Connect Care Commit: The Silence of the Lambs

Why it might be hard to identify with Clarice:
  • No reason. She’s very easy to identify with.
  • She moves through several layers of FBI headquarters and it’s a very convincing world. Lecter notes many oddly specific things about her. He sniffs her and says, “Sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps, but not today.”
  • We feel for her when she has to ride in an elevator where everybody is taller than her, then when she’s ushered out of a room where they’re discussing Buffalo Bill. Chilton hits on her, humiliating her. She realizes that she’s been chosen because of her looks. Lecter insults her in lots of ways.
  • She runs past signs that say Hurt, Agony, Pain, Love It, which is pretty bad-ass. We admire that she stands up to Crawford and Chilton in little ways. We admire her for doing a good job sparring with Lecter. Lecter calls her slippery, which is a nice compliment. We admire her for admitting what Miggs said to her.
Five Es
  • Eat: Never
  • Exercise: She’s running through a rigorous ropes course when we first meet her.
  • Economic Activity: She’s never not working.
  • Enjoy: Not really. She seems to enjoy her work well enough, but she’s pretty serious about it.
  • Emulate: She’s trying to act like an experienced FBI agent.
Rise above
  • She’ll break orders halfway in, but only so that she can do her job better than her boss.
High five a black guy:
  • She does indeed high five a black girl we rarely see again. (We find out in the deleted scenes that it’s her roommate)
  • “You grilled me pretty hard on the Bureau’s civil right record in the Hoover years.”

The Silence of the Lambs: The Archive

A perfect movie...

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Don’t Let it Write Itself

The checklist for Silence of the Lambs has been rewritten for version 5 and reposted in the new format, so let’s look at another rule hidden in this movie...
The scene where Clarice meets Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is a masterpiece of tense and compelling scenework. To understand how great it is, we must remind ourselves of just how weird it is.

Let’s imagine some of the more traditional ways this scene could have gone. An FBI rookie is searching for a serial killer on the loose, so she interviews an imprisoned serial killer to see if he has any tips. The scene needs to be tense and compelling, with a ticking clock, right? Here are the obvious ways to do that…
  • The killer is angry, resentful and threatening.
  • He refuses to participate, forcing her to push and push to get through to him.
  • He doesn’t want her there and keeps demanding that the guards take her away, but she keeps pleading with the guards for more time with him.
That makes for a pretty tense scene right? It writes itself! And it’s probably pretty realistic, too, so that’s even better. But what if we skip over all the obvious sources of tension, ignore the most likely real-life scenario, and instead imagine something totally unexpected?
  • This killer is calm, witty and sophisticated.
  • He’s happy to have someone to talk to, provided that she’s smart enough to verbally spar with him
  • We get an entirely different type of ticking clock: She’s told in advance that he’ll talk as long as possible …until he gets bored. This might seem to be less of a problem than open belligerence, but it turns out to be far more threatening, because she has no choice but to play his games and submit to his interrogations in order to maintain his interest long enough to get some tips.
This is totally counterintuitive, but it works much better. The result may be less realistic, but it’s far more entertaining, fresh, and creepy.

In the DVD extras, Hopkins arrogantly says that no American actor could have played Lecter, because Americans are trained to make their characters organic and understandable, whereas British actors are willing to create characters externally, concerned more with the audience’s psychology than their own. His Lecter is essentially an inhuman devil: we’re not getting inside his head, he’s getting in ours.

To write this sort of scene, you can start with the question, “How would I feel if I’d been locked up for so long?”, which is fine, but it can also work to simply approach the scene externally, asking, “What sort of human monster have we never seen before? How can I create a scene that’s scary in an entirely different way from what the audience would suspect?”

Crucially, Lecter remains three-dimensional and believable, because (novelist) Harris, (screenwriter) Tally, and (actor) Hopkins have given him a clear (albeit demonic) internal logic, but he’s not a character that you would arrive at by putting yourself in this situation, or even by reading the literature on typical serial killers. This story doesn’t “write itself”, because Lecter is an entirely original creation.

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Un-Selfless Motivation in Silence of the Lambs

In order to test the new checklist before I posted it, I re-submitted the movies I had already evaluated with the old checklist to the new one. I’ll be updating those old posts for a while, and doing quick highlights here of how they answered one of the new questions.

One addition to the checklist is that the hero’s primary motivation for at least the first half of the story should not be selfless. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is a straight-up stand-up-and-cheer hero, and audiences love her unreservedly, but, like real heroes, she’s far from selfless.

