Tuesday, December 05, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do the characters refuse or fail to synthesize the meaning of the story?

Meaning must be created in the minds of the audience, not on the page, the stage, or the screen. While it’s tempting to preprocess your conflict and present your finalized synthesis to the audience (to control what their takeaway will be), there’s no point, because they won’t care. 

Modern Family can be an entertaining sitcom—as long as you turn it off two minutes early. At the end of each episode, you have to watch a member of the family come onscreen, look right at you, and point out how all three of that week’s storylines were really about the same big theme and how glad that person is to have learned so much. Any meaning the episode may have generated is quickly slaughtered by this clumsy exegesis.

Compare this to any of the far-superior, documentary-style sitcoms this show mimics, especially the American version of The Office. Boss Michael Scott frequently appears at the end to sum up what meaning has been created by that week’s episode. But he gets it all spectacularly wrong and forces us to do the work.

You need to have the courage to let your audience draw their own meaning, even if that means they might not “get it,” or they might even come to the opposite conclusion you intended.

What were Shakespeare’s politics? In Julius Caesar, did he agree with Brutus or Marc Antony? Does he side with Prince Hal or Falstaff in Henry IV? No one knows. His plays are filled with huge ideological conflicts but few definitive statements. He gives us a thesis and antithesis and leaves the synthesis to us. That’s why he’s immortal.

Rulebook Casefile: Denying Synthesis in An Education
Yesterday, we looked at one reason why the “third act” of An Education is so short: the story isn’t as interesting once Jenny has dumped her con man fiance, and we don’t want to watch her study for her tests.  That works out just fine.  Nobody misses those beats, and the ending is still satisfying.

This was true in Nick Hornby’s script as well, but somewhat less so.  Director Lone Scherfig is extremely faithful to the script overall, but she cuts several exchanges out of the last part of the script, and replaces the last page entirely.  These judicious cuts made the movie much better, and exemplified the importance of not allowing the characters to process the theme.

In the finished film, we end with Jenny, at Oxford, happily riding a bicycle through campus with a boy she seems to be dating, as we hear a voiceover (for the first time in the movie), saying that she tried to forget the whole thing, and one day, when a boy asked her to go to Paris with him, she said yes... “as if I’d never been.”  Fade to black. 

On the last page of the original script, we also have Jenny bicycling through Oxford, but then, one day...

This is way too much closure. What’s so great about the final onscreen ending is that it’s haunting. She never expunges the ghost of David, so he hovers over her whole life. She can pretend that it never happened, but she’ll always know better.

Director Lone Scherfig knew she had a brilliant script  on her hands...but she also knew that the last page blew it, and a better last page would make it a classic. She kept pushing until she found the last page the movie needed.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. He never says what he learned.


YES. She doesn’t say anything about the evils of corporate sovereignty in her final recording.

An Education

YES. The original script contained much more recriminations in the third act, but in the finished film, most of those questions land in the viewer’s lap, which is better.

The Babadook

YES. Her reversible behavior is very subtle.  

Blazing Saddles


Blue Velvet

YES. they never talk about what it all means.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he and Marie don’t discuss it at the end.  


YES. There is no analysis of what she’s learned after the wedding.


Pretty much.  He tries to say what it all means, but that’s just to get her on the plane, he hasn’t really processed the pain yet.


YES. Very much so.  He chooses to “forget about it”

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Donnie literally doesn’t speak again after Lefty is killed.

Do the Right Thing

YES. They do discuss it, but they don’t kill the meaning or settle the dilemma as they do so.  

The Farewell


The Fighter

NO. the epilogue hits it pretty squarely on the head, but that’s fine.  It’s a sports movie.


YES.  There’s not a lot of talk about what it all means.  

The Fugitive

YES. They just barely do it, and that’s fine.  Gerard admits that he did come to care, this one time, but he laughs it off and says “Don’t tell anybody.” There’s no serious rapprochement. 

Get Out

YES. Chris barely speaks in the final third of the movie and won’t talk about what happened to him when Rod rescues him.  

Groundhog Day

YES. He doesn’t go back and figure out what was different about that last day.

How to Train Your Dragon

NO. By knocking Hiccup out for the denouement, we skip the actual rapprochement between the Vikings and the dragons, but there’s still a lot of talk about what it all means.

In a Lonely Place

YES. He synthesizes it in a pat way, but because we saw him coin that phrase before, we suspect that he is only pretending to feel the impact, or that he’s summoned up so many canned feelings for Hollywood that he can’t summon up any raw, authentic feelings anymore.

Iron Man

YES. Stane isn’t mentioned again after he’s killed. 

Lady Bird

NO. she basically synthesizes it. 

Raising Arizona

NO. Nope, he does a lot of synthesizing, at the end and throughout. Even when he doubts his conclusion (about Reagan, for instance) we don’t. 


YES. Max has learned a lot, but he doesn’t want to talk about it much.


Nope.  Both King and Johnson give big speeches summarizing the meaning. 

The Shining

YES. the epilogue was cut.  There is no attempt to process that we see.  Danny doesn’t even speak after the finale begins.


YES. We never hear the final conversation. He doesn’t say what the kid’s essay means to him, etc.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Very much so. We never see them second-guess the value of working with Lecter.

Star Wars

YES. The finale is wordless.

Sunset Boulevard

NO. he returns from the dead to spell it out for us. Wilder was not the type to leave anything unsaid.  

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