Five Screenwriting Takeaways From ‘Knives Out’
February 10, 2020
Your weekly break-down of a popular movie or television episode to see what a screenwriter—or any writer, for that matter—can take away from what’s on screen: what worked, what didn’t, and how you can use what’s popular to craft better stories.
It’s awards season, so we’ve been breaking down nominated films. After all, there’s lots to take away from Hollywood’s best and brightest. This week, we’re delving into the murderous cat-and-mouse game Knives Out from writer-director Rian Johnson, featuring an all-star cast.
Clever and comedic, this old school whodunnit gives screenwriters plenty to pull from. There are enough screenwriting clues all over this sprawling murder mystery—including unforeseen twists that are both of and subvert the genre—to give any writer inspiration.
*WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!*
The beauty of the body drop. Want to get us involved, quickly? Give us the body. Show us some death. Not to be morbid, but in thrillers, dramas, mysteries and more, the classic way to start your story is with the discovery of a dead body. This is so common, there are actual names for it in Hollywood: the cold open, the spike, the body drop, and the list goes on. CSI, Law & Order, Sherlock Holmes, even Dateline, all do the same thing; the medium doesn’t matter. If you’re looking to hook your audience quickly, the dead body is an instant attention-getter.
The pros and cons of the Slow Burn. In the opening act, Knives Out winds its way over the same main plot point from many different angles. It’s circular, relaxed—and not at all concerned about moving the plot forward. In a nutshell, the first thirty minutes are downright slow. But, a word of warning to writers out there looking to break in and become professional (i.e., paid) with their own slow burn narratives: Rian Johnson got a unique murder mystery made in which not much happens in the first thirty minutes. It worked for him, but it doesn’t mean it will work for you. By all means, write your script any way you want, but the truth is, most producers, actors, managers and agents will push you to get to the action quickly. Johnson eschews that technique.
But, like the old adage goes, you have to know the rules before you can break them. And Johnson clearly does. When the mysterious detective Benoit Blanc (portrayed by Daniel Craig, who’s clearly having a blast playing Southern gentlemen) says to the detectives who’ve been humoring him, “Now, you’ve been patient, but I bet you’re wondering why we’re here,” that’s Rian Johnson, the screenwriter, talking to the audience. He knows the game he’s playing, and he’s about to twist the rug in a whole new direction.
Pull the rug out from under us. Then do it again. Knives Out isn’t content to have one twist, dumped on us at the end. Instead, consistently reversing our expectations becomes the spine of this story, and where its real strength lies. Just when you think you’ve got the story figured out and the clues make sense, the plot takes a huge left turn. At the end of Act One, we find out that Marta is our killer, but Thrombey himself helped with the cover-up. But, just as one major plot question is solved (who did it?), we’re left with new questions (how will Marta get away? And who hired this detective if no one knows about the murder?). Each new act of Knives Out brings new reveals and reversals that cause the story to veer. The takeaway here is that you don’t need to have just one big twist at your ending. Give your story several. These big reversals are especially useful between acts, when you’re looking to push the narrative in a new direction or change the pace.
Please don’t catch the killer. Knives Out does something pretty impressive: it sets up a mystery, then at the Act Two break, tells you who the murderer is already—not usual for a murder mystery. Even more baffling, is you then spend the rest of the movie somehow rooting for this killer, hoping they don’t get caught, and following them as they try to prove their own guilt but somehow have their quest for justice taken away. It’s a wicked and wholly satisfying character archetype: that of a decent, genuine, likable and seemingly guilty murderer you actually root for. For much of the movie, poor Marta is completely at fault, but completely sympathetic, as well. A tightrope for any writer to walk, but Johnson manages it well.
Bury the body, but don’t bury the commentary. Knives Out may revel in twists and clues, but where the script takes its most surprising turn is in the subtext. Themes of classism and the symbolism of the “haves” and the “have nots” are all over this story. From the poor, immigrant family with the undocumented mother, to the manipulative children of the dead man threatening the “help” (as they are constantly quick to point out)—even Donald Trump gets a shout out, along with MAGA hats and inter-family political arguments. Whether you love political messages or not, Knives Out manages to juggle its social commentary quietly in the background as our main whodunnit weaves its way across the screen. Great mystery stories have always dabbled in social themes, all the way back to Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. More recently, modern masterpieces like Parasite and even horror films like Get Out have even found a way to make social commentary clever and powerful through the use of genre. Likewise, in a real show of restraint, Johnson opts to keep his soapbox tucked away, instead allowing his thematic musings and political subtext to never overshadow a ripping good yarn.
FINAL TAKEAWAY: In an age of superheroes and Star Wars, this merry murder mystery takes it slow and we’re all better for it. Smart, savvy and just a little bit silly, Knives Out has the potential to become a cult hit.
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.