She’s not a pro bono volunteer at the FBI, it’s her career, and there’s no doubt what her motivation is for most of the movie: advancement. She follows instructions to the letter, lets her boss hold her back or spur her forward, and genuinely respects him. She doesn’t burn with rage at “technicalities”, or society’s failings, or the thought of “injustice” as an abstract concept.

This was especially notable because there had been a lot of cop movies in the previous twenty years in which the cop was advised to think about his career, only to angrily retort that this wasn’t about his career, dammit, this was about the victims! Clarice feels for the victim, but she doesn’t pretend that she’s the only one who does, and she clearly knows that the victim’s loved ones must be kept away from a case with a ten foot pole, because they’ll just screw everything up.

And now, without further ado, check out lots more new answers like this one here

Rulebook Casefile: Conflict-Driven Exposition in Silence of the Lambs

Silence of the Lambs Week Concludes!
Adapting a book is always tough.  In a book, it’s easy to tell us what the characters already know without using dialogue: Just use first-person or omniscient narration.  But in a movie, the only way for the audience to learn what the characters know is to force them to say it out loud.

In Silence of the Lambs, there are lots of scenes where the boss, Crawford, and his trainee, Clarice, are relying on knowledge that they both share, but screenwriter Ted Tally has to somehow explain to the audience what they’re doing.

Obviously, the worst way to do these scenes would be to have them trade off insights interchangeably.  You see scenes like that all the time on the dreadful TV knock-off of this movie, “Criminal Minds.”

A slightly better way to do it would be to simply have Crawford tell Clarice all this information and instruction for the first time, catching her up on the fly, since, after all, she’s still a beginner.  That would be more believable, but it would cause three big problems:
  • We would suspect that Clarice must already know most of the stuff he’s saying: the dreaded “as you know” scene.
  • Those scenes would have no conflict: they would be “listen and accept” scenes, which is the lowest level of scenework.
  • We would lose sympathy for Clarice and be drawn to her boss.  We would start to wonder, “why isn’t the movie about him?
Tally’s brilliant solution is to turn this case into sort of a final exam for Clarice.  Crawford keeps quizzing her about the facts of the case, what the standard procedure would be, and what she thinks they should do next.  This is better in several ways:
  • They now have a good reason to say the stuff out loud, even though they both already know it.
  • There’s conflict: Will she pass the test?  Will she keep the respect of her tough boss?
  • We’re impressed by Clarice, and trust her to solve the case if her boss can’t, which turns out to be the case.
Part of what makes this work is that Tally only uses this method to tell us what we really need to know.  By contrast, when our heroes examine a body that’s been in a river for weeks, we see them rub weird white paste under their nose before they carve it open.
This isn’t explained, but we can guess that this is to counteract the smell.  Whenever possible, Tally lets us play catch-up...He reserves his neat little “final exam” trick for those times when we need the characters to narrate what they’re doing.)

Rulebook Casefile: Manipulating the Plot to Empower the Rookie in Silence of the Lambs

Silence of the Lambs Week Continues!
As I discussed before, focusing your story on a rookie has benefits and liabilities.

On the one hand, we’ll identify more with the hero, since we, too, have just jumped up to our neck into this world—She needs to hear a lot of the same exposition that we need to hear, so sitting on her shoulder is a good place for us to be.   She’ll also be more of an underdog, and less powerful, increasing our fear for her, and making it more of a triumph if she succeeds.

But, on the other hand, it’s easy for an audience to get exasperated with a rookie.  We always want to root for the person who’s most qualified to solve the problem-- if she has a smarter boss, why aren’t we rooting for him? And how can we agonize over her decisions if she’s not the one with the final decision-making power?  The more high-stakes things get, the more likely it is that she’ll have to simply hand-off the problem, which would be a huge anti-climax.

Each of these questions could be dealt with by making Clarice more of a “renegade”: “Put me in charge, boss!  You’ll see that I’m as smart as you and you can trust me to make my own decisions!” Or:  “You’re wrong, boss, and here’s my badge!  I’m going solo and I’m going to solve this problem on my own!”

