Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?

What’s the one moment that will make readers perk up and go, “Whoa! I’ve never seen that before. This story actually went there! I’m out of my comfort zone now!” This is especially important for these three genres: 
  • Comedy: American Pie famously revived a dead genre by showing a kid violating a pie in the trailer (a gag so funny they named the movie after it). 
  • Thriller: People flocked to see The Grey because the trailer implied that Liam Neeson was going to get in a fistfight with a wolf. (Only later did they discover the movie ends with his preparation for that fight. The filmmakers did shoot the fight, but it looked too silly. Because of course it did.) 
  • Action: Everybody went out and saw Independence Day because of the shot where the aliens blew up the White House. 
Obviously, it’s easy to get cynical about such scenes. When I was writing a broad comedy, I watched twenty recent comedy trailers and jotted down the biggest laugh in each one. A shocking number involved raccoon attacks, or head injuries, or both. But these scenes can actually make your story better.

Your story needs a reason to exist. It has to be the story that did that thing that nobody else would do. “But wait,” you say, “I don’t want to write an outrageous, over-the-top story!” Okay, let’s look at the value such scenes can have for quieter stories.

Sideways is a much gentler movie than the two listed above, but it has not one but two “Holy Crap!” scenes: the one where pretentious wine connoisseur Miles drinks an entire bucket of wine-spit at a vineyard, and the one where Miles has to retrieve his friend’s wallet from a couple having enthusiastic post-cuckold sex.

Writer-director Alexander Payne excels at little subtle jokes, such as when Miles holds his ear so he can better smell a glass of wine. We find these moments inherently funny, but we aren’t sure that we have permission to laugh at them because they’re so muted.

The value of “Holy Crap!” scenes is that they tell us, “Yes, this is definitely supposed to be a comedy. This is all funny. Laugh.” The two “Holy Crap!” scenes in Sideways shatter the movie’s gentleness (and, one might argue, realism), and the viewer feels liberated. We’re shocked out of our happy mellowness to finally enjoy a gut-busting laugh with the rest of the audience, which creates a moment of communal joy and bonding.

And part of that joy is that we now have a scene that we can tell our friends about to get them to see the movie (or read the book). What if these scenes hadn’t been there? You’d have to say, “He holds his ear to smell wine!” and they wouldn’t get the big deal. Your “Holy Crap!” scene is your calling card and your cultural currency.

Rulebook Casefile: The Crucial Use of a “Holy Crap” Moment in “Lady Bird”

Wow, so right away, this movie “fails” the first three questions on our checklist:
  • Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing? No, there’s no hook. It had to depend entirely on reviews and a funny trailer. 
  • Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction? Not really. The cover image is very slightly incongruous: a girl with colored hair at a catholic school, but that doesn’t really rise to the level of irony. 
  • Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?No, this is just the writer/director’s life story, faithfully recreated with its original place and time, with the same stakes as the true story. 
This is the quintessential “small movie,” and it’s a perfect example of how to do it right. Writer / director Greta Gerwig knows exactly what she’s doing, and she knows the risk of not meeting those expectations.

She could have generated some sort of hook, but chose not to. She could have amplified the irony of her real life memories. She could have transposed her own coming of age story into some bigger setting with bigger stakes (Post-apocalyptic! Learning how to overcome dragon overloads!), but she very faithfully stuck to the true story, right down to the year and city: Sacramento in 2002.

So how do you sell such a movie? Obviously, a big part of it is waiting to see if you get good reviews and them quoting them in the press materials. But Gerwig didn’t wait for that: She knew she had to add one moment that almost certainly didn’t happen in real life.* An outrageous moment. A moment that maybe no one would actually do, but we all remember feeling like doing it, and so it’ll delight audiences to see someone actually do it. A moment that would get a big laugh in the movie, and more importantly, in the trailer. A “Holy Crap” moment, in which Lady Bird jumps out of a moving car to get away from her mom’s criticism.

(In the script, she waits until her mom is slowing down at a light, but in the film they decided to push it farther and put them going full speed on a rural highway.)

