Thursday, May 09, 2013

Your Help Needed!

So now that you’ve seen me run through the checklist several times, I have some questions for you:
  • Were there any surprises in the movies I evaluated?  Did I evaluate them fairly? 
  • Do all of the questions make sense to you? 
  • Do any of the questions seem useless? Superfluous? Redundant? 
  • Are there any that you fear would do more harm than good? 
  • Are there any concepts that I’ve talked about on this blog that aren’t on the checklist but should be? 
  • In general, is the list too long? Too short? 
  • Is the phrasing clear or confusing? 
  • Most importantly, would you use this checklist as-is? Would you skip over any questions or sections? 
Thanks so much!


j.s. said...

I've said things about specific steps in the checklist before, so I'll limit this to general comments. I like the length, thoroughness and (sometimes) redundancy of the checklist. There are occasionally questions/issues that overlap, but usually it's pretty specific to certain films. If there are redundancies, it's not usually in the same spot twice. And sometimes thinking of a similar aspect of story construction from a different frame of reference is all you really need to make something click. That's why I wouldn't want to streamline the checklist too much. What's so useful to me is how exhaustive its interrogation of any given story is by the time you get through the whole list.

Time to once again offer my periodic thanks for all the painstaking work you've put into the checklist and this blog in general. Even though I'm sure you're getting a lot out of it personally, you're nevertheless offering a whole bunch of strangers some of the best teaching they've ever had about storytelling. So: Thank you!

Matt Bird said...

You're welcome, and thanks so much for all the feedback you've given so far. In regards to one of your previous comments, I definitely think I need to take some of what I've observed about 'the promise of the premise' and figure out how that applies to specific genres in a future post.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm in the minority, but I still don't know whether the checklist is a list of rules to break or simply a set of "guidelines" that can help you if you have trouble with your script, like saying "there's something wrong/something is lacking, but I can't put my finger on it" and looking at the scene-list to see that maybe I should put some irony in there or set up expectations to escalate or flip.

Matt Bird said...

You can use it however you wish, but I think it's most useful in the second case, and you put it well: "there's something wrong/something is lacking, but I can't put my finger on it".

Once you've used the list to identify what's unusual, you can determine if you should change it, or if you should simply be aware of it and work harder to sell it to the audience (such as with Demme being aware of the problem of Clarice disappearing for ten minutes, or Scott being aware of the problem of the slow beginning in Alien)

MCP said...

I obviously find the checklist tremendously helpful. I think the length and thoroughness are assets.

This is probably personal (because it is where I feel weakest in terms of craft), but Part 6 to me seems the least fleshed-out, the Managing Expectations series is excellent, but if you ever find anything else to explore in that sort of "making it page-turning" realm it would be appreciated.

It has been very interesting to see you break down the movies with the questions. To me the Donnie Brasco review was where I learned the most because it is the most flawed movie, and its deviations stood out in the contrast.

Thanks again for all your hard work.

Devin McKay said...

I'm a list kind of guy, so I've been working on my own list for a while now and I haven't been able to compile even half of this. It's pretty tremendous. Thank you so much for creating it! Every time there's some minute aspect of screenwriting I feel I need to work on, I always end up back here, and I'll be damned if there isn't something for me. You really should write a book!

Justin Walsh said...

I’ve gone through the first section question by question, with comments on each.

Part 1: Is this a strong concept for a story?

Is this an extreme situation based on a universal emotional dilemma? (Are you writing the emotions you know, but on a bigger scale?)

This question has always seemed somewhat poorly phrased to me. ‘Universal’ is not a great descriptor, as it neither describes well, nor directs. I’d suggest using the word ‘explorable’ instead, which implies a consideration of how that dilemma relates to the story in total. And if something is explorable, it can be made universal through the application of craft.

The second, parenthetical question is so important, it may deserve a point all its own.

Is the concept a unique twist on a classic type of story?

The only thing I can suggest is mentioning irony here (all twists are inherently ironic).

Is this the simplest and most streamlined version of your concept?

Is the concept simple enough to allow you to spend more time exploring character than explaining the plot?

Both perfect. And important.

Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a story before?

I feel this question may not be entirely helpful. While coming up with an as-yet-unseen relationship can be enormous, it doesn’t seem a requirement, and moreover seems to lend itself to high concept ideas. I think it’s more important that the central relationship be compelling, with the as-yet-unseen relationship the loftiest goal of that approach.

Do the plot and character arcs intertwine (The plot is either the hero’s greatest hope, or greatest fear, or an ironic answer to the hero’s question)?

Again, so important, and implied in the very first question.

Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the plot?

Does the hero transform the situation?

Does the situation trasnform the hero?

All implied in the question about plot and character arcs intertwining, but I think worth stating individually to fully tease out and display their importance. Would all these question be better placed after question 1?

