom says beautiful, reassuring things to Mia. To paraphrase, “I never wanted to hurt you. I didn’t want to die. I’m so sorry.” She’s saying all the things that Mia needs to hear to deal with the suicide. She’s telling Mia the story that she wants to believe.
And Mia doesn’t want it to end. She begs, even though it’s been more than 60 seconds, for them to let it all continue… “It’s my mom in there!”
Which leads us to our next turn.
Riley starts brutally banging his head against the desk – banging and banging and banging and banging. There’s blood everywhere. He even tries to pull out his own eye!
It’s only his sister Jade putting her hand in between him and the furniture– and allowing him to break her hand as he tries to smash himself to death– that stops that last fatal blow from happening.
Structurally, we’ve now had these two terrifying foils in a row.
First, this experience that looked ugly and felt good flips and becomes an experience with Mia’s mom that looks and feels beautiful and healing.
And then it flips again and becomes the worst version of ugly, the most horrifying experience it could possibly be… an even more brutal attempt at suicide then the one we’ve imagined by Mia’s mother, but this time by a young, possessed child.
You can see this is just another version of “yes, and…”
It’s just a mirror to the experience with Cole and his brother at the very beginning of the movie, the kid who stabbed his brother and stabbed himself through the head.
It’s just a mirror to what we’ve already seen in that opening sequence and a foil to what we’ve experienced so far through Mia’s eyes.
And through all these mirrors and foils, we start to tell ourselves a story of what’s happening.
Riley’s journey and Mia’s journey in relation to it, like everything in the structure of Talk to Me, are built around the theme of addiction.
Most people, having seen what happened to Riley, would never want to touch the creepy hand again.
But for Mia, it starts to seem like the hand is the answer.
So she uses the hand again, even though this horrible thing has happened. And her mom does appear. And Mia truly believes she’s using the hand safely. She says, “Talk to me,” but she doesn’t say, “I let you in.”
And like Mia, we’re starting to wonder if Mom really is there. Because once again Mom is saying all the right things. She’s saying, “Riley needs your help. You need to save him.”
Mia goes back to the hospital, and it does look like Riley needs her help because he’s catatonic, and his sister is trying to care for him… and then Riley suddenly comes awake and starts to bang his head against the wall of the hospital, trying to kill himself all over again. (Mirror!)
This is already one of the most disgusting images we’ve ever seen in a movie, with all the disfigurement from his injuries before, and now he’s banging his disfigured head against the wall until blood is running down the drain. (Like any good mirror, it does the same thing in a way that outdoes what comes before).
It’s starting to become clear that these demons are still in Riley. So maybe Mom was telling the truth.
Mia has lost her family. Jade and Riley’s mom blames Mia for what happened to Riley and told her to go away. Jade blames her too. It seems like she’s lost everything.
But Mia comes back, and she convinces Jade that they have to use the magic to save Riley. Maybe we forgot to blow out the candle. Maybe If we just use the hand again …
You see, this is another foil.
The whole structure of Talk to Me is essentially just creepy hand, creepy hand, creepy hand over and over. But each time it has a different value.
So this time, in this foil, instead of using the hand for entertainment or escape or to feel good or to connect to a lost mom, Mia’s using the creepy hand to save somebody.
She believes that if they can just use the hand again and blow out the candle, they can get the demon out of him. Which is pretty urgent, because if Riley dies with the demon inside him, they will have him forever. Those are the rules that we and the kids have been told.
So they try. But it doesn’t work. Until Mia gets a new idea: maybe she can use the hand to connect to Riley?
Even with all her positive intentions, Mia is still thinking like an addict. She believes she’s using the hand for good.
She believes this is the only path towards hope.
She’s using the hand to try to connect to Riley because Riley can’t speak to say, “Talk to me, I let you in.” And until he does that, they can’t blow out the candle and get the demons out of him.
And in taking her mom’s advice about Riley, Mia is also starting to step into her mom’s view of the world.
