Monday, October 30, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Separate from genre, is a consistent mood established early and maintained throughout?

At this point, your genre has now added one set of limitations, and your subgenre another. So once you’ve accepted that, are you now free to tell any story you want within those limitations? 

Your story also needs a mood, and that mood (light, dark, satirical, zany, postmodern, over-the-top, gentle, harsh, chaotic, intense, meditative, lurid, fairy tale, bittersweet, pulpy, etc.) also carries its own limitations.

Mood is one of the trickiest and most elusive parts of writing any story. No one ever compliments you on your mood but will savage you if you get it wrong. Mood problems are to blame when the audience assumes your story will maintain a certain emotional undercurrent but then feels betrayed when you veer off in a different direction.

Many writers fear mood. They want to be able to take the story anywhere, and they resent the fact that the audience might not be willing to follow along. But good writers can use mood to their advantage because it’s an essential tool for managing expectations.

Let’s go back to 1977 and change just one thing about the movie Star Wars. What if, instead of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …,” the opening crawl had started with the line “It is the year 25,172!” Even if the rest of the movie had stayed the same, I doubt it would have been as big of a success.

Lucas’s opening line is brilliant. It defangs the audience. It says, “Hold on there, buddy. This may look like science fiction, with spaceships and lasers and robots, but it’s really a fairy tale. It’s going to be about sword fights, magical hermits, and rescuing princesses, not supercomputers, air locks, and explosive decompression.” George Lucas was managing our expectations. He was establishing a certain mood before we could start making false genre assumptions that would have left us frustrated.

The film (500) Days of Summer did something similar: An omniscient narrator openly states at the beginning, “This is not a love story,” which preps the audience for the movie’s melancholy ending.

In both cases, the audience is being directly addressed, but you needn’t be so direct. On a more subtle level, your early scenes convey to an audience “This is going to be the kind of story where this sort of thing happens and has these sorts of consequences.”

As a kid, I fell in love with Back to the Future as soon as Michael J. Fox grabbed onto the back of a Jeep while he was on his skateboard. Then, to up the ante, he switched to the back of a cop car!

This scene had nothing to do with the plot, but it had everything to do with setting the mood. In real life, skateboarding while hanging onto a car traveling at normal speed is recommended only for the suicidal, but this movie is set in a universe where the laws of physics are a little gentler, and rebellious teen misbehavior is all in good fun. No matter how much trouble is about to ensue, it’s probably going to be okay. That’s why Doc’s last-minute resurrection feels like a satisfying payoff instead of a cop-out.

Rulebook Casefile: Wes Anderson’s Unique Imagery and Mood
Wes Anderson is one of those directors who defines “love him or hate him”…but really it’s both: many people who hate him will admit that there’s at least one they actually like, and even those who love him will admit there are some that are just too annoying.

How do you describe the mood of Rushmore? You might say odd, or delicate, or kooky, or precise. But there are also less charitable words that have been thrown around: Precious. Affected. Twee. Is that fair? It depends on you, and how successfully Wes has bewitched you into seeing things from his point of view. I definitely love Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I pretty much love The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, but I find both Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom to be a bit too much.

One thing that started to grate on me in Anderson’s later movies was the distinctive clothing choices. Anderson loves to pick a signature kooky outfit and stick with it in every scene. In Rushmore, however, it makes sense: At first, Max is at a private school where you’re required to wear the same outfit all the time, and Max is the most enthusiastic student, so we buy that he wears his blazer even off of school grounds. Then when he gets sent down to public school, it’s funny that he continues to wear it. Notably, however, as he begins to accept public school, he switches to new clothes: still kooky, such as a green felt suit, but Anderson isn’t afraid that we won’t recognize him, as he seemed to be with other characters in later movies.
It’s also to Anderson’s credit that he gives Max a bit of extra flair in some scenes but not others: Max’s red beret is stylish and distinctive, and it turned out to be a key piece of marketable imagery, appearing on the poster and DVD box, but it would be silly to wear it too much. Marketable imagery is essential, but a little goes a long way: Don’t sacrifice character or story logic in pursuit of a signature look, as Anderson does in some of his other movies.

Straying from the Party Line: A Mood Disaster in Groundhog Day
Let’s just focus in on just one deviation from the norm:
  • Deviation: The mood is uneven at first, as exemplified by the terrible song that plays over the opening driving montage, which make it seem like this movie is going to be another “Caddyshack” (also by co-writer / director Harold Ramis). Later songs by Ray Charles and Nat King Cole set the right wistful mood, but this song, which Ramis himself wrote for the movie (“Predictions show / A heavy low / You’re feeling just the same / But seasons come and seasons go / I’ll make your smile again…I’m you weather man!”) sets entirely the wrong mood. It’s an upbeat party song.
  • The Potential Problem: This is usually the third rail of writing. It is extremely rare to see a movie recover from a mood problem.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and I hate that song more every time, so it doesn’t “get away with it”, but it pulls out of the skid very quickly.
It’s always very tricky when a movie has a shocking plot turn 18 minutes in that knocks everything into a completely different genre. Writers Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis made it even trickier by choosing not to foreshadow the turn at all, not even though the use of mood.

