Podcast

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?

Writers of standalone stories (most novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights) have a wonderful tool that writers of serialized stories (TV writers, comic book writers, series novelists) sometimes lack: They can write backward. If you’re writing a self-contained work and you find you’ve run into trouble with a scene, character, or plot, you don’t need to plow forward and write your way out of it. Instead, you can plow backward and bury the seed of the solution far enough in the past that it’ll be ready to sprout just when you need it. As with most other problems in life, the best time to fix a scene problem is before it starts.
 
Can you establish that the characters have painfully unrealistic expectations about what’s going to happen? A reversal is so much more upsetting if we know the character (and the audience) was fully expecting (and possibly depending) on a totally different outcome. Maybe you can add a brief scene beforehand where the hero rehearses how well he thinks it’s going to go. (500) Days of Summer has a great scene where the character's hopeful expectations are shown on a split screen with the harsh reality.

Once you start looking for these, you will notice them everywhere: mini-scenes before each real scene where the character takes a moment to rehearse or boasts about what’s about to happen or gets nervous. These scenes key up the real scene, making the outcome far more powerful because now we know what it means to the heroes, how it contradicts (or gratifies) their expectations, and what they had riding on it.

Tolstoy is a master at this. He has huge casts of characters and constantly jumps from head to head, having readers identify with different characters in each scene, but he makes sure they only identify with one character at a time. The identification is often intense because he gives that one character a little moment of prep time. Once readers know how anxiously invested the character is in one outcome, they're ready to hope for the best and fear for the worst.

Can you preload the actions with meaning? If the hero said, many scenes back, “I always know she’s not leaving for good because she never takes her cat with her,” then when she does take the cat, we instantly guess how serious it is at the same time our hero does. That’s when the audience feels the most bonded with your hero: when they understand the hero’s expectations so well that they can share those feelings as they happen.

There’s a great scene in Singles where Bridget Fonda sneezes and her humbled ex-boyfriend Matt Dillon automatically mumbles, “Bless you.” That’s it, but it’s a wonderful love scene, because we had heard her tell a friend many scenes before about how heartbreaking it was that he never said that. Rather than put them in that elevator and force them to spew reams of dialogue about how he’s changed and how she’s maybe ready to believe him, we get a wonderful two-word scene that convinces us they should get back together, because the writer was clever enough to lay the groundwork beforehand.

Audiences love this. They love learning the secret language of characters. They love knowing that, for her, “Bless you” means “I love you.” They love it especially when they forget all about it, then see it suddenly pay off much later. Only if they know the characters’ expectations beforehand can they experience the same emotional reactions at the same time as the characters. This is true emotional identification.

Rulebook Casefile: Playing with Expectations in the “Black-ish” Pilot Kenya Barris knows we’ve seen pilots before, and he knows we’re trying to get ahead of him. So he plays with us.

We meet a wealthy, overconfident man with a closet full of individually lit sneakers, and he assures us in voiceover that he’s absolutely sure he’s going to get a big promotion today. He promises his family and co-workers it’s coming. Then his boss gathers everybody in the conference room and announces that sure enough, someone is going to be promoted to Senior Vice-President. Our hero confidently picks up his stuff and begins moving over to the “senior management only” side of the table before the boss announces the name. On the way, he cockily says to a woman of color: “Sabrina, I’m not going to forget about you when I become one of them, alright?”

It’s only after Dre has shoved others aside to take his new place that the boss finally announces, “So without any further ado, I’d like us all to give a warm congrats to…”

…So what’s going to happen? Well if we’ve ever seen a pilot before, we’re sure of one thing: Dre is not going to get the promotion. Everything in the pilot so far has set us up for a big reversal. Overconfidence must be punished! But then Dre does get the promotion! We’re shocked. Why did they try so hard to set us up for a reversal and then not deliver?

But there’s one hitch: Specifically, his boss announces that he’ll be “the SVP of our new Urban division.” And Dre has already told us in voiceover that he considers “urban” to be a ridiculous term. Dre is clearly not pleased, and says in his voice-over, “Wait, did they just put me in charge of black stuff?”, then we cut to commercial.

So why did Barris push all of our “they’re about to announce someone else got the promotion” buttons, only to have our hero’s overconfidence be validated after all? Well, it sends us on an emotional rollercoaster: We’re excited for him, then worried about his overconfidence, then almost pitying his delusion that he’s going to get it, then shocked to be happy for him …then shocked again when we realize that, in Dre’s mind, this is a slap-down. As far as he’s concerned, he didn’t really get a promotion. He’s only been put in charge of his own ghetto. Sure enough, when he gets home, his father calls him, “head puppet of the white man.”

Burris has toyed with our pre-existing narrative expectations in order to convey to us the hero’s peculiar emotional state. This moment establishes the tone of the whole series: Dre is a winner but his psychological and cultural baggage makes him feel perpetually dissatisfied. As in any good ironic story, he’s either winning by losing or losing by winning. 

