Friday, December 01, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?

And so we arrive at our final irony: the ironic final outcome. Way back when we started, we discussed how the basic concept of your story should have a fundamental irony. That overriding irony should be apparent by a quarter of the way in, but it shouldn’t be confused with the final irony that isn’t clear until the end.

In chapter three, we explored why these story concepts are ironic. Now let’s jump to the ending to see their ironic final outcomes:
  1. Casablanca: Rick gets Ilsa back only so he can send her away. 
  2. Beloved: Sethe still thinks her daughter’s vengeful ghost was “my best thing.” 
  3. Silence of the Lambs: One killer is stopped, but the worse killer gets away in the process. 
  4. Groundhog Day: Phil finally figures out how to get out of the town he hates by deciding he wants to stay there forever. 
  5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: The most scared teacher turns out to be most useful to the villain, rather than the mean teacher. Then Harry and his friends win the house cup by breaking all the rules. 
  6. Sideways: Miles discovers the way to get the girl is to have the courage to do nothing. He finds the book that failed to earn him the love of the world has ironically done its job after all, because it’s moved the one heart he really needed to move. 
  7. Iron Man: Tony’s own business partner turns out to be the villain. 
  8. An Education: At Oxford, Jenny gets the education she originally wanted, but she has to pretend she hasn’t already received a far more worldly education. 
Even stories that are already ironic can always benefit from another ironic bit at the very end. Because the Nazis are defeated by their own treasure, the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark is already quite ironic, but it has one last kicker waiting for us. After all the action, suffering, and shouts of “It belongs in a museum!” Indiana and Marion finally bring this legendary artifact (and powerful weapon) home to the United States, where it gets dumped in a vast warehouse and forgotten.

It’s ironic that Indiana’s efforts have the opposite effect of his intentions, but even more ironically, the audience realizes this forgotten bureaucratic warehouse is probably the safest place possible for this dangerous artifact. The audience has seen Indiana’s goal come to naught at the last possible second—and they love it. They actually enjoy a good ironic reversal more than a straightforward payoff.

We don’t want to live in a clockwork universe, and we don’t want clockwork stories. We don’t want to watch authors plug numbers into a machine, pull the big lever, and get the expected result. We want irony because it’s surprising, because it’s clever, and, more than anything, because it’s realistic. There are no straight lines in nature, and we don’t want any in our stories, either. We love to see our heroes get what they want in the end—as long as they don’t get it in quite the way they wanted.

Rulebook Casefile: Defying Genre Conventions and Finding an Ironic Final Outcome in The Fugitive
I’ve said before that audiences expect a genre movie to meet most of the pre-established genre expectations, but defy a few of them. The Fugitive is a classically structured, adrenaline-packed thriller that delivers almost all of the conventions that audience expects, but there’s one nearly-universal aspect of this genre that it pointedly refuses to deliver: the hero doesn’t kill either of the villains (neither hitman nor client.)

But rather than leaving audiences disappointed, this was a huge aspect of the film’s success:
  • It solves the Collateral problem: “This guy framed me for a killing, so I’ll track him down and kill him, and that’ll clear my name!” Um, no, that’s not how that works (to be fair, this goes back Hitchcock, in moves like Saboteur.)
  • It elevates the movie morally. The audience can’t help feel dirtied by the standard logic of “he’s a killer so let’s kill him!” There’s a reason that this is one of the only thrillers nominated for best picture: nobody’s embarrassed to say they like it.
  • It ties in nicely with the movie’s ironic final outcome:
In most “law vs. justice” thrillers, the hero humiliates the pansy-lawmen once and for all by doing what they refuse to do: deliver swift-and-fatal “justice” himself. This is supposed to make the audience stand-up-and-cheer in righteous wish-fulfillment. But this movie is doing something entirely different. This is a “law vs. justice” movie, but the solution is not to sever the two permanently, but rather to bend them back towards each other. For the first two reasons above, Ford has no interest in killing the two men who killed his wife, but it also ties in nicely to his flaw-as-flip-side-strength.

As we discussed last time, it should be frustrating to us that Kimble frequently sabotages his quest, but this turns out to be exactly the right thing to do: If he’s not going to kill the villains, then what can he do with them? Make a citizen’s arrest? No, he has to win the lawmen back to his side, and ironically, he can only do so by sabotaging his cause over and over again in the name of compassion.

Every time Kimble sabotages his cause, he’s bringing about the only truly-satisfactory outcome: winning Gerard over, and reuniting law and justice. We’ll talk more about that thematic dilemma next time…

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, he finds sex but only by marrying a grandmother.


YES. they kill the object of their rescue mission, the most loyal one blows up the ship.

An Education

YES.  The education she tried to reject actually leads her back to the life of sophistication she wanted, but she has to pretend she hasn’t already had it.

The Babadook

YES. she’s the monster at the end of the book.

Blazing Saddles

YES. He saves the town instead of dooming it.  The townspeople beg him to stay instead of forcing him out. 

Blue Velvet

YES. he defeats evil by absorbing it 

The Bourne Identity

YES. Liman says that his model was The Wizard of Oz: he’s trying to get home, but he’s home the whole time, because Marie turns out to be his home.


YES. Helen helps Annie see that she’s the problem, rather than vice versa. Her archenemy helps her get her guy.


YES. Very much so: he gets her back only so that he can send her away.


YES, the heroes get the opposite of what they want.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he feels worse about betraying his fake family than his real family. 

Do the Right Thing

YES. Mookie just wanted to get paid, but he destroys his job instead.

The Farewell

YES. She doesn’t achieve her original goal of telling the truth and decides it was better not to. 

The Fighter

YES. Very much so.  What starts out as a story about breaking free of your rotten family becomes a story about taking strength from your rotten family.


YES. Elsa’s powers are embraced.

The Fugitive

YES. The fugitive and the marshal work together.

Get Out

YES. The in-laws love him, after all. 

Groundhog Day

YES. He finally figures out how to get out of there: by wanting to stay.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Very much so. The opening dragon attack is paralleled by the final peaceful shots of dragons flying through the village.

In a Lonely Place

YES. he clears his name but loses the girl anyway.

Iron Man

YES. He earns the right to be a super-hero and then immediately breaks the first rule. 

Lady Bird

YES. She seeks out the comforts of home (church and calling her mom) in New York. 

Raising Arizona

YES. they are pushed apart by stealing the baby and brought back together by returning it. 


YES. He tries to hook up Cross with Blume instead of trying to break them up.


Yes and no.  For Johnson certainly.  For King, he tells Coretta at the beginning that his whole goal is to wrap this up and settle down to life in a college town with “maybe an occassional speaking engagement,” and he certainly doesn’t achieve that.  But it could be that King was lying to Coretta about wanting to settle down, in which case, he unironically achieves exactly his initial goal.  (Of course the fact that Johnson hurts his marriage is certainly not something he planned on)

The Shining

YES. they save their family by killing the dad.


YES. Miles finds that the way to get the girl is the have the courage to do nothing, waiting for her to re-approach instead of drunk dialing her.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. They catch one only to lose another.

Star Wars

YES. He defeats the bad guys using the technology he learned at home, not by acting like the other pilots.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. he gets his pool, she gets her return to the screen, and Max even gets to direct again, but all in the most ironic ways possible. 

No comments: