Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Farewell

Billi is broke Chinese-American would-be writer in New York, who finds out that her beloved grandma Nai Nai back in China is dying, and, according to Chinese custom, the family has chosen not to tell her of her own illness, but the family has contrived a wedding that will give them an excuse to visit grandma one last time.  Billi decides to tell grandma but gets talked out of it, eventually joining in on the deception.  In the end, Nai Nai doesn’t find out and is still alive when the movie is made. 

PART #1: CONCEPT 15/19

The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?

Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?

A young Chinese-American woman returns to China to see her dying grandma one last time, but nobody will let her tell her grandma the truth.

Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?

Lying for an honorable reason, withholding aggressive medical care with the idea that it would do more harm than good because of the fear it would cause

Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?

Wang says that the more specific she made it to her culture the more universal it become.  We’ve all told lies to family to make them feel better, but not usually with life or death stakes.

Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?

Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?

Yes, there’s very little plot.

Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?

Yes, Billi

Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 

Yes, we see little of her life outside this problem.

Does the story present a unique relationship?

Yes, a girl and her grandmother when the girl is hiding from the grandmother that she’s dying.

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

Everyone in the film is opposed to Billi’s wish to tell her grandma.

Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?

It represents her greatest fear: That’s she’s too American for China but too Chinese for America.

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

On the inside, she’s having a volatile reaction, but she suppresses it all the way through the end of the movie, which is very non-western. 

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)?

Lying is easy enough to do, but it’s hard to want to do.  (In the end, it becomes hard to do as well when she must go to great lengths to fake the medical report.) 

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

Not at all.  She’s the only one who can stop this, but she chooses not to. And ultimately submitting to the will of the group seems to work.

Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?

No, she chooses not to transform the situation at all, but it does transform her.

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?

Just slightly.  It intentionally doesn’t deliver the drama it promises because the dam never breaks and the truth never comes out, but along the way it makes us laugh and cry. 

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

Not really.

Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?

Not really.  The crazy-wedding-seated-dance-game thing is great trailer-fodder though. 

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

Well, the big surprise is that the dam never breaks.

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?)

On the phone with her grandma, she lies that she’s wearing a hat to stay warm enough.  Her grandma then warns her that in New York criminals will rip your earrings right out of your ears.  She signs a petition on the street to save marine life just out of pity for the woman asking for signatures, then has a friendly conversation about how she used to have that job, and admits she quit before she could be fired.

Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?

Yes, we never learn much backstory

Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?

Her family has great hopes for her.

Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?

She’s hiding the fact that she didn’t get a Guggenheim fellowship and feels like a failure.

Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?

Sort of, she sounds like a teenager, showing her arrested development.  “Are you always going to live like this?”  “Poor and sexy, I hope so.”  But that amount of personality is atypical.  For the most part, she has little verbal personality.   

Does the hero have a default personality trait?

Glum, which is a very alienating trait

Does the hero have a default argument tactic?

Appeal to Western ethical reasoning.  Tell a lot of lies while insisting others tell the truth.

Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?

She loves her grandma and wants to tell her the truth, but ultimately chooses not to.

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)?

 I don’t understand, she doesn’t have a lot of time left, she should know, right?”

Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?

Tell her grandma the truth

Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?

She’s worried she’s going nowhere, she’s worried that she’s too Chinese for America and too American for China.

Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?

Emotionally very much so.  The closest she comes to physical vulnerability is when she comes back to her New York apartment and finds a bird inside, despite the fact that no windows are open.  Later, the same thing happens in her China hotel room.

Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)

Ultimately the movie flips in the final title card, revealing that her flaw was her self-centered, western urge to tell the truth (which we had perceived to be a strength)

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?

… and that her strength was her willingness to knuckle under (which we had perceived to be a flaw)

Is the hero curious?

Right away, she’s trying to figure out where her Nai Nai really is.  She keeps demanding to know why they’re doing this, trying to understand Chinese logic. 

Is the hero generally resourceful?

