Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Are one or more objects representing larger ideas that grow in meaning each time they’re exchanged throughout the story?

Independent filmmakers Ted Hope and James Schamus had a great list of “No-Budget Commandments” when they ran their own production company. One was “Invest meaning in everyday commonplace things—make an orange a totemic object John Ford would be proud of.” 

You can’t rely on character interactions to reveal all the emotions. When characters talk with each other, they have three different factors influencing them:
  1. their current mood 
  2. what they want the other characters to do 
  3. how they feel about the other characters deep down 
But when you establish their relationship to an object, they can express their true emotions, unfiltered by other baggage.

In The Color of Money, Paul Newman trains a naïve young pool phenomenon played by Tom Cruise. Together with Cruise’s shady girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), they tool around the Northeast, hustling in dingy joints on their way to a big tournament in Atlantic City.

Sure enough, all of the characters have their own totem objects:
  • First, Newman gives Cruise a fancy pool cue, on the condition he never use it because it would ruin the hustle. It becomes the object of all of Cruise’s frustrations as he tries to learn the business. 
  • Mastrantonio wears a necklace she stole from Cruise’s mother. She chuckles as she explains to Newman, “He says his mom had one just like it.” As they compete to see who will get to exploit Cruise’s talent, Newman keeps an eye on the necklace to remind himself of whom he’s dealing with. 
  • Newman doesn’t get his totem object until the end of the second act. It’s what Joseph Campbell would call “the special weapon he finds in the cave.” Newman finally admits he needs prescription glasses and uses them to compete with his former protégé. 
Count how many glances and comments each one of these objects earns, and how they change meaning over the course of the movie—when they get taken out, put away, or change hands. The cagey characters can’t say what they feel, but their interactions with these objects reveal all.

As Ted Hope points out, this is the sort of thing that creates easy value. Too many stories can be summed up as “people stand around in rooms and talk,” but a story starts to come alive when the audience knows certain objects are fraught with meaning.

The acclaimed BBC series Sherlock updates the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories to modern day, with lots of texting and blogging added in, but show runner Stephen Moffat knows the art of adaptation is about more than technology. Even if his version had been set in 1887, Moffat is smart enough to know that some things must be changed simply because of the transition from prose to television.

The first episode adapts the novel that introduced Sherlock Holmes and his friend Watson: A Study in Scarlet. In the novel, our narrator, Watson, has survived a massacre in Afghanistan without injury, but he’s plagued by depression (which modern readers recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder, though it was still unnamed at the time). Because this is first-person prose, Watson can tell the reader about his depression in the text. As he recounts his adventure with Sherlock Holmes, he explains how it gradually helps him break free of his malaise. This is what first-person prose does best: It allows us to directly commune with the thoughts and feelings of a person as he is changed by an experience.

But television’s moving images are nowhere near as intimate as first-person prose. Sure, you can use a lot of narration or therapy scenes, but television is a visual medium, so the best way to convey a character’s psychology is through his physical interactions. But a condition like PTSD is problematic because no one can see it. How do you show it? You externalize it.

Moffat does this very simply: He manifests Watson’s PTSD as a psychosomatic limp. Watson walks with a cane, but as soon as he meets Holmes, Holmes instantly perceives he doesn’t really need it, which both offends and intrigues Watson. Sure enough, after Watson has gotten thoroughly engrossed in Holmes’s adventures, they find themselves caught up in a sudden chase. Only after the chase is over does Watson realize he’s left his crutch behind, literally and figuratively.

Let’s look at how nicely Iron Man showed the exchange of an object representing larger values: Tony’s heart device.
  • He, too, is ambushed in Afghanistan, and his heart is injured when a bomb sold by his own company pierces the armor provided by the army. 
  • Tony finds out the shrapnel is lodged in his chest, slowly making its way toward his heart, and can’t be removed. He can only hold it back with magnets. The man explaining this to Tony understands because he’s witnessed Tony’s bombs kill children in his village the same way. (Tony is being literally and figuratively stabbed in the heart.) 
  • Tony and his new third-world friend devise a glowing device to keep his heart alive—and to fill a literal and figurative hole in his chest. 
  • His friend dies and tells Tony not to waste what he’s given him: a heart. 
  • Tony gets home and invents a sleeker device using his superior technology. He doesn’t trust doctors, so he gets his executive assistant, Pepper, to take out the old heart and put the new one in. She does so by reaching deep into his chest cavity and touching the heart. She asks about the old one, but he forcefully waves it away and says, “Destroy it. Incinerate it. I’ve been called many things, but never a sentimentalist.” Nevertheless, she takes it with her. 
  • What do you get for the man who has everything? Pepper gives him back the device encased in glass, set in a metal ring that says “Proof that Tony Stark Has a Heart” (even if it is one he lost interest in). 
  • Stane, Tony’s treacherous partner, builds his own armor, but he can’t figure out how to build the heart of it, in more ways than one. 
  • So Stane ambushes Tony and rips the sleek new heart device out of his chest, leaving him to die. 
  • Tony crawls down to his lab and busts the glass on Pepper’s gift at the last second. He gave his heart to the right person! 
  • The final battle can be seen as Pepper’s heart versus Stane’s heart, or as the authentic, third-world heart versus the stolen, first-world heart. 
A lot of this sounds heavy-handed when I spell it out, but that’s the beauty of it. The movie doesn’t have to spell it out. We would reject these messages if we heard them, but we’re simply feeling them instead.

