Wednesday, June 01, 2022

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy at this point?

And then, one day, the light of truth begins to dawn. The magic words pop into the hero's head and guide her out of the darkness. It can be advice she desperately needs to hear, or simply her own pithy summary of every hard lesson she's learned. 
  • Rick in Casablanca realizes, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” 
  • The heroine of The Babadook says to her husband’s ghost, “You’re trespassing in my house.” 
  • Ripley in Alien stops taking the company’s side and says to her remaining crew members, “We’ll blow it the fuck out into space. We have to stick together.” 
  • As with the false statement of philosophy, sometimes the corrected philosophy is stated by someone else and accepted by the hero: “Be a mensch,” in The Apartment, and “Use the force,” in Star Wars.
Rulebook Casefile: The Corrected Philosophy That May Not Be Correct in Selma
I’ve always said that the most common storytelling structure applies to effective stories precisely because it applies to the steps and missteps that people tend to make in solving big problems in real life. Last time we talked about one way in which the true story of Selma fits this structure, but had to be fudged a little to fit in a bigger way. This time let’s look at another place where the movie and the real story match the structure closely, but Ava DuVernay (and/or credited screenwriter Paul Webb, but let’s assume it’s DuVernay) chooses to undercut it.

Usually, the hero begins with a false philosophy, then, about three-quarters of the way into the story, after a spiritual crisis, the hero adopts a corrected philosophy going into the final quarter, which will finally allow them to succeed.

Does that happen in this true story? On first glance yes, very much so. King begins the story with a philosophy that he should use illegal non-violent resistance to trigger on-camera violence by the Selma police, and thus move President Johnson to action. And at the ¾ point, King is leading the movement across the bridge only to be confronted by the police waiting for them, and lots of TV cameras. But then the police step aside, possibly to let them pass and possibly to set up an ambush. King stops anyway, takes a knee, prays, and decides to turn the whole march around and go home. Instead, King pursues the right to march in court, wins, and then Johnson agrees to support the support voting rights after all before the new march can happen.
So King has a quite literal come-to-Jesus moment, abandons his original strategy, and wins as a result. That couldn’t fit the structure better. Real life has delivered DuVernay a perfect structure. But she’s doesn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with it.

She shoots the reversal as a questionable choice at the time. The audience is just as shocked and disappointed as his (literal) followers. Even after they win in the courts and complete the march triumphantly, DuVernay never really signals to us that this was the right choice. We’re never sure that King couldn’t have and shouldn’t have won by continuing that second march.
For one thing, in both the movie and real life, the real reason Johnson caves is that one of the northern white preachers who came down for the cancelled march (who says in the movie “I for one don’t fault him for it, except he owes me a bus ticket home”) is beaten to death by the Klan. Is that what Jesus wanted? Maybe it’s better that one died instead of multiple deaths that could have happened on the bridge (or, perhaps even worse, no violence at all), but that’s a horrible choice.

On a larger level, King’s critics within the movement are given strong voices in the movie. He comes to an understanding with one (John Lewis), but not with two others (Malcolm X and James Forman). The reversal seems to back up what they were saying, and their criticisms linger even after the victory.

Is King’s tendency to miss out on the all the violence in the campaign a personal flaw, or a coincidence? As I said last time, DuVernay invites us to ask this question, and doesn’t give us an answer.

This is also where the final song comes in, where Common raps about these events as well as more recent events in Ferguson. This song seems to implicitly ask, “Could King have accomplished more?” Do we still have such horrible problems today because King didn’t push hard enough? Because he didn’t leave behind a strong enough movement when he finally gave his life?

It took forever for a theatrically-released movie about King to be made, and it wound up arriving in an era where protests were turning more radical, inviting DuVernay to be more critical of King’s approach. King’s “corrected philosophy” and subsequent victory fit very neatly into my structure, but viewers don’t leave the theater sure it was correct, and that’s a strength of this morally complex film 

Rulebook Casefile: An Ironic Corrected Statement of Philosophy in The Fighter
We’ve discussed many times the idea that every hero should have not one but two statements of philosophy, one at the beginning of the story, and another after the spiritual crisis, about three-quarters of the way through the story.

The initial statement of philosophy is inherently ironic, because it’s wrong. The hero’s words to live by are ruining his life, or at least holding him back. But when the correct statement of philosophy arrives three-quarters of the way into the story, there’s a danger that it will seem preachy or lame, as if it’s “the moral of the story”. One way to get around this is to have the corrected statement of philosophy be delivered in an ironic way.

