Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?

If you’ve done a good job creating your characters, they will speak to you. Instead of handcrafting their dialogue, it’s always better to just listen to what they want to say. But this can be a problem. Sometimes, they refuse to push the plot in the direction you want it to go.

When characters suddenly say, “I won’t do that,” what do you do? You have five options:
  • Ignore their protests, and make them do it anyway. The problem is, they may never speak to you again, which means from then on, you’ll need to put every word in their mouths, and they’ll stop being real characters and become mere plot devices. 
  • Ask them what they want to do instead, and let them do that. This requires saying goodbye to the rest of your perfect outline and letting your character lead you blindly forward. The problem here is, if left to their own devices, most characters will play it safe and minimize conflict. 
  • Give that action to a different character who is willing to do it. The problem here is that taking the focus off the hero too often might weaken the audience’s identification. 
  • Arrange plot contrivances that take away all of their other options until they choose to do exactly what you want them to do. This is usually the best option. 
  • Fundamentally reconceive the character when all else fails. 
Let's look at the part in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck and runaway slave Jim accidentally drift past Cairo and realize they can no longer head back north on the river. Twain’s outline said they were supposed to continue south anyway, but to his surprise Jim objected and, quite sensibly, said that he wouldn’t stay on that raft no matter how strongly Twain ordered him to. Twain gave up and abandoned the novel for seven years. Finally he decided to simply overrule Jim and force him to do it anyway. Sure enough, Jim refused to speak much after that, so Twain had to move the story away from him, which severely compromised this otherwise great novel.

You have to listen to your characters and let them object. When I write thrillers, this is a constant problem. My characters always want to call the police and shut down the entire story. This is especially tricky when I’m doing an adaptation for hire, where the producers and I carefully construct a very specific outline before I started writing. When my heroes object, I can’t let them take the story in a new direction, so instead, I go back and preemptively preclude all of the safe options until the characters are forced to step down the dangerous path the producers have demanded.

But never forget this is a sign you’re doing it right. Don’t force your characters to create the drama by acting stupid. Trap your characters into dramatic situations, and then let them fight their way out of it as logically as they can. Any time the characters create the problem by doing something stupid, the audience will be enraged.

The Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson thriller The Negotiator gets this all wrong. Seeing the trailer, I was suitably intrigued: How would a top hostage negotiator get backed into taking hostages—the one thing he knows not to do! But the actual movie is ludicrous: They are in so much of a hurry to get to the premise that taking hostages isn’t the negotiator’s last resort but his first.

Surely this was a case where the character was shouting in the writer’s ear: “I WOULDN’T DO THIS!” Surely the character was dreaming up all sorts of other things to try first, but the writer chose to ignore his character and forced him to create the most exciting situation right away. As a result, a potentially interesting story is ruined. If the writers had methodically closed off every other option, it could have been thrilling.

When it comes to listening to your characters, it’s also important not to make them say things they wouldn’t say out loud. It’s an eternal conundrum: You need to reveal background information to the audience through dialogue, but you don’t want to force your characters to explain things they wouldn’t actually explain, especially when it’s something they really wouldn’t want to talk about in the first place.

Spider-Man pulls this off well. The writers don’t force Peter Parker to say, “By the way, I’m an orphan, and here’s how my parents died …” because, in real life, orphans are reluctant to discuss it. Instead, when Norman Osborn tells him, “Your parents must be very proud,” Peter looks a little pained when he responds, “Well, I live with my aunt and uncle, and they are proud.”

This is how actual orphans talk. They dance around the issue. (Not coincidentally, this is how Peter can get away with being so mopey without losing our sympathy—because he has some self-respect. We only pity him because he doesn’t ask for our pity.)

Likewise, people in the CIA don’t say, “I’m in the CIA.” They say, “I work for the government.” People who go to Harvard often won’t say, “I go to Harvard.” They’ll say, “I go to college in Boston.” For various reasons, there are certain things people are reluctant to come right out and say, so don’t make them.

These evasions make for good dialogue, because one of two things will happen: Either the other person pushes for a straight-up answer, which creates conflict, or the other person figures it out and accepts it, which clues in the audience that we’re supposed to figure it out, too. Luckily, audiences love the moment when they get to figure out something unsaid.

Rulebook Casefile: Predictable Dialogue in Bridge of Spies

By far the best performance in Bridge of Spies comes from Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, but even he can’t sell some of the goop they put in his mouth. At the end, he’s on the titular bridge with Hanks’s James Donovan, awaiting his prisoner exchange, when he tells Donovan that he’s left a gift for him in his cell. Donovan chokes up (for the 50th time in the movie) and abashedly says he left no gift behind for Abel. At this point, Abel looks out over the expanse of the bridge and says, “This is your gift.”

Okay, that’s fine. A little cheesy, but Rylance is a great actor, and he can easily sell us that as a genuinely emotional line. But Spielberg can’t leave well enough alone: He then has Rylance quietly reiterate, “This is your gift.” Even worse, if I recall correctly, Spielberg had already used this sort of meaningful-repetition twice before in this same movie.