Is the hero the person working hardest to solve the problem?

Another very important point, but it may be better placed in the second section about character. It doesn’t seem important to concept.

In the end, is the hero the only person who can solve the problem?

One of the most important plot-related points on the list.

Is it worth posing a question near the start that asks whether the story is about a character’s problem? It’s a point you’ve made before, and seems appropriate to ask when describing concept.

Is there at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?

This question needs clarification, I think. There are certain stories where human opposition, in the sense of character versus character, does not exist. For example, The Road. Personally, I think that story is a failure from start to end, but a lot of people love it, and there really is no character versus character opposition in it; the few people that do show up are plot elements. I’m not sure how to approach or ‘fix’ this question, I just know it doesn’t feel right because there are clear exceptions.

Is this challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?

One of the most important questions on the list, and one that should be much higher up, possibly incorporated alongside the volatility question.

In general, I think you need to give more consideration to how the questions are organised, as there seem to be definite clusters of significance, which may yield further insights when ordered.

Is this a fundamentally ironic situation?

A great question that underpins all dynamics of conflict in the story.

Justin Walsh said...

Does this story show us an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?

This seems incongruous as a question about concept, as it is more tied to marketing. Perhaps marketing should be a subsection of concept?

Does the story contain a twist that is not obvious from the beginning?

Is this really about concept? This seems more about structure and plotting, with a twist being a major story moment (that is also hopefully a major character moment). A twist can be central to concept, but then we’re back to high concept ideas, which have natural shortcomings, as you’ve explored. This question may indicate a leaning toward high concept in your thinking (which is worth mulling over, if nothing else), or it may indicate a branching of concept into structure.

Is the story marketable without revelaing the twist?

Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the twist?

Vital benchmarks to consider.

Do you openly or implicitly pose a dramatic question at the beginning that the audience will expect to be answered at the end?

Again, this is so important, I’d put it as close to the start as I could. This should maybe even be the very first question asked. However, this is again a partly structural question

Is the dramatic question answered only at the very end of the conflict?

Always know where the story ends before you start.

My big takeaway from this is that you need to take another look at how the list is structured. It gives the impression of having been cobbled together over a long period (which it has), but having so far not been streamlined.

I think you need to take a look at each individual question (from all your sections) and decide which ones belong together, and under what functional headings (e.g., openly posing a dramatic question at the start may fall under both concept and structure – you have to have that question if you’ve got a concept, but its placement is vital to strucutre).

Several questions may overlap into different areas, but that in turn should suggest further means of organisation. With anything this complex, you tend to end up with a weave of information, which is why its even more important to be able to prioritise the information you provide. I think you’re right to start with concept, as that underpins all other areas, but the concept can only be considered tested and robust once all other areas have been satisfied. To go far is to return.

There’s so much great work here, but you can take it further.

If this has been helpful, I’ll do the same for the other sections.

Matt Bird said...

Wow, Justin, than you so much, that is so helpful! By all means yes, I'd love it if you kept going through the list (but I'd understand if you tucker out at some point)

As you point out, I haven't given much thought to the order of the questions, and your thoughts on the matter make a lot of sense. And yeah, almost every "concept" question could conceivably go into another category, which implies that my definition of concept may be too unfocused.

Justin Walsh said...

You're more than welcome, Matt. Your blog has helped me reach my own understandings about writing more than any other site, book, talk, or whatever. Anything I can give back, I will, with a smile :)

Concept really is a tricky thing, and maybe a process-based account of it would be more illuminating, as it is such a dynamic and volatile undertaking. It always starts with a germ of an idea, an image, a twist, a character, but then comes the wonderful and terrible process of generating, comparing, winnowing, and throwing out.

This is why I think your work is so good, because you've identified a clear decision process for just about every level, without becoming prescriptive. That's some achievement.

Back to ideas about concept, I think the definition is fuzzy only because the process itself is one of discovery. In that way, concept becomes the beginning and final measure of every story. Like DNA, concept is the program that builds the machine that it runs on.

Justin Walsh said...

Part 2: Is this a compelling character?

At the beginning, does the hero know exactly what he or she wants…

…but not what he or she needs?

These questions are so fundamental that they could even be considered part of the concept. A logline is going to include either the hero’s want or need, so they could also tie into marketing. Given that want ties into all that the hero misperceives about the world, and that his or her need is tied into the resolution of the problem embarked upon, they’re also central to plot. Arguably the crux of all story, and the focus of the most powerful irony. This could be the starting point in concept that unifies all other aspects of a story.

Does the hero cleverly and resourcefully pursue what he or she wants?

In going after what the hero wants, does she actually act to sabotage progress toward what she really needs? The question you’ve stated implies success through admirable action, but the overall arc of the story needs to be kept in mind. Demonstrating potential early on seems to be key. Lots of scope for irony and foreshadowing.