But this isn’t that type of movie, thankfully, and it doesn’t have to be.  Instead, Ted Tally subtly tweaks the plot in many different ways to create the right circumstances-- The character doesn’t put herself in charge, the plot puts her in charge:
  • Why send a rookie to talk to Lecter?  He’ll only talk one-on-one, won’t talk to Crawford anymore, and has a weakness for pretty young women.  Besides, it’s just a longshot—they don’t seriously suspect that he knows anything about Buffalo Bill.
  • But what about once the FBI knows that Lecter knows something?  It’s too late to sub out a full-fledged agent, because Lecter has unexpectedly formed a bond with Clarice.  Now they have to trust the rookie with this huge responsibility.
  • But what about after the big escalation, when Bill takes a Senator’s daughter, surely they won’t leave a rookie in charge now?  Indeed, they take her off the case, and Lecter gives a name to the Senator, but only Clarice realizes that it’s a fake, so now she’s effectively leading the investigation.
  • Finally, the big question for any thriller: why does she go into the finale alone with no back-up?  Because she had no idea he might be there—she thought she just was going to interview a potential witness.
  • Why are we sure her boss isn’t going to bring the cavalry?  Because he and the main team are two states away following a false lead.
The casual viewer does not notice any of these manipulations.  It just seems natural that Clarice solves the case, because Tally has anticipated those five questions, and subtly taken them off the table before the viewer ever gets a chance to ask them. But if he hadn’t done that work, we would get annoyed by each one, constantly saying, “I don’t buy it.”

Storyteller’s Rulebook #180: Don’t Call Attention to Your Structure

Silence of the Lambs week continues!
The two-disk DVD of Silence of the Lambs features an amazing collection of special features—it’s basically a film school in a box.

It includes not only deleted scenes, but every linedeleted from the remaining scenes, which is highly instructive when it comes to trimming screenplays down and keeping things moving.  The editor is constantly snipping off the ending lines that would have provided a little “button” for each scene…But of course life is a lot more unpredictable and dangerous when things get unbuttoned.

The finished movie is exactly two hours, which was obviously the producer-mandated length.  If Demme hadn’t gone through and ruthlessly cut out every slack line and scene, it would have been 2:20, the standard length for today’s flabby, lifeless blockbusters—strong evidence that the tyranny of the “director’s cut” has ruined Hollywood’s ability to tell stories.

Especially instructive are the two cut scenes that were obviously intended to provide a “launch into act three”.  After Lecter escapes, the angry director of the FBI (played by Demme’s old mentor, Roger Corman) calls our heroes into his office where he summarily fires Crawford and kicks Clarice out of the Academy.  As they leave, Clarice says to Crawford that she’s now sure that the killer must be in Ohio, and she’s going to go there and find him, save the day, and get them their jobs back.
These scenes were still in the movie for the early test screenings, but William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, Princess Bride, Misery) attended one of those screenings and implored Demme to cut them.  Luckily, Demme knew that he should take the advice of his fans: he chopped them out and never looked back.

Yes, it was vitally important to shift into proactivity and create a finale in which Clarice was the only one who could solve the problem, but she shouldn’t have to announce it!  The audience should feel the structure, not see it.

If you’ve done your job right, the audience will get frustrated and think to themselves, “Dammit, the Feds are totally screwing this up!  It’s all up to Clarice now!” But if you actually force Clarice to say out loud: “My bosses are screwing this up!  It’s all up to me now!”, then that’s an admission of defeat on your part.

Tomorrow: How to empower a less-than-cocky rookie.

Straying From the Party Line: The Lack of Closure in Silence of the Lambs

Just a short entry today, because Silence of the Lambs comforms to this checklist better than any other movie I’ve ever tested.  The one area that sticks out is one that also stuck out last time:
  • Deviation: The strands of the movie never come together.
  • The Potential Problem: As Jonathan Demme mentions in the DVD doc, he was really afraid that the audience would get antsy that we abandon Clarice for a long time while Lecter makes his escape.  By the same token, it’s odd that Lecter disappears from the story after his escape, and never gets an showdown with Clarice. 
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? In fact, it would have been easy to put Clarice at the escape, and one can imagine a version in which Clarice is the first to figure out what Lecter has actually done, and she’s the one who tries to warn the ambulance driver, a moment too late.  Presumably the only reason that they didn’t do this was that they wanted to stay true to the book.  In the end, it might have smoothed out the movie slightly, but it’s not really a problem.  
  • By contrast, one can also imagine a version of the movie in which Lecter comes after Clarice, possibly even converging on Bill’s house at the same time, but that clearly would have been a much weaker choice.  The lack of closure between Clarice and Lecter is “unsatisfying” in the best way, leaving us shocked, impressed by the movie’s audacity, and unsettled about the problem of evil.  The only advantage would be that there wouldn’t have been a craving for the (inevitably disappointing) sequel. 
But, wait, before we move on to the next checklist, I’ve got more to say about neat tricks I admired while re-watching this movie, so let’s turn this into a Silence of the Lambs week! Tomorrow: Not calling attention to your structure...

