William Friedkin's The Exorcist has a hauntingly tight screenplay structure.
Horror movies are some of the most fun and emotional rides out there. They keep you on the edge of your seat and stick with you long after you've seen the screen fade to black. For my money, there is no movie scarier than The Exorcist. It's a visceral experience as poignant and terrifying today as it was when it was released almost 50 years ago.
One of the things I admire so much about the movie is how it feels like a Swiss watch of storytelling. Every beat builds on the one before it to create a powerful story of characters overcoming inner and outer demons.
The movie The Exorcist was written by William Peter Blatty based on his novel, and directed by William Friedkin. I wanted to use today's post to dissect all the beats of the screenplay and dig deep into what makes this a horror classic.
Let's take a look.
We're Using Our Beat Sheet to Dissect William Friedkin's The Exorcist
We're going to use the beats we layout in this infographic to dissect the plot of the movie.
1. The First Frame
A script reader will tell you that the first 10 pages are where they determine whether or not they want to recommend a script. So make your opening image stand out and try to link it to the theme of the story.
In The Exorcist, we begin in Iraq where we see a dig taking place. The music and pagan statue let us know this is a movie about an ancient struggle between good and evil. It's an interesting way to then transition this to Georgetown, where we never expect this kind of evil to live, as opposed to the ancient world.
2. The World Around Us
After we're hooked, steep us in the world. I want to know who inhabits these areas and what's going on in the world. Are we in the present, past, future? This is where you really set the tone as well. If you're writing a comedy, these pages should have people laughing. If it's a drama, give us some drama.
For The Exorcist, we meet the rest of the characters. The successful Hollywood actress, her sweet daughter, and the jaded priest. We position them in society and then begin to let the tragedy unfold.
3. Protagonist's Introduction
The Exorcist has a trifecta of protagonists. We have Regan, the daughter possessed by the demon. We meet her when she's sweet and see her transformation in the first act. Her mother, Chris, is a successful single woman who is a movie star. She works constantly and leads an idyllic life. Father Karras is a man who is grieving the loss of his mother, and he blames himself for not saving her.
4. The Character Traits
This is another good time to point out that some of the beats can occur in the same scene, or series of scenes together. When you meet your character, we need to see what's driving them. What stands out about them? What do we think they need to change? Hint at possible arcs. Allude to who they are and how they interact with others.
As I mentioned, in the movie we see that Regan has an imaginary friend she talks to with the Ouija board. She's sweet but begins acting strangely. Telling someone at a dinner party they're going to die. Peeing on the rug. We see her mother beginning to lose faith in science and practical thinking, which she relies on to solve all her problems. And we see Father Karras stop wearing his priest uniform and drift away from the faith.
5. The Emotional Hurdle / 6. The Physical Hurdle
This is the beginning of the external conflicts in the story. Again, these beats get repeated, but we need to know what impedes the characters. In act one, we need to know what will be in the way.
In The Exorcist, we have three hurdles. The biggest is Regan's possession. We need to see Chris go from a non-believer to someone who trusts in God and wants Him to help her daughter. We also have Father Karras, who needs to not only cure Regan of her possession but also find his faith once again.
All these problems weave in and out of the physical and emotional. We see Chris taking Regan through some serious medical procedures that cause her pain as a mother. Karras worries about the church relying on him and also about the physical toll of performing an exorcism.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ9vYm70IxQ
7. The Reason Forward
Each protagonist's quest needs to have a reason behind it. When do we break from act one to act two? What's the driving force?
Here, the force behind every choice is faith. Can they rely on God to save them when things are bad? The reason for the change in everyone is not only helping Regan, but also the need to make things better within their own lives.
8. The Decision to Try
As you enter the second act, your character needs to fully decide to participate in the quest. This decision to try, to put it all on the line, is the most important one of the script.
For Chris, she sees doctors and psychiatrists fail to help her daughter. We see a parade of medical experts who cannot help them out of this situation.
