Friday, November 04, 2022

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Despite these proactive steps, is the time line unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?

We always begin a huge project with a proposed end in sight, but we rarely finish unless there’s an externally imposed deadline to kick us in the ass. And, surprise!, that’s when we do our best work. Self-motivation peters out, but, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, impending doom sharpens the mind.

This deadline is necessary to resolve a sympathy paradox. The audience wants the hero to be smart and proactive at this point, but it’s still inherently unsympathetic for a hero to fight the final battle “at a time of our choosing.” To resolve this paradox, the hero should be proactively preparing for a final confrontation, but then those plans should be ruined when the antagonist unexpectedly moves up the time line.
  • Most famously, George Lucas realized in the Star Wars editing room that the ending wasn’t exciting enough if the characters simply used the stolen plans to attack the Death Star on their own schedule, so he recut and redubbed the scene in postproduction to make the Death Star unexpectedly attack first. 
  • Joel in Risky Business finds out his parents are coming home early. 
  • The heroes of Rear Window and Blue Velvet find that the objects of their voyeurism are coming over to pay them a visit. 
  • Clarice in Silence of the Lambs finds herself accidentally dropping in on Buffalo Bill without backup. 
  • The title character in Goldfinger literally moves up the ticking clock on his nuclear bomb! 
This step gets skipped more often than some of the others, and that’s fine. It’s good to knock the hero off balance one last time, but sometimes the story already has enough momentum, or you have a setting like the jury room in 12 Angry Men where, by design, there’s no ticking clock.

In some rare cases, it’s more powerful to do the opposite of this step. In movies like Bringing Up Baby and The Apartment, the chaos ends early and the hero finally gets what he originally wanted (the bone and the promotion, respectively), but does he still want it? Only when he’s no longer being dragged along by events can he really decide.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Somewhat: Running back into Banks and getting the chance to have sex with her almost ruins his relationship with Trish.  This is a followed by another escalation that feels very false, in which Trish is bafflingly troubled to discover pornography in his house.  Surely it would make more sense if she had found out about Banks instead?? (True conflict is always better than a misunderstanding!)


YES, the alien attacks, ruining the plan.

An Education

YES.  Essentially. The timeline doesn’t move, but she has a big setback, when she is denied the chance to return to school, forcing her to do it on her own.

The Babadook

YES. It grabs Sam and she has to chase it.  

Blazing Saddles

YES. they find out the villains are on their way too soon. 

Blue Velvet

YES. Frank unexpectedly shows up.

The Bourne Identity

NO. he remains in control of the timeline until the end. 


YES. Sort of, Lillian disappears, forcing a last-minute crisis.


YES. “I told you this morning you’d come around but you’re a little ahead of schedule.”


YES. Well, it’s his own fault, because he called the police himself, but he didn’t realize the trouble it would cause.  He also foolishly chooses to confront Cross in the middle of his attempts to spirit Evelyn out of the country (In the script, this made more sense. We’ll discuss it later.)

Donnie Brasco

YES.  He’s ordered to make a hit before he can do the bust.

Do the Right Thing

YES. He is forced to improvise, yes, but neither side ever has a timeline.

The Farewell

YES. She finds out that her grandma has sent the maid for her test results and goes running out to intercept the maid.  She doctors the results to further the deception. 

The Fighter

NO. The fight happens on schedule with lots of advance word.


YES. Elsa escapes, chased by Hans, forcing Anna to act. 

The Fugitive

YES. he doesn’t know that the cops now consider him a cop-killer.

Get Out

YES. Well, yes, things escalate more quickly than he’s prepared for. 

Groundhog Day

NO. not at all. There is no ticking clock whatsoever. He literally has all eternity to get better, and won’t get better until he stops worrying about tomorrow entirely.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. His father attacks before he can de-escalate things.

In a Lonely Place

YES. he discovers that she is leaving him.

Iron Man

YES. Pepper is already confronting Stane when he finds out. 

Lady Bird


Raising Arizona

YES. Leonard Smalls shows up.


Sort of.  Ms. Cross doesn’t show up to the second aquarium opening either, so he has to come up with something new (the play)


YES. They’re given a court date they’re not ready for. 

The Shining

YES. his rescuer is killed and his father hears his scream.


NO. even when she calls, she leaves a message telling him to call back anytime. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She thinks she’s visiting a witness, but she discovers Bill, without a chance to prepare.

Star Wars

YES. …but the Death Star attacks them first.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Norma calls Betty before he can confess.

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