Does the hero have a well-defined public self?

Does the hero’s public identity contrast with his or her hidden private self? (Is the hero misunderstood?)

These could be very significant questions, and maybe belong after the want/need question. So much of creating compelling characters seems to be in mining dichotomy and irony.

Something that occurs is that the hero being misunderstood may be by the hero’s own choice. This immediately marks the hero apart, gives them a kind of self-possession, and casts them in a role of underdog rebel that is inherently sympathetic. Do heroes tend to maintain their status as misunderstood, or at least not act to change it? If so, why? This could tie into different aspects of their character.

No matter how much the hero changes, does he or she have a default personality trait?

This question is another one that trips me up with its phrasing. ‘Default personality trait’ sounds like a technical term with invested meaning. Given that the things that change are often only cosmetic, it might be better phrased as, ‘No matter how much the hero changes, is there something about him or her that does not?’ Even continuing to dress in the same way may have great significance, depending on what has happened during the story. ‘Default personality trait’ may be too impenetrable and limiting here.

When the hero argues, does he or she have a consistent default strategy for uncovering information or getting others to do things?

I think this can vary from character to character. A ‘simple’ character may only have one strategy, but a lawyer may have many, and may switch argument strategies mid-stream. In these cases, the default may only show up in times of duress. I think this is a great question that can demonstrate a ton about a character’s world view and the rules they live by, and might be better placed beside, and related to, those questions.

Does the hero’s language draw from a consistent metaphor family (based on the hero’s job, background, or developmental state)?

Not just the hero’s. Everybody’s!

Justin Walsh said...

Does the hero have a universal public fear?

…And a specific private fear?

I’m always torn on the public fear thing. The example that I’ve seen most often is Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes, but that always seems like a copout to me, in order to generate a cheap laugh. Maybe that’s the point, and it breaks down emotional barriers between the character and viewer, inviting a safe identification with vulnerability, but I think this needs to be handled well. This is a tough one, and I’m still coming to grips with how it can be best employed.

Private fears can be very powerful though, generating sympathy, irony, empathy. Should public and private fears be directly related to the hero’s want, driving them along the path to crisis?

Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?

I think they have to. Those skills mark the hero apart, and are as inherent to the ‘method’ of that character as any other aspect of their makeup.

Are all of the special skills needed later subtly planted earlier?

They better be.

Does the hero have a false statement of philosophy at the beginning?

And a corrected statement of philosophy near the end?

Just a great way to set up and pay off the internal part of the dramatic question (which I think has both internal and external components, just as the hero’s journey is part within and part without).

Does the hero have a false goal at the beginning

And a corrected goal before the climax?

And the external part of the dramatic question.

Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or oddball, or out-of-character, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)

Could this be better thought of as the hero showing their inner self, or possibly the potential they have for change? It seems like it would resonate most if it is tied to the hero’s final transformation as another expectation/payoff, though you might need to take care to avoid heavyhandedness there.

Do you know why the hero’s friends like him or her?

I initially thought this was a pretty throwaway question, but the scope for providing information on how the hero views him or herself, the values of society in which the hero operates, and basically providing the ground against which the specific qualities of the hero can be brought into relief is pretty vast. I think this is an underexplored area in your undertakings so far, and possibly one of the most important ways of showing audiences vital information in a very compressed manner.

Do you know the three rules the hero lives by? (The hero’s self image)

So succinct, and so important. Related to and contrasted with the previous question, almost the entire character is on view.

Justin Walsh said...

Does the hero engage in physical exertion early on?

A means of showing the hero is a doer at the most fundamental level of being?

Does the hero work harder than other people doing the same thing?

Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?

Is this individual the person we should be most interested in following? This also seems to relate back to the character’s volatility.

Does the character have a long-standing personal problem that he or she is now determined to resolve?

The first intersection of essential character and plot. I’m not sure if the hero needs to be determined (there is sometimes a refusal of the call), but the opportunity must arise. Establishing it as a long-standing problem however is so powerful in answering why the hero gets involved, and why she sticks it through.

Is the hero’s biggest flaw the flip side of his or her biggest strength?

You’ve covered why it should be, if possible.

At the end of the story, is the hero transformed (his or her self esteem, ethics, morals, or personality)?

This is another tough one, as there are stories where no change takes place at all, save maybe a kind of reaffirmation (is that even a change?). I think this really depends upon the type of story being told, but a change must happen, and I think most importantly it must take place in the viewer. This is another point that I think could be investigated more, as it goes to the very heart of what a writer is trying to achieve, no matter their medium or genre.

Does the hero engage in reversible behaviour that will instantly tell us that he or she has changed when we see a contrasting behaviour later on?

I don’t think it’s necessary that the hero display a change in behaviour, but something must. It could be society’s behaviour toward the hero, for example. But being able to see what change has occurred goes without saying.