We’ve looked at two examples of this recently in sitcom pilots. In both cases, the sitcom was trying to maintain an “edgy” tone, and they didn’t want to break that for a moment of sentiment, so they found a way to deliver the true statement or philosophy ironically:
  • In the “Community” pilot, Jeff is delivering a disingenuous speech in order to break up the study-group early so that he can seduce Britta. He doesn’t realize until halfway through that his bullshit is actually something he himself needs to hear.
  • In the “Modern Family” pilot, it sounds as if Jay is delivering a heartfelt summation of the episode in a voiceover, but then we cut to him and he’s reading his stepson’s ludicrous love-letter, shaking his head in derision the whole time.
The Fighter is a much more forthrightly emotional story, and it does have a traditional corrected statement of philosophy (“I want Dicky back, and I want you, and I want Charlene, I want my family. What’s wrong with that??”), but after that there’s another one that’s very ironic. In his big championship fight, Micky’s chosen entry music is Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”: Just before he goes into the ring, he and his brother touch their foreheads together and sing the lyrics in unison:
  • “Here I go again on my own! Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known! Like a drifter I was born to walk alone! ‘Cause I made up my mind! I ain’t wastin’ no more time! So here I go again!” 
Then, without another word, Micky goes into the ring and wins the championship. How ironic is that? First of all, any other movie would only use such a cheesy song in an ironic way, so it’s ironic that it’s unironic here. But of course the big irony is that the brothers are merging into one as they sing about how neither one needs the other.

The most fundamental dilemma in storytelling (or life) is individualism vs. solidarity. Every battle that tears  America apart, culturally, economically, and politically, is fueled by that irresolvable dilemma. In this scene, Micky and Dicky finally solve their conflict by embracing a paradox.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

NO, he retreats to his previous personality flaw.


YES. “We’ll blow it the fuck out into space. We have to stick together.”

An Education

YES. Reacting to teacher’s place, “I’d love to live someplace like this…That’s all you need, isn’t it?”

The Babadook

YES. To her husband’s ghost: “You’re trespassing in my house.”

Blazing Saddles

YES. He must bring the workers and townspeople together. 

Blue Velvet

NO. Not really: he remains conflicted throughout.  When Detective Williams says “You’re all through with this now?” he responds “Yes sir, I sure am,” but he continues investigating.   Later, he says to Sandy, while holding Dorothy, “Forgive me, I love you.” 

The Bourne Identity

YES. “I don’t want to know who I am anymore.”  He only cares about what he can become.  


YES. “I’m not okay.” “Things are going to change but they’ll be better.”


YES. “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”


YES. When he asks Cross ”How much better can you eat?”, he’s also criticizing his own predatory work ethic earlier in the movie. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  “Fuck the rules.”

Do the Right Thing

YES. We can sense that the mayor’s words are now echoing in his head: Always do the right thing.

The Farewell

NO. You would think she would say something subtly showing that she’s coming around during her wedding speech, but her speech is unmemorable.  (The closest thing she gets to a corrected statement of philosophy is her final line of the movie where she comes home and shouts “Ha!” using her grandma’s exercise mantra.) 

The Fighter

YES. I want you both in my corner


YES. It’s a line from before that now gets interpreted correctly: “An act of love of love will thaw a frozen heart.” 

The Fugitive

YES. Kimble: Sort of: “I am trying to solve a puzzle here.” (aka I can’t trust in others to find the right answers and I need to rely on myself.)  Also: “To see a friend” (aka evil is all around me and I’ve been too trusting.)  Gerard: “That company is a monster.”

Get Out

YES. After the ¾ point, he chooses to save himself.  He discovers that the only way to save himself from slavery is to pick some cotton.

Groundhog Day

YES. Eventually: “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now”

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. “It’s not the dragon I’m worried about.” “I’m not one of them”

In a Lonely Place

YES. “I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Iron Man

YES. “I’m going to find my weapons and destroy them. I’m not crazy, Pepper, I just finally know what I have to do, and I know in my heart that it’s right.”

Lady Bird

YES. “She’s my best friend” “I’m sorry, I know I can lie and not be a good person but... Please, Mom, please I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you - I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I’m ungrateful and I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I wanted more...”

Raising Arizona

YES. “You were right and I was wrong. We got a family here and I’m gonna start acting responsibly.


YES. “I’m just a barber’s son.” About his plan for the aquarium (and therefore his crush on Ms. Cross): “I gave it to a friend.”


Sort of.  He doesn’t frame it as changing his mind, but rather tries to explain his decision as a tactical retreat.  But nobody really buys that he hasn’t reversed himself. 

The Shining

YES. Danny barely speaks, but he seems to have accepted that his dad must die.


YES. Before, actually: “This has been a big deal for me.” In this case, the further hardships cause him to regress, not progress, but the progress he’s already made finally pays off much later.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Quid pro quo: you have to make yourself vulnerable in order to understand evil.

Star Wars

YES. Not until the end: “Use the force” 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. in telling her, “I’d take it in a second, but it’s a little too dressy for sitting behind a copy desk in Dayton, Ohio.”

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