Tuesday, October 05, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?

Thriller and horror writers love to complain about cell phones. It’s now impossible to write a thriller, they say, because rescue is always just a phone call away. 

Of course, there are ways around this problem: The battery runs out, there’s no signal, the phone gets destroyed, etc., but each one of them has become a cliché in its own right. There’s even a YouTube montage of dozens of characters giving these excuses.

But if you find yourself sweating over how to cut off cell phone access, then you’ve got a bigger problem. If your heroes need only to make a call to get out of trouble, then they’re not the only ones who could solve this problem, which means it’s not really their problem. “Wrong place at the wrong time” is too little to hang your story on. If there’s a cop out there who would be better at solving the problem, then you should write a story about that cop.

There needs to be a deeper reason why your heroes are the only ones who can solve this problem. Calling the cops should not be an option, whether or not a cell phone is available.

Of course, most of the traditional reasons why heroes might not call the cops have also become clichéd: No one will believe them, they’re on a revenge trip, they’ve been accused of the crime themselves, the cops are crooked, it’s the perfect crime, etc. But these have become clichéd for a good reason—they personalize the problem and put your heroes in a position where they and they alone have to solve it, as opposed to contrived cell phone issues, which feel tired and emphasize that the heroes don’t have to take care of it themselves.

Throughout your story, character should be colliding with plot. The ending is the ultimate collision in which the problem is resolved as both the character and the situation are permanently transformed by their volatile clash. 

Straying from the Party Line in Blue Velvet: It’s unclear if he’s the only one who could solve this problem.

The Problem: The movie sort of hedges its bets on this problem. For most of the running time, we suspect that the cops could handle this better on their own without Jeffrey’s involvement (which should be death for the story), but as Act 3 begins, we have a more typical movie development: Jeffrey finds out that one of the bad guys is a detective, and decides once again that it’s all up to him.

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. In theory, we should get fed up with Jeffrey and insist on rooting for the cops, who we trust more to solve this case, but our interest in seeing the case solved is co-equal with our interest in understanding Jeffrey’s creepy psychology, so we’re willing stay with him (and then they finally reveal that a cop is on it, which is a more traditional way of getting us to root for him to solve it on his own. But even then the chief seems to be taking appropriate steps, though we can’t tell for sure.)

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Yes and no.  Sometimes it feels like everyone wants to help him more than he wants to help himself, but he does have to work really hard.  Of course there’s sort of a shadow-story going one where he helps and supercedes everybody else (he ends up everybody’s boss)


YES, only she tries to keep the ship quarantined, only she figures out what’s going with Ash, only she survives. In the end, everyone else is dead.

An Education

YES. Her family checks out and her school washes their hands of it.

The Babadook


Blazing Saddles


Blue Velvet

Yes and no. He has to shoot Frank because the police don’t get there fast enough, but if he hadn’t intervened we sense that they could have solved the problem better.  We’ll never know if the police couldn’t have just handled it better on their own. It’s possible Jeffrey did more harm than good, but that doesn’t hurt the movie, because we find his neurosis fascinating.

The Bourne Identity



Sort of.  Unlike in most movies, the hero is not working the hardest to solve the problem, Helen is. Annie’s remarkably passive. Helen needs her help because only Annie can talk to Lillian. And only Annie has the cop connection.


YES. Only he has the letters of transit.


YES, he thinks so, anyway, but he fails to solve it.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he’s totally committed and the other Feds are just doing their job.

Do the Right Thing

Yes and no.  Nobody is working to solve the problem, but Mookie turns the tide, for good or ill.  He doesn’t solve the problem, but he attempts to, in his own way. 

The Farewell

NO. 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. 

The Fighter

NO. Not really.  He’s fairly passive, and many of the breakthroughs are forced upon him: he dad makes him ask Charlene out, Charlene forces him to make good on that, his new handlers force him to cut his family out… Most importantly, Charlene and Dicky make peace without him.


YES. only her love for her sister is strong enough to break the curse. 

The Fugitive

Sort of: Gerard could have solved it too, if he only cared.  In this sense, Kimble’s job is really not to catch the one-armed man or Nichols (what can he do with them?), but to convince Gerard to care, and therefore arrest the others instead of him. Once he finally convinces Gerard, they work together to solve the problem, but it would actually be better at that point if Kimble just got out of the way and let Gerard do it alone. Ultimately, it’s good that Kimble’s still there at the end, because he saves Gerard’s life, but if Kimble had just stopped running in that ballroom, that would have been better for everybody. 

Get Out

YES. pretty much.  If he’d waited for Rod to show up, it would have been too late. 

Groundhog Day


How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Ironically, yes, even though he’s the only one avoiding direct confrontation, he does wind up working the hardest, day and night, learning how to understand his dragon and use those methods in training. In the end, only he can communicate with Toothless and save the day.

In a Lonely Place

NO. His friends care more about helping him, both externally and internally, than he does himself.  This should kill the movie but it doesn’t.  This is very rare: a compelling story about refusing to help yourself.

Iron Man

Sure. Pepper and SHIELD are helping, but they’re overpowered by Stane.

Lady Bird

YES. only she can be in charge of her own life in the end. 

Raising Arizona



YES. Even Cross and Blume only get back to together due to his manipulations.


YES. Well, only Johnson can solve the problem but presumably only King could have forced his hand. 

The Shining

NO. Jack gives up quickly, and others have to take up the fight, making this a tag-team hero movie. In the end, it comes down to just Danny as the new hero.  


NO. He chooses to wait for Maya to reach out to him, but it’s clear that she does so because of his efforts: his call confessing all, and the quality of his novel. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Only she is pushing hard on Lecter angle.  In the end, everyone else is in Illinois.

Star Wars

YES. Only he can make the shot because only he has the force.

Sunset Boulevard

NO, Betty is trying harder to save him than he is to save himself. He cannot solve the problem, and doesn’t try very hard.

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