Podcast

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a bad piece of advice early on)?

In my book, I countered the common notion that a hero should offer a correct overall statement of philosophy on page 5. 

That said, it can be great to have a blatant or an inadvertent statement of philosophy from your hero, but only if it’s a false statement of philosophy. Then, after most of your story has passed and we’re ready for the climax, your hero can have a hallelujah moment and discover a corrected philosophy.

Perhaps the most famous false statement of philosophy would be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “I stick my neck out for no one.” Only later does he reverse himself, declare that his personal problems “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world,” and put himself back in harm’s way for the war effort.

Another great example: Tommy Lee Jones is a smart actor, and he cleverly stole The Fugitive from Harrison Ford when he ad-libbed his own false statement of philosophy. Ford points a gun at him and says, “I didn’t kill my wife.” Jones looks at him like he’s crazy and informs him, “I don’t care” (which wasn’t in the script). This nicely sets up Jones’s big reversal at the end.

Writers talk a lot about ways to “raise the stakes” of the plot, but a false statement of philosophy raises the emotional stakes. It shows the imposing size of the internal barrier the hero must overcome to succeed.

Silence of the Lambs is an example of a character who doesn’t have a false statement of philosophy but accepts a false piece of advice. Clarice’s boss, Crawford, gives her one cardinal rule for dealing with Hannibal Lecter: “Don’t let him get into your head.” In the end, she will realize this is precisely what she needs to do.

Rulebook Casefile: Withholding the True Statement of Philosophy in Chinatown

In Step 9 of my Compelling Character series, I talked about the popular misconception that a hero should offer an overriding statement of philosophy on page 5 or so. I think it works better when the actions of a movie force a hero to arrive at a true statement of philosophy on page 90 or so. If you they offer an such a statement on page 5, it should be false, something like, “I stick my neck out for no one.”

An interesting example of this is in Chinatown. In the first scene, detective Jake Gittes has just shown a working class client named Curly pictures of his wife having an affair, then told Curly he should probably forget about it. In the finished movie, we cut away from the scene to the office outside, where the secretary waits, then Gittes and Curly emerge with Curly explaining that he can’t pay right away. Gittes says he understands, but he was just trying to make a point.

Huh? What point? Did we miss something? Yes we did. The missing chunk of dialogue from Robert Towne’s original screenplay reveals all:

Why was this cut? I think it was because the filmmakers belatedly realized that Gittes couldn’t say this yet because it’s a correct statement of philosophy. If Gittes already understands this, then he has no arc.

The whole point of the movie is for Gittes and the audience to learn this. The movie will show this to us, so they dont need to tell us as well. Like many screenwriters, Towne was giving the game away too soon by giving Gittes a correct statement of philosophy in the very first scene.

If they had caught this problem in the script phase, they could have re-written it so that Gittes offers an incorrect statement of philosophy instead, but they didn’t, so they just chopped out the middle of the scene in the editing room. Gittes doesn’t get a false statement of philosophy until much later in the movie:

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. “I respect women.  I love women.  I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them!  I have a very fulfilling life!”

Alien

YES. “Whatever happened to standard procedure”

An Education

YES. False advice: her father would say there’s no point to going to concerts. He also says that Oxford doesn’t want people who think for themselves.

The Babadook

YES. “I’m fine.”  There’s no monster.  “He doesn’t need a monitor.”  “I have moved on, I never mention him.”

Blazing Saddles

YES. When he rejects the advice of his friend not to hit the boss and says “I have to.”

Blue Velvet

YES. “I’m just real curious” “I don’t want to cause any trouble.” “No one will suspect us because no one would believe two people like us would be crazy enough to do something like this.” He believes that he’s fundamentally different from Frank.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he keeps saying “I just want to find out who I am”, but eventually he comes to want more.  

Bridesmaids

YES. “I’m not looking for a relationship right now.” About being a bridesmaid: “I’m more than happy to do it and it’s not too much.”

Casablanca

YES. “I stick my neck out for no one.” 

Chinatown

YES. He says to the fake Mrs. Mulwray, “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie?’ You’re better off not knowing.”  He will change his mind about this then come back around in the final minutes.  

Donnie Brasco

YES.  “I gotta shave my mustache off.  Regulations.”  He’s trying to play if by the book, in both jobs.

Do the Right Thing

YES. “Gotta get paid”

The Farewell

YES. I don’t understand, she doesn’t have a lot of time left, she should know, right?”

The Fighter

YES. He starts out with the right boxing philosophy, but he says about his brother, “Nobody pushes me harder.”  That’s wrong.

Frozen

YES. “What if I meet the one?...I know it all ends tomorrrow, so it has to be today.”

The Fugitive

YES. Kimble: Just barely, but when he finally realizes that they suspect him and he says “How dare you?”, that shows his naiveite.  Gerard has a much clearer one: “I don’t care.” 

Get Out

YES. She says, “They are not racist. I would have told you. I wouldn't be bringing you home to them. Think about that for just two seconds.” Chris responds, “I'm thinking. Yeah, yeah, yeah good.”

Groundhog Day

YES. Dozens: About Rita: “She’s fun, but not my kind of fun.” “People are morons.” Etc.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. “Taking down one of those would definitely get me a girlfriend!” “No one has ever killed a night fury, I’m going to be the first.”

In a Lonely Place

YES. “She’s right, I am nobody.”

Iron Man

YES. “My old man had a philosophy: Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.”

Lady Bird

YES. “I wish I could live through something.”  Be careful what you wish for. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Accepts bad advice from Gale: “Sometimes your career (crime) has to come before family.” 

Rushmore

YES. “What are you going to do?” “The only thing I can do: try to pull some strings with the administration.” “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”

Selma

Sort of.  He acts as if he expects Johnson to do the right thing without pressure, but he’s already planning to apply that pressure (“Selma it is”).  His philosophy is basically farsighted and rightheaded from the beginning.

The Shining

YES. Jack: “That happens to be exactly what I’m looking for.”  Danny: “I don’t want to talk about Tony anymore.”

Sideways

YES. “[Dating is] not worth it, you pay too high a price.”

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Advice given by Crawford: Don’t let him get into your head.

Star Wars

YES. “It looks like I’m going nowhere.” “I see, Sir Luke” [chuckles] “No, just Luke” (aka, “I can’t be a knight”) Later, he says, “I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the empire, I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s such a long way from here.” 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. “I heard you were one of the ones with talent.” “That was last year.  This year I’m trying to make a living.”

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