Monday, October 04, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does this challenge become something that’s not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but also hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?

Obstacles are fine, but conflicts are better. An obstacle is anything that makes a task difficult to do. A conflict is anything that makes a hero not want to do it. 

Amazingly, the Disney animation team had been writing and rewriting drafts of Frozen for two years before deciding to make the two girls sisters. Instantly, the story came alive, and they never looked back. Defeating a random snow witch is hard to do. Defeating your sister is hard to want to do. That’s the difference between an obstacle and a conflict.

Not all conflict is created equal. Genuine conflict occurs when characters don’t want to do something for reasons such as these:
  • It would require them to question their deep-seated assumptions: Huckleberry Finn is convinced he’ll go to hell if he helps Jim escape. 
  • It would require them to overcome an inner weakness: Steve Carell's character has built up an extreme reluctance to mature in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. 
  • They promised someone they wouldn’t do it: Mark Wahlberg feels he cannot go on his own without betraying his family in The Fighter. 
  • It would reveal their painful secrets to others. Harrison Ford in The Fugitive cannot investigate his wife’s murder without exposing himself to the police. 
  • It would get their love interest or a family member in trouble: Tobey Maguire's character is constantly afraid his activities will endanger his family members in the Spider-Man movies. 
This is a problem that plagues tons of lackluster stories: Cooking every meal in Julia Child’s cookbook is certainly hard to do, but it’s not hard to want to do, so who cares? That’s why the modern-day portions of Julie and Julia fall flat. For that matter, this was another problem with The Aviator. Making an expensive movie and deregulating air travel are both hard to do, but they’re not hard to want to do, so the movie never took off.

Rulebook Casefile: Conflict vs. Obstacle in Hugo

I won’t get into the strengths and flaws of the illustrated novel, let’s just look at Martin Scorsese’s movie Hugo.  Hugo is all obstacle and no conflict. Hugo encounters lots of obstacles: a train station guard he has to avoid, an old man who won’t give him what he wants, a living situation he has to hide... But he’s not reluctant to deal with any of them.

He does have a “want”, but it’s very vague: For some reason, he thinks that if he repairs an automaton, it will write out a message from his dad, but why does he think this? His dad told him outright that he just found the old automaton somewhere and he has no idea what it will say if they get it working. What part of that did Hugo not understand?

Not only does this make Hugo’s quest nonsensical, it makes his inability to spot other clues exasperating: every piece of evidence indicates that the automaton is the lost property of the man who runs the gadget shop, but it takes Hugo forever to accept that this might be true.

If I may slip into Meddler mode, the fix for Hugo seems fairly obvious to me: combine two flat characters, Hugo’s beloved dad and his rotten uncle (who both die mysterious deaths), into one complex character.

In this version, Hugo’s loving but ne’erdowell dad, who maintains the clocks in the railway station with his son, would discover the automaton and bring it home to Hugo, claiming he made it himself. When Hugo realizes what the gears used to do and asks what it writes, the dad quickly covers for his lie by saying that it’s a mystery he wants Hugo to solve.

This way, after the dad disappears (drunk in the river, we eventually find out) Hugo has every reason to assume that the automaton will contain a message from his dad, and every reason to get upset when the evidence starts to indicate that the automaton must actually belong to the old man.

Also, this way, Hugo’s surrendering of the automaton to the old man is a painful decision, and it requires him to admit the truth about his father. By recognizing and alleviating the old man’s bitterness, he gains insight into his father’s own failures, ironically fulfilling his original goal of understanding his father.

This change would not only strengthen Hugo’s motivation, it would turn external obstacles into internal conflicts. Hugo’s tasks would not only be hard to do, but hard to want to do.

Rulebook Casefile: Obstacle Vs. Conflict in The Hunger Games

Just as with Hugo, The Hunger Games is too much obstacle, not enough conflict. At least in this one, we did have two occasions where the heroine faces a genuine conflict and meets the challenge: At the very beginning, she offers to take her sister’s place in a gladiatorial contest (bold and heroic!). Then, at the very end, she tricks the gamemasters into letting both her and her pseudo-love-interest live (bold, heroic and clever!) But in between… not so much.  

The co-competitor from Katniss’s home district (Peeta) decides that they should act like they’re in love, and she passively goes along with it. That’s a great story idea (borrowed from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but who’s counting?) but it doesn’t pay off. It’s neither an obstacle nor a conflict, because it’s not hard to do…
  • What if the fake romance had been her idea, and Peeta didn’t want to do it, so she had to talk him into it? That’s a lot more active and difficult! 
  • What if the gamemaster was offended at their manipulation and kept trying to prove they weren’t really in love, so they kept having to up the ante? 
 …or hard to want to do: 
  • What if she was deeply in love with that hunky guy back home, and couldn’t stand to kiss someone else? They vaguely imply this might be the case, but they never really go there, for some reason. 
  • What if she was in love with Peeta, despite the fact that he didn’t feel the same way, but he agreed to fake it for the cameras? That would have been emotionally wrenching for her to kiss her unrequited crush knowing that he was faking it! 
  • In the book/movie, Peeta is really in love, and she’s not, but what if she had to hide it from him that she didn’t really mean it? He might begin to suspect the truth as they went along, forcing her to up the ante. 
But the real problem is the combat itself, which is totally emotionally flat. She sort of wants to win, so we sort of want her to win, but neither she nor we have any strong feelings either way. There’s no emotional journey. As I complained about the book a long time ago, killing her fellow teenagers causes no emotional response at all, which is utterly bizarre.

