Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Silence of the Lambs

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Ambitious FBI trainee Clarice Starling is asked by her boss Jack Crawford to interview the infamous serial killer Hannibal Lecter, in hopes that he can help them catch a new killer nick-named “Buffalo Bill”. Lecter detects that Clarice is ashamed of her rural past, so he insists of psycho-analyzing her in return for his help. At first Clarice simply lies to Lecter but her lies are exposed by petty asylum director Frederick Chilton. Forced to tell Lecter everything, Clarice confronts her own past, which helps her track down and kill Bill, but Lecter escapes in the process.
PART #1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 An ambitious FBI rookie must work with a devious imprisoned serial killer to rescue a Senator’s daughter.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 The only way to catch one serial killer is to work with another.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
We’ve all felt that we must accept injustice to get ahead at work.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 We understand the problems and goals quickly.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
We zip through a lot of time, have little “downtime”
Does the story present a unique relationship?
FBI and serial killer working together.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Chilton, plus Lecter, plus Bill
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
She’s been hoping for such an opportunity and living in fear of having her past revealed.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Lecter is determined to get a reaction out of her, and does.
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)?
She really doesn’t want to talk about her past.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Only she is pushing hard on Lecter angle.  In the end, everyone else is in Illinois.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 She finds and kills Bill. The lambs have stopped screaming.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 There are only a few scenes of physical danger, but they’re exciting enough to satisfy all urges.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
The death’s head moth, the pit, the face mask
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The escape, the fava beans, the pit, the dress-up session
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
The escape
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Mostly. They marketing did hint at the escape.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
But just barely. The story couldn’t have sustained our interest very long without Lecter.
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?)
An out-of-character moment of vanity: corrects Crawford on her grade. Kind: she reminds him that she confronted him about the bureau’s record on race.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Sort of. Backstory plays a big part.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Ambitious, plucky rookie.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Has strengths and weakness that others can’t see.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
West Virginia, says “sir” a lot.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Listens closely, picks apart holes in your story, uses your own argument against you.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Career advancement
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
Advice given by Crawford: Don’t let him get into your head.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Not really. She’s na├»ve in her initial treatment of Lecter, but she understands the size and nature of her goal immediately.  Her eyes are on the same ultimate goal in every scene.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: That she’s not good enough. Hidden: That she’s a hick.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
She’s small and emotionally wounded.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
She’s too humble, too much in denial about her past.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
She listens and looks closely, thinks in new ways.
Is the hero curious?
Peeks at the Buffalo Bill before she gets the case.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Uses her car jack to get into the garage, etc.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Be humble, work hard, get ahead
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Everybody else is far more proud and arrogant.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Stands up for herself in a humble but definite way.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
She’s literally running, jumping and climbing trees!
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Not really, she’s just a rookie, so the plot keeps contriving ways to keep her on the case, and that’s fine.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Knowledge of dress-making, knowledge of how small town people think.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
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)?
Intimidated in elevator with tall agents, annoyed when the door is shut in her face when she peeks in on the Bill investigation.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
See above, also creepy Chilton hits on her and dismisses her, Lecter sees through her, another inmate throws something
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
Thinks Lecter knows more than he lets on.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Sort of: has mini-breakdown in the parking lot after interviewing Lecter, but quickly recovers and charges ahead.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
Follows up on Lecter’s clues.
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?
Yes, with Chilton and others.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
She lies to Lecter to get him to talk, doesn’t reveal much about herself.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
She flirts with moth guys, shows some people up, seems to get good value out of Lecter, brags to roommate that it’s going well.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
Her lies are revealed and she’s taken off the case. Lecter is moved from safe cell to unsecure location.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
She tells Lecter everything about her past
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
She discovers that Chilton is even worse than she thought and Lecter had secret plans. She also learns to trust Crawford, despite his toughness and possible sexism.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
They’re running out of time, in danger of being fired.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
See above.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Lecter’s escape questions whether it was worth it to work with him.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Quid pro quo: you have to make yourself vulnerable in order to understand evil.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 She’s on the right trail, but that trail has gone cold.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Goes to Ohio by herself.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 She thinks she’s visiting a witness, but she discovers Bill, without a chance to prepare.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
No, just Clarice, Bill and the captive are there, not Crawford or Lecter, but that’s fine.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Symbolically: girl who’s about to be skinned stops screaming.
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)
 She says lambs stopped screaming.
PART #4: SCENEWORK (Random Example: Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.) 18/20
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?
