Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?

As you write your first draft, you can’t worry very much about your theme. You have to simply assume that if the thematic question is linked to the dramatic question, and everything is sufficiently ironic, then meaning will accrue. However, when it’s time to tackle later drafts, you may find your theme is so indistinct that it’s barely detectable. 

But wait, you say, isn’t it good the theme is hard to spot? After all, you want your theme to resonate in the audience’s bones, not rattle around in their skulls, so shouldn’t you pitch it just below the frequency of human hearing? Yes, but like any good subaudible hum, it has to be persistent.

Once your story and characters are set, you can go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme. When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing: What job does the hero’s spouse have? Where are the heroes when they get the big news? Which blunt object is used for the killing? But now it’s time to go back and make all of those choices more meaningful.

Enemy of the State is a fun little thriller about a labor lawyer who receives damning evidence about the National Security Agency from an old friend, then has to go on the run for his life. The movie has the “good versus good” theme of security versus privacy. This thematic dilemma is floated early on by a series of open questions posed by the hero’s wife, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union, but it’s also reinforced throughout in subtler ways.
  • In the beginning, the lawyer is trying to win a labor law case by using a secret videotape against some gangsters. It’s not admissible in court, but the gangsters don’t want it exposed. 
  • Who got the lawyer the tape? A young woman he once had an affair with. The affair is over, but now he must hide the fact from his wife that he’s still working with her. 
  • Where is he when he accidentally gets the item the NSA wants? A lingerie store, shopping for his wife, but because of his past affair, he’s afraid she will assume he’s buying for someone else. 
  • Why is he there? It’s Christmastime, which means they’re hiding presents from their son, and he’s hiding the fact he’s raided their gift stash, which complicates things later on. 
All these things subtly make the point that we all do things we don’t want exposed to scrutiny, even if they’re perfectly legal.

I suspect that none of these details was in the first draft (since not one is essential to the story), and once the plot had been worked out, writer David Marconi went back and replaced whatever random choices he’d originally made with new details that tied into the theme. I’ve heard this referred to as making a “theme tree,” or yoking every detail together into a vast system of root and branch that all feeds into an organic whole. Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.

In the surprisingly charming romantic comedy Date Night, every scene does more than one thing, on more than one level. The cleverly structured story allows every scene to be a plot, character, and theme scene, so the movie rarely has to stop to change gears or shift in tone. To save their lives, this couple must unravel a mystery, but the only way to do that is to adopt new identities that break them out of their ennui and force them to inadvertently reveal long-held secrets to each other.

It’s no coincidence that they end up confronting a procession of bizarre couples mixed up in the mystery, with each representing an extreme example of what they wish they were or what they’re afraid they’ll become. These are parallel characters who act as cautionary tales and/or potential role models. Such characters not only help a story’s tone by providing foreshadowing, but they also enrich a story’s theme by ensuring every scene shows aspects of the central dilemma.

Rulebook Casefile: A Small Thematic Detail in “Lady Bird” 
In the opening moments of Lady Bird, Lady Bird and her mother are wrapping up their college visit trip around California, and they finish listening to the audiobook of “The Grapes of Wrath”.

The book, of course, is about a road trip from hell: The Joads are victims of the dust bowl in Oklahoma, but handbills lure them to California, promising a life of ease (“You can just reach out and pick fruit off the trees.”) They arrive to find that California is not nurturing after all, but rather brutally inhospitable. The daughter’s newborn baby dies, but she finds a man starving to death and offers him the only succor he’ll find in California: the grown man suckles her breast milk.

Just enough of the audiobook plays in the movie that, if you’ve read the book, you’ll be reminded of that ending, but if you haven’t you wouldn’t know what was going on. Any meaning the audience gets from that detail is dependent on the knowledge of the book we bring with us. But if you do know the book, the thematic meaning is rich.

Lady Bird is with her own un-nurturing mother, roaming California backroads looking for a place that will take them in, but she lacks high enough grades to impress them (She ain’t got the do-re-mi) and she concludes over the course of her road trip that California is not a state where she’ll feel nurtured. She wants to live through something. She is rejecting the breast violently when she jumps out of the car.

