Thursday, August 05, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?

“Write what you know” really means you should write the emotions you know, but put those emotions into a more extreme situation with a lot more at stake. 

This is what it means to dramatize. In real life, nobody wants to have “way too much drama going on right now,” but when it comes to stories, that’s exactly what you want. The same types of things that happen to you are happening to them (the same universal emotions, the same universal dilemmas), but in the fictional version, the highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the potential consequences are far more life shattering.

You totally identify with the hero’s situation and emotions, but you get to vicariously experience the thrill of a much bigger transgression than you would ever actually commit, followed by the pain of the big consequences you’ll never have to suffer, followed by the gratification of a big transformation that is always out of your reach. And if, along the way, you get to inhabit a glamorous (or fascinatingly gruesome) world you would never otherwise get to visit, all the better.

Once again, of course, masterful storytellers can successfully break this rule. TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation excel at creating low-stakes, unglamorous worlds in which small interactions and minor complaints become just as compelling as an alien invasion. Once again, those shows are choosing to run uphill, but they prove that it can be done.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Every man has felt like he’ll never get laid, and this is his ultimate nightmare…and ultimate fantasy, because everybody wants three perfect wingmen.


YES, it’s the ultimate unsafe workplace.

An Education

YES. Wanting to get away from parents with dangerous older boy, but in this case much older, and a career criminal. (That said, the stakes aren’t really that big, just the usual: losing out on the chance to go to college.)

The Babadook

YES. every parent has resented their children, and vice versa.  Everyone has repressed emotions until they become dangerous.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Very much so.  We’ve all had to prove ourselves, but not with these stakes.

Blue Velvet

YES. A coming of age story in which the adult world our young man discovers is insanely dark and evil.

The Bourne Identity

YES. It’s a metaphor for anyone who is disgusted by what he’s become


YES. The stakes are only slightly higher than real life, but a rivalry over a friendship results in plane being forced down, for instance.


YES. we’ve all pined for an ex, and wondered what we would actually do if given a second chance, but this time the war is on the line.


YES. A journey into the world’s darkness, but with the future of LA at stake. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  being promoted over your hapless boss, but your undercover with the mob.

Do the Right Thing

YES. everyday city tensions culminate in a death and a riot. 

The Farewell

YES. 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. 

The Fighter

YES. Very much so.  We all have to break free of our families in order to succeed.


YES. It’s a very believable difficult sibling relationship

The Fugitive

YES. The most universal emotion is to feel misundertood / misjudged. 

Get Out

YES. Very much so.  We’ve all felt like everybody at a party was talking about us behind our backs, even if we’re white.  

Groundhog Day

YES. Very much so.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Training a pet, but with two civilizations on the line.

In a Lonely Place


Iron Man

YES. A universal tale of overcoming hypocrisy and taking responsibility for one’s actions, but with lives on the line.

Lady Bird

NO. this is just the writer/director’s life story, faithfully recreated with its original place and time, with the same stakes as the true story.  

Raising Arizona

YES. The urge to have a family at all costs, combined with the fear of family commitment, get pushed to absurd extremes.


YES. We’ve all had unrequited love.


YES. It’s like a thousand everyday activist stories, but this was the big one. 

The Shining

YES. fear of isolation and being trapped in a marriage, set in the most isolated place in America trapped with a monstrous man.


YES. Very identifiable, but not really bigger, except for the two “Holy Crap” moments.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. We’ve all felt that we must accept injustice to get ahead at work.

Star Wars

YES. Very much so.

Sunset Boulevard



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