Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 2: Character decisions driving the plot, rather than plot

Hi guys. Once again, we’re trying to cut the 140 checklist questions down to 120. On trial today is a question from the Structure section: By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?

Why it was added: It’s good advice.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: No, there are still plot complications.
  • An Education: There’s a big plot reveal coming, but it feels like a character beat. She knew, deep down.
  • The Babadook: Yes and no. In horror the two are hard to tell apart.
  • Blazing Saddles: Yes.
  • Blue Velvet: To a certain extent, but this is one of those risky “character motivates, plot complicates” movies, so there’s more plot revealed in the second half than in the first half.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, there are no more plot elements introduced. The only surprise is a character surprise: why he didn’t kill Wombosi.
  • Bridesmaids: Yes.
  • Casablanca: Yes, there are no more surprises for Rick, now it’s his turn to surprise everybody else.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes. The ABSCAM screw-up is somewhat external, but it never drives the story.
  • Do the Right Thing: Yes.
  • The Fighter: Very much so.
  • The Fugitive: Yes, now he’s planning and driving the narrative, instead of just reacting.
  • Groundhog Day: Yes.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Yes.
  • In a Lonely Place: Yes. There is an outside plot development, the real killer’s confession, but it’s meaningless in light of the character complications.
  • Iron Man: Yes.
  • Raising Arizona: Somewhat. There are more character complications now, but there’s still lots of plot.
  • Rushmore: Yes.
  • The Shining: Well, that depends on whether you see the visions as real or not.
  • Sideways: Except for the bizarre but hilarious interlude with the waitress and her husband.
  • Silence of the Lambs: No new victims are taken.
  • Star Wars: Not really. This is a plot-packed movie.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, but there is one remaining plot issue involving the fact that Paramount wants to rent the car.
Deliberations: I don’t find these answers to be particularly illuminating. The real problem with this question is that it’s repetitive: If you do all of the other steps in the structure (spiritual crisis, etc.) then this will pretty much automatically happen.

The verdict: I think it should go.  Feel free to speak up if any of you have found it useful, or if you would miss it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 1: Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?

So we have a robust checklist for improving any manuscript, but it’s just too much. 140 questions is a lot, and some of the questions have turned out to be less helpful over the years, and the book needs to be shorter, so it’s time for the great purge! I’ll be nominating more than 20 questions to cut, with pros and cons for each one!

On trial: Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?

Why it was added: I wanted to remind writers that wild-and-crazy ideas were rarely as good as stories that started with classic templates and add one unique spin.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, the haunted house movie done on a space freighter.
  • Babadook: The haunted hause / demonic possession movie.
  • Blazing Saddles: Very much so: the appointed sheriff in a overrun western town was a classic subgenre, but this is a very new twist.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, an amateur detective story where the amateur is driven by impure motives.
  • Bourne Identity: Yes, a spy story but the spy is trying to solve the mystery of who he is and what his mission is.
  • Bridesmaids: A raunchy wedding-party comedy focused on the bridesmaids for once.
  • Casablanca: Yes, the forbidden love romance with Nazis thrown in.
  • Do the Right Thing: Sort of: The day-in-the-life-of-a-city genre had died out fifty years earlier, but this revived it with a new perspective.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes. Reverses the usual undercover story.
  • Education: Not much of a twist. Just a very classic coming of age cautionary tale, but exceptionally well done.
  • Fighter: Yes, a mix of boxing movie, crack movie, and family drama. But funny.
  • Fugitive: It’s not much of a twist, just an exceptionally good version of a very classic thriller template.
  • Groundhog Day: The “guy has to grow up and move on to the next stage of his life” romantic comedy gets a supernatural twist.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: No, that’s pretty damn original. It has elements of the war movie, the gladiator movie, the coming-of-age movie, etc., but it’s really something pretty new.
  • In a Lonely Place: It’s a “falsely accused” movie in which the accused doesn’t care to clear his name, and is guilty in his heart.
  • Iron Man: A superhero origin but he’s a cocky middle-aged asshole instead of a young do-gooder.
  • Raising Arizona: A zanier and sweeter rich-man’s-baby-gets-taken story.
  • Rushmore: Yes, the love triangle.
  • Shining: Yes, a non-gothic haunted house movie.
  • Sideways: No.
  • Silence of the Lambs: The serial killer hunt, but with another serial killer helping
  • Star Wars: A fairy tale in outer space.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Not really, it’s pretty original: part comedy, party noir, part satire.
Deliberations: Five movies say no, and it’s interesting (to me) to focus on how that makes them different from the other movies, but none of these examples suffers from saying no, and indeed I doubt many stories would. Ultimately this is more of an interesting tendency, rather than a standard to hold oneself to. Ultimately, if this is a rule that it rarely hurts to break, I think we can safely cut it.