So, Mia turns the hand around. And she uses it again, despite every terrible thing that’s already happened. And this time she tries to use it to connect to Riley – but instead what appears is a little girl.
And this is yet another foil.
Every time we’ve seen Mia use the hand, it’s been the same pattern: “Talk to me, I let you in. Talk to me, I let you in.”
This time, something completely different happens.
Mia asks the little girl, “Where’s Riley?” And the little girl responds, “I can take you to him.” And then the little girl turns everything around by saying “I let you in…” to Mia.
As a horror movie audience watching Talk to Me, we’re delighted by this structural surprise. We didn’t see that coming, and we have no idea what is going to happen now!
But how did the writers find this surprise? By using the same simple trick. It’s just a foil, another form of “yes, and…” to everything that’s come before.
If this is true, what else is true…
If the humans can let the spirits in, maybe the spirits can let the humans in as well.
So Mia is carried into the horrifying world of the demons, where she witnesses them feeding on the body of Riley. It’s even more horrifying than Mia imagined, and she quickly realizes that the spirits are never going to let Riley go.
Riley has become like Mia’s mother, possessed by demons that he cannot escape. And now Mom’s philosophy starts to take hold. Now we’re coming all the way back around.
Mia comes home, and Dad finally tells her the truth. There is a letter from her mother: a suicide note that her mother wrote.
And as Dad reads the note to Mia, she’s forced to hear the words she didn’t want to hear: that Mom felt hope for the first time as she made the choice to kill herself, knowing that her suffering was over, that suicide gave her hope that there was a way out.
On a thematic level, Mia’s mom is saying in her letter, “You have to run over that kangaroo. When an animal is suffering, death is the only source of hope.”
Mia doesn’t want to believe that her mom killed herself on purpose. She doesn’t want to believe that her mother felt hope at the thought of leaving her.
She lashes out at her dad, referencing a conversation with her mom’s spirit that he can’t possibly comprehend: “No. Mom told me that that’s not true.”
And she runs to her room and there’s Mom!
We are once again learning the complicated rules of the world of Talk to Me, not by being spoon fed them, but by witnessing them in images, in mirrors and foils, and constructing the rules in our own minds.
We’re understanding that Mia is starting to see the creatures without the hand
Mom’s spirit tells Mia, “That’s not your dad.” And Dad busts down the door. And what Mia sees isn’t Dad. It’s a horrible Demon Dad–a projection of how Mia feels about him at that moment.
The Demon Dad is on top of her. He’s trying to kill her. But there are scissors right there on the floor… almost within Mia’s reach…
Then we cut to the living room. And there’s Dad on the couch. And then, Dad– the real Dad– is running towards Mia’s room and banging down the door.
This complicated sequence and all the complicated rules connected to it have been made possible by that image we talked about at the beginning of the podcast: that scene with Daniel’s foot.
We understand already that in Talk to Me, people can be in two places at once.
We see Mia on the ground from real Dad’s perspective and there’s no one on top of her.
And real Dad gets down to help her. And of course, it’s real Dad that she stabs with the scissors.
Talk to Me is filled with really complicated magic. If you’ve studied anything about how to build fantasy or horror or sci-fi, you know that you have to establish the rules of the world.
People usually think that means a bunch of talking, in which the characters tell us through exposition, “These are the rules of the world.”
But that is not the way the best stories work.
It’s actually the images – like the image of Mia sucking on Daniel’s foot when she’s seeing a spirit do it – that establish the rules of the world.
In Talk to Me, we have learned – through images, without a word of exposition – that characters can be in two places at once and can witness things that they, in fact, are doing.
This, in turn, allows the stabbing of Dad to feel both surprising and inevitable.
More importantly, we’re understanding the rules of the world of Talk to Me on an emotional, dramatic and structural level.
If we take all the horror out of Talk to Me, there’s a story underneath that we can connect to on a human level: a sad, touching little drama about a girl whose mom killed herself, who’s wondering, Is my only way out to do the same thing?
