Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?

Okay folks, I’ve hesitated from jumping into structure because I thought about launching into a completely different series, but I think I’ll put that one off for another couple of weeks and go ahead and do structure (except on podcast days of course.)

You’ll be happy to know that I’ve also fixed the download links for the Ultimate Story Checklist and Pilot Checklist.  Google Drive decided to convert the files to Google Docs and mangle them, so I’m now sharing them though Dropbox (which you don’t need to download them)
In real life, we tend to let a mess of troubles mount before we finally choose to act. In fact, we only take on the massive work of solving a large problem once we have been discontent for some time. So rather than start with a happy status quo that gets ruined by the inciting incident, most stories begin the opposite way: The hero starts out with a long-standing social problem, and the inciting incident (even if it’s something horrible) presents itself as an opportunity to solve that problem, as we’ll see in the next two steps. 

The long-standing social problem is usually either something the hero is already aware of when the story begins or something that suddenly becomes acute because of a social humiliation in the first scene. Because this is something the hero acknowledges early on, it must be stated in the way the hero would state it. This is because most of us define our problems externally, not internally, until we’re forced to become self-critical. In the outline version of your story, the problem should usually be phrased nonjudgmentally, as the hero would phrase it herself: The hero is “broke” or “disrespected,” or “overworked,” etc. These are the sorts of personal problems that people will admit to even if they haven’t engaged in serious self-reflection.
  • In Kramer vs. Kramer, it’s tempting to say Dustin Hoffman’s problem is that his wife has abandoned him and their son, but that’s not a long-standing problem that predates the story, so it doesn’t fit into this category. Alternately, one might be tempted to say his problem is that he’s not a good father, but that’s not something he’s aware of yet (it’s his flaw, not his problem). If we limit ourselves to long-standing issues he’s already aware of, we see his real problem: He’s distracted. His work takes him away from his family, and he can’t decide which is more important. As horrible as it is, the disappearance of his wife will give him just the opportunity he needs to address this problem. 
  • In Swingers, Jon Favreau’s problem is that his ex-girlfriend won’t call him back. Even though the audience can see right away that he should just move on, we can also see that, for the time being, he’s defining his problem in an entirely external way, putting all of the onus on his ex. In this case, we, like his friends, have a lot of empathy for his pain but little sympathy for his suffering, because we see he could suffer less simply by changing his attitude. 
The great flaw, on the other hand, is something internal that most heroes remain stubbornly unaware of for most of the story, and it should always be phrased negatively: The hero is “sanctimonious” or “disloyal,” etc. In other words, it should be a true flaw.

When someone asks us about our flaws, we prefer to say, “I’m too nice” or “too much of a perfectionist,” etc., because those aren’t true flaws and we don’t really want to change. A hero must have a true flaw that requires change.

When I was evaluating the classic screwball comedy Easy Living, I was tempted to say that the heroine’s flaw was that she was “too nice,” but I realized I had to look deeper to identify an actual flaw. Sure enough, I found one: She may think of herself as “too nice,” but her real flaw is that she’s too naïve and deferential. When you put it that way, it’s obvious that it’s bad. Everybody wants to be nice, but nobody wants to be naïve and deferential.

The flaw must be something that needs to change for the hero to become a better person. Otherwise, you’ll go too easy on your characters.
Straying from the Party Line: Mixed-Up Crises in How to Train Your Dragon

On first blush, this seems like a very traditional stand-up-and-cheer movie with an intensely lovable hero and a very traditional heroic journey…but a closer look reveals a strikingly odd structure.

Deviations: The crises are all mixed up:
  • Hiccup does indeed have a social crisis in the first scene, when he is blamed for getting a building burned down… 
  • But then Hiccup has his spiritual crisis very early, at the end of the first quarter, when he finds that he can’t kill the dragon.  Instead, in a flash of moral clarity, his philosophy flips from wrong to right like a light-switch, and he never doubts the right course again.
  • He has no midpoint crisis.  Instead the middle is structured like a tragedy: he is acclaimed and accepted at the midpoint, because he’s been using his time with Toothless to learn things that allow him to master the dragons he faces in his training.
  • The physical crisis (and loss of place of safety, and loss of sheltering relationship) that usually comes at the midpoint instead happens at the ¾ mark, when the spiritual crisis usually takes place.  The village discovers his dragon then takes it away to hunt down the nest.  However, this doesn’t make him question his philosophy—he’s dispirited but doesn’t feel any guilt or doubt about doing the right thing. 
Potential Problem: This brings up two big questions:
  1. First, why do the crises almost always happen in the standard order (social, then physical, then spiritual) The answer, I think, is that we only pursue dangerous opportunities after social humiliations force us to do it, and then we only change after our old ways have begun to physically endanger us.
  2. Second, what are the dangers of changing the order?  Well obviously, such a quick change of philosophy can feel unearned, and if the hero is on the right path so early, the rest of the movie can seem morally inert…right?
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes, it does.  The drama comes from the fact that, even though Hiccup knows the spiritual truth, his newly moral stance is in such total opposition to the beliefs of his entire society, that he still has a massive job to do, bringing others around.  He still seems like a fallible, self-deluded person to the extent that he believes he can have it both ways (befriending a dragon in private and besting them in public) until it all comes crashing down.  This is a movie about a hero who has the right morals, but is very uncertain about the most effective ethical way to spread that morality.

