Monday, May 23, 2022

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?

In real life, we will stick with the easy way, stay in our safe space, cling to sheltering relationships, and refuse to examine our motives for as long as possible. It takes a huge, hubris-fueled failure, in which we lose that safe space, to force us to try the hard way and consider the possibility that we’re our own worst enemies. 

Don’t go easy on your hero. Bigger is usually better. The further they fall, the more inspiring their rise back up will be. And beware of the false crash. Remember the Mission: Impossible rule: At the second-act break (the midpoint) the team’s plan has to genuinely fall apart, and the team has to improvise. At this point, your hero should throw away the map.
  • Often the loss of safe space is literal: Rick’s bar is trashed by the Nazis in Casablanca, Bruce’s house is burned down in Batman Begins, and Tony’s house is blown up in Iron Man 3. 
  • Sometimes it’s figurative: Sheriff Brody gets slapped in Jaws, Michael gets slapped in Tootsie. 
  • Some stories prefer to pile on multiple big crashes. Bridesmaids has several huge disasters in a row as the heroine loses her job, her apartment, her potential boyfriend, her lover, her car, her role in the wedding, and her best friend in rapid succession. 
  • Likewise, Raiders of the Lost Ark has two crashes. First, Marion seems to die in the bazaar chase, and then, a few scenes later, Indy gets some good news and some bad news: Marion’s still alive, but he’s lost the ark and been sealed into a tomb of snakes with her. 
A few things to keep in mind: In tragedies like American Beauty, we sometimes get the opposite: the midpoint peak, followed by the point when the hero starts heading for a fall. Even nontragedies like How to Train Your Dragon can sometimes do something similar. Hiccup gets everything he’s ever wanted at the midpoint, and it doesn’t fall apart until the third quarter, when his lies finally come crashing down.

Rulebook Casefile: Manufacturing a Bigger Midpoint Disaster in Selma

I’ve talked about how the most common story structure is simply the most common structure for solving problems in real life, so, if that’s true, a true story like Selma should naturally hit our story beats without a lot of fictionalization. And it kind of does, but DuVernay (and it does seem to be DuVernay and not Webb), like most docudrama makers, chooses to magnify that. Is that fair? Let’s see.

The real story does have a natural “Big Crash / Midpoint Disaster / Lowest Point” for both LBJ and MLK: The first bridge crossing, which King misses, leads to horrific violence on national TV, mortifying Johnson. But DuVernay wants more, so she takes an event that only kind of really happened and inserts it here.

The change involves King’s reason for missing the march. The big crash usually happens because of the hero’s flaw, forcing them to confront it for the first time. The real reason King missed the march speaks to one of King’s potential flaws, but DuVernay created a different reason that speaks to another flaw.

In the true story, King felt he had to stay home in Atlanta and preach to his congregation, so he planned to join the marchers later (There are some suspicions that his father, who was his co-preacher, suspected that there would be violence, feigned illness and asked King to make sure be there to preach.)

If DuVernay had kept this reason, would that speak to a flaw of King’s? Well, it’s a controversial thing to say, but sort of. In fact, DuVernay does come close to making this criticism elsewhere. It’s hard not to notice that King keeps missing the violence: He’s not at the night march where Jimmie Lee Jackson gets killed, he misses the first bridge crossing, and he turns back the second bridge crossing when he sees the cops, disappointing everybody. It feels awful to criticize a man who would soon give his life for the movement, but in this campaign, he kind of looks like someone who is willing to put others in danger but not himself.

But DuVernay decides to bring in another of King’s flaws here instead. To do so, she must do some fictionalization, creating an event that didn’t really happen …but basically happened. In the movie, King is stuck at home dealing with a marital crisis.
It’s true that J. Edgar Hoover was an employee of Johnson’s, and while working “under” Johnson recorded King having affairs and mailed those tapes to Coretta who then confronted her husband. That really happened. But Hoover didn’t really do it at this point in history, and Johnson probably never knew he was going to do it. Hoover was totally rogue by this point, and historians believe that Johnson only kept him on because Hoover was blackmailing him. Certainly, whenever it happened, it was not Johnson’s attempt to stop events in Selma.

This is obviously a big point in favor of the case that DuVernay is unfair to Johnson, but is it really? Johnson should have known this was happening and should have stopped it. It’s only fair to show that the Johnson administration, in the person of an employee Johnson refused to rein in, was viciously attacking King’s marriage, so it’s fair to include that in a movie about King’s relationship with Johnson, even if history has to be rearranged and Johnson’s sin of omission turned into a sin of commission.

And it certainly works in terms of creating an effective lowest point for both protagonists. Johnson hits a moral low point, making his eventual moral redemption more powerful. King suffers greatly, is forced to admit his worst behavior, and feels even guiltier when the problems results in his missing the violent march. (But it is awkward that King’s adultery is neither set up beforehand nor paid off afterwards: We never see him commit adultery beforehand nor refuse to do it afterwards.)

