Wednesday, August 09, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings to others and even themselves?

Before, we talked about how characters are cagey about their feelings when pursuing their agenda. This should generally be true of all dialogue. We also established that it’s far better to have characters accidentally betray their feelings (through behavior or protesting too much) than to tell anybody what’s actually going on in their head or heart. 

Resist the urge to have characters say they dislike each other. That generates some quick and easy conflict, but it dissipates more conflict than it creates. The longer you can keep that conflict suppressed, the more scenes it can fuel.

Likewise, resist the urge to have characters say, “I love you.” Once you’ve got the audience rooting for the hero and heroine to get together, you might assume they now want to see the characters start gushing about their true feelings, but you’d be wrong.

Audiences have major commitment issues. In the dark, we all crave emotionally withholding lovers. Sure, we want to see two people get together, but first we want them to want to get together for a good long while. After all, wanting love is a far more universal emotion than having it.

Ideally the hero and heroine will never say, “I love you,” because it’s so much more appealing to watch them dance around the issue. But if they have to, the key thing is to make sure there’s a healthy delay. Getting hit with the L-bomb too soon in a story feels just as alienating and manipulative as it does in real life.

Of course, the exception is when heroes suddenly blurt out, “I love you,” as soon as they meet somebody special—and then start kicking themselves, which is endearing because the entire point is to highlight that it’s a mistake. Some examples:
  • Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost almost loses Demi Moore because he doesn’t realize she finds “ditto” more convincing than an actual “I love you.” 
  • Harrison Ford, in The Empire Strikes Back, is smart enough to realize that the way to make both Leia and the audience melt is to answer her “I love you” with “I know” rather than the scripted line. 
  • Likewise, we love it when Shirley MacLaine simply responds to “I love you” by saying, “Shut up and deal” at the end of The Apartment. 
Call us masochists, but we demand that our fictional lovers leave us wanting more.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Very much so.



An Education

YES.  The final apology from her father is heartbreakingly delivered through a closed door.

The Babadook

YES. Very much so.  Even Sam, who seems to say anything, is coy about his growing knowledge that his mother is the monster. 

Blazing Saddles

NO. everybody is pretty up front in this movie.

Blue Velvet

YES. every time Jeffrey wants to say something genuine, he says something dippy instead to stop himself.  

The Bourne Identity

YES. the excellent love scene starts with him dying her hair, which forces them into intimacy without talking about it.  




YES. Very much so.


YES. Gittes bristles when asked about the past. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Therapy is useless.  He and Lefty confront each other in the most oblique way possible. 

Do the Right Thing

Yes and no.  There are times when they openly discuss issues that probably would not openly discuss or admitted to, but these moments are stylized (almost like Shakespearean asides), so it works.  

The Farewell

YES. Very much so. 

The Fighter

YES. Well, everybody’s pretty brash except Mickey, but everybody has hard confessions dragged out of them in the end.


YES. The awkward scene where Anna and Elsa talk is excellent.  Neither can discuss everything between them. 

The Fugitive

YES. Gerard is very reluctant to apologize.  

Get Out

YES. Very much so. 

Groundhog Day

YES. Very much so. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. The father and son are wonderfully inarticulate in their discussion.

In a Lonely Place

YES. Very much so.

Iron Man

YES. Very much so. It takes huge events to get Pepper and Tony to admit how much they need each other, and then they won’t admit they’ve said it later.

Lady Bird


Raising Arizona

YES. Very much so.




YES. Again, the adultery comes to mind. 

The Shining

YES. even Tony is reluctant to reveal his feelings to Danny!


YES. Very much so.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Very much so.

Star Wars

YES. The crushes remain sublimated in this movie.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. very much so. 

1 comment:

MNK said...

Interesting article!

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