Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life?

And so we’re back!  Sorry I took a break with these for a while.  I realized I wasn’t including enough old pieces, so I had to spend some time identifying old posts to add to these.  You’ll see the results below, with two old pieces added to this excerpt from the book:

What is the worst possible way for any story to begin? “BRINGGGGG! Angie’s eyes open and she looks over at her alarm clock. …” Don’t do this. Your story is not about your hero’s life. Your story is not about your hero’s day. Your story is about your hero’s problem. Do not follow your hero around like a puppy, waiting for something to begin. Begin the moment the problem begins—no sooner and no later.

If you’re writing a lot of scenes in which the hero wakes up in the morning or goes to bed at night, you’re doing it wrong, because those scenes have nothing to do with the hero’s problem. In the overstuffed fantasy novel Eragon, there are no fewer than nineteen scenes of the hero waking up in the morning!

Likewise, the way to get from scene to scene is not to ask, “What does the hero do next?” but rather, “What is the next step in the progression of this problem?” That next step might happen immediately after this scene, or the next day, or years later. Your audience will happily make that leap forward with you, because they are invested in this one problem, not the progress of your hero’s daily life.

Let your story start at the moment the problem becomes acute, and then end at the moment the problem is solved (or succumbed to, or peaceably accepted). If you simply follow the development of that problem, then everything before it begins, everything after it’s resolved, a lot of extraneous events along the way will simply fall away, and you’ll find your story.

Rulebook Casefile: I loved how quickly Dallas Buyer’s Club movie moved. As soon as you begin to suspect what might happen next, we suddenly leap ahead a few weeks and land knee-deep into the middle of that plot turn. We never see McConaughey make the decision to do the next thing: “Wait just a second, I just had a big idea, what if we…” We just see that he has made a big decision, and he’s already facing the next big complication. We’re constantly playing catch-up…which is exactly what we want.   

Rulebook Casefile: The Progress of the Problem in the Opening of The Babadook

The Babadook exemplifies three rules:
  • A story follows the progress of the problem, not the progress of the character 
  • Cut ten pages out by starting scenes late and ending them early 
  • Never let your characters apologize 
By the time the story begins, Sam’s behavior has already gotten pretty bad, and things are quickly getting worse. The first ten minutes feature breathtaking storytelling in every sense of the word: We begin with ten 30-second scenes of Sam’s escalating violence and monster-obsession, then at the 5-minute mark he’s kicked out of school. After ten more 30-second scenes, he pulls the “Mr. Babadook” book off the shelf exactly at 10-minute mark, and the real terror begins.

How on earth does writer/director Jennifer Kent get such a richly-characterized movie to move so fast? How can you say anything with a 30-second scene, and how can you keep up that pace for 20 quick scenes in a row?

The lack of apologies has a lot to do with it. Presumably, after each of Sam’s problematic incidents he apologizes abjectly to his mom or she to others, but the movie has no time for that. It’s tricky, because those scenes are tempting to write: after all, that’s big drama …but it’s empty drama. The audience doesn’t want to watch characters talk about something that’s already happened, they vastly prefer to watch characters discuss things that might happen, or that are happening. What’s done is done.

Here’s what Kent has to say:
  • “Deciding the structure of it, I was always trying to make it more and more constrictive. It’s a matter of rhythm. For me, films have more in common with music than with novels or literature. The flow of this movie was determined by its musicality. We didn’t stop in the edit until it felt that way. We clipped out a lot from the first half until we got there, about 10 minutes, I’d say.” 
Getting out of scenes also creates a nice effect near the end, cleverly manipulating our genre expectations. The scene:

Once we know that Amelia is over the bend, their kindly old neighbor knocks on the door to make sure they’re okay. We see wild-eyed Amelia trying to send her away. We then cut to Sam discovering their dead dog on the kitchen floor, only to have him turn around to find his murderous mother standing over him, explaining that the neighbor won’t be bothering them anymore.

So did Amelia kill her neighbor? Well, no, but we don’t find that out until the epilogue when the neighbor is babysitting Sam again. Not only is this a great example of the power of cutting away to keep tension high, it helps with the problem we discussed last time: In the end, Amelia kills no humans. This violates our genre expectations, but it’s necessary in order to have a semi-happy ending, so one solution is to cut away from that scene early, implying just for a while that maybe she has killed someone, which makes the rest of her rampage that much scarier.