 She was prepared to meet a monster, not the erudite man she meets. But she also expected to be able to keep him out of her head, which turns out to be a false expectation.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it begins at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Very intimidating. It would seem that they would be still, but he chooses to stand, so she does too, then he forces her to approach to an unsafe distance. (close enough for him to see on her badge that she’s a trainee, close enough for him to smell her perfume and judge her on it)
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
No, both welcome the conversation and have nothing better to do.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Miegs, her bag and shoes, Florence
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 She’s been warned that he bores quickly, and that she should get out as soon as possible.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Both, far more than either expects, but neither will admit it.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We want her to get Lecter to do what she wants, and to get clues about Bill.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Very much so. She wants info on Bill, he wants to get out of prison.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface conflict is over the questionnaire, suppressed is over Bill, Crawford, his desires
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Somewhat, but he also keeps blatantly mentioning each item.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Very much so, but they each call each on various things the other is hiding.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 She tries to use his own words to trap him into filling out form, he tricks and traps her many times.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 He makes her come closer. They can’t touch, but he smells her, which feels even more invasive.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 The questionnaire is violently shoved back and forth through the slot.
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?
 Yes, she admits facts about herself and admits that this is about Bill. He changes his mind at the very end of the scene and decides gives her a tip.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 She gets what she wants by giving in rather than standing her ground.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: What is Lecter like? Where did Bill come from? Will he help her? New: Who is Ms. Mofet? Were Lecter’s guesses about Clarice true?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Implied: it cuts out early on a cryptic comment.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 We are left with a hope that Lecter’s info will advance Sterling’s career. (I’m not sure that we’re really afraid yet of what he’ll do to her. It still seems like she can outsmart him at this point.)
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Even the small town officials who annoy the FBI. Even Lecter’s guards.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Very much so.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Nobody ever says “This is about the victim, dammit!” Lecter and Bill pursue their own pleasure, not “evil” or Satan or “darkness”.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Yes, Clarice is very professional about playing her cards close to the chest in her dealing with victim’s families and other lawmen.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Sort of, Clarice and Lecter both listen very well, but that’s key to their characters, so it’s fine.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
 Jargon of the FBI, the prison, the transsexual center, etc. This is a masterclass in FBI techniques.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Lecter: posh (a nice Chianti), Default personality trait: Lecter: sang froid, witty, gentle Chilton: sleazy, thin-skinned, Argument strategy: Lecter: memorizing everything you said, identifying discrepancies, flattery, then using that to hold you a higher strategy. Crawford, remain silent, force you to talk.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Everything is very clipped.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 The bug guys, for instance.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Somewhat. Our main pair speaks rather formally. There’s lots of “Clarice” and “Dr. Lecter.”
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 …but two of the main characters, Crawford and Lecter, are professors, so they get away with it.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
The characters are all 3D.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Very much so: the lambs scene.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Very much so.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, the big “Lambs” scene.
PART #6: TONE 9/10
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?)
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Serial killer, FBI
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Bill is caught, but Lecter gets away.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Sprightly, not-gritty, smart, with a slight edge of black comedy.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
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?
 Can they catch Bill in three days before he kills again?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Lecter, Chilton and Crawford all share her interest in criminal psychology. Which will she end up like?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 The slow reveals of Bill’s house, Lecter’s escape plan coming together scene by scene (such as when he takes the pen).
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Failing the door check in practice, then getting it right in the field. At the end, she says the lambs have stopped screaming.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Girl is rescued, lambs stop screaming.
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?
 Evil vs. evil: empower one killer to stop another.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Not really. Nobody ever talks about the moral dilemma behind what they’re doing, which is fine.
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Is it okay to lie to Lecter? Okay to tell him anything? Even Bill has to choose between his losing his dog or losing his kill.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Somewhat. Despite all the realistic tradecraft, both Lecter and Bill turn out to be pretty unrealistic serial killers. This portrait of evil is more of a manifestation of ‘80s-era prejudices against other things (psychiatrists, transsexuals) than a realistic portrait of psychopathy. 
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)?
 Yes, it’s a very well-observed portrayal of life at the FBI and small-town life.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Echoes of Bundy and other cases.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 It respects the horror of those cases.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Lecter escapes as a result, for instance.
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?
 Moths representing transformation, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 The death’s head moth, the dog, the pen, the survey, the drawings, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 It’s implied that it was probably worth it, (maybe it would have felt very different if we ended on Lecter killing an innocent family, for instance)
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 They catch one only to lose another.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Lecter remains free, and we never fully understand the mechanics of his escape.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Very much so. We never see them second-guess the value of working with Lecter.
Final Score: 110 out of 122


j.s. said...

Enjoying the new series.

Not sure if it's just a technical glitch on my end but this SOTL chart isn't visible on my Firefox browser, where I only see a big black emptiness. It's fine on Google Chrome and Safari though. And I can definitely see both BRIDESMAIDS checklists/charts on all three browsers.

James Kennedy said...

Seconding j.s.'s comment.

Matt Bird said...

Sorry, guys. See comment above.