Tuesday, November 08, 2022

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possibly at the same time as) her outer struggle?

Catharsis only comes about because of crisis. We put off personal change until the last possible moment, at the crux of the crisis or afterward.

The inner conflict should not end too early. Once when a producer was quickly summing up the problems he had with my script, we got to the third act and he said, “It’s very exciting, but after a certain point it all runs downhill.” I asked him to explain, but he couldn’t, since he considered the point self-evident. I thought he was crazy. Was he saying I didn’t have enough conflict? There’s no way: It was an over-the-top, one-man-against-an-army-of-crazies finale. How does that roll downhill?

I think that now, years later, I’ve finally figured out what he was saying. My hero hadn't run out of exterior conflict; my hero had run out of dilemma. He still had a lot of bad guys to be defeated, but he no longer had internal tension caused by those actions.

Once I figured this out, it was an easy fix: I had to send my good guy into the final confrontation still seeking the temptation the bad guy had offered. I had to push the good guy’s final rejection of that temptation as late as possible, right at the heart of the climax. The hero’s dilemma should be exacerbated by the conflict, and vice versa, until the last moment, when the resolution of the dilemma and the resolution of the conflict should happen at about the same time.
  • In any movie where it might be all in the hero’s head, the inner struggle and outer struggle automatically end at the same time, such as in The Babadook and Groundhog Day. 
  • The hero of How to Train Your Dragon reconciles with his father during the heat of battle. 
  • Die Hard is very tidy: Willis wins his wife back by shooting the bad guy dead. 
Note: Sometimes the inner struggle happens early in sports movies. In both Breaking Away and The Fighter, the emotional breakthroughs happen before the hero competes at the end. The real story is over, and the final triumph is essentially a victory lap.
Every hero must complete both an outer journey and an inner journey. These journeys should overlap at certain points, but not the whole time. Sometimes you can create a finale where the hero completes both journeys at the same moment (such as using the force to blow up the Death Star in Star Wars) but not always. Often, the hero must complete them at different times, but it’s good to have the culminations of these journeys both happen near the climax. Sometimes the hero completing the inner journey allows them to compete the outer journey right afterwards. Sometimes completing the outer journey allows them to complete the inner journey in the epilogue.

On first viewing of Get Out, the viewer is not super aware of Chris’s inner journey, though we can tell it’s there: He’s trying to forgive himself for doing nothing when he mother was dying in the street from an accident. We see Missy elicit this information from him while hypnotizing him, and we see him admit his feeling of guilt to Rose later, but then, since the outer journey is so exciting, we don’t really think about the inner journey very much.

But Peele is doing a lot of subtle work to make sure we feel Chris’s inner journey on a subconscious level, even if we don’t think about it. Only when you listen to the DVD commentary is all this work made explicit.

We can’t know this on first viewing, but Chris’s inner journey begins when he hits a deer on the way to see Rose’s parents. He insists on getting out to see if the deer is alright, but finds it dead. He then insists on calling the police, despite the fact that doing so often ends poorly for black men. To Chris, the deer is his mom, and he’s still trying to save her.

Later, when Chris has his bizarre encounter with Georgina, and sees her cry, he suspects that she may be a victim in some way, which also makes him think of his mom.

Later, when Chris is held captive in the basement, there’s a huge buck head on the wall. According to Peele, this represents Chris’s dad. It shouldn’t have been up to Chris to make sure his mom was okay, it should have been up to his dad, who “wasn’t in the picture.” Chris escapes and kills Rose’s dad by stabbing him with the points of the buck’s head. He is not only displacing Rose’s father as the dominant male in the house, he’s replacing his own dad. His mom is the deer and he is the rescuing buck his dad couldn’t be. As Peele says:
  • The buck is of course not only a used not only to describe strong black men in the past, but is a symbol, the male version of the doe that he hits.
But Chris still needs to take one more step to resolve his inner journey. When he’s driving away from the house, Georgina, controlled by the grandmother’s mind, runs out to stop him but he accidentally hits her with his car. He then starts to drive away, leaving her limp body in the road behind him. Then he stops. He can’t leave her, even though he knows that the real Georgina is buried deep inside her and may never be able to be rescued. He just can’t leave a black woman dying in the street like his mom died. So he goes back, gets her unconscious body, and puts it in his driver’s seat.