Most movies are parables about how to change yourself, but this is a parable about how to change your society after you’ve found the right path.  As it turns out, this is a rich topic that should be explored more often.
Straying from the Party Line: Anna’s Two Longstanding Problems in Frozen

Usually, it goes like this:
  • Our hero has one longstanding social problem, made clear by the first few scenes.
  • Then the story presents an intimidating opportunity to fix that problem.
  • Then our hero commits to pursuing that opportunity and the story begins by the ¼ point.
In Frozen, the story really begins when Anna sets off into the wilderness to rescue Elsa, but that seems to violate this pattern. She’s spent most of the movie before that searching for romantic love. She sings her “I Want” song, “For the First Time in Forever”, about her desire to find love, then flirts with Hans before and after the coronation, launching into the song “Love is an Open Door”.

But then she has her blow-up with Elsa and immediately drops everything to follow Elsa into the mountains, seemingly forgetting all about Hans. He even offers to come with, but she says no thanks. It seems that she’s abandoning her big opportunity, rather than pursuing it.

But is she actually ditching her longstanding social problem? Well, she’s ditching one of them, but if we look back, she’s had another this whole time, because she actually has two “I Want” song back to back in the opening minutes of the movie. Before “For the First Time in Forever”, she sang “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, in which she wanted her sister’s love.

So she has two contrasting “I Want” songs, and when events force her to choose between those wants she chooses familial love (find her sister) over the search for romantic love (enjoy her new relationship with Hans). This, of course, foreshadows the end of the movie, in which she’ll make a similar choice (this time choosing saving Elsa over kissing Kristoff to end her curse), seemingly at the cost of her life, and saving everyone as a result.

(Okay, I’ve seen this movie 20 times with my daughter, but I swear I just figured out that “Love is an Open Door” is a direct rebuke to Elsa’s closed door, so now the split is not just between familial and romantic love, it’s between hard closed-door love and easy open-door love.  The conclusion is that both are scary, but you should be especially wary of easy open-door love.)

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, he has a permanent erection.  His coworkers find him boring.  He is asked to interact with a female customer and cannot.


Slightly.  She clearly feels she doesn’t get enough respect, but she’s not going to say anything about it.

An Education

YES. She’s massively bored.

The Babadook

YES. Everyone is losing patience with her son (including her) but she’s in denial as to the true flaw: he inability to grieve or forgive him for her husband’s death.

Blazing Saddles

YES. He’s tired or being disprespected on the rails, and he’s unwilling to admit that his potentially-muderous anger is not helping his people.

Blue Velvet

Only slightly, in that we see him chafe and his treatment by his mom, who clearly sees him as still a kid (His real “problem” scenes were cut out in the editing room. They’re in the script that’s online, and worth reading.  We meet him already spying on a girl being almost date-raped at college, and only stopping it when someone else is approaching, then his mom tells him that not only does he have to come home, but that they won’t be able to afford college for him anymore, and he’s frustrated.  He feels that there will be no outlet for his darker impulses at home.)

The Bourne Identity

Yes and no, he discovers one immediate problem (he doesn’t know who he is) but only near the end does he discover that this was a culmination of a longstanding social problem (he was already balking at the job, and that’s what broke him)


YES. Doesn’t get to see enough of Lillian, gets no respect from lover. 


YES. he’s losing control: the Nazis are intruding on his bar more and more and he can stomach them less and less, (and he can no longer stomach other women, either)


YES. Social problem: seen as a dishonest creep. Internal flaw: too cold and cruel. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he’s getting in good with mob, but calls his wife and asks to hear her breathe.  

Do the Right Thing

YES. Yes, he’s sick of his sister’s nagging, sick of Pino shifting his own responsibilities onto him.  (And he’s in denial about his shiftlessness and suppressed rage)

The Farewell

YES. She does not feel at home in America and misses her grandma.

The Fighter

YES. Longstanding social problem: Can’t get good fights, trainer never shows up.  Denied flaw:  His attachment to his family is the problem.


YES. She can’t see her sister or leave her palace to find love.

The Fugitive

Well, we have two beginnings: In the first we see glimpse of his flaw (he’s naïve about the nature of the doctor politics) but he doesn’t really have any social problems to get irritated by. In the second, in interrogation, his flaw is on display and suddenly he’s got lots of problems, social and otherwise. 

Get Out

YES. He doesn’t trust Rose that her parents will accept him (but doesn’t realize that he’s trusting them too much.)

Groundhog Day

YES. He wants to escape to a network job, doesn’t know why he gets so little respect.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Gets no respect in the opening battle, and tells us about his predicament in voiceover. 

In a Lonely Place

NO. in this story, he is already aware of his internal flaw, which is the same as his longstanding personal problem: his bad anger management. 

Iron Man

 If we ignore the flashforward and take things in order, then not really, or at least Tony pretends not to be troubled by the criticisms he gets, or to have any qualms. His protests to the reporter seem genuine, but we and he realize that, deep down, he really knew better when…

Lady Bird

YES. Her first line: “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?”

Raising Arizona

YES. Tired of going back to prison, drawn to Ed.


YES. It annoys him that Dr. Guggenheim wants to kick him out.  He also begins to discover puberty.  


Yes to the problem: He’s increasingly frustrated with Johnson.  As for the flaw, he doesn’t really seem to be flawed in the first half.  His two big flaws, when they arrive in the second half, seem to come out of nowhere: the revelation of his adultery and his (possibly flawed, possibly not) decision to reverse the second march.  

The Shining

YES. Jack: Yes, he’s a dry drunk, has anger issues, hates his family, etc.  Danny: Yes, he’s determined to deal with his Tony problem.


YES. He’s tired of being a depressed drunk.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Intimidated in elevator with tall agents, annoyed when the door is shut in her face when she peeks in on the Bill investigation.

Star Wars

YES. He wants to go off to flight school and feels left out, but he’s not dealing with the moral complexities. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he’s tired of being broke and unemployed.

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