Friday, November 17, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting?

Obviously, you’re going to have a huge leg up if your story is set in a place you know well. You’re going to already know the syntax, the metaphor families, the jargon, the tradecraft, and the most common ethical dilemmas faced there. All of these things combine to greatly multiply the meaning of a story. 

After all, this is a big part of having something to say: Do you have something to say about this place and this time? The more authentic details you add, the more believable your world will be, and the more your feelings about this world will ring true and resonate deeply with your audience.

If you don’t have authentic firsthand knowledge of the place, then you’ve got a lot of research to do, as we’ve already discussed. Of course, some of you might be thinking right now that you get a free pass on this one, because your story is set on a fantasy world or a spaceship. I can hardly expect you to show any authentic knowledge of that setting, can I? Yes, I can. Sorry.

The writers of Battlestar Galactica could have been forgiven for just winging it. After all, their show was set on a deep-space warship many millennia ago, but they knew their story would be far more meaningful if they had something authentic to say, so they did a lot of research about what life is like on modern aircraft carriers. In the first season DVD commentaries, they point out several episodes that were drawn from interviews with modern naval officers, including an episode about deaths from a missile-loading accident. It turns out that every writer has to hit the books and do some research.

Of course, while research is great, there’s no substitute for direct observation. But be warned: True observation is one of the hardest skills to learn because of preconceived notions or “big ideas.”

I used to pride myself on being a “man of ideas.” And that’s one reason I became a writer: so I could spread those ideas to others. But now I realize that big ideas are actually poison for a writer.

A big idea is a set of self-satisfied certainties that allows you to stop looking, listening, and learning. Perpetual observation is the antidote to those certainties.
  • Ideas are rigid; observations adapt. 
  • Ideas make you seem smart; observations actually make you smarter. 
  • But for a writer, the most important distinction is this: Ideas are generic, and observations are specific. 
Journalists are trained to jot down ten observations every time they walk into a room. As a fiction writer, even if you don’t have the huge asset of a journalistic background, it’s never too late to start doing this. But watch out: Try to make sure that none of these observations carries the tainted whiff of your ideas. Write down what you actually see and hear, not what you expected to see and hear, and not what you presume is actually going on. This is really hard. At first, all you will see are things that confirm your preconceived notions. You have to force yourself to see past those preconceptions.

The hope is that eventually your observations will overwhelm your ideas, and you’ll keep looking without the benefit of a “big idea” to contextualize what you’re seeing.

But wait! Aren’t I proposing an overly conservative worldview? After all, to have ideas is to be active, but to merely observe is to be passive and complacent, right?

When it comes to changing the world, nothing is more powerful than a truthful observation. If you want to take on the meat industry, you don’t write a healthy-eating manifesto; you write The Jungle. If you want to say something meaningful about race, you don’t pile up a bunch of high-minded, heavy-handed parables, like in the infamously bad 2005 Best Picture Oscar Winner, Crash. Instead, you should pile up a ton of true-to-life observations, as seen in Homicide or The Wire, both of which were created by longtime inner-city reporter David Simon.

Ideas are the true recipe for passivity, and observations are the true spur to action. But you can’t observe anything if you’re using your ideas as an excuse not to pay attention. The worst bias a writer can have is confirmation bias.

Rulebook Casefile: Observations in How to Train Your Dragon
One question on the checklist is “Is the movie based more on observations than ideas?” I have this under “Theme”, because startling fealty to real life is more likely to create deeper meaning than any big ideas you may want to impart, but the fact is that these observations don’t just improve theme, they empower every aspect of the process.

As I pointed out here, movies must reflect how the world works even if they’re not set on our world, and I discussed here how fantasy worlds should draw most of their mythology and methodology from real-world cultures. How to Train Your Dragon is a great example of both, but the movie’s commitment to reality goes even further...

The heart of the movie lies in the astounding silent sequences in which Hiccup and Toothless the dragon form their tenuous bond. In the book, the dragon could talk, but the filmmakers made the daring decision to render him mute, even though they were adapting the story to a far more dialogue-dependent medium. How did they pull it off?

One would assume that, when writing a dragon story, the fun part would be coming up with the complex dragon mythology and the crazy creatures, and this movie has glimpses of that, but for the most part, they don’t let their imaginations run wild: they base all of Toothless’s behavior on real animals…specifically cats and tigers.

They could have just assumed that we would say “Hey, these dragons are clearly real, since we can see them!” but they knew that, especially in an animated movie, merely seeing a character is not believing. We would only truly believe in these dragons if we recognized their behavior. By basing their dragon behavior on close observation of real-life animals, they accomplished that.

(And another related fact from the excellent DVD documentaries: they brought in master cinematographer Roger Deakins to advise them on their “photography”, and he taught them how to simulate light more realistically than any other computer animated movie, creating truly hard shadows for the first time. The effect is both beautiful and subconsciously powerful, giving even the cartoony main characters a startling solidity. That made the writers’ job a lot easier.)

