Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: In A Lonely Place

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Hotheaded screenwriter Dix Steele hires a hat-check girl to read a book for him, then sends her home just before she gets killed. His only alibi is his neighbor Laurel Grey, who saw him around that time but isn’t sure about the timeline. Dix begins a romance with Laurel, but she begins to have her doubts about his innocence.
PART #1: CONCEPT 16/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 An angry screenwriter is accused of murder, then falls in love with the beautiful woman who provided his alibi, but she’s not sure he’s really innocent.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Yes, a writer of crime stories is caught up in one.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes, the plot all happens offscreen, all we see are the emotional reactions to it.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Dix.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes. We zip through a lot of time.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes, a romance between a man and the stranger that alibis him.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Yes, everyone, to varying degrees.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes, greatest hope: return of love and career passion, greatest fear: his anger goes out of control, ironic answer: he asks “what happens in the book?” then he lives it.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Yes, very.
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)?
 Yes, he thinks he needs his anger to survive and to write well.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 No. His friends care more about helping him, both externally and internally, than he does himself.  This should kill the movie but it doesn’t.  This is very rare: a compelling story about refusing to help yourself.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 Transform the situation: he pushes Laurel too far and out of his life.  Transform the hero: “I lived a while while she loved me, I died when she left me.”
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?
 No.  No crimes are committed onscreen, there is no climactic act of violence, the crime is also solved offscreen, and the perpetrator is someone we don’t know.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 No.  That’s a problem.  It has no noir imagery.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Not really, but the level of darkness Bogart taps into must have been shocking at the time.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Sort of: by that point we’re half convinced that he did it, but he didn’t.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
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?)
 Yes, he’s funny with the kids, kind to the drunk.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes.  He is problems are defined by almost getting in that fight, not by what we then find out about his stalled out career.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, talented misanthrope.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Somewhat, he’s a better person than he seems to be, since he stands up for the drunk and secretly sends flowers to dead girl.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes, mock-film noir, based on his screenwriting career.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, sarcasm
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes, encourages them to talk, lets them hang themselves, then shoots them down swiftly and brutally.  Or he just punches them.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 No, it’s complex and contradictory: Does he want the Althea Bruce job or not?  Does he want to write something for quick money or something meaningful?  Is he looking for love?  For sex?  Does he have a death wish? A desire to be imprisoned?  Does he want to deal with his anger issues or not?  Unlike most heroes, he is a man or dark, murky, contradictory impulses.  And yet, we love him and find him utterly compelling.  He’s an exception to the rule.
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)?
 Yes: “She’s right, I am nobody.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Yes, write a quickie picture for some money.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: that he’s wasted his life.  Hidden: that he’ll kill somebody.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes, very much so.  Bogart was great at acting tough and then totally wilting.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Yes, his hostility cannot be controlled.
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?
 Yes, he’s brutally honest and a great writer.
Is the hero curious?
 No.  He refuses to pay attention to key facts he needs to hear. 
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 No.  Others have to take care of him.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Yes: One day I’ll write something great, I won’t be insulted, I must never show my real emotions.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, only he is kind to the drunk, only he speaks his mind.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Very much so, he has a razor-sharp rapier wit
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Yes, he’s on his way to meeting about a job.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes, he’s his own boss.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Yes. “It was his story against mine…Of course, I told my story better.”  “I’ve had a lot of experience in matters of this kind, I’ve killed a lot of people…in pictures.”
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 17/21
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)?
 No, in this story, he is already aware of his internal flaw, which is the same as his longstanding personal problem: his bad anger management. 
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Yes, he almost gets in a fight in the street, then his few friends chew him out for almost getting in another fight at his favorite restaurant.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 In a roundabout way: a girl’s death brings his old cop friend and a new girlfriend into his life, both of whom will offer him compassion while challenging him on his anger issues.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Yes, he hesitates about pursuing Laurel.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 Indirectly: He commits to pursuing the girl, and she commits to solving his problems for him.
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, Laurel’s masseuse is opposed to the relationship, his cop buddy’s boss and wife both distrust Dix.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he blows off the murder accusation and his early relationship is idyllic.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Yes, he thinks he’s solved all of his personal problems and cleared his name.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 Yes, at the beach picnic, Dix realizes that his girl and his friend are conspiring against him.  As a result, he almost murders another driver. Neither relationship is ever the same.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 No.  He remains in denial until almost the end.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, finds out cop has stood by him, but Laurel is unwilling to.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Yes. His marriage proposal creates a crisis.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes, but not until it’s too late.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, but only at the very end when he realizes that his fiancĂ© is leaving him.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Yes: “I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 No.  The movie is over.  He is destroyed.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes, he proposes marriage, forcing her hand.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes, he discovers that she is leaving him.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Almost, if they had all come together at the engagement dinner, things might have worked out, but the last piece of the puzzle doesn’t arrive until they’re alone, when things are too late.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Yes, after he is cleared, the real internal crisis comes.
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)
 Yes, he watches her walk away and declares himself dead inside.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 20/20 (Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others)
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?