Verdict: It’s out!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

It's All Built to This: The Massive Movie Checklist Spreadsheet (And Your Help Needed!)

So here’s the big pay off for the last two years or so of this blog: Click here and you’ll download a massive spreadsheet (previewed above) of all of the answers to all 140 questions for all 24 movies I’ve subjected to the checklist.

You may have questions, such as “Dear God, Man, Why?” Why would I do all this work, and why would I pass it on to you? Well, lots of reasons:
  • It allows you to not only see how one movie answered all 140 questions, it allows you to see how each question was answered by all 24 movies. The goal is to get a better understanding of each question, what it’s really asking, and what value that question has when applied to your manuscript.
  • Once we understand that, we can start the task of winnowing.
The book, alas, was too darn long, so we’re cutting questions. We want to get it down to 120 questions. This means that once again I’m seeking your help! Do you use the checklist? Can you help us cut out some questions?
  • Which questions have you found impossible to answer?
  • Which questions do you find unimportant or useless?
  • Which questions do you think might actually harm your story by answering yes?
For the next week or two, I’ll propose questions that I’ve thought about cutting, and you can vote on those, but first I wanted to have an open free-for-all. Do any of you have any candidates for cutting? Feel free to download the spreadsheet and scroll around to confirm your suspicions that a question is not generating interesting answers.

Thank you so much!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Am I Fair? Finale!

Welcome back for the 3rd and final day! Once again, if you’ve seen these movies and remember them well, then would you say that these descriptions are scrupulously accurate? And are the judgments fair?  Today we have the final two, and then a super-tough final challenge: 

  • Denzel Washington directed a highly-fictionalized true-ish story called The Great Debaters about a debate team at an all-black college that gets to challenge the Harvard team in the 1930s. As it happens, the team gets assigned to defend the proposition that blacks should have equal rights. They do a good job with that and win, which is good, because otherwise what would the movie be saying? This movie commits the cardinal sin of all hokey period pieces: It irons out the irony.
  • Liam Neeson in Taken, wants his daughter back so badly that he’s willing to do anything... He even shoots the Paris police chief’s wife and then refuses her treatment until the chief helps him figure out the whereabouts of the bad guys! Wow, he’s willing to throw his own freedom away in order to save his daughter! Except not. Here’s how naïve I was: I genuinely expected the movie to end with Neeson in prison, getting a visit from his daughter, and assuring her that it’s all worth it if she’s okay. Nope, it ends with Neeson happily flying home with his daughter without a care in the world. Um... How does that work?
 And now for the real stumper. A few times in the book, I quote writers’ commentary tracks and DVD docs, and now that I have to confirm those quotes, it’s driving me crazy tracking them down.  (Thus this post)  With Back to the Future, I watched all three hours of docs and listened to Bob Gale’s commentary track to no effect, until I found he had a second unlisted commentary track that had the quote!

But this next one has totally defeated me.  Here’s the quote from the book:
  • Each episode of “Mad Men” on DVD has a fantastic commentary, usually featuring creator Matt Weiner, and they’re all worth listening to. In one early episode, weasely advertising executive Pete is stewing in his office, as usual, and boundary-breaking copywriter Peggy comes in to discuss a project. In his commentary, Weiner points out (paraphrasing here:) “This is the point on most shows where she would ask ‘what’s wrong?’ as if people go around trying to solve each other’s problems all the time.” 
But for the life of me I can’t find this quote to confirm it.  The problem is that there are a lot of Pete and Peggy scenes.  Every time I think I’ve found the right one, the quote isn’t there in the commentary.  I realize that this is a lot to ask: Did any of you watch these commentaries?  Can you point me to the right episode?  To ask the question is to answer it: Of course you can’t.  But now at least you can pity me. (It’s not the scene pictured above, by the way.)

