Monday, November 13, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good-versus-good or evil-versus-evil dilemma?

As stated in the Misconceptions section of this chapter, your theme should take the form of an irreconcilable moral dilemma: a contest between two equally appealing ideas that come into conflict. Usually these will be two “goods,” both of which seem impossible to live without, like: 
  • solidarity versus individualism 
  • fun versus responsibility 
  • compromise versus integrity 
These dilemmas need not dominate the story immediately. Slowly, over the course of the emerging conflict, it should become clear that there is an underlying fundamental human dilemma in the interpersonal conflict.

Some stories are focused not so much on good versus good but more on evil versus evil:
  • death versus dishonor 
  • betraying a loved one versus betraying society 
  • societal control versus chaos 
In your story, a conflict should eventually push one of these dilemmas to the crisis point and force your hero to confront this painful choice. This dilemma should seem totally irreconcilable for most of the story, and both the hero and the audience should feel torn and anguished over the decision.

Here are some dilemmas from the examples we looked at in chapter three:
  • The movie Casablanca: love versus patriotism 
  • The novel and movie Beloved: death versus enslavement, self-forgiveness versus self-accountability 
  • The novel and movie Silence of the Lambs: dealing with one monster versus letting another go free 
  • The movie Groundhog Day: acceptance versus ambition 
  • The novel and movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: justice (seeking out and confronting evil, even at the risk of innocent lives) versus peace (maintaining order by banishing evil from discussion) 
  • The novel and movie Sideways: delusional optimism versus clear-eyed cynicism 
  • The comic and movie Iron Man: societal responsibility versus individual innovation 
  • The memoir and movie An Education: living up to one’s responsibilities versus having an interesting life 
We’ll revisit these examples again later to see how they play out.

Rulebook Casefile: Choosing Between Goods is Always Stronger

As I said before, many critics said that Ava DuVernay was unfair to LBJ in Selma, but as Amy Davidson-Sorkin pointed out in “The New Yorker”, DuVernay was actually more than fair in at least one way. I’ll quote Davidson-Sorkin this time:

  • Reading [Taylor] Branch’s account of that period, it is revealing how distracted Johnson was by Vietnam. In the days when the scenes of violence in Alabama should have been his focus, he was in endless meetings with Robert McNamara about a secret order to begin a bombing campaign. “It was this crisis that had shortened his patience for King’s visit from Selma,” Branch writes. There is not much mention of Vietnam in “Selma”; in this, the filmmakers did Johnson a kindness.

If DuVernay’s goal was really to turn LBJ from the co-hero of the movement into the villain, as many affronted LBJ supporters claimed, surely Vietnam would have been the way to go. All she had to do was honestly depict those McNamara meetings. And of course including Vietnam would have been dramatic: Death! Explosions! Great betrayals! Tragic downfalls!

Instead, her Johnson says that he can’t do what King wants because he’s rather use his political capital on his War on Poverty. In a great use of objects to physicalize the plot, he’s actually got his plan in a leather folder and tries to hand it to King but King refuses to accept it and forces Johnson to put it down, literally and figuratively.

DuVernay (and/or credited writer Paul Webb) knows that great drama comes from choosing between goods, not from choosing between good and evil (as would have been the case in a choice between voting rights and Vietnam). Good vs. evil is a no-brainer with a pat solution, but good vs. good is an anguishing choice. Ultimately, of course, we know that Johnson brilliantly pushed through both the War on Poverty and voting rights, but in the movie, it’s a tough call that’s left unresolved, which is always good with a thematic conflict. We like it when a story tips towards one side of a thematic conflict but leaves the question open and not fully resolved. That makes a story meaty.

Rulebook Casefile: The Impartial Thematic Dilemma in The Fugitive

Let’s add another genre convention that The Fugitive refuses to deliver: the false conviction isn’t calculated to make our blood boil. Sure, the stony CPD detectives that arrest Kimble are not exactly sympathetic, but we’re well-aware that, in the same situation, we probably would have reached the same conclusion: Kimble looks really guilty:
  • There’s no forced entry and the killer used Kimble’s own gun (and Kimble’s paperweight to finish the job)
  • She had the family money and a big insurance policy.
  • As he moves her dying body to the bed, she accidentally scratches his neck, leaving his skin under her fingernails.
  • Due to tremendously bad luck, her 911 tape overwhelming implicates him (She calls out “Richard…” when he enters, but it sounds like she’s naming her killer.)
The police neither frame him nor act out of lazy apathy: We can’t blame them, or the judge, or either attorney, or the jury. It’s a very reasonable conclusion. This unusual choice helps the movie in two ways:
  • It makes it far more terrifying for the audience. This could happen to any of us. It’s a nightmare with no easy solution
  • But more importantly, it makes the thematic dilemma (law vs. justice) more impartial, and that always makes the meaning of a story resonate more.
By adding no ill will to the false conviction, the story refuses to put a thumb on scales: this isn’t bad-law vs. good-justice, which is an easy call: this is a pure good-vs.-good dilemma. The law is implemented flawlessly and benignly, but the result is totally unjust, which makes it so much more painful and compelling.

