Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?

Occasionally friends ask me to consult on reality TV series they’re pitching. One was about adventure travelers who go to unsafe countries, one was about Live Action Role Players, and another was about a struggling hip-hop label. Every time, I had the same advice: Someone onscreen has to be opposed to what your subjects are doing. I implored them to shoot interviews with people who disapproved of this activity. 

In each of the above cases, this advice met with resistance: “But I want to present what these people do in a positive light! I don’t want to bring negativity into it.” My argument was (and still is) that the only way to portray an activity as a positive thing is to prove your subjects are willing to overcome opposition to do it. If you just show people doing their thing and having a great time, there’s no story. If you show them doing it despite opposition, then the audience can appreciate the meaning of what they do.

“Well, okay, sure, all stories need conflict,” you might say, “but my fictional characters are more compelling than those would-be reality show stars. If I create a great fictional character who’s internally conflicted, can’t that create meaning on its own, without bringing any external conflict into it?”

It is possible to write a meaningful story in which the primary conflict is internal, not external, but it’s much harder. The only form of writing that is naturally suited to showing internal conflict is the first-person novel, but even movies can pull it off if they work really hard.

For instance, The Secret Life of Dentists, based on the novella The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley, successfully dramatizes the internal conflict of a passive protagonist. Campbell Scott plays a conflicted dentist who can’t bring himself to confront his wife about her infidelity. So how does the movie dramatize this internal struggle, this lack of action? It uses every trick in the book—voice-over, dream sequences, wish-fulfillment fantasies—but ultimately, all of these fall short, so Scott must argue with an imaginary character (Denis Leary) who represents his suppressed rage. So this movie becomes the exception that proves the rule: One way or another, conflict must be dramatized.

Even if you are writing a first-person novel, internalized stories without external conflict are hard to write well. Drama refers to interaction between characters, not conflict within a character, and drama is at the heart of great writing. Conflicted characters are great because they’re volatile, but that volatility only erupts when that conflicted character meets her match and is thereby challenged. When we pick on ourselves, we rarely do so in a surprising way. When other people pick on us, that’s when things get real.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

NO. Not really, and that’s fine.  He’s his own antagonist.  (Almost every woman he meets is actually willing to have sex with him: Mann, his boss, the bookstore girl, Keener, the prostitute)  Kat Denning is a bit of an antagonist, but even she joins team Andy quickly.


YES, Ash.  (Well, sort of human)

An Education

YES. Her family at first, then her teachers once her family has been co-opted.

The Babadook

YES. first the sister then Samuel.  Also the child services people.

Blazing Saddles

YES. “That’s Hedly!”

Blue Velvet

YES. many, but especially Frank.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Chris Cooper.


YES. Helen.


YES. pretty much everyone, especially Major Strasser.


YES. Noah Cross, the cops, etc.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  everybody he meets.

Do the Right Thing

YES. The hero is doing very little, but yes, Pino opposes him. 

The Farewell

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

The Fighter

YES. his new girlfriend won’t let him screw himself over any more.


YES. Hans.  The movie would have been much weaker if not-really-bad Elsa was the only antagonist.

The Fugitive

YES. Gerard.

Get Out

YES. Just about everybody

Groundhog Day

Hmm… It depends on his goal. Yes, when he wants a date from Rita, otherwise not really, just himself.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. His father specifically and whole village generally, and then the final dragon.

In a Lonely Place

YES. everyone, to varying degrees.

Iron Man

YES. First the warlord, then Stane. Sometimes Pepper as well. 

Lady Bird

YES. Her mom is opposed to a lot of what she’s doing. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Lots of them.


YES. Dr. Guggenheim, and everybody else at one time or another. 


YES. Lots and lots. 

The Shining

NO. Not at the beginning, but yes once they’re opposed to each other.


YES. Jack is opposed to Miles’ idea of not meeting someone, then opposed to Miles’ need to confess, Maya and Steph are opposed to his lying.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Chilton, plus Lecter, plus Bill

Star Wars

YES. Darth Vader 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Various, as his goals change.  First the repo men, then Max, then Betty, then Norma.


LMNtrees said...

I'm wondering if you can explain more about theme in tv series. If the protagonist doesn't change, then what does change at the climax to show the theme? Can you walk me through how this works? Where is the line between leaving your thematic position ambiguous enough that the audience can merge it with their own understanding of life, and leaving your thematic position so ambiguous that the show doesn't seem to say anything at all? I'm not a writer, just an audience member so my life doesn't depend on your answer. Just curious! Thanks.

Matt Bird said...

As I say in an old post, "The art of TV is the art of the small transformation. Our heroes very rarely change their philosophy, but they almost always have to change their perspective to get what they want." It's that change in perspective that often provides the theme:


I also talk abut how to establish theme on TV here: