Podcast

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: How To Train Your Dragon

Hiccup is the weakling son of a mighty chieftain in a Viking village on a rocky island that is regularly attacked by fire-breathing dragons. In the middle of a nighttime attack, Hiccup uses a device he invented to trap a fearsome dragon, but when he goes to kill his captive, he suddenly decides to befriend it instead, naming it “Toothless”. He uses his secret time with Toothless to learn how to excel at dragon-fighting class, humiliating his classmates, including Snortlout, Fishlegs, and beautiful tomboy-warrior Astrid. When his father kidnaps Toothless and forces him to reveal the location of the dragon nest, the students race to get there first and make peace.
PART #1: CONCEPT 19/21
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 An underestimated Viking prince captures and bonds with a dragon, so they try to bring peace to their two tribes.
Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?
 No, that’s pretty damn original.  It has elements of the war movie, the gladiator movie, the coming-of-age movie, etc., but it’s really something pretty new.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 A dragon killer in training succeeds by befriending a dragon.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Training a pet, but with two civilizations on the line.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Hiccup.
Is the story about the hero’s problem, not the hero’s life? 
 Yes, there are lots of montages that show Hiccup’s incremental progress at solving the problem without worrying about what Hiccup does all day.
Is it about a unique relationship?
 A boy and his dragon.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 His father specifically and whole village generally, and then the final dragon.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest hope: impressing dad. Greatest fear: having to fight dragons.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Yes.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 In order to make peace, he must disappoint his father.
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
 Ironically, yes, even though he’s the only one avoiding direct confrontation, he does wind up working the hardest, day and night, learning how to understand his dragon and use those methods in training.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Only he can communicate with Toothless and save the day.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
 He transforms his whole civilization.
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
 He goes from wanting to impress his father to wanting to change his father.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Vikings fighting dragons. Catlike dragons.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Not really.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 The dragons have an evil overlord forcing them to attack the village.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
 Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Yes.
PART #2: CHARACTER 21/23
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 He makes a lot of funny self-deprecating wisecracks in the opening voice-over.
Is the hero defined by actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 He’s the village loser.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 He’s actually the only one who can take down a night fury.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 A few mild ones, such as 21st century anachronism: “we have stubbornness issues.” And drama: “Duh-da-duh! We’re dead!”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 He’s sarcastic and a pessimist, even when things are going well.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Stammering out a string of excuses until something sticks.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, not-selfless, and revealed early on?
 His motivation is complex.  His initial motivation, to impress his father, is all of those things, but he loses all of that motivation as soon as he befriends Toothless, then he’s uncertain of his own goal for a while, then he forms a relatively selfless motivation of making peace, but he uses his knowledge to continue to impress the village while he tries to figure out how to do that, so his motivation is definitely more complex than most heroes, which is fine. It’s an ambitious movie. 
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a false philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “Taking down one of those would definitely get me a girlfriend!” “No one has ever killed a night fury, I’m going to be the first.”
Does the hero have a false or short-sighted goal when we first meet him or her?
 Get a girlfriend, bring down a night fury, impress his dad.
Does the hero have an open anxiety about his or her future?
 Failing to impress his dad.
Does the hero also have a hidden, private fear?
 Afraid that he’s totally different from the rest of village.
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
 Very much so.
Does the hero have an untenable great flaw that we empathize with? (but…)
 His flaws are rather small, but he can be na├»ve and pessimistic.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw the natural flip-side of a great strength that we admire?
 He’s compassionate, smart and perceptive.
Is the hero curious?
 Very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 He invents and builds elaborate devices.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Not really. He’s very open to change. Just one, maybe, something like “I can build something to solve this.”
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 The others are all meatheads.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes, but only in muttered asides.
Is the hero actively pursuing an early goal when we first meet him or her?