Not really, but when she finally chooses to act, to fake the medical report, she does manage to summon the resources to do it.

Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?

Truth is better than lies, action is better than inaction, the American way is better than the Chinese way.

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

No one around her wants to tell the truth.

…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?

Many times

Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?

Sort of, she’s walking through the streets talking on the cell phone with her grandma.

Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?

Just a bit, in that she chooses to fly to China against their wishes.

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

Not really.  I mean, you could say she uses her writing skills to fake the document, but not really.

PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 18/21

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)?

She does not feel at home in America and misses her grandma.

Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?

She gets a letter denying her a fellowship, confirming her fear that she’s not making it on her own. 

Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?

She finds out that she can to visit China and her grandma, but only on the condition that her hide her grandma’s cancer.

Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?

Her parents try to convince her to not to come, sure that she can’t lie convincingly. 

Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?

She buys her own ticket and surprises everybody.

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?

Well, it’s not really unforeseen, but her grandma immediately asks her what’s wrong.  Her grandma tries to teach her a Chinese exercise routine but she resists.  

Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?

She puts on a fake smile and tries to keep quiet.

Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?

Not really. She tries to relax at a spa, but without much success.

Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?

Grandma gets sicker and goes to the hospital.

3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?

Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?

She confronts Grandma’s doctor and tries to convince the family to tell her, but the doctor and her family talk her out of it.  

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

Her father switches to her side, but is still outvoted.  She feels betrayed by Nai Nai herself, when Nai-Nai’s sister tells her that Nai Nai lied to her husband about his cancer.

Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?

Sort of.  She confronts her uncle, convinced he’s the ringleader. 

Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?

Her uncle convinces her she would have to stay in China to take care of Nai Nai, and she decides to do so…

Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?

…but her mother quickly disabuses her of that notion.  (She can’t cook, clean, or write Chinese.)

4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?

Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?

You would think she would say something subtly showing that she’s coming around during her wedding speech, but her speech is unmemorable.  (The closest thing she gets to a corrected statement of philosophy is her final line of the movie where she comes home and shouts “Ha!” using her grandma’s exercise mantra.)

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

She happily joins in a drinking game with her family, no longer feeling disconnected from them.

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

Yes, when…

Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?

She finds out that her grandma has sent the maid for her test results and goes running out to intercept the maid.  She doctors the results to further the deception.

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

Very much not.  They all gather to watch the grandma read the faked results, but nobody confronts anybody.

Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?

She finally tells her Nai Nai one piece of truth, that she didn’t get the fellowship.  They bond as much as they can without the truth of the diagnosis coming out.

Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)

She returns home to New York, feels overwhelmed, then stops on the street and shouts “Ha!”, which she refused to do before.  We then find out that the grandma is still alive six years later.

PART #4: SCENEWORK 15/20 (Finding out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents)

The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?

Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?

She thinks that she’ll find out her dad is sick or drunk. 

Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?

Not really.  It starts at the beginning.

Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?

She’s just said to her mom, “Mom, if you’re going to give me shit every time I come home, I’m not coming home anymore,” so she feels intimidated there.

Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?

The dad doesn’t want to discuss it.

Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?


Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?


The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?

Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?


Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?

We identify with Billi and want her to find out the truth.

Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?


Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?

Surface: Let me go visit grandma.  Suppressed: I’m not too American for China, or if I am, it’s because American values are better. 

Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?

No, it’s all plainly stated.

Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?

The parents pretend not to be too upset.

Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?

Her mom references her dad’s joke, which Billi laughed at before, to mock Billi’s position, which Billi has no response to. 

Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?

There’s reblocking, but nobody touches each other.

Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?


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?

Not yet.  They convince her not to go, but not for long. 

Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?

She finds out the truth but humiliates herself in the process, admitting to her powerlessness.

Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?

Answered: What’s going on?  Asked: What will Billi do about it?

Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?

Ends on: ”If you go now, she will find out right away.”  Is that true?

Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)

We wonder if Billi will be able to keep the secret.


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?

Yes, very much.  Both Nai Nai and Billi have a very limited perspective, in different ways.

Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?

It’s about learning to tell the difference.

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

Very much so.

Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?


Do the characters interrupt each other often?


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?

The two cultures are contrasted in their language.

Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?

Nai Nai: Metaphor family: chirpy-but-hectoring grandma, personality trait: wants things her way but also wants to keep things pleasant, argument strategy: tell white lies to get what she wants.

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?

Just a bit.

Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?


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?

They’re all three-dimensional.  To a certain extent, the mom is head, the father is gut and Billi is heart, but they’re ultimately more complex than that.

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?

Her Nai Nai perceptively sees her problems, and her uncle sees her flaws.  

Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?

There’s no exposition.

Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?

Sort of with her uncle. 

Part #6: Tone 10/10

Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?

Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)


Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?

Big-lie family gathering

Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?

It majorly defies expectations.  We’re totally expecting the lies to come out.  But it satisfies a few as well, with heartfelt scenes and laughs.

Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?

Unfortunately, like too many indie films, it has a blue filter on it, literally and figuratively.  I guess you could say the mood is “indie.”  Mood is the movie’s biggest flaw.  

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?

Well, we’re primed for the lie to come out, and, whether or not it does, for her to die, but neither comes.  But the movie is structured around the trip and does end when the trip ends.

Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?

We begin with an intercut phone call between Nai Nai and Billi, establishing the worlds.  The first shot is a picture of a beautiful Chinese landscape, but then we realize it’s just a picture in a hospital, establishing the idea of lies and masking illness.

Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?

Yes, some of the family members seem to have found success either by leaving or staying in China and others seem to have failed by doing one or the other, so lots of possible fates.

Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?

The doctor says that they lied to his mother about her cancer but she died shortly thereafter.

Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?

She switches to joining in the deception, she switches to telling the truth about her fellowship.

Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?

Yes, we see that the lie doesn’t come out, Billi doesn’t tell the truth, and Nai Nai doesn’t die.

PART 7: THEME 13/14

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?

Is it better (and healthier) to live a happy lie or an unhappy truth?

Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?

”She should know, right?”

Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?

She keeps being put in moral dilemmas in China.

Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?

Does the story reflect the way the world works?

Yes, it’s a true story.

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)?

Very much so, it’s based on a true story of the filmmaker’s visit to China and shows many authentic things she noticed.  (I mean, it certainly never comes up that this is a dictatorship, and they probably wouldn’t have been able to shoot there if they had mentioned that, but it still has a lot to say about the nature of modern China without mentioning that very big elephant in the room)

Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?

Hints of it for both countries.

Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?

Well, not really, because dictatorship is never mentioned. 

Do all of the actions have real consequences?

Yes, but not what we expect.  Inaction ends up with positive consequences.

Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?

Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?

There are dozens of little lies that both Nai Nai and Billi tell that are counterpointed with the big lie that the other family members are telling Nai Nai.

Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?

When she chooses to join the lie, it’s in the form of an object she has to forge with difficulty.

Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?

Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?

Happy lie is seemingly better, but we’re not sure of that.

Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?

She doesn’t achieve her original goal of telling the truth and decides it was better not to.

In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?

It’s very untidy.  We never find out if Billi finds a way to make it in NYC, etc.

Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?


Final Score: 106 out of 122


Joel W. said...

"Unfortunately, like too many indie films, it has a blue filter on it, literally and figuratively. I guess you could say the mood is 'indie.'"

Would you be able to explain the figuratively part? Are you just referring to the mood many indie films have (in which case no need to explain), or were you getting at something else?

Matt Bird said...

No, that's what I meant. I hate it when cinematographers point their camera at the world and think, "Oh that looks too much like normal life, I should put a blue filter on it so it'll look more like a movie," but they usually do these days. You can see in the DVD documentary behind-the-scenes footage where you see what the real colors were, then the cut to the shot from the film that's been blued up, and it's a bummer. The problem is that it makes the movie "blue" both literally and figuratively, giving it that glum "indie" feeling. That was all I meant.