Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is there one gut-punch scene where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?

A producer was giving me a long list of notes on a script, and then he tacked onto the end, as if it were self-explanatory, “Oh, yeah, and make sure you add one of those scenes that an actress will demand before she agrees to play the part.” Huh? What scenes? “You know, one of those scenes where she takes a stand and then breaks down and cries.” Um, okay … I dutifully added such a scene. 

Only months later did I really start to understand why. The American Horror Story pilot got a very mixed reaction, but one thing all the reviews had in common was a puzzlement that Connie Britton was willing to do such a cheesy show right after her acclaimed five-year stint on Friday Night Lights.

Watching the pilot, I wondered that, too, until I got to the gut-punch scene. Britton and husband, Dylan McDermott, have been ignoring their marriage problems throughout the episode, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, they finally let each other have it, and I finally understood that note. This one scene is so strong it would have lured anybody into the role.

If a story is all text and no subtext, it’ll suck. On the other hand, if the subtext never erupts to the surface, that can be just as bad. Once and only once, let the emotions come roaring out without a filter. Let your characters hit each other with everything they have and tear each other apart. Again, the trick is to first roll the rock uphill as long as you can. The more scenes you have of sublimated emotion and indirect conflict, the more tension you will build. Stars like Connie Britton understand the power of those sublimated scenes, too, and they love to play them. But once they’ve created all that potential energy, they’ll want to release it.

Yes, you should have as few direct confrontations as possible and let your characters trick and trap each other instead. But eventually all the tricks and traps are for naught, and the characters have no choice but to rip into each other directly. When all else fails, let them go for the gut punch.

Rulebook Casefile: The Ultimate Gutpunch in The Fighter
In “Little Women”, Louisa May Alcott has one of my favorite lines in literature: “Being good would be easy if we could do it all at once.”

Dicky in The Fighter wants to become a good person, and he “turns a new leaf” almost every day of his life, but it never takes. The pain of his failures overtakes him and he once again seeks out crack because of the relief it brings: “You feel like everything is ahead of you.” After all, he was once the “Pride of Lowell”, the scrappy young fighter who knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, and then he lost it all. His troughs are all the more painful because his peak was so high. Any modest success he achieves now will only be mockery of his past glory, so why try?

It’s not that Dicky doesn’t have people who love him: He has friends and family who demand that he do better and snap out of his addiction, but it never works. Then he meets Charlene.

Dicky has returned from prison, determined to become Micky’s trainer again, but Charlene and Micky’s new handlers forbid it. At first Micky sides with them, then changes his mind and lets Dicky back in the ring (causing Charlene to storm out), then changes his mind again and kicks Dicky out after all. Dicky realizes that he must reach out to Charlene and work things out. He hates her, but he knows Micky needs her.
  • Dicky: I ain’t got no use for you either, but my brother loves you, and you can’t just run away because of me, he don’t deserve that, alright? So I will quit, if you want me to quit.
  • Charlene: You’re full of shit.
  • Dicky: Swear to god, I will quit if it means you come back, but I want you to think about something. Micky has a chance to do something I never did, and in my time I never had.
  • Charlene: Oh yeah: “My big chance was with Sugar Ray Leonard!  I’m so great!  I’m the pride of fucking Lowell! Oh yeah, I fought Sugar Ray Leonard!” I heard it.
  • Dicky: I’m here to make things right.
  • Charlene: Okay, let’s make things right. Number one: you didn’t knock down Sugar Ray Leonard. He tripped.
Then she just looks at him.  Boom. Gutpunch. Dicky’s manic energy deflates. He flounders, and tries to gutpunch her back, but he soon acquiesces, implicitly accepting her terms. 
He thinks that offering to quit (and thereby acknowledging that Micky needs her more than him) is the ultimate abasement, and so that’ll win her over. But she has another abasement in mind. It’s not enough to take away his present position, she sees that she has to take away his past position as well. He can’t help if he keeps pretending that he’s passing the mantle on to his brother. He can only help if he admits that it was never his.

This, at long last, is what Dicky needs to hear. He can stop trying to live up to his glory days because they never existed. He’s just who he is, that’s all he’s ever been, that’s all he’ll ever be, and that’s all he needs to be. He loses his past and gains a future. This is the best kind of gutpunch: brutal, incisive, and absolutely necessary.

P.S. This also backs up another old post:
  • The few times that someone has told me what my problem was and actually hit the nail on the head, they were people who hated my guts and never wanted to see me again. In each case, I wasn’t happy to hear it, and I tended to let them know it. Only later did I sheepishly realize that they had actually told me something I needed to hear.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, a few.


YES, literally, with Ripley and Ash.

An Education

YES. A sequence of them: Her teacher finally lays into her, she finally lays into her parents, headmistress devastates her.

The Babadook

YES. the finale. “You don’t know how many times I wish it was you, not him, that died.”

Blazing Saddles

NO. Nobody is confronted about their flaws.  No masks ever fall away.

Blue Velvet

Yes and no: the subtext falls away when Dorothy shows up at Jeffrey’s house, but Jeffrey and Sandy still don’t have it out openly.

The Bourne Identity

YES. when Bourne and Conklin finally confront each other.


YES. Very much so, at the shower.


YES. the night scene in Rick’s apartment.


YES. One of the most famous. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  literally, when he hits his wife.

Do the Right Thing

YES. There are several, but that is explained by the heat making everybody irritable.  It’s clear that there wouldn’t normally be this many confrontations.    

The Farewell

YES. Sort of with her uncle.  

The Fighter

YES. a few.  When Charlene says she won’t let Dicky back in Micky’s corner unless he says that Sugar Ray tripped, that’s a hell of a gutpunch.  Also when Micky says “I thought you were my mother too.” 


YES. When Anna confronts Elsa in the ice palace.

The Fugitive

YES. Not really with Gerard, but yes when Kimble finally confronts Nichols (who responds by literally punching him in the gut).   

Get Out

YES. Quite literally. 

Groundhog Day

YES. The end of the date sequence for her, the I’m a god scene for him.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Lots, actually: the last two scenes with father and son, two scenes with Astrid. 

In a Lonely Place

YES. the final confrontation.

Iron Man

YES. Late at night with Tony and Pepper.

Lady Bird

YES. Several. 

Raising Arizona

YES. they discuss splitting up. 


YES. the scene where Cross finally lets him down harshly.


YES. The tape scene, certainly.  Johnson and King, on the other hand, never really lay into each other. 

The Shining

YES. Pretty much, when Wendy finds the pages.  But even then, she’s able to let him have it with the bat, but still not verbally.


YES. Miles has one as Maya is dumping him, and Jack has one after the ostrich attack.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. the big “Lambs” scene.

Star Wars

YES. Somewhat, when Luke and Leia confront Han.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. two in a row, when Joe confronts Betty and then Norma.


Joel W. said...

As always great advice! Not much to say other than, after many months, my mobile phone browser is finally displaying the website correctly again in an unbroken way. Don't know whether you changed anything on your end but a good day nonetheless!

Matt Bird said...

Great to hear! I didn't know there was a problem. I have made no change, but it sounds like Blogger fixed it.