It’s a brilliant cut: If we figure out that she’s not going to kill anyone, then the movie loses tension, but if we know for certain that she has killed someone, then we lose all hope of a happy ending, which also decreases tension (our tense hopes that this might still turn out okay). By cutting away, both sources of tension are kept alive.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Well, his whole life is a problem, but yes.  There’s not a lot of waking up and falling asleep.



An Education


The Babadook

YES. The first half-hour is a beautiful model of lightspeed filmmaking, following the progress of the problem over a long period of time in a rapid-fire way. (Kent says they cut ten minutes out of this section.)

Blazing Saddles

YES. Very much so. In fact, Bart disappears off the screen for fifteen minutes as the problem develops, then reappears, already up to speed.

Blue Velvet

YES. Two hours of deleted scenes attest to how slimmed down the story is (only stills survive, but those stills can be seen on the DVD).

The Bourne Identity



YES. though this one problem eventually spirals out to encompass most of her life. 


NO. Not strictly.  It’s not very linear.  The camera wanders through some tangentially related minor storylines on its way back to Rick.



Donnie Brasco

YES.  we barely even see where he lives as Donnie.  

Do the Right Thing

Yes and no.  We think for the most of the movie that this is just a day-in-the-life story, but we realize at the end that almost everything we’ve seen has contributed to the riot.

The Farewell

YES. we see little of her life outside this problem. 

The Fighter

YES. It begins when he realizes that his family is the problem, and ends when they reconcile with his girlfriend.  They could have gone further to show Micky’s most famous fights, but they don’t, because that’s outside the scope of the problem.



The Fugitive

YES. Very much so.  The first ten minutes do an amazing job of zipping through the set-up.

Get Out


Groundhog Day

YES. We get started quickly, then slow down to show two whole days, then move through hundreds of day quickly once he begins making incremental progress.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. there are lots of montages that show Hiccup’s incremental progress at solving the problem without worrying about what Hiccup does all day.

In a Lonely Place

YES. We zip through a lot of time.

Iron Man

YES. We zip through a lot of story quickly. 

Lady Bird

YES. Basically.  It begins at the moment her relationship with her mom becomes untenable, and ends with the relationship’s peacable resolution. 

Raising Arizona

YES. For instance, when it starts to cut away to Smalls, it uses the excuse of a dream in which Hi conjures up Smalls as a projection of his guilt, allowing this second storyline to become an extension of the one problem.


YES. The months projected on curtains keep things moving swiftly along.


YES. there’s lots of jumping ahead. 

The Shining

YES. it follows the progress of the problem as it passes from hero to hero.


YES. It breezes through seven days of story, which is more than most movies

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. We zip through a lot of time, have little “downtime”

Star Wars


Sunset Boulevard



Paul Worthington said...

"The audience doesn’t want to watch characters talk about something that’s already happened, they vastly prefer to watch characters discuss things that might happen, or that are happening. What’s done is done."

At first glance,that sounds like a good rule of thumb... But just about all detective and police procedurals are nothing but people talking about what has happened -- and those have been popular for decades.

Matt Bird said...

I would say that this is one reason why the detective genre is especially hard to write well.

Paul Worthington said...

I knew almost as soon as I typed that, that I shouldn't have specified that genre... It is the most extreme example, but hardly the only one.
AFAIK, most dialog in most fiction is discussing what has already happened.
People in life, and characters in fiction, both love to rehash everything.
Moreso, it is also the most used and most efficient method for exposition -- and since justabout all stories have plenty of backstory, that past has to come out some way and most often it's through dialog.
Yes, plenty of talk should move the story forward, and if characters talk it should ALSO be about what they are going to do (or the conflict they have a hard time deciding what to do about) but that isn't the case in most fiction today -- and I don't think it should become the case in the future that most dialog is only about what might happen, as you seem to be recommending.

Easy E said...

Any plans to watch the netflix "Kate" anytime soon? I only watched it once so far and didn't take notes, but gut feeling is that it follows the Harmon story circle really strongly