This section seems more powerful than the first, and more rigorous. There’s a little reorganisation that could be done, but I think it’s mostly there.

The one area I think hasn’t been addressed yet is the hero’s oppositions to other characters/institutions in the story. This is implied in a lot of different points, but it isn’t explicitly stated. As much as the questions you’ve asked refine a hero, I don’t think you can define them until they are placed in complete context with their antagonist(s) and the other characters they struggle against (and with). A hero may have many facets, and each of those facets needs to be reflected in its opposite somewhere, otherwise parts of the hero are left dangling. Could a hero then be described as the greatest possible nexus of all facets in a story?

Matt Bird said...

Wow! Amazing notes! Thanks so much!

I would actually call Indiana Jones' fear of snakes a private fear. What I refer to as "public fear" might more accurately be called "social anxiety", usually something like fear of getting fired, fear of failure, fear of being disliked, fear of being a bad dad, etc. When defined that way, is the concept more or less useful? Should I change the name?

Why their friends like them is an interesting area, because it turns out that TONS of heroes have no friends at all (think Lemmon in The Apartment). I should dig into this and figure out why some heroes need friends and others don't.

In terms of transformation, I played around early on with the idea of the of the Freudian journey (you have to change, like Han) vs. the Jungian journey (you have to discover and trust your core, like Luke), but I never took it any further or worked it into the checklist.

Justin Walsh said...

Wow, I completely misunderstood what you meant by 'public fear.' So what you are talking about is a fear of being judged in a certain way by society? That feels so much better, as it gives the hero self awareness and vulnerability, both of which are really seductive qualities. And that fear can change as the story moves. That again seems tremendously powerful.

So, in The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice's public fear would be the one Lector perceives so easily, that she fears being looked down on as a hick. Her private fear is that the lamb will never stop screaming.

If that's the case, I think you may need to look at renaming 'public fear' to 'fear of judgement by society' or something similar.

This could really tie in with heroes deliberately maintaining their distinction from society because they have a really good reason not to let society get too close. And such a fear can motivate all kinds of volatility. Damn. That's amazing. Thank you so much.

I'll have to think more about heroes without friends. The thought that jumps immediately to mind is a redemption arc, but I have nothing to support that.

And the Freudian versus Jungian transformations seem to be the flip sides of the same coin. Whether you stop or start doing something, the potential must be latent. I'll think more about that as well.

Thanks again, Matt.

Justin Walsh said...

Part 3: Is this the best structure?

Are the hero’s goals clear to the audience early on?

I think this question could do with some clarification, particularly with reference to the story goal of the dramatic question. Some (many?) heroes start in the middle of a micro goal, which gives us something to latch onto straight away. An instant tension. But this doesn’t mean the story goal and how it relates to the hero are clear from the outset. I think this fuzziness is reflected in the question itself, where it asks about ‘goals.’ I guess it also depends what you mean by ‘early on,’ which could be inside the first couple of minutes, or by the end of act 1.

When we meet the hero, does a longstanding personal problem become more acute, perhaps in the form of a social humiliation?

Should this social humiliation tie into the hero’s private or public fear (fear of judgement by society)? Rather than ‘becoming more acute,’ should the hero’s failings make the problems more acute? Becoming more acute could imply outsider action, whereas it seems more powerful if the hero drives their own crisis.

Does the hero find out about an intimidating opportunity to fix that problem?

I think you could incorporate the obstacle/conflict distinction here to good effect. What is it that makes the opportunity so intimidating? Is there more internal or external resistance?

Is there hesitation, as the opportunity becomes more and more appealing?

This seems to follow naturally from the opportunity being intimidating, but are we looking here at the essence of ‘plot motivates,’ as external pressures mount against the hero, to compel them into action? The internal struggle can’t be resolved this early, so this seems almost to act as proof of the ‘plots motivates’ axiom.

Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity?

When does this tend to happen in stories? If it is at a structurally consistent point, I think there’s a lot more to say about how and why the hero commits when he does. From where you’ve placed this, it seems to be the end of act 1, but the hero often does not fully commit until the midpoint disaster, and the point of no return. Maybe ‘commit’ is the problem word here, I’m not sure.

Does the hero try the easy way first?

I’ve never really liked the phrase ‘easy way,’ because it again is neither very descriptive nor directing. It seems logical that the hero will try whatever has worked for him up till now, which should be tied to his fatal flaw, or fears, or whatever the most debilitating and negative part of his makeup is, the part that needs to change. If the hero doesn’t do this, then how can he learn that change needs to happen?

j said...

Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity cause an unforeseen conflict with another person?

Not much to say here, but I think who they come into conflict with and over what should have relevance to theme, or some other specific thread that will continue to tie the narrative together and comment obliquely on what is happening to the hero.

Does the hero enjoy some success and have some fun? Is the promise of the premise fulfilled?