It seems like it would have made the most sense to use some scoring here that says “something mystical is about to happen” like this music that gets used in the trailer for every movie of that type:

I don’t mind that the filmmakers chose not to do that, but even if you’re not going to imply anything strange is coming, you at least have to make sure you don’t make any promises you don’t intend to keep, as this song does. It says, hey kids, we want to rock and roll all night and party every day! It creates false expectations. Basically, it just sounds dumb, and makes you expect a dumb movie.

Ultimately, this is a very daring movie that does a lot of re-writing of the audience’s expectations. For the most part, it gets away with it…once it regain its footing, after this major misstep.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, good humor. Apatow is plenty dirty, but he distinguishes himself from Phillips and McCay by having a laid-back benevolent vibe.  My favorite example of this is the way the waxer winces and laughs in sympathy.  She neither ignores nor enjoys the pain.  Everybody feels real and gets to be as sympathetic as possible.


YES, chilly, airless, distanced, cold, cool, creepy, etc. We begin with empty helmets talking to each other: this is a dehumanized world in every sense. And the ending is as hushed as the beginning.

An Education

YES.  The opening montage establishes the threat of boredom, and music establishes the potential joy of liberation.

The Babadook

YES. Chilly, haunted

Blazing Saddles

YES.  Zany, meta and smart: Bart sings “I Get a Kick Out of You,” then tricks the overseers into singing “Camptown Ladies.”

Blue Velvet

YES. very much so.  Post-modern, creepy, oddly optimistic, sleazy. This is established instantly in the pan down from the perfect flowers to the beetles underneath, the dog ignoring its owners distress to drink from the hose instead, etc.  This is a world with a dark underbelly in which bonds are breaking down.  The danger is that the darkness will surge to the surface.

The Bourne Identity

YES. hip, youthful, handheld, raw, electronic music, dyed hair, etc.


YES. Snarky, wistful, melancholic, heartfelt-yet-raunchy.


YES. a veneer of witty sophistication with a grim reality poking through. This is extablished right away when a man is shot dead in streets, but locals don’t lose their good-humor with the aghast tourists.


YES. Cool.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  darkly-comic but tense and paranoid, established by the fugazi scene. Donnie is in danger for her life, but he has all the power, and dominates Lefty. Donnie already casually endangers an innocent person (the person who gave lefty the jewel) to serve his purpose, implying danger is more to his soul than body.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Vibrant, brash, outrageous, buoyant.

The Farewell

YES. Unfortunately, like too many indie films, it has a blue filter on it, literally and figuratively.  I guess you could say the mood is “indie.”  Mood is the movie’s biggest flaw.   

The Fighter

YES. it’s surprisingly upbeat and funny throughout, no matter how grim it gets, which is one of Russell’s gifts.


YES. A snarkier and more absurd version of the standard fairy tale

The Fugitive

YES. Realistic and somewhat fun.  There’s a lot of chatter and real-life detail.  This is an outlandish story in an extremely grounded and realistic world.  Interesting, we would normally call this tone “gritty”, but it’s pointedly not that.  This is a fairly benign world, in which even the marshals mostly enjoy their day while they do their grimly-determined work.  

Get Out

YES. Creepy, odd, satirical

Groundhog Day

NO. Eventually, but it has a tone disaster early on with a terrible upbeat-blues opening song that almost wrecks the whole movie. Later, we get appropriate music (Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, who are more timeless, emotional and contemplative)

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. A delicate but successful mix of scary, fun, morally serious, and snarky. The finale is surprisingly funny and scary at the same time. Established quickly by the contrast between dark, violent imagery of first scene and kid-friendly voice-over. People will die violently, but maybe not people we care about. (though they may be maimed)

In a Lonely Place

YES. witty cynicism with a strong undercurrent of despair and violence. Established by the contrast of the almost-fight in the street followed by his gentle witty interaction with the kids, where he accepts their conclusion that he’s a nobody.

Iron Man

YES. Light (even in terrorist captivity), zippy, brash.

Lady Bird

YES. Poignant, droll.  

Raising Arizona

YES. The amazing theme song creates a “folk-ballad” mood.


YES. I suppose the word would be “precious”, but that sounds insulting when it’s actually charming.


YES. Weighty.  Very little comic relief. 

The Shining

YES. cold, clinical, dehumanized creeping horror, established by the scene with Danny looking in mirror, seeing blood, then mom describing his abuse in a detached way.


YES. When he apologizes for oversleeping and promises he’s out the door, then we cut to him reading on the toilet reading, which gets the first of many mordant chuckles from us, then we see him doing the crossword while driving! The audience freaks out, but the camera doesn’t.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Sprightly, not-gritty, smart, with a slight edge of black comedy.

Star Wars

YES. The fairy tale element is consistent throughout. C3PO calls him “Sir Luke” accidentally.  The side-wipes give it a ‘turning the pages of a fairy tale” feel.  “That wizard’s just a crazy old man.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. pitch-black comedy. Yes, Joe doesn’t lose his flippantness, even after death, and Norma remains campily entertaining, even after she kills Joe.

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