Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have a default argument tactic?

Similar to the default personality trait is the default argument tactic. As with the personality, tactics can greatly transform over the course of a story. Frequently, heroes will start off the story naïve and overconfident, using half-ass strategies because they’ve never been seriously challenged. As the heroes face up to the challenge, they will gain skills, hone weapons, and figure out how to accomplish things. 

Nevertheless, each character should have a default argument tactic throughout. Your characters will gain more and more arrows in their quiver over the course of the story, but they will always instinctively reach for this arrow first, from beginning to end. In any given encounter, it is only when this tactic fails that they will move on to another.

This is one of the least perceptible aspects of personality. You probably don’t think of yourself or your friends as having default argument tactics, but if you think about it now, you might realize that each one does. Start there, instead of with movies or books: Listen to the people in your life and how they instinctively try to win arguments.

We identified metaphor families using 30 Rock characters, so for default strategies, let’s look at that show’s former Thursday night companion, the equally brilliant Community. Let’s say you’re withholding a secret from a member of the Greendale Community College study group. How will they try to get it out of you?
  • Jeff: He tries to trap you with the evidence of your lies in a lawyerly manner. 
  • Abed: He poses faux naïve questions, noticing little details and psychological “tells” in your answers. 
  • Annie: She asks genuine naïve questions, persistently interrogating until she gets the truth. 
  • Troy: He halfheartedly attempts to lay logic traps and ensnare you with your own words. 
  • Shirley: She passive-aggressively guilt-trips you. 
  • Britta: She accuses you of hypocrisy, inconsistency, or a general lack of morality. 
  • Pierce: He doesn’t strategize; he just insults. Unsurprisingly, he’s the most unlikable character. 
These strategies tend to have some overlap with the characters’ metaphor families or default personality traits. Jeff, Shirley, and Britta have strategies that relate to their backgrounds (lawyer, evangelical Christian, hippie). Abed’s strategy is related to his psychology (Asperger’s syndrome). Annie, Troy, and Pierce, on the other hand, use strategies that match up to their default personality traits (sweet, geeky, and arrogant, respectively).

In dramas, the characters will be less broadly sketched but still use distinctive default strategies—silence or verbosity, sexuality or piousness, logic or emotion, etc. A character with a consistent tactic will be far more believable.

Straying from the Party Line: Chris’s Lack of Metaphor Family, Argument Tactic, Strong Motivation, Goals, Insistence, and Decision-Making Ability in “Get Out”

So according to our checklist, Chris seems like a rather deficient hero in Get Out. Let’s look at at all the character tests he fails:

Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Just very slightly.  He talks a little blacker to Rod than he does to her (“Yo, you at work?”) but for the most part he speaks rather generically.  He’s code-switching, and around white people he’s studiously generic in his metaphor family.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigarette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through.  Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.   
And is the hero willing to let others know that they lack his most valuable quality, subtly or directly?
He gently points out to Rose her seeming naivete, but mainly just reacts to everyone with pointedly-quizzical looks.  He laughs off Rod.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Absolutely none, as Dean jokingly points out.  And she drove, so he can’t leave without her approval. 
In the commentary, Peele points out something interesting:
  • “I could talk all day about how amazing Daniel [Kaluuya, who plays Chris,] is. I mean, at some point we realized, y’know, Chris doesn’t have very many lines in this. And it’s true. His role is to just kinda get out of here without the shit hitting the fan. You know even in these scenes here [taking abuse from Jeremy at dinner] he’s just trying to minimize the awkwardness and make it through the weekend and get out, so that’s why he’s not gonna pop off, and of course, he’s in love, so we understand why you’re on your best behavior at your love’s parents’ house.”
Chris is told by Dean early on that his role as boyfriend is to say “She’s right, I’m wrong,” as often as possible, but of course there’s a racial component to that as well. Chris is expected to say that to every white person. When the cop arrives, the black man is in deadly peril, but the white girl has power over the cop, which she happily flexes.

As I say above, Chris shows more personality in his brief conversations with Rod than with anyone else. Long before he gets sent to the sunken place, Chris is hiding inside himself, and we understand that, so we still find him compelling in spite of his lack of some of the surface traits we crave. He’s somewhat self-less (but not selfless) and generic, but we sense more under the surface of Kaluuya’s performance, so we don’t reject him.
And it’s essential that we see his great photography at the beginning: the ultimate way to show the soul of the voiceless.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  Inept sarcasm


YES, cites the rules.

An Education

YES.  Faux naïve, but with a withering use of evidence of the other’s hypocrisy or ignorance.

The Babadook

YES. Meekly assents, then lashes out.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Bizarre zaniness to disarm you, swaggering charm to win you over.

Blue Velvet

YES. Ignoring all disagreement, proceeding with a slight smile.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he puts the ball in your court (for instance, handing her the money before he asks her to decide, then asking her to give it back if she wants to say no.)


YES. But not a good one. She gets brittle and defensive, lies badly, makes promises she can’t keep. She also likes to put up a false front.


YES. Tells insultingly bland lies (“I came for the waters.” Q: “Where were you last night?” A: “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.”)


YES. Won’t listen, bulldozes over you, nails you with inconsistences and evidense he’s uncovered.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he plays it cool and silent, looks askance at the person, convinces the person that he’s the one who knows what’s going on.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Ignores your protests, then repeats what he said in the first place.

The Farewell

YES. Appeal to Western ethical reasoning.  Tell a lot of lies while insisting others tell the truth. 

The Fighter

YES. Shrugs, gives up, and mutters his dissent


YES. Naïve insistence

The Fugitive

YES. He’s clearly not good at making his case verbally.  All he can do is blurt out denials: “I didn’t kill my wife.” He tends to succeed by disappearing, both visually and in other ways: he breaks in by muttering, changes order by scribbling an illegible signature.  Even when he confronts Nichols at the end, he just blurts out the accusations.  So yeah, he has a consistent tactic, it’s just incompetent.

Get Out

NO. Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigrette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.

Groundhog Day

Sort of: petulant complaining. He’s never very good at getting others to do things.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Stammering out a string of excuses until something sticks.

In a Lonely Place

YES. encourages them to talk, lets them hang themselves, then shoots them down swiftly and brutally.  Or he just punches them.

Iron Man

YES. Sarcastic direct assault, “what are you going to do about it”-style. Cuts the other person off with a quick, witty, withering line, then smirks while they try to answer. 

Lady Bird

YES. Mischaracterizes her scene partner: (“I’m sorry I’m not perfect.”) Insists on her own reality if spite of evidence: “What I’d really like is to be on Math Olympiad.” “But math isn’t something that you are terribly strong in.” “That we know of YET.”

Raising Arizona

YES. Folds quickly


YES. Dismissive of all opposition


YES. With allies he keeps them onboard by talking about the future: With his wife: “Look here, I’m going to a pastor somewhere soon, college town…maybe the occasional speaking engagement…”  With Johnson, on the other hand, he rejects all talk of the future and talks only about the present.

The Shining

YES. Jack is mock-jocular, accusatory and condescending. “Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?” He keeps quizzing each about the other for fuel to use against them. 


YES. Traps people. / emotional blackmail “Did you like the new ending?” “Yes.” “Everything after page 750 is exactly the same.” / “Just wanted to let you know I’m not coming to the wedding.”

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Listens closely, picks apart holes in your story, uses your own argument against you.

Star Wars

YES. Ineffective disputation

Sunset Boulevard

YES. slipperiness, he deflects all conflict.

1 comment:

Nat 20 said...

For some reason I always struggle with this one, so it's quite handy to have so many examples in one place.