Next week: You get to vote on which questions to chop out of the checklist!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Am I Fair? Day 2: The Mostly Lethal Weapon Edition

Hi guys, welcome back for day 2! If you’ve just joined us, we’re looking at some of the things I say about movies in my upcoming book, and I’m asking for your help: If you’ve seen these movies and remember them well, then would you say that these descriptions are scrupulously accurate? And are the judgments fair?  Today we have two Lethal Weapon movies and Ocean's Twelve:
  • In the second half of Lethal Weapon, the villain is taunting Mel Gibson: “Oh, by the way, we’re also the people who killed your wife all those years ago!”
  • It gets even sillier in Lethal Weapon 2. In addition to the usual motivations, the bad guys also happen to be the personification of South African apartheid! But that’s still not enough, because these guys then kill Gibson’s new girlfriend! Then, just to top it all off, one of them is taunting Gibson and suddenly reveals “Oh, by the way, we also were part of that large group that killed your wife all those years ago!” Now that’s a lot of motivation!
  • The villains of Lethal Weapon 2 are evil, snarling, Apartheid-loving South African drug dealers, but no matter how many people they kill, the police chief keeps snarling to Mel and Danny: “Forget it, guys, they have diplomatic immunity, there’s nothing we can do about it! If you touch a hair on their head, I’ll have your badge!” (Fun fact: this is not how diplomatic immunity works) What a predicament! How will our cops figure out a clever way around this conundrum? Well, they don’t: they finally just get fed up and say “Screw it!” They barge into the bad guys’ place and begin a raging gun battle. Oh no, what will the consequences be for our heroes?? Answer: nothing. They eventually call in back-up, the police arrive to help and then they all stand up and cheer together. All of those threatened consequences just disappear. 
  • People walked out of Ocean’s Eleven feeling dazzled, so of course they made a sequel, but in the sequel (Oceans’s Twelve), they just cheated. In the final twist, they revealed that the gang had secretly achieved their goal offscreen, and everything after that was just an elaborate con. 
Tomorrow: The final four, for now

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Am I Fair? Day 1

In case you missed yesterday’s announcement, my book “The Secrets of Story” is coming out November 2016 from Writer’s Digest Press. As I finalize the manuscript, I realize that I need help with a few things, so I hoped that I could reach out to you. If you can help, thank you so much! Let’s start with a few days of memory-checking (and hopefully these will be fun to read.)

In the book (as on the blog), as I make my points, I breezily (and sometimes contemptuously) recap various movies I saw once a long time and ago and draw some lesson. But am I remembering these movies correctly, and are my judgments fair? I don’t want to rewatch all of these movies just to double-check, so I thought I would tap into your hive mind. If you have seen these movies, does my memory and judgment jibe with yours?  Here are the first four, taken from random spots in the manuscript:
  • The movie adaptation of V for Vendetta has many problems, but one of the biggest is the baffling decision to start Portman’s character off as a strong, independent go-getter assistant at a TV station where her biggest problem is an unrequited crush on her boss. We’re supposed to believe that this happy-go-lucky girl will soon decide to become an anti-government terrorist leader?
  • In Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, the great Charles Laughton plays a bloated, cynical hedonist named Graccus, who is more interested in aesthetic pleasures than the moralistic rhetoric of his fellow senators, but he discovers his conscience at the worst possible time: he realizes that it is now up to him to take a stand for democracy by martyring himself to protest the rise of tyranny. When we last see him, he picks out a knife to slit his wrists with…but then he wrinkles his nose: the knife isn’t pretty enough. He chooses a more aesthetically pleasing knife, smiles, and then goes to the bathtub for a luxurious martyrdom. 
  • Bruno in The Child is an aimless junkie who discovers that an ex-girlfriend has just had his baby, so he immediately goes and sells the child on the black market in order to get money for drugs. Later, he is truly shocked to see how upset she is and he tries to get the baby back. At one point in this process, Bruno is forced to wait in a back alley before the person inside will speak with him. There’s just one problem: Bruno can never wait around for anything. He can’t sit still for a second—That’s his whole problem. But he doesn’t whine about this problem, he finds clever ways to solve it. When he is told he must wait five minutes, we instantly sense that this is like a prison sentence to him. We share Bruno’s anxiety as he looks around desperately for something to do. Then he spots it: a mud puddle by a white wall. He goes over, soaks his boots in mud, then leaps up against the wall repeatedly, putting black boot-prints all over the wall. This happily occupies him until they come to get him. Problem solved. Fools can be so clever.
  • The movie version of Daredevil is ridiculous. In the comics, Daredevil and Electra are college sweethearts who cross path many years later only to discover that they’re now on opposite sides of the law. The movie cuts out all the history, but still has them sparring like old lovers from the moment they meet. They meet in a cafĂ©, flirt like crazy, then walk outside and start playfully beating each other up in a playground. It’s hard to say which is worse, his decision to beat up a random woman who turned down his advances, or her desire to beat up a blind man! Once again, the writers were on autopilot.
What do you think, can I get away with these summaries? My goal is to be strictly accurate in my summaries. Do I need to track down and rewatch these movies or these scenes?  If you’ve seen any of these more recently than I have, please let me know yea or nay in the comments. Hopefully I can get more than one thumbs up on each one that passes the test. Tomorrow: More snark!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Coming November 2016: The Secrets of Story