 Yes, he’s chomping at the bit to use his dragon-capturing device right away.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 He doesn’t naturally have it, but he claims it.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 He uses his blacksmith skills to make weapons, make an appendage for the dragon, etc. Uses his ability to draw to make friends, design devices.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (if the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/24
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 Gets no respect in the opening battle, and tells us about his predicament in voiceover.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 He almost burns the village down.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 He finds that he’s downed a night dragon, but doesn’t know what to do with him. (This is where he has his spiritual crisis as well, very early!)
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Goes to dragon training, tries to be like the others.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 Goes back to the dragon.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Not yet. The dragon is hard to train, but not as much as he thought it would be. Astrid finds out what he’s doing, but that’s later.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Uses what he learns from the captive dragon to excel in dragon-fighting class.
Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?
 Loves first flight with the dragon.
Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
 It looks like he’ll tame toothless and become the hero of the village.
Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
 It happens very late, more like ¾of the way in, when his relationship with Toothless is exposed. At the midpoint, he actually reaches a kind of peak, which is closer to the structure of a tragedy.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero lose a safe space and/or sheltering relationship at this point?
 Again, it happens late, near the end of the third quarter, instead of at the beginning: At that point his father condemns him and takes his beloved pet dragon away
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Not really. He was really trying the hard way (doing it all himself) before, and now he’s trying the easier (and better) way, working with his classmates.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
 Yes.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 His father goes off to the nest.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Not really. Again, the crises are reversed in this movie. He has the spiritual crisis in the first quarter, has no midpoint crisis, then loses everything at the ¾ mark (but not in a way that makes him question his already-corrected philosophy). So then, given the fact that he is on the straight and narrow from minute 20, why doesn’t the movie feel inert? Because there are so many ramifications of that initial crisis for him to deal with, and because he still tries to have it both ways until the loss of everything at the ¾ mark.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 “It’s not the dragon I’m worried about.” “I’m not one of them”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Ride new dragons to save them all.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 He devises the rescue plan.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 His father attacks before he can de-escalate things.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Every single character is at the climax.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 He reconciles with his father in the middle of the final battle.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 He is accepted by the village and is physically transformed.
PART #4: SCENEWORK (Selected scene: Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.) 22/23
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Hiccup just read a book on all the ways dragons can kill you. The other kids were bragging the night before about how they were going to kick ass.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Battle is already underway.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Very much so, they’re in a collapsing arena with a deadly dragon. 
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Nobody wants to have the conversation Hiccup wants to have.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Snortlout’s crush, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Hiccup must get answers before this dragon can kill him.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
 Primarily plot for Hiccup, but reveals character for others.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
 Again, not really for Hiccup, but for others.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We want Hiccup to get the information he wants (but we also share Astrid’s frustration with him.)
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Hiccup wants to find out how to befriend a dragon, everybody else wants to kill one.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface: defeat this dragon. Suppressed: Crushes are pursued, Hiccup’s secret agenda, his rivalry with Astrid.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Flirting through fighting, fighting through flirting.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Hiccup pretends to still hate dragons,  Snortlout is cagy about his crush on Astrid, Astrid might have feelings for Hiccup.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Hiccup openly asks about Night Furies, Snortlout tries to pick up Astrid covertly, everybody tries to outsmart the dragons (look for blind spots, etc.)
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Tons of reblocking and just one touch between Astrid and Hiccup, when she falls on him then pushes his face away
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Astrid’s ax gets disabled by Hiccup’s shield, which foreshadows the larger plot.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
 Several strategies for confronting the dragon are progressed through.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 The instructor reluctantly answers Hiccup’s questions in order to get him to move out of harm’s way.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 He’s trying not to fight, but he’s the one that defeats the dragon.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
 More about night furies. We realize that Astrid knows Snortlout likes her and doesn’t return feelings.
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 How to learn about night furies now that hopes of book learning are dashed?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Not really. Things haven’t gotten much better or worse for the hero in this scene. He attempted to find out more and failed.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Cuts away on a question, not an answer.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 20/20
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 We empathize with every person on each side and with each dragon, except the last one, and even his actions are understandable.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Yes.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Astrid helps him not because she’s dedicated to soothing him, but because she demands to know how he stole her thunder.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 The father and son are wonderfully inarticulate in their discussion.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
 Training is mostly silent, explanations are always insufficient and self-serving.