Or, in horror terms: Maybe Mom was right. Maybe there are demons possessing me and my friends that can only be escaped by death. Maybe there is no way to get better from what’s inside of me.
That’s what Talk to Me is about, on both the dramatic and the genre level. And you can see that both levels are tied together by theme.
So, Mia has now killed her father in a horrifying, dissociated way, and from there she shows up at the hospital to follow Mom’s advice and “save” Riley.
And an amazing thing happens. Riley and Jade’s mom take Mia back into the family.
Riley and Jade’s mom admits to Mia that no drugs were found in Riley’s system– counter to her suspicion that all this happened because Mia had given Riley drugs. Further, she admits she was wrong to blame Mia, and she knows that Mia would never have done anything to hurt Riley. It even looks like Riley is starting to get better…
So Jade’s mom decides to trust Mia again.
And Jade decides to trust Mia again, too… only to discover that Mia has murdered her father.
Which leads Mia to a moment where she has to choose between two fantasies.
Despite everyone saying that Riley is getting better, what Mia is seeing is something else. She’s seeing a Riley who cannot get better unless she does something.
It’s like Mia’s mom said… there’s only one escape from this kind of suffering…
So this part of the storytelling is also happening on two interconnected levels. On the genre level, it’s a horrifying chase sequence to “save” Riley.
And on the dramatic level, Mia is reliving the metaphorical version of this horrible trauma that actually happened to her because of her mother’s death.
This, by the way, is not just how movies work. It’s how psychology works. If we don’t deal with our traumas, we repeat them.
And that’s what makes writing so powerful – and so healing.
Writing gives us an opportunity to do different variations on our trauma, to explore in our own minds, if that’s true, what else is true…
To play with mirrors and foils of our own experiences…
To ask ourselves profound questions and also look at the logical conclusions…
If we continue on the path that we’re on without making a change, where might they actually lead?
This is the incredible healing power of movies, of writing, of art.
Desperate to save Riley, Mia reenacts her own trauma – and the false beliefs that have grown out of it.
Mia kidnaps Riley, and we soon realize she’s rolling him in his wheelchair down towards the highway. She is going to kill him.
Mia is possessed. Not by a demon but by a thought. The same thought that killed her mother. A thought that’s so obviously false, as false as the idea that this horrifying hand somehow is good, or somehow can save someone…
As false as the idea the escape of addiction is a path to a better life…
But it’s a compelling story for Mia, a beautiful story that she wants to believe–that there is a monster in Riley and that she’s killing the monster, not him.
That she’s freeing Riley from an even greater horror.
BIG SPOILER ALERT: From here on, I’m going to share things that will spoil the trick ending of Talk to Me…
Because Talk to Me is a horror movie and there are tropes, of course Jade realizes what Mia is up to just in time and rushes back to the hospital just in time to try to save her brother….
And after the exciting chase sequence, an amazing thing happens. Mia hears Jade… and then hesitates for a moment.
And finally, it’s not Riley that Mia hurls into the road. It’s herself.
You’ve probably realized by now that, structurally, this is just the darkest possible mirror to Mia’s mother’s suicide. Mia has relived her mother’s trauma and made it her own.
Yes, Mia has done so in horror-movie terms rather than on drama-movie terms, but it’s actually the same story. Because under every genre movie is just a drama about a family, about relationships, about people dealing with real stuff, real psychological patterns that are truly horrifying.
This is where the best elevated horror comes from (there are also wonderful B-horror movies that take a different approach, which we can explore in another podcast).
Elevated horror movies like Talk to Me work best when we get the personal, emotional, thematic journey that we can relate to and the horror journey with the genre elements happening – at the same time.
It’s at this moment that Mia has actually completed the journey set in motion by her mom’s death, by coming to the same conclusion that her mother has come to: the only hope is through death.
And by taking the most extreme possible action based on that conclusion.
On our way to Mia’s final structural choice, we’ve learned a very simple rule, which is vital to understanding the last twist in the trick ending of Talk to Me.
If you die with a spirit inside of you, they have you forever.