So here’s the thing about traditional publishing: It’s slooooooooooow (especially compared to blogging). Writing a book is slow. Finding an agent is slow. Sending it out is slow. Waiting to hear back is slow. Accepting an offer is slow. Finalizing the paperwork is sloooooooooow. I used to post a lot about the book back when this process was beginning, but that was years ago, before I became weary and wary of the process.

But now we’re here! The book is coming! And it’s coming soon! November 2016, from Writer’s Digest Press! I’m allowed to tell you this now because the deal posted today in Publisher’s Weekly!

Here’s the other thing: They don’t let you pick your own title. So out of all of the dozens of names we bandied about back then, we ended up with something completely different ...but I’m happy with it, in the end. The title they chose was “The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers”. That’s cool with me. What do you think?

(For a long time, they were in love with “Storytelling Mastery”, which I thought was way too pompous, so I’m glad they let me shoot that down.)

So what happens now? Lots of things. For one thing, this site will gradually migrate over to SecretsOfStory.com and then be archived, but that will take a while. In the meantime, I very much need you guys to stick around, because I’d love to pick your brains. Starting tomorrow, I’m going to rope you guys into the process a little bit.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


The announcement can finally be made.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Wes Anderson’s Unique Imagery and Mood

Wes Anderson is one of those directors who defines “love him or hate him”…but really it’s both: many people who hate him will admit that there’s at least one they actually like, and even those who love him will admit there are some that are just too annoying.

How do you describe the mood of Rushmore? You might say odd, or delicate, or kooky, or precise. But there are also less charitable words that have been thrown around: Precious. Affected. Twee. Is that fair? It depends on you, and how successfully Wes has bewitched you into seeing things from his point of view. I definitely love Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I pretty much love The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, but I find both Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom to be a bit too much.

One thing that started to grate on me in Anderson’s later movies was the distinctive clothing choices. Anderson loves to pick a signature kooky outfit and stick with it in every scene. In Rushmore, however, it makes sense: At first, Max is at a private school where you’re required to wear the same outfit all the time, and Max is the most enthusiastic student, so we buy that he wears his blazer even off of school grounds. Then when he gets sent down to public school, it’s funny that he continues to wear it. Notably, however, as he begins to accept public school, he switches to new clothes: still kooky, such as a green felt suit, but Anderson isn’t afraid that we won’t recognize him, as he seemed to be with other characters in later movies.
It’s also to Anderson’s credit that he gives Max a bit of extra flair in some scenes but not others: Max’s red beret is stylish and distinctive, and it turned out to be a key piece of marketable imagery, appearing on the poster and DVD box, but it would be silly to wear it too much. Marketable imagery is essential, but a little goes a long way: Don’t sacrifice character or story logic in pursuit of a signature look, as Anderson does in some of his other movies.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The Irresolvable Thematic Dilemma in Rushmore

When I was trying to identify Max’s false statement of philosophy in Rushmore, I settled on this exchange: “What are you going to do?” “The only thing I can do: try to pull some strings with the administration.” For this corrected statement of philosophy later, I chose “I’m just a barber’s son.” But what about the movie’s most prominent statement of philosophy?

Max’s obsession with Miss Cross begins when he’s reading a book on diving and he finds that she has jotted down a Cousteau quote in the margins: “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” Is that statement proven to be false or true?