Somewhat unusually, the “Holy Crap” scene here is the first one. This works well, as it also serves at the “problem becomes untenable” moment, which is always a good place to start this kind of movie. Obviously, her problems with her mother have been building for years, but this is the moment the movie begins because those problems have now entered the “life threatening” zone. It’s now an untenable situation. Something must be done.

* I wanted to confirm this, so I looked up and found this article, which confirms my assumption and backs up what I’m saying here:

Greta Gerwig wants it to be known that she’s never leapt out of a speeding car, even if the protagonist does so in Lady Bird, her acclaimed new film.

Why would anybody think she’d do such a thing? Well, maybe it’s because Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actor who plays the rebellious teen title star, does such a grand job of making us think of Gerwig, the popular comic actor (Frances Ha, Mistress America) who remained behind the camera this time as writer/director of her debut feature.

Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, Gerwig’s hometown. Her mom’s a nurse, she goes to an all-girls Catholic school and she embraces life with a unique sense of cockeyed optimism. Ditto, likewise, for Gerwig’s past and current life.

So the Oscar-buzzed film, which opened Friday in Toronto, is at least semi-autobiographical. But let’s clarify the car incident, which happens when Lady Bird is having one of her many “discussions” with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf.

“I never jumped out of a moving car,” says Gerwig, 34, during a recent Toronto promotional visit.

“I did get out of a vehicle once (during a dispute), but it was a stopped car. The car scene in the movie felt like, emotionally, completely realistic. Everybody knows the feeling of when you’re in a car and you’re fighting, and you want to push them out or you want to jump out, or some combination of the two. You’re literally trapped with the person in the space . . . I just always knew that’s how I wanted to start the movie.”

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Erection scenes, thrown up on, waxing, etc.


Oh hell yes: the chest-bursting scene (and also later when the “hero” dies)

An Education

NO. Not really. Somewhat, where he wants to deflower her with fruit.

The Babadook

YES. The scary book, trying to kill her kid, killing the dog.

Blazing Saddles

YES. So many!  Punching out the horse!  The flatulence!  Almost every scene, really.

Blue Velvet

YES. many.  Almost every scene, in fact.

The Bourne Identity

YES. the car chase, jumping down the stairwell with the body.


YES. The vomit and diarrhea-filled dress-fitting scene.


YES. the shocking decision at the end. 


YES. The nose-cutting, the mother-sister scene.

Donnie Brasco

NO. This movie had a hard time generating word of mouth.

Do the Right Thing

YES. The racial slur montage, the riot, etc.

The Farewell

NO. Not really.  The crazy-wedding-seated-dance-game thing is great trailer-fodder though.  

The Fighter

Sort of.  Amy Adams cursing like a sailor.  Dicky jumping out the window.


YES. The Hans reveal.  

The Fugitive

YES. The waterfall jump, the train hitting the bus.  

Get Out

YES. So many!  The sunken place! The auction! The killings!

Groundhog Day

YES. Punching Ned, killing the groundhog, the suicides, the ice sculptures. 

How to Train Your Dragon

NO. Not really.

In a Lonely Place

NO. Not really, but the level of darkness Bogart taps into must have been shocking at the time.

Iron Man

YES. The first fight in Afghanistan in the new armor. The first flight. Her removing his heart is harrowing. Post-credits scene with Sam Jackson.

Lady Bird

YES. Very much so.  The way they sold this movie was by showing her jump out of the car in the middle of the argument with her mom in the opening scene.  It adds a “Holy Crap” moment to a subdued movie and makes you want to see it.  

Raising Arizona

YES. The prison escape, the baby on the roof of the car, etc.


YES. The bees.  The war in general.


Sort of.  The violence, and the revelation of King’s adultery, which most viewers assumed they wouldn’t touch.

The Shining

YES. Very much so: “Here’s Johnny”, all work and no play, etc.


YES. Drinking the spit bucket, interrupting the post-cuckold sex 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. The escape, the fava beans, the pit, the dress-up session

Star Wars

YES. See above.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. many.  The floating corpse, the monkey funeral, the whole set-up, the final scene.

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