Monday, November 06, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?

In every type of writing, you must convey the hero’s internal state to the audience. This is relatively easy in prose, but it’s harder in dramatized writing. Playwrights, screenwriters, and TV writers have three ways to achieve this: 
  • Present-tense voice-over allows the hero to honestly and directly tell the audience what’s going on. The disadvantages, however, are many. It’s inherently uncinematic in that it’s invisible, and it takes the audience out of the story by breaking the fourth wall. 
  • Dialogue about the character’s internal state is also problematic. In real life, people don’t like to honestly tell other people what they’re thinking or feeling. Usually the other character has to trap the hero into revealing his thoughts. 
  • Behavior is the best way to detect the internal state of others, in movies and in real life. 
Of course, scriptwriters know that most readers skim over the description of behavior we write into our work, so it’s tempting to just skip it. But that’s a bad idea. Instead, you need to convince the reader to actually read your behavior descriptions by creating behaviors that, like good dialogue, are streamlined, deliberate, and packed with meaning.

Behavior, like dialogue, benefits from “setup and payoff.” It allows you to create potential energy early on with the setup and then release that energy swiftly and efficiently when the payoff hits. The audience loves to see this happen. Because they saw the setup, they are in your secret club and know instantly what it means when they see the payoff, even though a casual observer wouldn’t.

You can do this with physical actions by creating reversible behaviors. Rather than come up with new behavioral clues from scratch in every scene to convey emotional states, you can give a character a behavior that means one thing, and then later have the character reverse that behavior, letting the audience know instantly that the internal state has flipped as well. This is why it’s always good to look for behaviors that can do double duty by meaning one thing now and the opposite later on.

Several great examples are on display in the sensitively observed screenplay for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. When the audience first meets John Lithgow’s character, he’s attempting to play the piano but merely banging out discordant notes, letting them know instantly that he’s losing his mind. When his son gives him an anti-Alzheimer’s medication, he awakes the next morning to find his father playing the piano beautifully. The audience instantly understands what this means: The medication has worked.

Interestingly, the writers later have an opportunity to flip this again, but they don’t use it. When the drug starts to wear off and Lithgow begins to lose his mind again, rather than put him at the piano a third time, the writers craft a heartbreaking moment where the two main characters silently notice that Lithgow is trying to chop up his eggs with the wrong end of his fork. Having used reversible behavior to good effect once, they decided to start fresh with a new behavior to indicate Lithgow’s gradual return to senility.

The audience gets another powerful example of reversible behavior when Caesar, the human-like ape, is kicked out of his human home and sent to live in a concrete cell. At home in his attic loft, Caesar looked out on the world through a round window. In the cell, Caesar touchingly scratches a replica of the window onto his wall, showing his wish to return there. Later, once he realizes he can never trust humans, he violently erases the drawing. The audience knows all too well what that means.

Reversible behavior also allows you to create subtle character arcs, even in stories where character development is not the first priority, like Ghostbusters. Our hero, Bill Murray, has a muted and subtle character arc: He never has a midpoint disaster or a spiritual crisis, never seems to doubt himself or get humbled. He seems like the same cocky rogue all the way through … but is he?

He does in fact change quite a bit, and it’s set up very nicely through reversible behavior. In the very first scene, Murray’s paranormal researcher is sabotaging his own ESP experiment just so he can hit on the test subject. He doesn’t truly believe in or care about the supernatural; he’s just using it to get girls.

This scene is neatly reversed two-thirds of the way in, when the new object of Murray’s affections, Sigourney Weaver, who has so far resisted his advances, suddenly throws herself at him. He’s very tempted, but instead, he forces himself to admit she’s possessed, and he now values solving her problem more than scoring with her.

It’s not played like a big moment, nor should it be. By subtly contrasting this scene with the first, the movie allows us to notice the difference for ourselves, whether consciously or subconsciously.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  Very much so: He watches “Survivor” with his neighbors every week and then misses it for the date, etc.


YES, she dismisses Parker and sides with Ash early one, and she shows little empathy with others, but she’ll later go back to save the cat.

An Education

YES. She fails a Latin test. Poorly preps dull boy Graham for a meeting with parents. She’ll do better with David, and finally pass that Latin test at the end.

The Babadook

YES. She finally speaks of her husband and allows others to do so, the boy finally gets to celebrate his birthday, etc.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Bart refuses to act in solidarity with his co-worker at the beginning, but then builds a coalition of everyone at the end.

Blue Velvet

Well, we get transferable behavior when he waters the plants like his father, and then when the robin eats the beetle: goodness consumes (or absorbs) evil?  He hides for different reasons at the beginning and end.

The Bourne Identity

YES.  he has a lot of phony IDs, but at the end she asks him if he has any ID and he says “not really.”


YES. She finally bakes again.


YES. he refuses to shield a customer from the Nazis.  (He also has another thing he won’t do but he breaks that rule early: he never sits with customers…until Ilsa comes in)


YES. Jake cares “as little as possible” about the problems of Curly and the fake Mrs. Mulwray, then gets very involved by the end. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Donnie finally starts saying stuff he doesn’t need to say.  The first shot is a close up of his eyes looking predatory, the last shot is a close-up of his eyes looking remorseful.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Mother sister reverses her stance on Da Mayor, Mookie stays the night, Vito stands upt to Pino.

The Farewell

YES. She switches to joining in the deception, she switches to telling the truth about her fellowship. 

The Fighter

YES. Dicky goes to the crackhouse one last time, etc.


YES. The doors are closed, then they’re opened. 

The Fugitive

YES. “Put that gun down.”  First he won’t, then he will.  “I don’t care.”  First he doesn’t then he does.

Get Out

YES. No longer wants to smoke.  Refuses to wrestle brother at first.  

Groundhog Day

YES. Lots: with the homeless guy, etc.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. “You just said all of me” which will be reversed later.

In a Lonely Place

YES. can’t write and then he can, can’t answer the phone, then he can.

Iron Man

YES. Encases his heart in glass, then smashes the glass. He keeps lying when he’s supposed to tell the truth, then finally tells the truth when he’s supposed to lie. 

Lady Bird

YES. Refusing to be called by her name.  This always tells us that the movie will end with a character accepting her name. 

Raising Arizona

YES. The Spock book is finally left behind, etc.  


YES. Lots.


YES. Johnson certainly has a big verbal reversal when he says “We shall overcome”, but there’s not really a physical behavior that reverses (such as refusing to shake King’s hand and then shaking it, or anything like that.)

The Shining

YES. Jack begins drinking again, Danny refuses to channel Tony, then starts again.


YES. He finally finds the courage to not call. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Failing the door check in practice, then getting it right in the field. At the end, she says the lambs have stopped screaming.

Star Wars

YES. Han acts selfishly until he doesn’t, Luke trusts technology until he doesn’t.  Even Threepio offers his circuits to repair Artoo in the last spoken line. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he won’t live there and then he will, he won’t kiss Norma and then he will, he can’t leave and then he can, etc.

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