I think this is the question that I have the largest problem with, because I’m not sure how someone coming to it fresh, having not read your supporting posts, could understand what you mean. ‘Having fun’ really sounds like ‘having a good time,’ which is often not the case at all.

This seems quite a complex area of the script, where you have the hero doing their thing, digging themselves toward a disaster while remaining unaware. The potential for irony seems to abound here, which may also serve to strengthen the midpoint reversal, which can be powerfully set up and possibly reversed. As the midpoint disaster tends to be the first internal revelation, the lead up is really important, and I don’t think this question focuses enough on the structure of what is happening, as opposed to the surface goings on. Sorry if this comes across as harsh. This question really bugs me.

I think I see what you’re focusing on, which is the authorial sleight of hand to surprise us as the rug gets pulled out, but I could be getting something wrong, or missing something really obvious.

Does the early success culminate in a midpoint disaster?

Yes please!

Does the hero lose a safe space or sheltering relationship at this point?

Yup. Otherwise it would be too easy to fall back into old patterns and not have to face up to taking a new approach and working harder.

By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?

Does the hero start to question his or her assumptions, goal, and/or philosophy?

Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?

For all of these, I hope so.

Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?

This follows on naturally from characters driving the plot. At the stakes become higher, motivations clash and realign.

Are the stakes raised as the pace increases and motivation escalates?

If we care for the characters and are invested in their hopes, this should follow naturally.

Justin Walsh said...

Is the hero forced to face the underlying thematic question?

Does a further hardship finally force the hero into a spiritual crisis?

After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?

This is the kind of structural analysis that I think is missing to tease out and make explicit what is going on in the promise of the premise question. Here we can see can the structural points that lead to the second revelation, where the hero will often come to terms with his or her greatest failing.

I really love these three questions and what they show.

Before the final quarter of the story begins (if not long before), has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?

They should have no other option than to become proactive. Otherwise, they haven’t been tested enough, and their final transformation will not be convincing. If the story is a tragedy, though, the answer may well be no (which might be an interesting tool for analysis – taking a look at the ‘no’ answers to all questions and seeing how they correlate to tragedy or tragic circumstance).

Despite the hero’s proactive steps, is the timetable moved up unexpectedly at the end, forcing the hero to improvise anyway?

Do or die!

Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?

If they don’t, they are probably superfluous, unless the structure has been specifically designed in that fashion. I think this is a great way of determining the really important pieces of the story.

Is there an epilogue/aftermath/denouement in which the hero’s original problem is finally resolved one way or the other, as he or she realizes (and hopefully shows) how much he or she has changed?


Matt Bird said...

Once again, thanks you so much, these are amazing notes.

It's hard talking about structure without becoming one of those dreaded "Page Number Nazis" that people complain about. As you point out, I keep a lot of these definitions really vague in order to show the similarities between many different types of stories.

As a result, this category is the most descriptive and the least proscriptive, but even so, I hope it provides a little more guidance than most (Problem-Opportunity-Conflict being hopefully more useful than "inciting incident", for example)

I'm about to do an entire expanded How to Structure series, and all of your excellent notes will inform that. Thanks again.

Justin Walsh said...

Part 4: Is this a satisfying theme?

Is there a thematic question that is posed early on?

We’re at the crossover of theme and structure here, but as I look down this list of questions, there’s something big that jumps out at me: most of these questions do not seem to be about thematic satisfaction, as much as dramatic satisfaction instead. That leads on to asking, “Are these one and the same thing, or, if not, how are they related?” This could be another area for further investigation.

Can the thematic dilemma be stated in terms of good vs. good (or sometimes bad vs. bad)?

This is a great way of approaching theme, because irony and the grounds for struggle are clearly visible. This is clearly an argument structure, and goes to the heart of a story being about a character’s problem.

A story can have a number of themes, so the questions I’d like to ask are:

Is the main thematic question (or should it be) always related to the hero’s want or need?

Is it immanent in, and constrained to, the nature of that struggle?

If not, what is the story about (are you being didactic)?

Are thematic questions tied directly to character relations? Therefore, does each major relationship in a story carry with it a thematic line? (If so, there is a huge amount of underlying structure going on, and one would expect all thematic lines to comment on each other meaningfully.)

Does the story have something to say about real life?

I would consider cutting this question. If you adhere to all the points made so far throughout each section, I can only imagine corner-case perversity or inability leading to something else. That said, it’s a good question to keep asking yourself. Maybe this is more suited to concept than theme? One of those quick-fire questions to orient you early and late?

Have you avoided moral hypocrisy as much as possible? (Does the movie practice what it preaches?)

I think this question could do with some further definition, as it’s a little woolly. There’s a meta level at work here, which is maybe why. The sum of the characters’ actions sends a message, so perhaps this could be related to the three rules each character lives by? I think you’d also need to run that sum of actions past a number of other criteria, particularly the hero’s revelations and transformations.