And this brings us to the fatal flaw that kills the drama and exposes the theme as totally hypocritical… Where’s the Woody Strode scene? Spartacus thinks he can survive in the ring by not getting to know anybody he’ll have to kill. He only makes one friend, and ignores the rest. Then, on his first day’s fighting, what happens? He has to fight his one friend!

Katniss becomes the champion gladiator, but she never has to kill anybody she likes along the way. Everybody she kills is a jerk. This is totally morally and intellectually dishonest. 

Ultimately, Katniss is a flatline. At the end, she hasn’t changed at all. Going to the capital hasn’t changed her. Killing all those kids hasn’t changed her. Being separated from that guy back home hasn’t changed her. Faking that romance with that other guy hasn’t changed her. She’s numb in the beginning, numb in the middle, and numb in the end. 

Rulebook Casefile: Obstacle vs. Conflict in Frozen

Jennifer Lee has been forthcoming about what a collaborative process writing this movie was.

Lee first became involved when she was co-writing Wreck-It Ralph and she was invited to screenings of the animatics for Frozen as it developed, just to give notes along with many others, and they liked her notes enough to hand the whole project over to her. One reason they needed a rewrite is that they had just decided on a big change. Lee was interviewed on the Scriptnotes podcast:
  • Jennifer Lee: What was so weird for us with the — not weird, but it was a nice surprise was that with the — everyone we worked with, none of us can remember who said it. We were all in the room together. We all remember being together, and we keep saying you said, no you said it, said the “what if they were sisters?” And I remember that moment so distinctively because that was like when the film mattered all of a sudden to me. I could not see this movie before it at all. I actually was very — 
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: They were not sisters at all? 
  • Jennifer: No, they weren’t sisters until about maybe one screening before I came on is when they tried the sisters. But the first screening I saw they weren’t related in any way. And part of why — 
  • Aline: What were they? 
  • Jennifer: Part of why Idina was not cast yet is it was more of — Elsa was more of like a Bette Midler kind of character. She was that more iconic older Snow Queen. And they were not related or connected in any way. And it was making them sisters was the first breakthrough I think. 
  • Aline: Wow. 
  • Jennifer: But what I loved was everyone suddenly could feel it. They could feel the film. Even if you don’t have a sibling, but just understanding that kind of — what you go through with your family is something you don’t go through with anyone, or rarely go through for anyone else. 
What they had discovered was the difference between obstacle and conflict. An obstacle is anything that’s hard to do, but a conflict is anything that’s hard to want to do. Defeating a snow queen is hard to do, defeating your sister is hard to want to do. That makes all the difference in getting your story to come alive.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Very much so.


Somewhat.  Again, she’s the most loyal, so she’s the most reluctant to admit that the company wants them dead and blow up the ship.

An Education

YES. She feels she must betray her family and mentor in order to seek love.

The Babadook

YES. She’s unable to even say her husband’s name, nor to hear anyone else say it.

Blazing Saddles

YES. it rankles him to have to save racists.

Blue Velvet

YES. He’s endangering both women that he’s falling in love with, but he’s compelled to continue.

The Bourne Identity

YES. everything he finds out about his past makes him not want to go on.


YES. She doesn’t want to give up on her handsome but uncaring lover, doesn’t want her friend to get married. Also, she’s afraid of flying.


YES. Very much so.


YES. He has to care about a client, he has to go back to Chinatown, etc.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  because he likes Lefty.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.  He was told that there will always be a place for him there just before the riot. 

The Farewell

YES. Lying is easy enough to do, but it’s hard to want to do.  (In the end, it becomes hard to do as well when she must go to great lengths to fake the medical report.)  

The Fighter

Very much so.  He can’t stand the thought of choosing between his family and his girlfriend.


YES. It’s hard to fight your sister.

The Fugitive

YES. Sort of for Kimble: he never wanted to engage with the real world, but has to now.  Very much so for Gerard, which is what helps Jones steal the movie from Ford.

Get Out

YES. Rose is all he has in the world, so he doesn’t want to admit she or her family is evil.  And he doesn’t want to think about his mom.

Groundhog Day

YES. Very much so. He has to totally transform his entire personality.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. In order to make peace, he must disappoint his father.

In a Lonely Place

YES. he thinks he needs his anger to survive and to write well.

Iron Man

YES. He has to endanger everything he has, put his fortune, company and friends at risk, go against his lifelong philosophy.

Lady Bird

YES. She knows she will lose her mom if she becomes her own person, and she loves her mom.  

Raising Arizona

YES. They’re good people, and they don’t want to steal a baby. 


YES. he must admit that he’s a barber’s son in order to repair the damage he does and find happiness.


Yes and no.  He tells Coretta he wants out, but is he telling the truth?  He fears he or his family will be killed, which certainly makes it hard to want to continue, but not in the sense that civil rights is something he has to come around to. 

The Shining

Yes for Jack, Danny and Wendy, since they have to oppose family members, no for Halloran.


YES. He’s still in love with his ex-wife and the idea of himself as a novelist.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She really doesn’t want to talk about her past.

Star Wars

YES. It is at first, because of his aunt and uncle.  It’s pretty easy to want to do after they’re killed.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. working for Norma is hard to want to do, because of his self-respect, and romancing Betty is hard to want to do, because she’s engaged to his friend.    

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