The main role the audiobook plays in the film is just to indicate that they’ve been at peace for 21 hours of driving, enjoying something smart together, but tensions are just waiting to explode as soon as the pacifying agent is turned off. But Gerwig had a choice to make: Which book? Writing involves dozens of such choices (and directing involves hundreds of such choices), and each is a chance to pack the story with more meaning, even if it will only be meaningful for a subset of your audience. Make meaningful choices every time you get the opportunity.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. The action figures still in the boxes represent virginity, the bike represents immaturity, etc.


YES. every little decision on the ship speaks to the larger dilemma.  The metal-organic design of the ship on the planet and the alien itself speak to the melding of human and industrial consciousness.  Eggs are a recurring theme.  They try to call “Antarctica traffic control”: it’s a cold future.

An Education

YES. They’re reading Jane Eyre (in which Rochester is secretly married), playing Elgar music (who’s anti-Semitic), etc.

The Babadook

YES. Her resistance to celebrate her son’s birthday on the day, the neighbor accepts her own Parkinson’s, etc.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Playing chess (black vs. white).  The fact that Waco first sees him upside down, etc.

Blue Velvet

YES. everybody is eavesdropping on each other in different ways.  

The Bourne Identity

YES. Marie’s opening scene is about being denied an ID, etc.


YES. Each woman’s problems speaks to each of the others. 


YES. the song, the Vichy water, etc.


YES. Very much so: Water references and imagery are everywhere, as are references to eyes. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Lions are a great running metaphor.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Raheem’s speech, Mother Sister’s advice, the interactions with the Koreans, etc.

The Farewell

YES. There are dozens of little lies that both Nai Nai and Billi tell that are counterpointed with the big lie that the other family members are telling Nai Nai. 

The Fighter

YES. All of the talk about fighting styles parallels what’s going on out of the ring: “He takes a lot of punishment, I don’t know why he does it, he stays on the inside, I fight on the outside.” Etc.


YES. There are lots of different types of families, including the merchant’s loving gay family, and Hans’s toxic relationship with his brothers. These are contrasted with orphan Kristoff and created-from-nothing Olaf.

The Fugitive

YES. law vs. justice is everywhere (the drug dealer gets off by turning in Kimble, etc.) as does public vs. private (The one-armed man turns out to be an ex-cop who lost his arm in the line of duty and now works private security, going from public servant to private servant The drug trial which was behind everything is supposedly a “public-private” partnership but the private has corrupted it.

Get Out

YES. Oh dear lord yes, as Peele makes clear in his DVD commentary.  Almost every thing we see or hear speaks to theme. 

Groundhog Day

YES. The lyrics of “I Got You Babe”, the fact that Ned sells life insurance, the meaning of Groundhog Day itself, etc.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He must make peace with each dragon, with Astrid, with his dad, etc…

In a Lonely Place

YES. the details of the book, etc.

Iron Man

YES. Relationship with reporter ties his treatment of the third world to his treatment of women. 

Lady Bird

YES. Listening to the end “The Grapes of Wrath” at the beginning (in which California is un-nurturing, but a character is saved by breast-feeding.)  9/11 posters symbolize the danger of New York City.

Raising Arizona

YES. Very much so: when the brothers break out of jail, it looks like a birth, Smalls has baby shoes on his bike.  Ed sings song to baby about dad going to prison.


YES. Max’s plays, etc.


YES. Every character has to make a moderate vs. immoderate choice at some point.  

The Shining

YES. See the documentary “Room 237” for many examples.


YES. Facts about wines mirror Miles’ predicament (needing to be nurtured and protected, for instance), the quote from “A Separate Peace” at the end resonates, he prefers the dark wedding cake,  etc.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Moths representing transformation, etc.

Star Wars

Somewhat. Part of the appeal of the movie is that it’s filled with such utterly strange and seemingly random details that don’t really “made a point” but just made this feel like an endlessly strange and fascinating world, so it’s a plus that the details don’t all back up the theme. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. the fact that her screenplay is about Salome, who got John the Baptist’s head on a plate by doing the dance of the seven veils (note that Norma drops her veil on the floor while dancing with Joe.)  The fact that Joe and Betty pitch woo on a phony back lot.  His watch chain catches on the doorknob as he leaves, holding him back.

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