Monday, November 07, 2022

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?

In real life, most projects (whether relationships, confrontations, or criminal enterprises) eventually culminate in success or failure, but this is usually a gradual process. Fiction heightens and compresses these moments, creating something far more definitive and impactful than real-life climaxes, which, let’s face it, are often underwhelming.

Most heroes win, some heroes lose, some lose by winning (the hero of Downhill Racer realizes how meaningless victory is), and some win by losing (Spider-Man sacrifices love for higher responsibilities), but in each case, the story climaxes and the hero has a catharsis.
  • The hero defeats the villain in most thrillers and action movies. 
  • Boy gets girl (and vice versa) in most romances (and also, for that matter, in most action movies). 
  • The discontented heroes of Sullivan’s Travels and Rushmore, in addition to getting the girl, mature and find more inner peace. 
One reason many first-time writers insist on writing unhappy endings is that it’s a lot easier to write a story in which the hero fails. After all, you don’t need to master the structure of problem solving if your hero doesn’t solve the problem, right? But whether your heroes win or lose, they must see their problems through to their climax. An unhappy ending cannot arrive at an earlier point in this structure and bring the story to a premature end. Such endings are only tragic when the hero loses at the last possible moment. (Rick gets the girl and then has to give her away in Casablanca; Michael loses the last bit of his soul after defeating his enemies when he closes that door in The Godfather; Jack loses his life after saving the girl in Titanic.)

While audiences usually hate stories that don’t climax, you can use that tool to force them to think. Mutiny on the Bounty denies its antagonists a final showdown, forcing the audience to decide who’s right. Limbo pulls a similar trick when it ends right before the climax. In the case of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, the lack of proper finales is an "F you" to convention. Finally, Killer of Sheep, Funny Ha Ha, and Old Joy all end on quiet moments that provide little catharsis. All three are excellent, but it’s telling that each of these micro-budget movies was self-financed by the filmmakers. You may be able to tell a story without a climax, but you can’t sell it to a buyer. That doesn’t mean such stories aren’t worth telling.

Straying From the Party Line: The Lack of Closure in Silence of the Lambs
Just a short entry today, because Silence of the Lambs comforms to this checklist better than any other movie I’ve ever tested.  The one area that sticks out is one that also stuck out last time:
  • Deviation: The strands of the movie never come together.
  • The Potential Problem: As Jonathan Demme mentions in the DVD doc, he was really afraid that the audience would get antsy that we abandon Clarice for a long time while Lecter makes his escape.  By the same token, it’s odd that Lecter disappears from the story after his escape, and never gets an showdown with Clarice. 
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? In fact, it would have been easy to put Clarice at the escape, and one can imagine a version in which Clarice is the first to figure out what Lecter has actually done, and she’s the one who tries to warn the ambulance driver, a moment too late.  Presumably the only reason that they didn’t do this was that they wanted to stay true to the book.  In the end, it might have smoothed out the movie slightly, but it’s not really a problem.  
  • By contrast, one can also imagine a version of the movie in which Lecter comes after Clarice, possibly even converging on Bill’s house at the same time, but that clearly would have been a much weaker choice.  The lack of closure between Clarice and Lecter is “unsatisfying” in the best way, leaving us shocked, impressed by the movie’s audacity, and unsettled about the problem of evil.  The only advantage would be that there wouldn’t have been a craving for the (inevitably disappointing) sequel. 
But, wait, before we move on to the next checklist, I’ve got more to say about neat tricks I admired while re-watching this movie, so let’s turn this into a Silence of the Lambs week! Tomorrow: Not calling attention to your structure...

Straying from the Party Line: The Lame Third Act Escalation in The 40 Year Old Virgin
So let’s talk about the weakest part of The 40 Year Old Virgin: The lame escalation that launches the final sequence of the movie.

At first, everything is escalating nicely, but soon it gets weird…
  1. After a believable fight with Trish, Andy decides to revert to Cal and Jay’s advice: he gets drunk at Jay’s engagement party and hits on the bookstore girl, Beth. She’s into it and they go to her house.
  2. At her house, Beth gets freakier and Andy loses interest. As he leaves her bathroom, he finds his friends in her bedroom. (We get a lame explanation that Jay once had sex with her and kept a key, an explanation that is both dubious and supremely creepy, but quickly glossed over.) They convince Andy to recommit to Trish instead, so he leaves and bicycles home (Why not go to Trish’s house?) Meanwhile, Cal goes into the bathroom to presumably to have sex with Beth, who doesn’t even know him. (We later see them together at the wedding.)
  3. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, Trish’s daughter Marla has convinced her to go try to fix things with Andy, so Trish is waiting at Andy’s house. He gets there and finds her going through David’s box of porn, which shocks and appalls her. She also finds some pill and assumes that it’s a rape drug for some reason.
  4. She storms out, and he has to chase her on his bike, finally crashing in front of her, confessing he’s a virgin and winning her over.
Here we arrive at one of Apatow’s strangest qualities: he makes very dirty comedies that betray some bizarrely outdated conservative beliefs. In 2005, what liberated woman would be offended to find a box of porn in her new boyfriend’s apartment? And even if that could happen, why on earth is it the final escalation of this movie?
In order to trigger a final crisis, surely it would have made far more sense for Andy to invite Beth back to his house? After all…
  • It makes much more sense that his friends might have a key to let themselves in.
  • We get one desperate bike ride by Andy, not two, which eliminates a repeated beat.
  • Keener would have a genuine reason to get upset, finding Beth there.
Shifting to Meddler mode, I can easily imagine a version that works much better:
  1. Beth is in Andy’s tub, but he thinks better of sleeping with her, so he backs away only to find the guys in his apartment urging him to make it work with Trish. They quickly explain the situation to Beth and she understands.
  2. The guys realize that Trish has just arrived, so they try to sneak Beth out first, but they run right into Trish and improvise different lies about who Beth is, so she figures it out.
  3. Trish confronts Andy who fails to explain, and Trish drives away. He catches up and explains that all of his behavior (including almost sleeping with Beth) was driven by his insecurity over his virginity. She understands and they kiss.
  4. (Meanwhile, in the course of Cal sneaking Beth out, we get a hint that they’re hitting it off.)
Wouldn’t that be better? Have a genuine conflict instead of a lame misunderstanding!
Crazy Stupid Love was a very similar movie that did a much better job with a similar scene:
  • Carell again plays a 40 year old who belatedly gets some advice on how to have one-night stands, the difference being that in this version it’s after his wife leaves him. At the midpoint, Carell and his estranged wife have a long-hoped-for rapprochement as they wait for a parent-teacher conference, but then it turns out that the teacher is one of Carell’s post-breakup hook-ups, and he never called her back. They both turn on Carell, understandably enough, and he again loses hope of getting his wife back.
I remember while watching that scene how refreshing it was to see our lovelorn hero suffer a deserved humiliation, rather than the mere misunderstandings that so often occur in romantic comedies. The 40 Year Old Virgin should have had the courage to take the same tactic, rather than concocting a lame misunderstanding to motivate the climax.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Somewhat.  The guys improbably show up at Elizabeth Banks’ house, and send him off to go find Trish.  So Trish never meets the guys, but it all feels like one big finale.


YES. Everyone and everything left alive, yes.

An Education

NO. A final confrontation with David was in the script but was wisely cut out.

The Babadook


Blazing Saddles

YES. Lili and the mayor even show up at some point, thought we never see how. 

Blue Velvet

YES. in a fairly cliché way, Sandy and her father burst in as he shoots Frank.  Dorothy isn’t there, though.

The Bourne Identity

NO. the girl isn’t there, but that’s fine.  


Not really.  The cop isn’t at the wedding, which is weird.


YES. everybody’s at the airport (except Sam, whom Ricks sells to Ferrari after all, without getting permission or saying good-bye!)


YES. Yes, most everybody: his operative, all of the police, Cross, Mulvahill, Evelyn, Catherine, and Curly. Only Yelburton and the man with the knife are missing.

Donnie Brasco

NO. Not at all, Donnie disappears and misses the big confrontation / revelation of his identity.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.

The Farewell

NO. Very much not.  They all gather to watch the grandma read the faked results, but nobody confronts anybody. 

The Fighter

YES. they’re all there at the fight.


YES. Everybody is there except the trolls and the Duke of Weselton. 

The Fugitive


Get Out

YES. everybody’s there.  

Groundhog Day

YES. He literally brings the whole town together.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Every single character is at the climax.

In a Lonely Place

NO. Almost, if they had all come together at the engagement dinner, things might have worked out, but the last piece of the puzzle doesn’t arrive until they’re alone, when things are too late.

Iron Man

YES. Only Rhodey isn’t there, but that’s fine (there’s a deleted scene where he shows up to help and it’s ridiculous)

Lady Bird

NO. she’s off at school in the final scenes without all the other characters.  

Raising Arizona

YES. Pretty much.


YES. everybody’s at the play.


Sort of.  The whole movement marches across the bridge together, but Johnson isn’t there, and King isn’t at his speech.  (He was at Johnson’s side at the bill signing, but that isn’t shown. )

The Shining



NO. Miles and his ex run into each other at Jack’s wedding, but Maya and Steph aren’t there. 

The Silence of the Lambs

NO, just Clarice, Bill and the captive are there, not Crawford or Lecter, but that’s fine.

Star Wars

YES. Not in the same place, but all part of the same confrontation.  Everyone but Threepio takes part (even Artoo is in the X-Wing.)

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Betty comes over to Norma’s. 

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