Has Spielberg ever noticed that door at the back of his soundstage? The one that says “Exit”? When was the last time he set foot in the real world? At that time, did her ever, ever, even once, hear someone meaningfully repeat something? I mean, it’s one thing to reiterate something louder for greater emphasis (“Have you no decency?”) but that’s never how Spielberg does it. It’s always quiet, earnest, and ludicrous.

Dialogue, of course, should not always be realistic. It should be more concise and have more personality than real talk. But that doesn’t mean that you can fall back on verbal ticks that only happen in the movies. Dialogue must seem startlingly fresh on first listen, even if we later realize that it’s actually just an old turn of phrase in a new dress. And only-in-the-movies clichés such as this one cannot be redeemed.

Spielberg, alas, has been churning these things out for 45 years now, and each year he gets more stuck in his ways, more and more reliant on the same shopworn tricks. Each movie has different credited screenwriters, but (with the notable exception of the two scripts credited to Tony Kushner) the scripts all sound the same. His script doctors know exactly what he wants, and they make good money by giving it to him.

At one point, early on, Donovan is astounded by his client’s sang froid and asks, “Don’t you ever worry?”, but Abel only shrugs and drolly asks, “Would it help?”, a line which got a nice laugh in the theater. Twenty minutes later, however, they repeat exactly the same exchange, which got a much smaller laugh the second time around. I was baffled: “Why would they repeat that gag again word for word?” But then, with a wince, I figured it out: “Oh, I get it, they’re going to have yet another ‘call back’ to this dialogue at the end, and they feel they must fulfill the ‘rule of threes’.” I then glumly waited for the inevitable call back and sighed ruefully when it finally came along.

This isn’t your audience’s first time at the rodeo. If you know a rule, then they know it too, and they’re now using your rulebook against you. They know that you want to emotionally manipulate them (as all great writers do), but they’re determined to protect their feelings from your grubby paws. You have to disarm them, and the only way to do that is to make them forget that they’re watching a movie.

As with so many other tricks, set-up and pay-off dialogue callbacks can be emotionally powerful, but only if the audience doesn’t notice what you’re doing. If you lazily push your audience around like an unwanted brussel sprout on your dinner plate, they’re going to notice, and loathe you, whether consciously or subconsciously.
I’ll just point one thing that makes The Martian so remarkable: Ridley Scott is another ancient “prestige” director coasting on audience goodwill (and stylistic ticks) built up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As dubious as I tend of be of new Spielberg pictures, I actively avoid Scott’s…until stellar reviews finally drew me back into the theater, and wow. Not only is The Martian a great movie, but it’s thoroughly devoid of all of Scott’s trademarks. For once, he said, “Hey, they’ve given me another $100 million dollars to spend …maybe this time I should actually give a damn? Maybe I should reshape my style to fit the material instead of reshaping the material to fit my style?” The old dog suddenly showed us entirely new tricks.

Can Spielberg do this? Even Lincoln had many of his worst ticks, undercutting the valiant work of Day-Lewis and Kushner. Can he ever actually break free and do something startlingly new? It’s hard to imagine, but if Scott can do it, then surely anybody can.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Very much so.  The way in which his secret comes out is painful and realistic each time.



An Education

YES.  Very much so. All of the descriptions of crime are very oblique.

The Babadook

YES. That’s what the whole movie’s about.

Blazing Saddles

NO. everybody wears their id on their sleeve in this movie.  The governor and Hedly say all the things people in their offices would never actually say.

Blue Velvet

YES. he and Sandy avoid talking about her boyfriend, Dorothy never explains anything satisfactorily. 

The Bourne Identity

YES. the conversations between Cooper and Cox and wonderfully vague.  


YES. Until external influences cause them to blurt it out. 


YES. Rick and Renault are both great at evading certain topics.


YES. Gittes is strictly professional.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  very much so, even if that makes the viewer play catch up.

Do the Right Thing

YES. For the most part.  Jade obliquely refers to Mookie’s baby.  Mookie and Sal are very indirect in their confrontation over Jade, etc.  But then we get explosions of people saying what they normally don’t say, like the racism montage, which is intentional and works well.

The Farewell


The Fighter

YES. Again, there’s little they won’t say, but yes, they’re all nicely passive aggressive about Micky being courted by other managers, for instance.



The Fugitive


Get Out


Groundhog Day

YES. She’s reluctant to give up personal detail until he weasels them out of her. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Training is mostly silent, explanations are always insufficient and self-serving.

In a Lonely Place


Iron Man

YES. Stane never boasts about his plans, nor do the terrorists. There’s no awkward exposition.

Lady Bird


Raising Arizona

YES. Hi is very mealy-mouthed.




YES. Johnson and King circle around each other.  Johnson and Wallace have a conversation in which each avoids saying things they wouldn’t say.

The Shining

YES. Wendy’s very reluctant recounting of Jack’s abuse comes to mind. Also Danny’s lies about his hallucinations.


YES. Jack and Miles avoid confronting each other artfully.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Clarice is very professional about playing her cards close to the chest in her dealing with victim’s families and other lawmen.

Star Wars

YES. Han hides his true situation from them, and vice versa.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Very much so. Betty gets Norma’s name off of Joe’s cigarette case, Norma reads Betty’s name off of Joe’s script.  They get to confront each other without him having to admit anything.  Max never answers any questions.   

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