On one hand, this seems like a very clear decision process for determining whether you’re writing a bunch of dicks. But it also seems to be a potentially very complex area, especially ripe for purposes of commentary, and perhaps revelation within a given theme or themes.

Do the characters’ actions reflect how the world works?

The more they do, the more convincing and compelling the drama, and the more weight the story’s themes gain. Is theme the synthesised summary of struggle from within the story? (In glorious alliteration.)

Do the difficult decisions have real consequences?

Is every element of your story as ironic as possible?

These seem more dramatic questions.

Do many small details of your story reflect your larger theme?

Like a symphony.

Does the climax make a strong statement about the thematic question, without answering it definitively?

Or should the climax act to re-state the thematic question in light of all that has occurred?

Matt Bird said...

So helpful!

In running the road tests, I think I've finally figured out what "something to say about real life" really means: "Does the movie reference a painful real life event or issue?":

Bridesmaids: The Great Recession
Silence of the Lambs: Ted Bundy's rampage
Donnie Brasco: '70s government overreach
How to Train Your Dragon: The war on terror
Alien: Rise of corporate sovereignty
The Shining: Domestic violence and racism
Casablanca: The concentration camps
In a Lonely Place: Domestic violence and postwar PTSD

Doing this allows you to tap into the pain that audience is already bringing with them into the theater.

Likewise, "Practice what it preaches" might become "Is this issue handled respectfully?" For instance, unlike these movies, "The Avengers" references real-world issues in an incoherent and disrespectful way alternately condemning and glorifying militarism from scene to scene without acknowledging the disconnect.

Is that better?

As for this:

"Or should the climax act to re-state the thematic question in light of all that has occurred?"

I would say no. I think it's important that most movies tip in the direction of one of the warring goods or bads at the end without dismissing either.

Bridesmaids: Moving on is ultimately better than preserving old friendships
Donnie Brasco: Family loyalties are ultimately more important than work loyalties
How to Train Your Dragon: Justice is ultimately more important than loyalty to family
Alien: Self-preservation is more ultimately important than protocol
The Shining: Self-preservation is ultimately more important than family loyalty
Casablanca: The cause of freedom is ultimately more important that personal happiness
In a Lonely Place: Self-preservation is ultimately more important than love

I would say that the one exception where would be Silence of the Lambs, where we truly can't decide at the end whether it was worth it to work with one monster to stop another. The movie gets away with ending on a profound and disturbing uncertainty, but most movies should not attempt that. The ending of Lambs only work because the final uncertainty is so shocking.

Justin Walsh said...

Maybe, 'Can this story act as a metaphor for a painful real-life event or issue?' That's semantic hair-splitting, but in case someone coming fresh to all this thought you meant actually referencing such an event.

I like this a lot, as it encapsulates theme, while allowing or even encouraging a respectful sensibility. It should also direct writers toward meaning.

As for re-stating the thematic question, agreed. It was a curious thought.

Justin Walsh said...

Part 5: Is this lively dialogue?

Does each character have a distinct voice? (Can you always tell who’s speaking without looking at the names?)

I’ve always felt this question would be better phrased as, ‘Does each character have a distinct attitude/point of view?’ A character’s distinct voice, I think, is made up of two main components: their metaphor family, and how they relate to the world. Those two combined should yield something that is always unique within the story, because any repetition at that level is waste (particularly when you consider how everything must tie into theme, plot, etc.).

Is the dialogue bouncy?

It will be if there’s inter-character conflict. If you take a look at Alien, the scenes with Ripley versus Parker and Brett (in fact, most of the dialogue with Parker and Brett versus anybody) is bouncy because it’s ironic and filled with conflict. Ripley versus Ash also has irony and conflict, but with far more sinister undertones. It’s definitely engaging though. Most of the rest of the dialogue is flat, even forgettable, because conflict is muted: everybody ostensibly wants the same thing. Nobody wants a fight.

Are there pithy and/or quotable lines?

It’s always nice to feel that we’re smarter than we are.

If you have more than one protagonist, have you polarised them in an impartial way along the lines of head, heart, and gut?

One of the best tools for externalizing inner conflict, creates immediate differences in attitude and point of view, and provides a means to keep characters consistent in general outlook.

Have you listened to the real-life jargon of people in this profession or setting?

The importance of research in general can’t be understated.

Do you feel genuine empathy for all of your characters?

There is a risk in over-identifying with the story construct that is the hero, but the hero is only most fully realised when all parts of the story are treated with equal respect. Treating one element of the story poorly diminishes the story in total.

Do your characters consciously or unconsciously prioritise their own wants, rather than the wants of others?

Unless the point of the character is that they don’t, I think they absolutely must, otherwise you are forestalling or spoiling conflict and drama.