This brings us to another rule: the ending should tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely. The central thematic dilemma in this movie is ambition vs. acceptance, and ultimately it tips towards acceptance, but that’s a hard choice.

Anti-ambition movies are few and far between. America worships ambition and our movies do the same. It’s hard not to root for Max’s wild schemes. It’s painful to watch him pour so much energy and optimism into things and then admit that his work is too ambitious and ultimately not very good. We want and expect to see those qualities rewarded.

And indeed the movie only barely tips towards acceptance. He accepts public school, and gives up on Miss Cross, and admits to everyone that his dad’s a barber, but he’s still making overly ambitious plays and collecting acolytes. So is that quote false or true? Max is not as extraordinary as he thought he was, but he’s certainly unique. How will his life change for better or for worse if he learns to keep that to himself, as least some of the time?

Most movies sell us the wish fulfillment message that there’s always something more waiting for us if we’re willing to be bigger and bolder. This is one of the few that raises the possibility that we may be happier and healthier if we learn to accept a life that’s smaller. It’s a painful realization, and that pain gives this movie its emotional punch.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The “I Understand You” Moment in Rushmore

In Rushmore, Max Fisher wants to manufacture a romance with his crush Miss Cross as quickly as possible, so this becomes another one of his elaborate schemes. Like any great writer, Max knows that he must create an “I Understand You” moment: a moment that makes her say, almost despite herself, “Oh, look, there’s a bit of kismet here, maybe we should be together.”

You can see him endeavoring to do this in his feigned “chance encounter” early in the movie. She is on the bleachers reading, so he just happens to choose the same bleachers for his own reading. He wants to seem to be a serious, thoughtful adult like her, so he gets out from the library “The Powers That Be” by David Halberstam, a forgotten icon of parlor-room intellectuals of a generation before. He’s hoping she’ll say, “Wow, this is no kid, this is a serious adult like me, and I’ve just met my soulmate.” But of course, it doesn’t work. He’s no adult, and it’s not going to happen.

Max finally meets a real romantic prospect towards the end of the film. At first, he sees that Margaret Yang is drawn to his energy, as many kids are, and so he uses her in his play without taking her interest seriously, ignoring her when she comes to his house. It’s only later, in a chance encounter, that he realizes that this is a kindred spirit.

He’s flying kites with his acolyte Dirk, only to discover that Margaret is flying her remote control plane in the same field. He then sees that she has made an adorable flight plan, much like the kind of thing he would make. That’s the “I understand you” moment, but what happens next really seals the deal: he finds out that she almost defrauded the navy into buying a science project that she faked. She is more mature and compassionate than Max, but she is, at heart, a dreamer and a schemer just like him.

For practical reasons, Margaret is the only real prospect for Max in the movie, but she can’t just be “the love interest” or else we will reject her. We the audience must decide for ourselves that they belong together, preferably before Max does. That way, we get the thrill of watching our hero belatedly make the right romantic choice, fulfilling our desires, not just his own.

An “I understand you” moment will sometimes consist of one character entreating another for love and proving his or her case, but just as often, it sneaks up on both characters, unexpectedly proving to the both of them that they belong together (In this case, before he’s ready to hear it, and after she’s already given up.)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Straying from the Party Line: Rushmore’s Offscreen Catharsis

In Rushmore, at what point does Max Fischer finally turn a corner, get a girlfriend, and vow to make peace with everyone? Well, we don’t know, because we don’t see it. Instead, we see just the opposite.

We do get to see some personal growth: He finally apologizes to Dirk (spontaneously) and Margaret Yang (when prompted), he starts his first new society at his public school, he reaches out to Blume and exchanges medals with him. He reaches out to Miss Cross again with another aquarium scheme. But then, after that falls apart, we see him ordering dynamite and heading off to Rushmore with a rifle: “I have one more piece of unfinished business.” We then see him in a window aiming the rifle at his bully. To our relief, he just shoots him with a potato gun, then gives him a script for a play.

Nevertheless, as the next scene begins, somewhat-ominous drum music plays and we see that Max has gathered all of the characters from the movie, both friends and enemies, in one room for his play. Of course, we soon realize that, while his Vietnam play is far from safe, his intentions are entirely positive and this is a different Max: He’s got a girlfriend, he’s introducing everyone to his father, and he’s implicitly making peace with everyone he’s wronged.

