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5 Top Tips From The Black Phone Writers Can Learn

Watch & Read The Black Phone Now

The Black Phone is a movie adaptation of the 2004 short story of the same title by Joe Hill. Directed by Scott Derrickson, the screenplay is written by Derrickson and his long-time collaborator C. Robert Cargill. I’m a HUGE fan of both Hill and this duo’s previous output including Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, so I was keen to watch the movie regardless.

The logline for The Black Phone on imdb reads, “After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.”

This concept is GOLD and made me keen to watch the movie even more. The film was both a critical and commercial success, gaining praise for its performances and faithfulness to the source material.

For Halloween, I thought I would watch The Black Phone and break down what makes it so great. Ready? Let’s go …

TIP #1: Passive Protagonists NEED Another Character To Take The Reins

The short story version of The Black Phone by Joe Hill is an example of a trope called ‘In Media Res’. From the Latin, this roughly translates as ‘in the middle of things’. This means the exposition – that important background information needed to understand the story – is filled in gradually, often via techniques such as flashback, dialogue or description of past events.

In the short story, our protagonist John Finney goes to the store to buy grape soda. While he is there, he is abducted by Albert and taken to the basement with the black phone. In the story, he imagines his streetwise older sister Susannah searching for him on her bike in the local neighbourhood.

It’s slightly different in the film version.

Our lead is renamed Finney Blake; his sister is called Gwen and appears to be slightly younger than him. In addition, the set-up is much lengthier, establishing Finney as a quiet, thoughtful boy who gets bullied a lot at school. By contrast, Gwen is a little firecracker who thinks nothing of rushing headlong into schoolyard fights to help Finney.

In addition, Gwen is psychic. Susannah in the source material is interested in the occult and such items as Tarot cards … but there’s nothing to suggest she dreams things that come true like Gwen can.

Like Johnny in the source material, Finney is a passive protagonist.

This is unsurprising, because both Johnny and Finney are abduction victims. They will be forced to react to being taken (and then save themselves), but they have to BE taken first. As they realise their predicament, they must work out what they can DO about it.

In both versions, the boys are fed possible solutions on what to do. In the short story, a single ghost-boy calls Johnny on the black phone … in the film version, it’s five: Bruce, Billy, Griffin, Vance and Robin. This makes sense, because the film is so much longer than the short story.

It also makes sense the filmmakers make Gwen psychic. By giving her an arc of her own, she can take the reins for Finney. She pushes the story forward FOR him while he is being fed exposition by the ghost-boys.

I’ve seen several reviews for The Black Phone criticising Gwen’s storyline, even calling it ‘pointless’. This goes to show little the reviewers understand writing craft. Without Gwen, we would have been ‘waiting’ for Finney to stand up for himself as Robin suggests in Act 1 at school (when he is still alive). No audience member likes to wait, so not having Gwen’s additional arc would have sapped the jeopardy Finney finds himself in!

Passive protagonists MUST have another character take the reins for them as they decide what to do. In Finney’s case, he follows the directions of the ghost-boys … but ultimately must stand up FOR HIMSELF in the resolution and vanquish The Grabber (Ethan Hawke)

TIP #2: Differentiating Characters Is Important

As mentioned already, Finney is passive and must ‘grow into’ becoming active … Plus Gwen is active from the start. The contrast between the two siblings is obvious, right from the beginning.

There is similar contrast between The Grabber and his brother Max in the film version. The Grabber is conflicted and quiet, whereas Max is loud, obnoxious and oblivious. This is drawn from the short story version, where ‘Albert’s Brother’ discovers Johnny in the basement … and both versions of this character are dispatched the same way.

More important and interesting however is the differentiation between all the ghost-boys in the film version.

We meet Bruce at the baseball game in the first few minutes. He’s a jock, traditionally an antagonistic force against quiet boys like Finney. Like Hill before them, the filmmakers avoid this well-mined trope with panache, with Bruce instead complimenting Finney on his game. ‘You almost had me … Your arm is mint.’ 

The next two ghost-boys are Billy and Griffin. Both are younger than Finney and have trouble remembering who they are now they are dead. One heartbreakingly characterises himself as a paperboy, as if an after-school job is his whole personality.

Though we only meet the fourth boy Vance when he is dead, Finney recalls seeing him alive. Vance is a bully, an angry boy who hates the world and everything in it. When Finney thanks him for helping him, Vance even tells him it’s not ‘for’ Finney – he wants to get one over on The Grabber.

Finally we meet Robin again. We saw him in Act 1, alive; now in Act 3, he is long dead. He is as stoic in death as he was in life, counselling Finney to stand up for himself. Here he gives Finney both the means and the confidence to take down The Grabber, once and for all.