Are your characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?

This might tie back into public and private fears. If the character’s fears are being challenged, there is every motivation not to admit feelings to avoid complication. And the hero not admitting those feelings to herself allows her to avoid her internal conflict.

The most important point is that characters should only do this where there is clear motivation. Characters that don’t explain themselves when it’s clear that it can only be to their benefit are utterly enraging, and easy to stop rooting for.

I think the writer needs to strike the balance between risk and reward, with risk initially being too great against the pain and perceived consequences of allowing vulnerability. That may in fact translate later to courage as the hero decides she must change.

Does each of your characters, including your hero, have a limited perspective?

They need to, or else they’ve already solved every problem they might have.

Do you withhold exposition until the character and the audience are both demanding to know it?

Seems to be a structural concern.

Matt Bird said...

All good notes. I need to systematize, revise and expand this section for the book, along with theme.

Justin Walsh said...

Part 6: Does the story manage its tone to create and fulfil audience expectations?

Are you satisfying the urges that get people to buy and recommend these types of stories?

If you don’t, are you actually writing that type of story? Are you making your story easy to mistake? What signifying elements of the story place in its genre?

Have you chosen a pre-established genre? (Or accepted the risks of not doing so?)

This might be a good question to ask in Concept. A lot of this section (down to using genre and sub-genre as metaphors) could fit there, I think.

Are you prepared to fulfil most of the audience expectations that come with that genre…

…and then defy a few of them?

Tie ins to structure and plot here. Are there consistent places these defiances occur? The most likely seem to be at the beginning and end, though I suppose any major twist could potentially count as defying an expectation. I think those you do defy should be related to theme, as that should give them resonance throughout the whole of the work, and make them seem essential, rather than only clever. I love the Usual Suspects, so I was saddened to finally realise the revelation was just clever. In contrast, the box in Se7en seems essential.

Have you chosen a pre-established sub-genre or two (but not three)?

This is a pretty confusing question, and I think it could do with some fleshing out, or could be better approached from a different direction. It’s not clear why you should choose sub-genres, or why you should limit. That can be dealt with in a specific book section, of course, but this still feels like it could do more.

Are you using your genre and sub-genre as metaphors for common emotional dilemmas?

And this now ties directly to your revamped questions about having something to say about real life and avoiding moral hypocrisy! Probably the sign of a significant breakthrough, but worth re-examining all the more because of that.

Have you used framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to establish the tone and pose ongoing questions?

Give the decision-based nature of the rest of the questions, this seems to advocate the use of these devices. It might be better to ask if such devices are more appropriate to the story, or superior in function to a more conventional approach. I’d also warn the writer against allowing such devices to become a crutch. Of all the questions so far, this is the one that I think could be potentially damaging if its intent is misinterpreted.

Have you established a consistent mood?

An author-applied filter to evoke an important emotional relation to the story?

Have you planted the right questions in the audience’s mind (in order to keep them from asking the wrong questions)?

Going by ‘plot motivates, character complicates,’ is this something that is more important early on, to focus the viewer on plot development? It’s clearly tied to setting up and maintaining the dramatic question, but it seems that you could go overboard here and railroad the audience. And there are certain genres and twist setups where you want the audience asking the wrong questions. Maybe this is better phrased as asking the right questions to direct the audience’s attention to where you want it. More semantic hair-splitting, but the distinctions could be important.

Have you created expectations about what will happen (through foreshadowing or dangling questions?

Sometimes uncertainty is more powerful, and may be more appropriate.

Justin Walsh said...

Part 7: Are you getting the most out of each scene?

Does the plot and/or character arc progress in this scene (preferably both)?

I think I’d use a stronger word than ‘preferably’ ☺

Were false and/or hopeful expectations for this interaction established beforehand?

Were these events foreshadowed?


Does the location naturally create conflict for the hero, externally and/or internally?

Again, the potential for drama, the hero being continually tested.

Does the scene have its own mini-ticking clock?

Or potentially an option clock, where the range of actions the hero can take dwindles toward failure.

Do you know what outcome the audience will be rooting for in this scene (and are you prepared to either gratify or disappoint that expectation)?

This isn’t how I approach most scenes as a viewer, though. I’m hoping to be excited and astonished, but it’s rare I root ‘for’ someone. I’m much more likely to root against someone in a scene, or dread a particular outcome (which I guess is rooting for, in a roundabout way). I think dread is a more powerful motivator, as success deflates all drama. But that’s an entirely anecdotal point of view.

Do you know what each character wants?

Should possibly be the first question in this section.

Do the characters go after what they want using verbal tricks and traps?

While remaining consistent with their argument strategies, personal rules, and voice.

Is at least one of the scene partners convinced, forced or tricked into doing something he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?