Meanwhile, Karras explores what his life could be without the church, further dealing with the loss of his mother and wondering if anyone is being affected by his preaching.
9. Why We’re Here
Why would butts be in seats to watch your movie? What are those trailer moments that draw the crowds? This is where it shines! I think we do need a series of scenes that really give people those trailer moments.
I mean, is there any lasting horror image as terrifying as Regan's head turning completely around?
Give the people what they want out of the movie. Show us a demon who cannot be controlled by mortal forces, who uses a cross to do unspeakable things, and beats the doctors and priests at every turn. The Exorcist uses these pages to horrify us, leaning into the genre.
10. Antics and Escapades
These are the actual events within the promise. I think it's important to look at them in two different beats.
This is the first. In these, you want the payoffs to be fun and engaging. This is where things go right. Your characters could even get a bit cocky here. We often associate these pages with the genre.
In a horror movie, this is where things go wrong and where the A and B stories collide. With nothing going Chris' way, she agrees to seek out a religious person to help Regan. She meets with Karras, who is in plain clothing. He's never performed an exorcism, but when he sees real evil in Regan, he knows the devil is real.
11. Consequences and Casualties
One thing we need to see is a failure. Things can't go smoothly. Beats of failure are the most important part of a second act. This is where great characters deal with their actions. When you see your character fail, you can expose the character traits you want to see them fix. You can also build in the backstory to explain those failures. The more we know about the people within the world, the more we will root for them. Or against them. Depending on your story.
We see Karras recruit Father Merrin to help with the exorcism. Karras now has to confront his faith just as Chris must.
12. The Final Straw
At some point, we need to see the straw that breaks the camel's back. What's the low point? The one where people want to quit?
In The Exorcist, Merrin asks to do the exorcism alone after seeing Regan speak to Karras as his mother, making him weak. Merrin separates Karras and Chris, pushing them out of the room to do this alone. We see him losing the battle with the devil. We're afraid Regan will never recover, and Chris and Karras are helpless, not even active in saving her.
13. Rock Bottom
After your character has found their worst failure, we need to see them wallow. Wallowing scenes can still be funny or dramatic or action-packed. Karras approached Merrin, joining into the exorcism, knowing that Merrin would not win. We see this as Merrin's heart gives out, dying while performing the exorcism. Karras is on his own now, in way too deep.
14. The Bounce Back
Once you've hit rock bottom, you can only go up. When the story bounces back, it can in a big way.
Toward the end of the movie, Karras offers himself up to save the girl. The devil leaves Regan and enters Karras, who then throws himself out of the window and onto the steps, dying. His death also kills the demon and frees Regan.
We all like a winner. Maybe these triumphs come at the expense of someone else, or maybe they're just minor wins. Maybe your characters lose, but thematically we should see what you want to communicate to the audience triumph here. That's the lesson, the moral, the reason you want people to tune in and watch. This is where you deliver that lesson, bitter, sweet, or somewhere in between. Don't let anyone down.
Chris gets her daughter back and the demon is destroyed, taking two priests' lives with it. It's not a happy triumph, but it gets Regan back. And Karras can make the same sacrifice as Jesus, being absolved by his friend, Father Dyer.
16. The Final Frame
We covered the first and final frames above. But this is where your story ends. What image will you leave in your reader's mind? What can sum up the story or sum up the intentions of the story and close the loop of the characters' journey?
In The Exorcist, we pick up with the story a few days later. Regan, now back to normal, prepares to leave for Los Angeles with her mother. She has no recollection of her possession, but she is still moved by the sight of Dyer's clerical collar and kisses his cheek. As the car leaves, her mother tells the driver to stop, and she gives Dyer a medallion that belonged to Karras. After they drive off, Dyer pauses at the top of the stone steps before turning and walking away.
Instead of the ominous opening, this shows people leaving with hope, not foreboding.
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