Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is a thematic question asked out loud or clearly implied in the first half and left open?

A good theme isn’t a statement but a question the audience has to answer for themselves. The easiest way to plant this question in your audience’s head is to have a character actually ask it aloud and receive no satisfactory answer. The entire story becomes a belated response to the dangling question. 

The wickedly smart high school satire Election (both novel and movie) is a great example. At the beginning, a teacher asks his civics class, “What is the difference between morals and ethics?” but just then the bell rings, and the class leaves before they have to answer the question. Instead, each character is forced to confront this question in much more difficult ways. Ultimately, the teacher will choose to falsify the results of a student election when he decides the real winner is not a good person—with disastrous results.

Similarly, at the beginning of the backstage comedy Bullets Over Broadway, one character asks, “Let's say there was a burning building and you could rush in and you could save only one thing: either the last-known copy of Shakespeare's plays or some anonymous human being. What would you do?” In this case, the characters do get to discuss it, but they reach no satisfying answers, so the underlying question “Is great art worth more than any one life?” lingers on and colors every character’s actions. In the end, one character will decide to kill for the sake of preserving art. 

Rulebook Casefile: The Thematic Question of Stranger Things
Let’s look at the second scene in the pilot for “Stranger Things”. After a scary glimpse of a monster killing someone in a government lab, we cut to four kids playing “Dungeons and Dragons” in a basement. Mike, is both the creator of the campaign and dungeon-master:
  • MIKE: Wait... do you hear that? Boom! Boom! BOOM! That sound... it didn’t come from the Troglodytes. No. It came from something behind them...
  • Mike slams a LARGE TWO-HEADED MONSTER MINIATURE onto the map.
  • The boys stare. Shit.
  • LUCAS: We’re all gonna die.
  • MIKE: Will, your action.
  • Will swallows. God, he wishes it wasn’t his turn.
  • WILL: I -- I don’t know --
  • LUCAS: Fireball him --
  • WILL: I’d have to roll thirteen or higher --
  • DUSTIN: Too risky. Cast a protection spell--
  • LUCAS: Don’t be a pussy! Fireball him!
  • DUSTIN: Protection spell -- !
  • MIKE: The Demogorgon is tired of your silly human bickering. It steps toward you. BOOM!
  • MIKE: Another step. BOOM!
  • DUSTIN: Cast protection!
  • MIKE: It roars in anger --
  • Will rolls the dice. Too hard. The dice scatters to the other side of the room. It lands in front of the bedroom door.
So what all does this exchange do for the story?
  • It foreshadows the fact that Will is about to be attacked by a real monster.
  • It makes us love Mike, for whom this overly-dramatic performance serves as a comically vain moment of humanity.
  • It introduces and differentiates the personalities of the rest of our ensemble.
  • It provides the thematic question.
The good vs. good thematic dilemma that fuels “Stranger Things” is innocence vs. experience, represented here by the debate between protection (protecting both your safety and your innocence) vs. fireball (endangering yourself and your soul by killing). Will is forced to choose. It’s always great to begin a story with this sort of thematic question asked out loud, which not only establishes the theme, but resonates throughout the rest of the story.

This quickly leads to another thematic dilemma: After Mike is called upstairs, Will finds the die and discovers that it was a seven. Lucas asks, “Did Mike see it?” Will shakes his head, so Lucas says, “Then it doesn’t count.” When they get outside, however, Will confesses to Mike:
  • Will: It was a seven.
  • Mike: Huh?
  • Will: The roll, it was a seven. The demogorgon, it got me. See you tomorrow.
Interestingly, this last exchange doesn’t happen in the script, reversing the meaning of hiding the roll. In the script, Will’s deception tarnishes him and seems to bring on his death, in a classic horror-movie sort of way (He chooses evil, therefore evil is done to him). In the finished version, it seems after Will’s disappearance that he was maybe too good to live in this world. The horror genre always invites us to blame the victim, one way or another.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. “I respect women.  I love women.  I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them! I have a very fulfilling life!” Later, about his action figures: “They lose their value when you take them out of the box!”


YES, discussion about whether or not they can re-negotiate their contracts.

An Education

YES. Is an academic or illicit life more fulfilling?

The Babadook

YES. Is it better to discuss a boy’s dead dad with him or not?

Blazing Saddles

YES. “What are we made of?” vs. ”Why should we get our own men killed?”

Blue Velvet

YES. Sandy says, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” so the question is, “Is there a difference?” Later, Jeffrey asks, “Why are there people like Frank?  Why is there so much trouble in this world?” which really means “Why am I becoming like Frank?”

The Bourne Identity

YES. “how can I remember how to do all these things and not know who I am?” (aka, what is it that makes us who we are, our actions or our beliefs?)


YES. Implied by “I don’t want to lose you.”  Will Annie lose Lillian?


YES. From Ferrari, of all people: “When will you realize that isolationism is no longer a practical policy?”


YES. Jake sputters “I make an honest living.” Does he?  Can anyone? 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Midway: After missing his daughter’s confirmation, Donnie asks her, “Who made you?” Then we see him wonder the same thing about himself: God?  The FBI?  Lefty?  Sonny Black?  Then he asks her: “Why did he make you?”

Do the Right Thing

YES. Pino: “Who’s working for who?” 

The Farewell

YES. “She should know, right?”

The Fighter

YES. Implied: is he a boxer or a brawler or can be be both?


YES. “Why did you shut me out?”

The Fugitive

YES. Why would he come back to Chicago?  (Instead of placing himself above the law, as most outlaws do, he’s placing himself beneath the law: in order to pursue justice, he is placing himself back within the jurisdiction of the police.)

Get Out

YES. Rod says “You better not come back all bougie on me tho” Will he?  Can he fit in without losing his blackness?

Groundhog Day

YES. Phil asks drunks, “If you only had one day to live, what would you do?”

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. “What does it mean to win?” is the implied question.

In a Lonely Place

YES. “Why does he have to be like this?”  “Would you want him any other way?”

Iron Man

YES. “A lot of people would call that being a hero.” “And a lot of people would also call that war profiteering.” Of course, the slideshow begins “Who is Tony Stark”, which is answered by the final line, when he announces, “I am Iron Man”

Lady Bird

YES. The first line: “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?”

Raising Arizona

YES. He asks us, “Now I don’t know where you come down on the incarceration question, whether it’s for rehabilitation or revenge…” 


YES. “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” Is it true?  Or are there good reasons to be normal?


YES. White says, “Hammer home that impatience only hurts the overall cause”  Is that true? 

The Shining

YES. Sort of in the Donner Pass discussion: why do we do horrible things?  To survive?  Because of madness?  Because of evil? Because we’re part of a violent culture?


YES. Jack’s future father in law says “I like non-fiction, there is so much to know about this world, I think you should read something if someone just invented it, waste of time.” Is it better to invent your own narrative of life or tell the truth?

The Silence of the Lambs

Not really. Nobody ever talks about the moral dilemma behind what they’re doing, which is fine.

Star Wars

YES. The first is implied when Uncle Owen says Luke should work on the robots instead of seeking out a “crazy old wizard”. Also this: “You mean it controls your actions?” “Partially, but it also obeys your commands.” Also: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” The second dilemma formed the heart of Luke’s discussion of Biggs, which was cut, but it’s implied by this exchange: “It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it! But there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's such a long way from here.”  The third is prefigured by Han’s discussion with Greedo.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Implicit: Can you take a writing job without becoming a kept monkey?


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