Straying from the Party Line: The Inauthentic Setting of Blue Velvet
  • Deviation: The setting is inauthentic, and the movie is based on the idea of small town life, rather than observations of it.
  • The Problem: Specifics are almost always better than generics. Your story’s specific setting should influence your characters’ metaphor families, syntax, hobbies, goals, etc, in order for any of these elements to feel real. An attempt to create a generic city that’s recognizable to everyone will usually have the opposite effect, leaving everyone alienated, whereas using a lot of specifics about a particular region can paradoxically make audiences from every region feel at home.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. The tone-setting is crucial here: the “Americana” imagery that begins the movie is so startlingly vivid that it (intentionally) feels unreal, and then we start get shots of Jeffrey’s mother watching noir films on TV that predict Jeffrey’s movements: this is the exception that proves the rule because the movie is about ‘80s America’s delusional idealization of small towns and of the past, and the yawning abyss between reality and fantasy. The movie is pointedly saying to us: “This is unreal! Don’t buy it!”
That said, it’s interesting to note that when Lynch essentially turned this movie into a TV series as “Twin Peaks”, carrying over the same tone and many of the same themes, he transformed Blue Velvet’s “Lumberton” into a much more authentic and specific setting in northern Washington State, and I think the show benefitted from that.
Now let’s see how the movies we examined answer this question: 

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. This feels like a very real stereo store, including petty sales commission battles, etc.


YES. it’s a very believable freighter crew with real-world concerns.

An Education

YES.  Very much so. It’s a true story.

The Babadook

Yes and no.  Kent didn’t want to tell an Australian story, preferring (for economic reasons) to tell a story that could happen in any American or Western European rural suburb.  That said, the portrayal of generic rural suburban life is well-observed.  

Blazing Saddles

Yes and no.  Co-screenwriter Richard Pryor brought a lot of genuine racial observations.  As for the west, we’re seeing an examination of Hollywood’s version more than the real thing, but even then, everything is well observed.

Blue Velvet

NO. Not really.  This is an ideas movie. The city and region are never named.  This is set in an idea of middle America, not a specific reality.  

The Bourne Identity

YES. Liman (and the writer he hired, Tony Gilroy) tossed out the book (which he loved, and optioned himself) and replaced it with his observations from watching his dad’s role as an Iran/Contra prosecutor. (In fact, this distinction sort of describes Bourne in a nutshell.  All he has left is observations and instincts with no ideas, and he discovers that that makes him a better person.) The movie  feels very real to street-level European cities, with no landmarks or exaggerated set pieces


YES. A nice sense of Milwaukee vs. Chicago.  Lots of “I thought I was the only one who noticed that” moments, about weddings, flights, jobs, roommates, etc.


NO. It’s based on the idea of Casablanca, not the actual place.


YES. Very much so.  The nature of Los Angeles is a constant topic, and it’s based on deep research (which was then totally fictionalized) 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Very much so.  It’s a true story. Great contrasting of New York and Florida.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.  There are a million little authentic observations, like the kids scraping the cans on the sidewalk to better direct the spray of water.

The Farewell

YES. Very much so, it’s based on a true story of the filmmaker’s visit to China and shows many authentic things she noticed.  (I mean, it certainly never comes up that this is a dictatorship, and they probably wouldn’t have been able to shoot there if they had mentioned that, but it still has a lot to say about the nature of modern China without mentioning that very big elephant in the room)

The Fighter

YES. Very much so. They shot in Lowell, and some people played themselves.


NO. Not really.  There’s no commentary on life in contemporary Norway here.  It’s a fanciful fantasy kingdom. 

The Fugitive

YES. The worlds of medicine, fugitive tracking, and Chicago in general are all extremely authentic.  Davis is a lifelong Chicagoan and it shows. 

Get Out

YES. Peele, who is biracial, wittily observes universal truths about white worlds and black worlds.

Groundhog Day

YES. this is a very believable and empathetically-portrayed small-town.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Despite the extremely bizarre setting, it feels authentic to both the Scottish and Viking aspects of its imaginary world.

In a Lonely Place

YES. this is clearly a painfully real portrait of Solt’s own world.

Iron Man

YES. Believable portrayal of an inventor’s rhythms, thought process. The firefight feels like a real firefight. 

Lady Bird

YES. Very much so.  It begins with a quote: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” - Joan Didion

Raising Arizona

YES. There’s lots of good Southwest oddity, such as watching the sunset from deck chairs, various state laws, etc.


YES. The politics of private school (and public school) are well-observed.


YES. DuVernay, whose family is from Selma, claims that she added this element in her uncredited rewrites (the credited writer is a white British man)

The Shining

YES. King was definitely tapping into his own life: he was a frustrated novelist and a dry drunk with a young family. He staid in a similar hotel while writing the book.


YES. Very much so. It feels like Payne must be a local, though he isn’t.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. it’s a very well-observed portrayal of life at the FBI and small-town life.

Star Wars

YES. The farming community couldn’t be more bizarre, but it’s recognizable. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Very much so.  It’s filled with real details.  Wilder was not only a screenwriter, but he had been also been a dime-a-dance gigolo back in Vienna: Talk about writing what you know!

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