Think of all the dialogue this object’s exchange has replaced. Tony doesn’t have to discuss at length how he feels about his weapons killing innocents, his feelings for Pepper, her feelings for him, how it feels to be betrayed, etc. It allows Tony to remain the happy-go-lucky guy we want him to be, because we have this object to tell us a lot of the things he doesn’t want to say.

Rulebook Casefile: Exchange of an Object in The Shining

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for The Shining and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the answers in more depth:

Let’s take a closer look at the scene we examined:

At the beginning of this sequence Jack is mildly surprised to find a huge party going on in the ballroom, and orders a drink from the bartender. The bartender serves him and then says that his money is no good there. Jack looks confused, but doesn’t this make sense? Isn’t he the caretaker, and should therefore drink for free? You can see a moment of confusion flit across Jack’s face: he’s not sure what role he’s playing in this little fantasy scenario. At first, Jack says, “I’m the kind of man who wants to know who’s buying his drinks,” The is the first time that he’s shown some interest in probing the ghosts for some time, but he quickly loses interest

This sets up the next beat, when Jack takes his drink and tries to join the party, only to have a waiter accidentally spill an Advocaat cocktail on him, and insist that they go to the bathroom to take care of it. In the bathroom, Jack realizes that waiter is actually Dexter Grady, the former winter caretaker who chopped up his wife and daughters with an ax. Jack asks Grady about his family, and Grady says yes, his family is there with him. So Jack asks, “Where are they now?” Grady responds, “Oh, they’re somewhere around, I’m not quite sure at this moment,” while dabbing at Jack’s jacket.

Suddenly, Jack grabs the towel away and says, “Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here. You chopped them up to bits, and then you blew your brains out.” Grady only smiles mildly and says, “I’m sorry to differ with you sir, but you are the caretaker, you’ve always been the caretaker. I should know sir, I’ve always been here.” Someone, after all, has to remove a lot of stains in this place.

This is a classic example of a seemingly-innocuous exchange of an object that actually encapsulates the meaning of the scene. Jack thinks he’ll get a rise out of Grady by grabbing the towel away, but Grady only smiles: the towel has been passed on to his successor, in every sense.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Just a little bit: the action figures, the box of porn, though I don’t know if they grow in meaning


NO. Not really. The “mother” computer “changes hands”, I guess, but it can’t actually be placed from hand to hand.

An Education

YES. The C.S. Lewis book, the map, the engagement ring, the letters, etc. The cello represents the burden of her education, David’s able to admire it and offer his car to it when he meets Jenny, making him seem less lecherous, etc.)

The Babadook

YES. The book, the crossbow, the suits, the photos, the phone, many others.

Blazing Saddles

NO. Not really.

Blue Velvet

YES. the ears, the strip of blue velvet, the party hat, etc.

The Bourne Identity

Sort of. The laser projector under his skin, the passports, the guns.


YES. Bill Cosby’s card, the baked goods, the shower gifts, the nice dress. 


YES. the letters of transit, the song (if that counts)


YES. The reading glasses, the property ledger sheet, the watch, the obituary column. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  the greeting card, the surveillance photos, the boat, the tape recorder and the tapes, the oranges, the article about the boat.

Do the Right Thing

YES. The bat, the boom box, etc.

The Farewell

YES. When she chooses to join the lie, it’s in the form of an object she has to forge with difficulty. 

The Fighter

YES. Charlene’s number on a bar napkin.  The “pride of Lowell” cake.  


NO. Interestingly, not really. There is no amulet reprsenting the powers, for instance, and no wilting flower representing the out-of-control cold.  The closest thing is Anna’s hair, but that doesn’t really count. 

The Fugitive

YES. The ID changes hands from the janitor to Kimble to Gerard, who rips off Kimble’s face to find the janitor underneath, which subtly calls back to Kimble saying that when he wears a tux he’ll look like a waiter.

Get Out

YES. The teacup, the cell phone, the items in the rec room.  

Groundhog Day

YES. Just slight: the pencil, the clock, the groundhog in one scene. The note he gives her about what Larry is going to say.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. The mom’s helmet, the prosthesis, etc. 

In a Lonely Place

NO. not really. The book, maybe. Briefly with the grapefruit knife, and the phone.

Iron Man

YES. The exchange of the heart devices tell the whole story.

Lady Bird

YES. Maybe the cast?  The math grade book.  First Kyle’s reading “The People’s History of the United States” then she’s reading it.  Writing boys’ names on her wall then painting over it. 

Raising Arizona

YES. The Dr. Spock book, the baby himself, the guns.


YES. Max’s medals, the swiss army knife, the fish, the bent bike, etc.


YES. Well, the tape is exchanged, but just once. Words are passed along: “We shall overcome”

The Shining

YES. the ball, the bat, etc.


YES. The bottle of wine, the condoms, etc. Yes, the manuscript, the wine bottle, etc.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. The death’s head moth, the dog, the pen, the survey, the drawings, etc.

Star Wars

Somewhat. The plans of the Death Star, the lightsabers.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. his car, her car, her manuscript, the pool, the gun, the spotlights.


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