Podcast

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?

So the surprise (which astonishes your audience after they’ve shown up) has to be different from the concept (which got them to show up in the first place). Now let’s turn that on its head: The surprise can’t eliminate the concept. The concept has to last for the entire story, not just until the surprise happens. 

I sometimes come up with what I think is a great concept for a thriller, but then I realize my idea only provides a unique way of starting the story, and then all of the uniqueness disappears once the plot gets going.

For instance, an older friend in college told me a wild story from his past. It sounded made up, but I later confirmed it was true: At his previous college, he had been arrested for creating a world-famous computer virus. Like most hackers, he could type faster than any stenographer, so a judge sentenced him to community service working for the government’s little-known “Relay” service.

This was a program that allowed deaf people to use a primitive version of “Chat” to communicate online with a relay center. People at the relay center then had to call whomever the deaf person wanted to call and read everything he wrote, then transcribe everything that was said on the other end of the line back to the deaf person. This enabled deaf people to use the phone like anybody else. There were two especially weird things about this service:
  • Lonely deaf people would try to chat directly with the relay operators, but the operators were strictly forbidden from responding or conveying anything but what was said on the other end of the line. 
  • Shockingly, operators were forbidden from interfering with or reporting any crimes committed over the phone using the service, since the government had no right to “listen in” without a warrant, even if the operators were actually facilitating that crime. My friend handled calls to and from drug dealers and wasn’t allowed to tell anybody! 
My mind instantly reeled: What a great beginning for a thriller! A deaf woman keeps getting threatening calls, and our hero has to relay those threats. She calls the police for help, using the hero’s voice, but they don’t believe her. She calls her friends, but they hang up. Won’t somebody help her? At what point does our relay guy decide that it’s up to him?

A great setup, right? Well, here’s the problem: As soon as he leaves the relay center to help her, the whole concept disappears. He just becomes one more noir hero protecting a damsel in distress from some crooks. The bizarre relay system no longer has anything to do with the story.

Here are two TV shows from back in the day that have concepts that only start off strong: Early Edition is about a guy who gets the next day’s paper a day early and then spends every day saving someone who would meet misfortune without his intervention. Tru Calling is about a morgue worker who can talk to the dead and find out who killed them, allowing her to avenge them. The problem is, both heroes can discover the danger using their superpowers, but they can’t solve the problem using these powers. After the first commercial break, the concept is gone, and they became routine crime-solver shows.

But no matter how strong your concept, it’s just your starting point; great concepts don’t make for great stories, great characters do.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Keener is old enough to feel like a more mature choice, but hot enough to (reluctantly) satisfy bro-comedy fans.

Alien

YES.

An Education

NO. Not really, but that’s fine. Nobody wants to see her knuckle down and study, so the story wraps up very quickly after the reveal.

The Babadook

YES.

Blazing Saddles

YES. It would have been easy to stop taking the story seriously once the 4th wall is broken, but the story remains compelling, and we easily go back into it at the end.

Blue Velvet

YES.

The Bourne Identity

YES. even moreso afterwards, because we can finally totally root for him again.

Bridesmaids

NA

Casablanca

YES. Well, it ends pretty much after, but yes, there’s still another fun climax, so yes.

Chinatown

YES.

Donnie Brasco

NA.

Do the Right Thing

YES.

The Farewell

YES.

The Fighter

YES. Very much so.

Frozen

YES.

The Fugitive

YES.

Get Out

YES. Very much so. 

Groundhog Day

Sure.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES.

In a Lonely Place

YES.

Iron Man

YES.

Lady Bird

N/A

Raising Arizona

YES.

Rushmore

YES.

Selma

YES.

The Shining

NA

Sideways

NA

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. But just barely. The story couldn’t have sustained our interest very long without Lecter.

Star Wars

YES.

Sunset Boulevard

YES.

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