Do the characters listen poorly?
 Very much so.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
 Or try to.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
 Well, it does a good job of creating a whole system of jargon from scratch.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
 Believably re-creates the feeling of basic training.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Fishlegs: role-playing-gamer, Trainer: old fisherman
Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
 Dad: macho-stern, Astrid, macho-annoyed, each of the kids has their own.
Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
 Dad: brooks no opposition. Astrid: nails your hypocrisy.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Yes.
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 When with the group, Hiccup is heart, Fishlegs is head (he cites statistics), and the other four kids are all gut.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 There’s a voiceover info-dump at the beginning to introduce the bizarre world, but it describes each aspect as it plays its part in a big battle, piquing our interest about each one as it’s explained. From that point, the additional exposition dribbles out.  
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Lots, actually: the last two scenes with father and son, two scenes with Astrid.
PART #6: TONE 16/16
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
 Action-Comedy / Heroic Fantasy
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Boot camp / coming-of-age
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?
 Lots of eye-popping 3-D, lots of action, lots of giggle-worthy-comedy, beautiful imagery.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)? 
 Dragons are a metaphor for all dehumanized and misunderstood enemies.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 They win the big battle but they also make peace. Hiccup wins but he also loses his foot.
Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 A delicate but successful mix of scary, fun, morally serious, and snarky. The finale is surprisingly funny and scary at the same time. Established quickly by the contrast between dark, violent imagery of first scene and kid-friendly voice-over. People will die violently, but maybe not people we care about. (though they may be maimed)
Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, and it’s remarkably realistic. We actually have a sense of how hard it is for the dragons to fly and how much effort it takes, which is essential later when we’re trying to figure out with Hiccup how to get the Night Fury flying again.
Is the nature of the stakes (lethal, social, psychological and/or spiritual?) established early and maintained throughout?
 Equally lethal, social, and spiritual. If he fails at the training, he’ll be humiliated and he may lose his life, but if he succeeds, he may lose his soul. In terms of the lethal stakes, it’s very tricky: It feels far more deadly than most kids movies (compare to Kung Fu Panda, for example) but still has to be not-scary enough for kids. The first scene establishes this tricky balance well.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
 Questions about various types of dragons are answered later, etc.
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Where is the nest?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Just a little bit of voiceover.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Lots of people with missing body parts, etc.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 The nature of the Night Fury, the nest, the injury, are all foreshadowed excellently.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
 Lots of great set-up and pay-off with dragon behaviors that pay off in the ring and the final battle.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 “You just said all of me” which will be reversed later.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Hiccup finds the nest halfway, but the rest find it at the end.
PART 7: THEME 12/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Victory vs. peace-making, justice vs. family loyalty
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 “What does it mean to win?” is the implied question.
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 He keeps finding ways to avoid fighting the dragons without fighting his community.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 The costs of war and of peacemaking are both well-portrayed, as well as the nature of disability.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Despite the extremely bizarre setting, it feels authentic to both the Scottish and Viking aspects of its imaginary world.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 There are lots of parallels with the “War on Terror”
Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Yes, by fudging it, they make peace with all the dragons but one. Also, disability is treated honestly, which is almost never the case in movies.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Hiccup chooses to fight and loses a foot! Dragon cannot overcome his disability without help.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 He must make peace with each dragon, with Astrid, with his dad, etc…
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 The mom’s helmet, the prosthesis, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards on one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Justice is ultimately more important than loyalty to family, but it’s an impossible choice so the two must be reconciled. The other dilemma is split: They’re able to make peace with most, but have to kill the one who won’t make peace.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Very much so. The opening dragon attack is paralleled by the final peaceful shots of dragons flying through the village.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Hmm… It’s pretty tidy.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 By knocking Hiccup out for the denouement, we skip the actual rapprochement between the Vikings and the dragons, but there’s still a lot of talk about what it all means.

Final Score: 129 out of 140

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