It’s always good to hurt your hero in ways that would only hurt your hero, because then you have a unique and volatile main character. Only Dre would be heartbroken by this news, and that makes him compelling.

Now let’s look at how I answered this question in the 30 movie checklists I did.  First, let’s look at which scenes I’ll be analyzing for this entire Scenework series: 

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party.

Alien

After the deaths of Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, and Lambert, to decide what to do next.

An Education

Jenny is amazed as David gets permission from her parents to take her on a weekend trip to Oxford by claiming to know C.S. Lewis.

The Babadook

Amelia chases her son Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily.

Blazing Saddles

Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople

Blue Velvet

Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and has sex with him at knifepoint.

The Bourne Identity

Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as the Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.

Bridesmaids

Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.

Casablanca

Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.

Chinatown

Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses

Donnie Brasco

Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party.  Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him.  Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.

Do the Right Thing

Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.

The Farewell

Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.

The Fighter

Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.

Frozen

Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace

The Fugitive

Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.

Get Out

Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy drinking tea.  She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup.  She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.

Groundhog Day

Phil takes Rita to a cafe and tries to convince her that he’s living the same day over and over. He convinces her by predicting what Larry will say.

How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.

In a Lonely Place

Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others.

Iron Man

Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.

Raising Arizona

During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth.

Rushmore

Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.

Selma

King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act

The Shining

Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off.  While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family.  Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.

Sideways

Miles has struck out with Maya, but Jack comes back to the motel after a wild night with Steph, intending to go back out. Miles tries to get Jack to stay by forcing him to call his fiancé, but she doesn’t answer and Jack takes off with Steph after getting Miles to return his unused condom from the night before.

The Silence of the Lambs

Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.

Star Wars

The gang takes over the Death Star command office.

Sunset Boulevard

Joe discovers Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.


So let’s look at how well those scenes do with this question:

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. She grabbed his pants and kissed him.  Then she made him blow into her breathalizer.

Alien

YES, we saw briefly how devastated they were by Dallas’s death…except for Ash. It also contrasts with two earlier scenes where they met to decide what to do.

An Education

YES.  She was dubious that he could pull it off, worried when she heard his voice downstairs.

The Babadook

YES. They’re in the midst of trying to kill each other.  We’ve seen her kill him in the book just after she kills the dog, so we know what’s next.

Blazing Saddles

YES. We see how happily the townspeople await their new sheriff, and we see how serenely confident Bart is.

Blue Velvet

YES. he’s explained how he intends to get out before she arrives.

The Bourne Identity

YES. we know that the CIA have figured where there are, know that the professor is very good, know that the relatives don’t trust Jason or Marie, know that the dog is usually around.

Bridesmaids

YES. We see her look pissed when she’s pulled over, expecting a hassle.

Casablanca

YES. we’d heard about how cool Rick is for ten minutes, and we’d formed high expectations, which he meets. There’s also been lots of talk of the dead German couriers.

Chinatown

YES. We’ve been falsely led to suspect that he might betray Evelyn and Catherine, so we’re worried about him.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Lefty thinks that he’s going to bond with Santo Trafficante, and he even buys him a greeting card.

Do the Right Thing

NO.

The Farewell

YES. She thinks that she’ll find out her dad is sick or drunk.  

The Fighter

YES. Everybody is extremely tense.  We’ve seen the sisters turn the mom against Micky.

Frozen

YES. Anna is clearly naïve in her expectation of how this will go.  Elsa has made it clear she wants no more of anyone.

The Fugitive

YES. Very tense, yes.  And Gerard definitely didn’t think Kimble would point a gun at him.

Get Out

YES. He’s made it clear he doesn’t want to be hypnotized. 

Groundhog Day

NO. Not really. We jump right into it from the death sequence.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Hiccup just read a book on all the ways dragons can kill you. The other kids were bragging the night before about how they were going to kick ass.

In a Lonely Place

YES. we know that she’s planned her escape, and that he has no idea.

Iron Man

YES. She’s just been watching Jim Cramer talking about his business tanking, so she’s worried about her job, so she feels she has to do this.

Lady Bird

YES. He said before that he wished she’d been flirting with him, and he’d see her at the Deuce, which she assumed was someplay really cool. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Ed just made him promise,“Everything decent and normal from here on out.” When they first knock at the door, Ed and Hi fear that it’s the police and load a gun.

Rushmore

YES. We know that he’s determined to woo her.

Selma

YES. Johnson has a pre-meeting with Lee White which opens with him saying, “Aren’t we done? Are we not done with this? Will this ever end?” White says, “Hammer home that impatience only hurts the overall cause.” 

The Shining

YES. We’ve been afraid of Grady showing up, yes.

Sideways

YES. Miles has been stewing and watching messages piling up on the motel phone.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She was prepared to meet a monster, not the erudite man she meets. But she also expected to be able to keep him out of her head, which turns out to be a false expectation.

Star Wars

NO, they’re flying by the seat of their pants, and they don’t know what they’re going to find.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Max’s “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” has got him worried.  

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