Sunday, October 03, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?

Heroes must have secrets or qualities that cause them to have unique reactions to challenges, some internal ionic charge that sets the compass of the story spinning—something the people sitting on the hero’s right and left don’t have. This is fairly obvious in comedies and dramas, where the volatility of the hero is front and center: 
  • In a romantic comedy or drama, the heroes react to each other in an unexpectedly volatile way. That’s what romance is. 
  • In any character-driven story, the unique psychology of the hero is the main topic of the story. 
Though it can be harder to remember in adventure stories or thrillers (where it’s tempting to have an Everyman hero), your heroes shouldn’t react to their situations in typical ways. Instead, heroes must respond to their challenge in their own unique way. That unique reaction is what makes them heroes. This is what the Everyman wouldn’t do. This is why this story happens.
  • In Men in Black, we see that Will Smith is more clever than all of the other applicants when he figures out that he has to drag the table over while filling out forms rather than trying to write on his lap. 
  • Captain America (who is also being judged by Tommy Lee Jones as he tries to join a different secret government agency) has more valor inside him than everybody else, even when he’s tiny. This is revealed when Jones tosses a dummy grenade into a group of soldiers. Everybody else scatters except our scrawny hero, who jumps on the grenade. 
  • In Margin Call, Zachary Quinto’s stock analyst character has more compassion than the others: Only he gives a heartfelt farewell to Stanley Tucci’s fired risk assessment officer, so only he gets tipped off about the doom awaiting the firm. 
These are simple but powerful moments that allow the audience to choose this character to be their hero. These characters aren’t just in the right place at the right time; they earn their place at the table.

In the examples I cited, the heroes had something good inside them, but sometimes a more neurotic internal contradiction causes the hero to react in an unexpectedly volatile way. In each of the following cases, it’s a neurosis that ironically helps the hero succeed.
  • In both Vertigo and Rear Window, only Jimmy Stewart’s characters would have uncovered the crimes that are central to the story, because the natures of the crimes happen to tap into the characters’ festering neuroses. 
  • In The French Connection, only Popeye, with his self-destructive “never trust anybody” ethic, could have spotted the well-hidden drug ring. 
  • In Silence of the Lambs, only Clarice, with her sheltered rural background, could have gotten this reaction out of Hannibal Lecter. That background also proves to be the key to solving the mystery, because Clarice has a unique understanding of the type of town where Bill lives. 
Remember: We can only care about your hero, not your plot. If your hero is a generic everyman who exists just to introduce us to your world or dazzle us with story twists, then you’ll sabotage yourself. Your story exists to serve your hero; your hero cannot exist to serve your story.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Very much so.


Only slightly.  She’s the most loyal to protocol and the company, until she realizes that Ash isn’t worth being loyal to.

An Education

YES. David clearly kindles a spark of rebellion that was already in her.

The Babadook

YES. Very much so.

Blazing Saddles

YES. He’s a natural leader, and only he could triumph in this situation.

Blue Velvet

YES.  Very much so.

The Bourne Identity

YES. both before and after his amnesia: seeing Wombosi’s kid caused an unexpectedly volatile reaction, not just the coincidence of getting hit in the head.


YES. It triggers her suppressed rage and self-loathing.


YES. Very much so.  His cool exterior finally cracks.


YES. He’s particularly offended at having been duped.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  His extraordinary self-control allows him unprecedented success, but it threatens to destroy him.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so, he surprises himself and us when he throws the garbage can through the window.  

The Farewell

YES. 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.  

The Fighter

YES. He’s ready to snap when the movie begins.


YES. She finds love, betrayal, etc.  

The Fugitive

Not really.  He reacts less than the average person would.  

Get Out

YES. His story with his mom makes the sunken place especially horrific for him.  

Groundhog Day

YES. …But it takes a while. He does everyman reactions as long as he can, until he finally realizes that this really is about him.

How to Train Your Dragon


In a Lonely Place

YES. very.

Iron Man

YES. Everybody is shocked by how strongly he reacts to his captivity. 

Lady Bird

YES. From the first scene, we see how volatile she’s become as a result of the stresses in her life. 

Raising Arizona

YES. His first instinct when things go wrong is to rob another convenience store.




YES. He’s not a very volatile guy on the surface, but we sense a quiet fury lurking under the surface of Oyelowo’s performance.

The Shining

YES. Very much so, especially for Jack and Danny.



The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Lecter is determined to get a reaction out of her, and does.

Star Wars

YES. It begins his spiritual awakening. We sense that Han could never power a lightsaber, for instance.

Sunset Boulevard

Not really.  He under-reacts to the horror of his situation, right up until his death (even after that, in his nonchalant postmortem narration).  He doesn’t even noticeably react to being shot.

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