In the end, it doesn’t work. She wakes up, still controlled by the grandma, tries to take over the car, crashes it, and presumably dies in the crash. But still Chris tried, and trying finally allowed him to forgive himself for not trying to save his own mother. As Peele says:
  • When he went back for Georgina, he made the only decision that would free his soul.
What’s the point of including an inner journey so subtle that you have to watch the commentary to spot it? The hope is that, even if the audience doesn’t see it, they can feel it. We sense that there’s an elemental power in Chris’s use of the buck head. We sense that something deep is going on inside when he tries to rescue Georgina, even if we’re too caught up in it to think of his mom. “Know More Than You Show” doesn’t just apply to plot, it also applies to theme.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, he flies through the billboard and admits the titular problem at the last possible minute.


YES. Pretty much.  She has no time to process her decision to break from the company until after she kills the thing.

An Education

YES. It is only after she’s been at Oxford for a while that forgives herself and put the affair in the proper context.

The Babadook

YES. The same moment. 

Blazing Saddles

YES. Afterwards, he realizes that he’s got to go ride the west saving others.

Blue Velvet

YES. he comes shooting out of the closet.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he finally figures out who he really is as he confronts the bad guy.  




YES. Shortly before, but it’s okay that the final confrontation with Strasser “rolls downhill”.


YES. The same moment. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  basically, it never really ends.  He’s still conflicted, even though it’s over. 

Do the Right Thing

YES. The same time.

The Farewell

YES. She finally tells her Nai Nai one piece of truth, that she didn’t get the fellowship.  They bond as much as they can without the truth of the diagnosis coming out.

The Fighter

NO. Quite a bit before.  The last 15 minutes of this movie “roll downhill” a little bit, as Mickey solves his problems out of the ring well before the last fight. 


YES. At the same time.

The Fugitive

YES. to the degree that he has an inner struggle.  He finally trusts that Gerard trusts him, and his inner journey comes full circle. 

Get Out

YES. Chris chooses to try to save Georgina and thus makes his peace with his mom’s death.  He fails to save her, but “saves” Walter just in time for Walter to kill Rose and himself. 

Groundhog Day

YES. The same time. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He reconciles with his father in the middle of the final battle. 

In a Lonely Place

YES. after he is cleared, the real internal crisis comes.

Iron Man

YES. Afterwards, when he finally decides who he is. 

Lady Bird

YES. She accepts her name, but then lies about where she’s from at a college party, then drinks herself into oblivion and wakes up at the hospital. 

Raising Arizona

YES. after Smalls is dead, they hash out their relationship issues with Nathan Arizona.


NO. it ends earlier, and it ends offscreen.  They want us to believe that he’s buidling up to a school shooting, so they don’t show us that he’s dealt everything and moved on.  We just figure that out when we see the play.


YES. The victory seems to assure King that he made the right decision in turning back.

The Shining

YES. It never climaxes.  He’s still freaked out at the end.  


YES. After. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Symbolically: girl who’s about to be skinned stops screaming. 

Star Wars

YES. He resolves his inner struggle at the final moment in order to succeed.

Sunset Boulevard

Well, shortly before. He finally finds his self-respect, then gets killed.  


Joel W. said...

It's nice to see you blogging story posts again Matt. I watched Redeye a couple years ago (discovered thru your list of underrated pretty-good movies) and thought near the end it was "running downhill" so-to-speak. Although you would think the entire third-act action would be exciting based on the situations, it felt tiring and like something was missing. Potentially due, in part, to the lack of an inner journey to be had near the end I guess.

Matt Bird said...

I think you're right, that is an issue with that movie, but in that case it helped that the movie was just 90 minutes.