Basically, the best reason to insert this moment is to include King’s biggest flaw and one of Johnson’s biggest flaws into this story, so that the portrait of each man will be more complete and complicated, even if these two flaws didn’t actually play a big part in this particular event. DuVernay is being true to history on a broader scale even if it means fictionalizing this event. I can accept that.

Rulebook Casefile: The Big Crash in Frozen

In my notes service, this is a note I give all the time. The heroes begin “Act 2” with a goal, and then they reach that goal far too many pages later, just in time to begin the climax in “Act 3”. But one reason I’ve never been a fan of the “Three-Act Structure” is that it ignores the real turning point, which should usually be the midpoint.

If your heroes commit to a big goal at the ¼ point of your story, they should reach that goal at the midway point, fully assuming that their challenge is now over, only to find that the easy way has culminated in a disaster. Either they fail spectacularly, or they find that achieving their goal has only made things worse.

In Frozen, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf reach Elsa’s palace, only to get kicked out and mortally injured, which sends them off on another quest, temporarily forgetting their quest to get Elsa to shut down eternal winter. Here’s that Scriptnotes podcast again:
  • John August: So, one of the most surprising things that happens next is Anna gets to Elsa, which you sort of think of the quest of the movie, well eventually they’re going to get there and it will all be resolved by then. But at the midpoint of the movie —
  • Jennifer Lee: That’s a good point, yeah.
  • John: They actually get there and they have the conservation and The First Time in Forever and then like things seem like they’re going to be okay.
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: God, another great tip for writers which is you can just go and do it.
  • John: Don’t delay it. Actually just start it. And it surprises you because you’re not expecting, you know, you establish a journey. So, like, oh, the journey is to get there. And like, oh, but we’re here. And so what else can happen? Well, she can shot in the heart with it and Elsa can refuse to change and shut them out and build an abominable snowman and sort of become more monstrous herself.
This can be a painful note to get, because it forces you to restructure your whole story, compressing your “Act 2” down to half as many pages, then adding a midpoint disaster and a second, harder quest before the climax is reached, but audiences demand this. They don’t want you to park it in cruise control for the middle of the story. They know how long your story is, but they don’t want your characters to know it. Your characters should be shocked to discover that their story is only half over after the big crash.

Rulebook Casefile: Big Decisions and the Midpoint Disaster

Every story should have six painful decisions, spaced out fairly evenly throughout the story. A commenter once asked about how these painful decisions mapped onto the midpoint disasters that most stories have. (Of the 17 checklist movies we’ve done, only two, Do the Right Thing and How to Train Your Dragon, don’t really have midpoint disasters) The answer is that it varies. Usually the disaster is not the result of a poor decision, and even when it is, it tends to be a decision that the hero did not see as painful when he or she made it.

In many, the disaster is the consequence of a correct-but-poorly-executed decision:
  • Alien: The captain is killed while trying to kill the alien.
  • Casablanca: Rick’s club is trashed because he helped Victor
  • In Raising Arizona, the disaster comes after one of Hi’s only right decisions: the rejection of his brother-in-law’s wife-swapping plan.
  • The Shining: Danny and then Jack investigate Room 237
  • Donnie Brasco: Donnie’s wife changes her number because he’s too far in to call her.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Joe arrives home from going out with Betty to find that Norma has attempted suicide.
  • Star Wars: The Millennium Falcon gets sucked into the Death Star while trying to reach Alderaan.
In some, it’s the consequence of a weak decision that was casually made, rather than painfully fretted over:
  • Iron Man: Tony finds out he was wrong to blindly trust Stane
  • Bridesmaids: Annie’s attempts to please everybody lead to a series of personal disasters.
In some it takes the form of an early-but-unheeded spiritual crisis:
  • An Education: Jenny finds out that they’re all crooks, but accepts that.
  • Blue Velvet: Jeffrey hits Dorothy.
  • Another from Donnie Brasco: Donny beats up the maître/d.
In one, it’s an external betrayal:
  • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice and her boss are taken off the case because Chilton tells Lecter that she’s been lying to him.
In another, a wrong track comes to its bitter end:
  • Groundhog Day: Phil’s attempts to seduce Rita fail over and over.
In another, a hero wisely abandons an unsafe space:
  • The Bourne Identity: Jason decides to abandon his investigation and leave Paris with Marie in.
Only Sideways has what I would consider to be a clear case of a hero who faces a painful dilemma (Move on from his wife or close the deal with Maya), clearly chooses wrong, and finds out that the results are even more disastrous than he had counted on.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  It’s a very weak midpoint disaster, they set him up with a transsexual prostitute, and he decides to give up on their advice altogether.


YES, the captain dies, and they realize the whole ship is not safe.

An Education

YES. Sort of. When she realizes they’re crooks, she tries briefly to flee.

The Babadook

YES. The babadook enters her. Her house and only relationship (with her son) are no longer safe.