This is tricky. Audiences do like going back and forth, sometimes getting ahead of the characters (we know what’s going to happen to them but they don’t) and sometimes falling behind (we can’t figure out what they’re doing for a few scenes), but this movie features false alienation: Intentionally making us doubt our trust in the main character, only to please us by re-affirming it.

In this case it works: it adds a little tension and excitement to an ending that might otherwise be anticlimactic. Yes, it’s a little disappointing that they have to skip over some of Max’s personal breakthroughs, but it’s a comedy, not a drama, and we’d rather get an nervous final laugh than a heartfelt catharsis.

In other cases, it doesn’t work: There’s a moment in the first season of “Mad Men” when Matthew Weiner decides to create the false impression that Don is preparing to kill his half-brother (instead, he’s going to pay him to leave town, which, as it turns out, causes him to commit suicide.) It’s essential to build identification with anti-heroes: We can’t sympathize, but we can at least empathize. By breaking identification in those scenes, Weiner briefly pushed our already-limited tolerance for Don past the breaking point, and struggled to get it back. When I recommended the show to people after that first season, I warned them about that episode: “At times the show will seem darker than it really is, but stick with it.”

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Rushmore

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Max Fischer is a scholarship student at an elite private school, where he runs all the clubs but neglects his grades. He strikes up a friendship with a school funder, Mr. Blume, and develops a crush on a Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Cross. When the dean Dr. Guggenheim kicks him out, Max ends up in public school, but he continues his schemes to get Ms. Cross. Instead, she falls for Bloom. Max tries to get revenge, but ultimately helps get them together and finds a girl his own age.