This is a really powerful outcome, but is this perhaps best reserved for the ‘character complicates’ part of the script? Once the plot and stakes are established, and everything is clear in our minds, that seems the best time to let the characters start to work each other over. That said, this could make for a really great opening scene.

Are previously-asked question answered?

If you are progressing plot and character arcs, I think they have to be.

Are new questions asked and left unanswered?

Where do you want the audience focusing their attention next?

Are there hints of a character’s past (info-drip instead of info-dump)?

This could tie into verbal tricks and traps, characters going after only what they want, characters not admitting their feelings, volatility, etc., etc., as characters chip away at each other in pursuit of what they want.

Is there re-blocking?

Focusing attention through minute but significant change.

Is there literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?

A powerful metaphor for completion.

Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?

Another powerful metaphor. The objects should tie in as much as possible to theme, I think.

Is at least one or both of the major scene partners not focused on the plot, at least at first?

This involves effort on the part of someone (usually the hero? – again, she’s trying hardest to move things forward) and conflict (one character wants another to focus on something they may rather not).

Are the characters dishonest, and/or in denial about their own feelings?

Unless being honest serves their purpose better (and creates more drama).

Do the characters avoid direct confrontation as much as possible (but feel compelled to confront each other indirectly)?

Do they confront each other through sub-text moreso than through text?

I think this is vital, and fun, until direct confrontation becomes unavoidable, and desirable from the point of view of the story.

Do you enter the scene as late as possible?

Do you cut away as early as possible?

Unless you have a reason not to.

Do you allow friction caused by the setting or the characters’ emotions to slow the scene down when necessary?

I think this is an art.

Justin Walsh said...

Whew, that's everything.

I felt I was running out of oomph toward the end, with fewer and fewer relevant things to say. Hopefully it's not all junk though.

The Scene Structure section (7) seemed by far the strongest. As with the other sections, some reorganisation could help, but it felt complete.

If there was one area I could add, it would be one that looked at character oppositions in total in each story. I think that could serve to tie in areas of theme, structure, conflict, plot, and it's really the weave of the story itself. That could be where you synthesise all the other elements you've covered into what a story is and how it fits together.

Matt Bird said...

That was epic. Thanks you so much, Justin, this was so helpful.

I'm not sure what you mean by "character oppositions in total in each story". Do you mean the balance of the ensemble? The nature of the conflict?

Responding to some of your other points:

Maybe a better way to put that one question would be "Have you done whatever you need to do (possibly including flashforwards, framing sequences or first person narration) to establish the tone right away and pose ongoing questions?"

Based on what you said, I think that the concept of "what outcome the audience will be rooting for" should maybe be combined with my later idea of the "hero of the scene"

Thanks again!

Justin Walsh said...

Hey Matt,

Don't mention it. It's an honour and a pleasure to help.

Sorry about not being clear on 'character oppositions in total in a story.' That's awful phrasing.

What I meant was taking a look at how all the character relate to each other in terms of values and goals, and how the sum of all those values and goals contribute toward (i) the story's theme, and (ii) what the story is a metaphor for.

For example, in Alien, you've got Ripley's values and goals, and Ash's, and Dallas's, Brett's, the Alien's etc., etc., and the meaning, theme, and metaphor of the film emerge from how those values and goals all interact. The movie would have had a different message and feel if Brett had survived.

As you pointed out, in Alien, Ripley is basically the corporate drone - and an entirely ineffective one at that for most of the movie: Brett and Parker mess her around below decks, Ash ignores her quarantine order, Dallas says he trusts no one directly to her face. She is the epitome of the faceless bureaucrat, determined though she may be, and you've traced her arc already.

But all the interactions contribute toward and comment on each other, and all offer a different take on the themes of self-sacrifice vs self-preservation, and loyalty vs gain. In fact, I think you could make an argument that the real antagonist in Alien is The Corporation, which demands sacrifice and loyalty from others in pursuit of its own preservation and profit, with the Alien itself a metaphor made real to embody the predatory/reproductive nature of the corporation, while simultaneously being part of the corporation's gain-seeking calculus (and then you've got the inhumanity of Ash abetting one commodity versus another).

I just think that consciously examining the web of character relations can really help with getting everything in order and making sure each element of a story is working toward what you want to say with it, or at least ensuring a top-flight consistency and focus.

Take it easy!

Matt Bird said...

Okay, now I get it. Ensemble creation, including everything you talk about here, is something I haven't talked about much (except for head-heart-gut trios and quartets) but I should. I do like Scott Myers' five-part formulation of hero/friend/attractor/trickster/villain, but I need to examine it more.

Justin Walsh said...


I had a thought while looking at your rule #185 post about heroes ascending, not descending. If you make a hero's desire something he wants for himself, and his need something he wants for other people, then you can build character growth into the fabric of your character.

Matt Bird said...

Love it. Of course, the problem is that most modern movies would fail it.