TIP #3: Escalation Is Everything

The Black Phone is a contained horror movie, with a good portion of the story in the basement with Finney. When writers attempt these types of contained stories on spec, too often their efforts become what B2W calls ‘B.O.S.H screenplays’ (‘Bunch of Stuff Happens’).

B.O.S.H screenplays occur when the story ‘runs on the spot’. In other words, the characters have a variety of things happen TO them, with little sense of escalation.

Escalation is the lifeblood of a genre like Horror.

Each event in the plot must top the one that preceded it. The plotting must be solid, taking us from the ‘bottom’ of the story to the ‘top’, ending with a ‘showdown’.

As you can see from the plotting breakdown below, Finney undergoes a transformative arc. At the beginning, he does not stand up for himself; by the end he is forced to take on The Grabber in order to escape.

Before this happens, he must work out where he is, what’s at his disposal and how he can use these items and/or information to escape. The ghost-boys are invaluable in making these realisations, but crucially they do not just hand over the means to escape. Finney must piece it all together. There will also be at least two failures before he is successful (marked with green stars on the story map below).

Each failure brings Finney closer to his goal. Ultimately, his win over The Grabber comes ONLY because of what he’s done before.

TIP #4: Emotions Have To Be Handled Carefully

Child abduction is every parents’ worst nightmare. In addition, many of us fear being kidnapped or held hostage ourselves. As a result, it would have been very easy for the film version of The Black Phone to become hysterical in tone.

Instead, the filmmakers take a leaf from Joe Hill’s book – literally. In the short story, though scared and worried about death, Johnny is pragmatic. His ability to think clearly is what saves him. It is the same in the film version.

The short story was written in 2004, almost twenty years ago. Albert in the short story is a desperate man. He is grotesquely fat, an outcast, someone forced to the margins of society. Finney is disgusted by him and there’s the sense Albert’s interest in young boys is sexual.

This is not the case in the film version. It would have been easy to for Ethan Hawke to ham it up in a fat suit, but that’s not good optics for the 2020s … Neither is the notion of a homosexual paedophile.

Instead, The Grabber’s reason for taking the boys is more to do with power. He enjoys freaking Finney out by wearing masks, or appearing suddenly out of the darkness. He withholds food and reminds Finney that if he doesn’t come back, he will die down there in the basement.

In short, The Grabber is a sadist, a bully, literally picking on someone much smaller than him. This means it is rare for him to shout at Finney … He doesn’t need to.

In contrast, Gwen’s storyline has moments in which she makes frequent sweary outbursts.

She directs them at her father, police officers, her teachers, even Jesus Christ. There’s a fantastic scene in which her father (played to perfection by Jeremy Davies) beats her with a belt. He tells Gwen her mother’s suicide was a result of her ‘seeing things’ and he won’t go through that again.

Gwen’s frustrations at not being believed sends her out on her bicycle, searching for Finney by herself. Eventually her father will take her out in the car, too. Gwen will be the one to direct the police to The Grabber’s home, though ultimately it will be Finney who saves himself.

TIP #5: Short Stories Can Make GREAT Movies!

The Black Phone is one of my favourite Horror movies of the past few years. I am a huge fan of Joe Hill’s work such as Heart-Shaped Box and The Fireman, so it comes as no surprise I enjoy his short stories too.

There’s a school of thought that short stories make ‘better’ movies than novels. I’m not sure I believe this 100%, but I can see why it’s said. Short stories can provide an excellent ‘jumping off point’ for filmmakers to create a new version of the story.

That’s exactly what’s happened with The Black Phone. Everything we end up with in the film version can easily be traced back to its source material. Even better, there is no need to dissect which is ‘better’ … This is because everything we end up with in the film is built on those original foundation blocks of the short story.

Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill have created a fantastic and dramatically satisfying film. If you are looking for something to watch this Halloween, do yourself a favour and stream it today. MORE: 5 Superb Horror Short Stories You Should Read This Halloween Month

Grab your FREE plotting breakdown of The Black Phone

Just CLICK HERE, on the plotting breakdown pic above, or the pic on the left. Don’t forget to download the short story from Amazon.

Enjoy!

Want to learn more?

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Journey into the world of archetypal story structures that are NOT the Hero’s Journey so you can unleash your BEST ideas. You will have heard of the Hero’s Journey – it is EVERYWHERE. In fact, so many stories follow this plotting archetype that many writers believe it’s the only one! But it’s not … there’s many, many more storytellers can utilise to ensure their writing feels fresh, authentic and relatable for audiences.

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