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 Somewhat: A precocious high schooler falls in love with a teacher, then loses her to his own best friend, a rich school funder.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
Somewhat: a young man who acts old.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
We’ve all had unrequited love.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
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? 
Yes.  The months projected on curtains keep things moving swiftly along.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
Yes, a student and his school’s funder. 
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Dr. Guggenheim, and everybody else at one time or another.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Greatest fear: getting kicked out, Greatest hope: the love of Miss Cross. 
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
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 must admit that he’s a barber’s son in order to repair the damage he does and find happiness.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes. Even Cross and Blume only get back to together due to his manipulations.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Very much so.
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?
Yes, it’s funny and touching.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Max and his clubs. Max with his bees. The blazer and red hat.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The bees.  The war in general.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Blume and Cross get together, Max ends up helping them. 
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?)
Comically vain: imagining himself in math class, chatting with the dean and funder, etc.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The precocious kid-playwright
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
The failing lost soul
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
1950s public intellectual “May I see some documentation” “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but”, “strongly agree with your views”, “and whatnot”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Dismissive of all opposition
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
He wants love, friendship, respect, etc.
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)?
”What are you going to do?” “The only thing I can do: try to pull some strings with the administration.” “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Stay at Rushmore forever.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: He wants a girlfriend. Hidden: That he’s just a barber’s son.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Very much so.  He gets bruised and heart-broken regularly.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
He’s vainglorious.
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?
He’s romantic and enthusiastic.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Very much so.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Do more.  Impress everyone.  Prove I’m smarter.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
He’s head of a dozen clubs.  He producing his play.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Very much so.  He gives orders to the head of the school.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
He attacks Blume with bees, etc.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 16/21
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)?
It annoys him that Dr. Guggenheim wants to kick him out.  He also begins to discover puberty. 
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
He’s told he’ll be kicked out.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
The opportunity is obvious: study, but he refuses to consider it until very late in the movie.  Instead he pursues an imaginary opporunity for romance.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
No, he jumps right in.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
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?
Many. She’s not interested and Dr. Guggenheim is opposed to all of Max’s tricks.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
This movie’s “second quarter” is very short, and its “third quarter” is very long.  To a certain extent, Max continues to try “the easy way” until the ¾ point, but his big crash happens much at 34 minutes in.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
He has a lot of fun.  He thinks that the aquarium will win Miss Cross over.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
There’s a big crash, but it happens 20 minutes early: Max’s aquarium is shut down and he gets kicked out, also losing the friendship of Ms. Cross at the time.  It was really shocking when rewatching this movie to realize how early this happens: Most of the movie isn’t set at Rushmore.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Yes and no.  He’s still pretty delusional, but he starts working harder.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Yes, he feels betrayed when Mr. Blume starts sleeping with Ms. Cross.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Ms. Cross definitively rejects him and he drops out to become a barber.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
”I’m just a barber’s son.” About his plan for the aquarium (and therefore his crush on Ms. Cross): “I gave it to a friend.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
He creates a similar life for himself at Grover Cleveland to the one he had at Rushmore: puts on a new play, etc.  He also vows to get Blume and Cross back together.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
He’s proactive throughout.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Sort of.  Ms. Cross doesn’t show up to the second aquarium opening either, so he has to come up with something new (the play)
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes, everybody’s at the play.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
No, it ends earlier, and it ends offscreen.  They want us to believe that he’s buidling up to a school shooting, so they don’t show us that he’s dealt everything and moved on.  We just figure that out when we see the play.
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 introduces his real father to everyone, and his selection of song “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger,” lets us know that he’s learned.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 17/20 (Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers)
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?
We know that he’s determined to woo her.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
It begins at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
He’s hitting on a teacher on school grounds, and has to seem to keep his distance.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
She was trying to read.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Cancelling Latin.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
When will he finally sit next to her?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
She’s charmed.  He’s disarmed, but recovers his cool.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re rooting for him but identifying with her.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Just slightly: she defends Latin.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Don’t smoke, don’t badmouth Latin, Suppressed: I like you.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
He lights her cigarette.  They switch to a romance language.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Very much so on his part.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Did he steal her lighter? It’s possible.  He pretends to read a book he thinks will impress her.  He feigns lack of knowledge about her. 
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
He makes a show of moving closer and futher away from her (with unintentionally loud clanking on the bleachers) and then shakes hands with her at the end.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
He gives her a light at the beginning.
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?
Max nonsensically decides to save Latin.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
No, it all goes according to plan.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previous: How will he try to score a chick? New: How far will he go with this?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
He seems to be going further off the deep end.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
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?
Yes. Max and Blume genuinely try to be friends but neither is willing to check his outrageous selfishness. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
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?
 Max talks like an expert in every field.  When he finds out that Blume was in Vietnam, he insantly asks “Were you in the shit?”
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Blume: Working class / vet, Cross: England/Harvard, Default personality trait: Blume: depressed, Cross: cool and wise, Argument strategy: Blume: Gives up, Cross: Calls our your real agenda
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?
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Max talks like a professor, but it’s supposed to be odd, so that’s okay.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Everybody is 3-dimensional.
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?
He tries to create fake moments with Ms. Cross, but then he has a genuine one with Margaret Yang, when he finds that she's created an adorable flight plan for her model plane just like he would make.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
No, it’s awkwardly dumped on us in the first scene.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, the scene where Cross finally lets him down harshly.
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?)
The coming of age movie
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
No subgenres.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
All are satisfied.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
I suppose the word would be “precious”, but that sounds insulting when it’s actually charming.
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?
We think the question will be, “Can Max stay in Rushmore?”, but he’s kicked out early on, so instead it becomes, “Will Max find love?”
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
The curtains establish a theatrical artificiality and formalism.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Not really.  Max is one-of-a-kind.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
We see odd glimpses of planning of his schemes before we see what he’s really doing.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
He gets a girlfriend in Margaret Yang.
PART 7: THEME 10/14
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?
Ambition vs. Acceptance
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
“When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” Is it true?  Or are there good reasons to be normal?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Not really.  Max’s madness drives the plot, not hard choices.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Not really.  It’s very silly.  It’s very much a pre-Columbine, pre-9/11 movie, in terms of what Max gets away with. 
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)?
The politics of private school (and public school) are well-observed.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Just slightly: Max’s plays are about national pain (Vietnam, Watergate, Serpico) but he fails to seriously grapple with these issues (although his play does make Vietnam vet Blume cry), but the movie itself is totally decontextualized.  We don’t know what city we’re in or what year it is.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Yes and no.  Max’s schemes all fall apart believably, and he suffers, but not as much as he really would.
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?
Max’s plays, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
Max’s medals, the swiss army knife, the fish, the bent bike, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Acceptance is better than ambition, but ambition still looks pretty great.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
He tries to hook up Cross with Blume instead of trying to break them up.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Yes, everyone is there for the finale, but their stories don’t wrap up neatly.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Yes.  Max has learned a lot, but he doesn’t want to talk about it much.

Final Score: 106 out of 122