Mia doesn’t have to throw herself into the road to save Riley. All she has to do is stop. But she’s done such horrible things. And she’s haunted by such horrible memories and such horrible demons that it seems like suicide is the only answer.
And this is when we get that last image.
Mia stands up in the middle of the road. We’re told nothing about the rules of what is happening at this moment, we’re only seeing it visually. And we’re making sense of it at the same time Mia is.
It looks like, somehow, Mia has survived her suicide attempt.
And that is when we see her hands again– the horrifying image of her mangled fingertips.
And we realize now what the image means – her hands were mangled from the impact with the pavement after Mia threw herself into the road and was struck by a car.
Mia’s walking around the road. We’re surprised that she survived, and it seems like all the other people are, too.
And then suddenly, she’s back in the hospital, which seems impossible, except that we’ve been taught visually that the rules of this world are that characters can be in two places at once.
As Mia wanders the halls of the hospital, we see Riley and he’s OK. He’s getting packed up to leave…
And Mia’s dad is there… somehow alive… and she’s calling to him, but he’s walking away… and he can’t hear her.
And then we finally see that final image that we’ve been set up for, the payoff on the dream she shared with Jade at the beginning of the film.
Mia looks in the mirror, but she doesn’t have a reflection.
And we realize this is the completion of that fear, of that journey.
Mia has become one of these demons.
Which brings us to the last image of Talk to Me, which is just another mirror of the game with the creepy hand.
Except this time, we’re at a completely different party. We’re seeing a bunch of kids with the hand, but from Mia’s perspective. And then they’re holding Mia’s hand, and they say, “I let you in.”
Talk to Me is not just a horror movie. It’s also a character-driven drama about what happens if we don’t move past our traumas. We end up repeating them.
It’s just a story about how our addictive desire to escape gets in the way of our ability to actually move through the pain of our lives and find hope.
Even though I just broke down the whole character journey, the whole structure around which Talk to Me is built, building a structure like that in your screenplay is not about figuring all that out.
It’s actually about trusting the process, trusting your mirrors and foils, trusting your subconscious mind to discover the patterns and reveal the rules of the story to you.
So I want you to think about this approach to structure.
Yes, there are a million things that can teach you about building structure and the craft elements of that.
But structure can also be built intuitively, just by pushing yourself to really see, feel and hear things, pushing yourself to riff on those things, with mirrors and foils, with “yes, and…”
Then allowing your own meaning-maker to ask if this is true, what else is true?
And if those things are true, then what does it mean? What’s the story that I’m really telling, not just the genre elements on the surface but the real human drama that lies underneath?
You will know that your genre movie is working – whether it’s an action movie, a superhero movie, a horror movie, a comedy, a romantic comedy, a thriller, a noir, a heist movie, whatever you’re building – when those two things are happening at the same time.
If you have a genre element and another genre element and another genre element and they’re all outdoing each other,and they’re building like a fireworks display on the Fourth of July, great!
But you also want to be able to know that if you took all of those genre elements out of your script, you would have a beautiful little Sundance movie that people could connect to.
A human drama that tells a story about a character going through something real and either making a beautiful choice or making a terrible choice.
This is the story of Mia, who needs to decide whether she’s going to run over that “kangaroo” or try to help it live.
If this podcast is helping your writing, and you want to learn more about how to build screenplays organically, then come check out my school. We have fabulous foundation classes in Screenwriting and TV Writing that will teach you seven-act structure and how to build the engine of a TV show. For more advanced writers, we have my Master Class, which is the equivalent of a grad school education, but it will only take you one Sunday a month, and it will leave you with zero debt at a price you can afford that fits your real world life. And our ProTrack mentorship program will pair you one-on-one with a professional writer who will read every page you write, every draft you complete, and mentor you for your entire life. For a tiny fraction of the cost of grad school, you can meet with them weekly, bi weekly, whatever works best for you. It’s an incredible program, and built to allow you to become a professional writer in a way that fits your life and your budget.