In the end, as the checklist recommends, the dilemma is resolved in a way that tips to one side but not decisively: Justice is better than law, but we cannot choose one over the other: they must be reunited for either to be worthwhile.
Straying from the Party Line: Unambiguous Right and Wrong on “Community”

So let’s address one of the central paradoxes of “Community”: It had the most hipster-ish cult fanbase of any show on Network TV since “Arrested Development”, but it’s actually, in many ways, a startlingly earnest show.

This is shocking: Dan Harmon, after all, created “Heat Vision and Jack”, perhaps the most tongue-in-cheek pilot ever made, and then followed that up with the droll anti-sitcom “The Sarah Silverman Program”. How did this guy end up creating this pilot? Two possible answers:
  • Presumably after failing to break through to a wide audience, he was more willing to take network notes and give them the kind of show they wanted, but more importantly…
  • This pilot’s ingenuousness is somewhat disingenuous. When I saw it in 2009, I remember thinking “Wow, this looks great, and it could be the show that brings unironic learning and growing back to sitcoms.” I was certainly right about the show being great, but not about the show’s commitment to non-irony. Just the opposite happened: the show quickly shifted to a far more ironic tone, to the point where every other episode became a brilliantly-post-modern parody of a different film genre.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to sell sort the show’s emotional content, in the pilot and in its non-post-modern episodes. In fact, this pilot is startlingly non-ironic: it actually has far less irony than any story should be able to get away with. Let’s look to the checklist:
  • The ironic dilemma, between individual achievement and community building, tips decisively in one direction (no hints as to which one.)
  • The plot doesn’t just collide thesis and antithesis and let us choose, the characters actually talk quite a bit about what it all means, synthesizing a concrete moral. Audiences normally hate this.
  • Our hero has a resolvable issue that can ultimately be solved in a tidy way
So why does the pilot work? Partly it was a matter of timing. After we killed off our economy with a plague of “liar loans”, American audiences were ready for a little unironic moralizing about our future. Jeff is the ultimate downwardly mobile formerly-middle-class American, who coasted by on confidence and cockiness during the boom times, only to realize that he must belatedly face his flaws and work with his peers in the lean times.

This show doesn’t simply ignore the possibility of moral ambiguity, it actively campaigns against it. As Jeff says at one point, while defending his lies: “I’ve understood since I was a kid that if I talked long enough, I could make anything true. So either I’m God or truth is relative, and in either case: booyah.” This is refreshing. In the world of the show, unambiguous morality, instead of seeming trite and simplistic, seems like a daring new concept.

So why doesn’t it sabotage things to have the cast talk so much about morality? One reason is the setting: college is the land of over-earnest talky-talk-talk. That’s true to life and it’s also part of the joke: at no other point in life is your level of “insight” so divorced from your actual wisdom. When we watch this very diverse ensemble trying to wrap things up with a bow, we maintain a healthy distance from them, somewhat convinced but also amused, which keeps the show from feeling overly moralistic. 

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES.  Respect for women vs. need for sex, self-sufficiency vs. co-dependent love.


YES, loyalty vs. self-preservation.

An Education

YES. Glamour vs. responsibility

The Babadook

YES. Greiving vs. Looking forward, fighting bad feelings vs. accepting them.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Good vs. good: Individualism vs. solidarity, standing up to people vs. winning them over. Bad vs. bad: anger vs. subservience.  

Blue Velvet

YES. two evils: naivete vs. cynicism

The Bourne Identity

YES. Duty vs. conscience


YES. Friendship vs. romantic love


YES. love vs. country.


YES. Honor the past or build the future.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Being a good father/husband/friend vs. being a good cop.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Integration vs. self-preservation

The Farewell

YES. Is it better (and healthier) to live a happy lie or an unhappy truth? 

The Fighter

YES. Family vs. independence.


YES. Family vs. independence

The Fugitive

YES. Law vs. justice and public vs. private

Get Out

YES. Cooperation vs. vigilance 

Groundhog Day

YES. Ambition vs. acceptance, quantity of life vs. quality of life.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Victory vs. peace-making, justice vs. family loyalty

In a Lonely Place

YES. Sacrificing for love vs. self protection.  

Iron Man

YES. Individual achievement vs. societal responsibility.

Lady Bird

YES. Contentment vs. ambition.  

Raising Arizona

YES. Settle for a meager legal life vs. achieving a better life through extra-legal means.


YES. Ambition vs. Acceptance


YES. Be moderate (work together) or be immoderate (take a righteous stand).  

The Shining

YES. Lots of thematic questions: Family vs. masculinity, loyalty to father vs. loyalty to mother, trust your parents vs. trust yourself, making it work vs. moving on, etc…


YES. Blind optimism vs. clear-eyed cynicism, push for more out of life or accept less.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Evil vs. evil: empower one killer to stop another.

Star Wars

YES. Spirituality vs. technology, freedom vs. unjust peace, solidarity vs. personal safety 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. success vs. dignity

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