 Yes, we know that she’s planned her escape, and that he has no idea.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Yes, we begin when the last person arrives.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, his ex walks in, he’s been warned there about his behavior before, etc.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Laurel has something better to do but is forced to stay.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, the drunk friend just adds a note of pathos and humor.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Yes, we know that there’s a danger that various people might call. We know that Laurel has tickets out of town.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Very much so.  Dix finally loses it, punches out his agent, etc.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We’re split, we can’t decide if we want her to get away or want him to win her back
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, she wants to leave him and he wants to get married.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Yes, surface: force everybody to celebrate, suppressed: force everybody to admit that they’re betraying him.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Yes. The discussion of the screenplay parallels the other tensions.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes.  Laurel is lying that she still loves Dix, the agent lies about his feelings about the script.  Dix is in denial about his suspicion that Laurel is about to flee.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Dix traps his agent, demands to hear the phone call, Dix’s ex tries to ruin the marriage.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Just a little.  Mostly, they’re at the table, until Dix punches his agent.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, the ominous phone is handed around.
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, Dix nails them all, one by one, getting them all to admit things they don’t want to.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, the celebration ruins everything.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: will the agent like the script?  Will the studio?  Will Laurel get away? New: why are the police calling?  Where has Laurel gone?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Yes, where is he going?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Very much so.  We’re now terrified about what might happen in the next scene.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Very much so.  The novel was written by a woman from Laurel’s point of view and the screenplay is written by a man from Dix’s point of view, but it retains a tremendous amount of empathy towards Laurel, and everyone else.
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?
 For the most part.  Laurel decides to save Dix, but in a believable way: she never sacrifices her own wants and needs to his.
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?
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Dix more than Laurel, but yes.
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?
 Yes, in many ways. For example: Dix’s monologue about how the breakfast scene is the ideal love scene, not suspecting that she no longer loves him, shows how the false omniscience of the screenwriter has blinded him to reality.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Cop friend: the war, hat check girl: faux-Variety-speak., Default personality trait: Laurel: cool, sexy and flinty, his cop friend: affable, agent: conciliatory, falsely positive, Argument strategy: The police chief: lets you hang yourself.  Laurel, lets you talk then calmly restates her original opinion.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Very much so.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 There are a fair number of commas.  It’s a fairly writer-ly screenplay, which makes sense.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Dix is a writer, so he can get away with it.  She refuses to mirror his flowery language.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Everybody’s 3-dimentionsal.
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?
They never really understand each other.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Yes, we don’t find out anything about his past until his present is compelling.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, the final confrontation.
PART #6: TONE 7/10
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?)
 No, it’s halfway between film noir and neo-gothic romance and doesn’t quite satisfy either.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Yes, the Hollywood movie.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 No, it doesn’t satisfy any of them, but that’s the point: this is a feminist film (albeit much less so than the book) that wants us to be aware of and worried about our urges to see violent pay-offs.  It works brilliantly.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, witty cynicism with a strong undercurrent of despair and violence. Established by the contrast of the almost-fight in the street followed by his gentle witty interaction with the kids, where he accepts their conclusion that he’s a nobody.
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?
 Yes, did Dix kill her?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 No, and the movie suffers for it.  We’re never quite sure of what type of movie it is, and where it’s going.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, Laurel is afraid she’ll be killed like the girl, Dix is afraid he’ll end up like the old drunk.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, the script uses metacommentary, the script Dix is working on keeps predicting what will happen next in his life in ironic ways. Solt keeps our focus off the investigation and on the relationship.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Yes, can’t write and then he can, can’t answer the phone, then he can.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, we find out that Dix didn’t kill her.
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?
 Sacrificing for love vs. self protection. 
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Yes: “Why does he have to be like this?”  “Would you want him any other way?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Somewhat.  There aren’t a lot of tough dilemmas for Dix, just for those who have to decide whether or not to trust him.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes. This is a much scarier vision of humorous misanthropy than the charming version Bill Murray tends to play.
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, this is clearly a painfully real portrait of Solt’s own world.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Yes, postwar domestic violence and depression loom large: “Dix hasn’t been this good since before the war.”
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
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?
 Yes, the details of the book, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 No, not really. The book, maybe. Briefly with the grapefruit knife, and the phone.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Yes, self protection is better than sacrificing for love, but it’s a painful choice.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, he clears his name but loses the girl anyway.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes, we never find out how and why the murder happened.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 He synthesizes it in a pat way, but because we saw him coin that phrase before, we suspect that he is only pretending to feel the impact, or that he’s summoned up so many canned feelings for Hollywood that he can’t summon up any raw, authentic feelings anymore.
Final Score: 105 out of 122


Harvey Jerkwater said...

This is a hell of a movie, but I gotta say that until the end, it's only good. Maybe it's the Old Hollywood Style, but it felt a little artificial and distant for most of the run. The climax, though, when Dix and Laurel finally have it out... one of the most wrenching scenes ever shot. And every bit of its emotion is earned. Amazing.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

From what I've read, the climax was improvised. That helps explain why it was so damn raw.

It was the perfect suspense/drama scene. Going in, we're very aware that Dixon loves Laurel, and that we care about both characters. We're also very aware that he has a violent temper and is probably capable of murder. We're aware that she's trying to get away from him. What we're not sure of is what the hell he's going to do when he finds out she's leaving. Moreover, it's the end of the movie, so there's a sense of finality to it. When the scene rolls around, the audience really, truly isn't sure how it's going to play out. We're terrified for Laurel, and even for Dixon himself. We hope for the happy ending but anticipate that he'll fail and murder her in a rage. But we don't know. With the raw emotions on display, the whole thing is overwhelming.

Holy shit what an ending. The goal of "inevitable yet surprising" was well met here.

Jude said...

Your checklists are extraordinary. I swear I can learn more from them than three writing books combined. Kudos.