Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his future, as well as a hidden, private fear?

Heroes should have at least one big open fear, preferably a universal one the majority of the audience shares, such as the fear of failure, loneliness, or commitment. Of course, they shouldn’t have so much fear they’re cowering in the corner. We want the kind of fear that gets them to actively forestall a dreaded outcome. 

No matter what happens in a scene, it will be far more compelling if we already know your hero hoped or dreaded it would happen. Perhaps your hero is forced to face the one thing he most fears (Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark gets dropped in a snake-filled tomb). Or maybe what happens to him is a metaphor for his fear (Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window is afraid of marrying Grace Kelly, so he becomes obsessed with a worst-case marital situation across the courtyard). Either way, the situation is more compelling to us because we know it’s going to tap into the character’s emotional anticipation.

Most heroes have a public common fear they express openly from the beginning. But in many stories, they also have a hidden, unique fear that’s revealed halfway through. Chief Brody in Jaws is openly worried he won’t cut it in his new beach-town job. We find out halfway through that he’s also secretly afraid of the water. Likewise, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs is afraid that she’s in over her head at the FBI. Then we find out she’s also secretly afraid that her dirt-poor background will show through. In both cases, the key to solving the characters' public fear is to confront their hidden, private fear.

To hook an audience, get them to anticipate what might happen next. Of course, your audience will take their emotional cues from your hero, so start the first scene by asking, What is my hero anticipating? It could be something good, of course, but it’s usually a stronger choice if it’s something he dreads. Even if your audience doesn’t like your hero yet, they’ll find they need to know if the dreaded event happens. That buys you some more time to get the audience on your side.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. That his secret will be found out. That there’s something really wrong with him.


YES. Open, fear of breaking the rules. Hidden, an implied universal fear of childbirth.

An Education

YES. Public: That she won’t get into University. Private: That she’ll be as dull and unsophisticated as her mother and father.

The Babadook

YES. Open: She’s worried about her son’s fears, inability to sleep. Hidden: She fears his violent tendencies, fears that she will hurt him, perhaps even fears that she will molest him, as he has taken her husband’s place in her bed, and she shuns his hugs and physical contact in bed.

Blazing Saddles


Blue Velvet

YES. that the people who cut off the ear will never be caught. Yes, that the world is evil, that he’s evil.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Open: that he’ll be killed or captured. Private: that he’ll discover he’s not a good person


YES. Never getting married, that she’s going to lose her friend.


YES. Fear of attachments, fear of losing control of his bar.  Hidden: That he’ll have to face what happened in Paris.


YES. Open: that he won’t get paid. Hidden: that’s he’s a sleaze/leach.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Open: Getting caught in a lie. Private: losing his soul to the mafia.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Open: He wants to keep the peace to keep his job.  Hidden: Buggin’ Out tells him to “stay black”, and he worries that he’s not doing that.

The Farewell

YES. She’s worried she’s going nowhere, she’s worried that she’s too Chinese for America and too American for China. 

The Fighter

YES. Open: That he’s a stepping stone, that his family is holding him back.  Hidden: That he can’t succeed without them.


YES. Open: never get married, never bond with sister. Hidden: Have to hurt sister. 

The Fugitive

YES. Open: He’s afraid of crime (he has a security system and a gun) Hidden: He’s afraid that he doesn’t fit in with the rich (his wife grew up rich, he grew up with less money), and that he looks like a waiter in his tux.

Get Out

YES. Open: that he’ll be “chased off the lawn with a shotgun”, Hidden: that he killed his mother, that everybody wants to kill him. 

Groundhog Day

YES. Open: That he’ll never get a better job. Private: That he’s a terrible person.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Open: Failing to impress his dad.  Private: Afraid that he’s totally different from the rest of village.

In a Lonely Place

YES. Open: that he’s wasted his life.  Hidden: that he’ll kill somebody.

Iron Man

YES. Open, only slightly: that he won’t close this deal. Hidden: That he’s a death merchant.

Lady Bird

YES. Open fear: She won’t get into an east coast school, that she’ll always look like she’s from Sacramento.  Hidden, private fear: That she’ll lose her mom. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Open: Going back to jail.  Hidden: That he’ll be a bad dad.


YES. Open: He wants a girlfriend. Hidden: That he’s just a barber’s son. 


YES. Open: that he will fail to force the legislation, private: that he will get himself or his family killed, or his wife will leave him.

The Shining

YES. Open. Jack: going broke. Danny: No.  Hidden: Jack: going crazy. Danny: that something horrible will happen at the hotel.


YES. Open: His novel won’t get published.  Hidden: His novel isn’t any good. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Open: That she’s not good enough. Hidden: That she’s a hick.

Star Wars

YES. Open: That he’ll never get to be a pilot.  Hidden: That he’ll be corrupted.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Open: not getting work. Hidden: that he’s a hired monkey.

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