Blazing Saddles

YES. A medium-sized crash: A little old lady says “Up yours, N—“ and upsets him for the first time. He realizes that, for the first time, he wants more than his charm can get for him.  Even when he was on the gallows, his confidence wasn’t hurt, but now it is: he wants the respect of whites for the first time, and that means leaving his safe space of sarcasm.

Blue Velvet

NO. The crises are in an unusual order.  At first it seems like he has an early physical disaster, but he enjoys being raped at knife-point, so it’s not a problem, but then she gets him to hit her at the halfway point, which makes for an early spiritual disaster, and at the ¾ point he finally has a real physical disaster, getting beaten up and almost killed. The closet is no longer safe, and then his house isn’t either, because Dorothy shows up there.

The Bourne Identity

Somewhat: the new name leads to a dead end, and he finds that they’ve found his hotel room, so he decides to flee.  At this point, he loses his relationship for only a moment until he wins Marie back over.


YES. The most epic lowest point ever: Gets everyone kicked off the flight to Vegas, gets the bachelorette party cancelled, gets fired as maid of honor, screws things up with the nice guy, gets fired from job, gets kicked out of her apartment, disinvited from wedding, car is wrecked, and loses handsome lover!


YES. Ilsa rejects him, and he finds out Ugarte has been killed. The Germans have figured out from Ugarte that he has the letters, so they trash his place, and eventually close his café.


Yes and no.  There are two disasters  (He gets his nose cut, gets knocked out by the farmers a few scenes later) but neither of them feels like a monumentous disillusioning midpoint crash.

Donnie Brasco

Sort of.  He helps beat up the Japanese maitre’d, his wife decides to divorce him.

Do the Right Thing

NO. There are two, but Mookie misses both, because he’s in the shower (This is an odd structure!)  In Buggin’ Out’s arc, he reaches a lowest point in the montage where everybody contemptuously refuses to join his boycott, then he takes it to Sal by himself and only humiliates himself.  Sal then has a midpoint disaster of his own when Pino sits him down and says he doesn’t to inherit the business, then yells at Smiley in the street, in view of everyone while Sal shakes his head in misery. This is probably the key moment that leads to the riot (though it was improvised and wasn’t in the script!) Mookie then sort of loses a safe space when Jade comes to the pizzeria and drives a wedge between Mookie and Sal.

The Farewell

YES. Grandma gets sicker and goes to the hospital. 

The Fighter

YES. Dicky gets arrested outside, Micky goes to help, gets hand busted.


YES. Elsa kicks them out and freezes her heart.

The Fugitive

NO. The biggest crash actually happens quite a bit before the midpoint: he has to jump off the dam (42 minutes) At this point, he’s already lost everything, but now he goes to an even less safe place: Chicago.

Get Out

YES. To put it mildly!  

Groundhog Day

YES. She slaps him on eight consecutive days. He gives up and goes back to hating her, the town, and himself.

How to Train Your Dragon

NO. It happens very late, more like ¾of the way in, when his relationship with Toothless is exposed. At that point his father condemns him and takes his beloved pet dragon away At the midpoint, he actually reaches a kind of peak, which is closer to the structure of a tragedy.  

In a Lonely Place

YES. at the beach picnic, Dix realizes that his girl and his friend are conspiring against him.  As a result, he almost murders another driver. Neither relationship is ever the same.

Iron Man

YES. He finds out that his weapons have been used again, Stane comes out against him. Then Stane takes his company, invades his house.

Lady Bird

YES. Danny turns out to be gay, she can’t enjoy the play anymore. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Several: The in-laws come over. They have lots of questions about Jr. Hi punches out his boss for suggesting wife swapping. Hi steals some Huggies and some money, which leads to lots of complications with cops, dogs, and an armed clerk. The in-law confronts Hi and demands the baby, the brothers take the baby. Hi loses his job and his baby and his house gets trashed.


YES. There’s a big crash, but it happens 20 minutes early: Max’s aquarium is shut down and he gets kicked out, also losing the friendship of Ms. Cross at the time.  It was really shocking when rewatching this movie to realize how early this happens: Most of the movie isn’t set at Rushmore. 


YES. King is sidelined by the adultery tape and the other activists are beaten at the march he misses while he’s dealing with it. 

The Shining

YES. for both: Danny enters the room and becomes injured, Wendy blames Jack.  Jack’s wife no longer trusts him, Danny becomes catatonic. 


YES. A mild one: He responds too late when she makes a pass, and convinces himself that he’s blown it. Worse, Jack and Steph hit it off, seeming to ruin the rest of the trip. Jack disappears, the motel room and restaurant are miserable alone.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Her lies are revealed and she’s taken off the case. Lecter is moved from safe cell to unsecure location.

Star Wars

YES. In this case, bigger disasters happen at the ¼ and ¾ points, (the deaths of Luke’s parent-figures and mentor) but there is a midpoint disaster, as they realize that the planet that they’re heading towards has been destroyed, and their ship is seized.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he finds out that Norma has attempted suicide.  This lures him back into his lair, and cuts off his access to Betty.

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