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Silence of the Lambs

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Ambitious FBI trainee Clarice Starling is asked by her boss Jack Crawford to interview the infamous serial killer Hannibal Lecter, in hopes that he can help them catch a new killer nick-named “Buffalo Bill”. Lecter detects that Clarice is ashamed of her rural past, so he insists of psycho-analyzing her in return for his help. At first Clarice simply lies to Lecter but her lies are exposed by petty asylum director Frederick Chilton. Forced to tell Lecter everything, Clarice confronts her own past, which helps her track down and kill Bill, but Lecter escapes in the process.
PART #1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 An ambitious FBI rookie must work with a devious imprisoned serial killer to rescue a Senator’s daughter.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 The only way to catch one serial killer is to work with another.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
We’ve all felt that we must accept injustice to get ahead at work.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 We understand the problems and goals quickly.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
We zip through a lot of time, have little “downtime”
Does the story present a unique relationship?
FBI and serial killer working together.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Chilton, plus Lecter, plus Bill
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
She’s been hoping for such an opportunity and living in fear of having her past revealed.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Lecter is determined to get a reaction out of her, and does.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
She really doesn’t want to talk about her past.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Only she is pushing hard on Lecter angle.  In the end, everyone else is in Illinois.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 She finds and kills Bill. The lambs have stopped screaming.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 There are only a few scenes of physical danger, but they’re exciting enough to satisfy all urges.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
The death’s head moth, the pit, the face mask
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The escape, the fava beans, the pit, the dress-up session
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
The escape
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Mostly. They marketing did hint at the escape.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
But just barely. The story couldn’t have sustained our interest very long without Lecter.
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
An out-of-character moment of vanity: corrects Crawford on her grade. Kind: she reminds him that she confronted him about the bureau’s record on race.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Sort of. Backstory plays a big part.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Ambitious, plucky rookie.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Has strengths and weakness that others can’t see.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
West Virginia, says “sir” a lot.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Listens closely, picks apart holes in your story, uses your own argument against you.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Career advancement
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
Advice given by Crawford: Don’t let him get into your head.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Not really. She’s naïve in her initial treatment of Lecter, but she understands the size and nature of her goal immediately.  Her eyes are on the same ultimate goal in every scene.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: That she’s not good enough. Hidden: That she’s a hick.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
She’s small and emotionally wounded.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
She’s too humble, too much in denial about her past.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
She listens and looks closely, thinks in new ways.
Is the hero curious?
Peeks at the Buffalo Bill before she gets the case.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Uses her car jack to get into the garage, etc.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Be humble, work hard, get ahead
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Everybody else is far more proud and arrogant.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Stands up for herself in a humble but definite way.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
She’s literally running, jumping and climbing trees!
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Not really, she’s just a rookie, so the plot keeps contriving ways to keep her on the case, and that’s fine.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Knowledge of dress-making, knowledge of how small town people think.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
Intimidated in elevator with tall agents, annoyed when the door is shut in her face when she peeks in on the Bill investigation.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
See above, also creepy Chilton hits on her and dismisses her, Lecter sees through her, another inmate throws something
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
Thinks Lecter knows more than he lets on.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Sort of: has mini-breakdown in the parking lot after interviewing Lecter, but quickly recovers and charges ahead.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
Follows up on Lecter’s clues.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Yes, with Chilton and others.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
She lies to Lecter to get him to talk, doesn’t reveal much about herself.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
She flirts with moth guys, shows some people up, seems to get good value out of Lecter, brags to roommate that it’s going well.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
Her lies are revealed and she’s taken off the case. Lecter is moved from safe cell to unsecure location.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
She tells Lecter everything about her past
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
She discovers that Chilton is even worse than she thought and Lecter had secret plans. She also learns to trust Crawford, despite his toughness and possible sexism.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
They’re running out of time, in danger of being fired.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
See above.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Lecter’s escape questions whether it was worth it to work with him.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Quid pro quo: you have to make yourself vulnerable in order to understand evil.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 She’s on the right trail, but that trail has gone cold.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Goes to Ohio by herself.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 She thinks she’s visiting a witness, but she discovers Bill, without a chance to prepare.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
No, just Clarice, Bill and the captive are there, not Crawford or Lecter, but that’s fine.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Symbolically: girl who’s about to be skinned stops screaming.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 She says lambs stopped screaming.
PART #4: SCENEWORK (Random Example: Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.) 18/20
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 She was prepared to meet a monster, not the erudite man she meets. But she also expected to be able to keep him out of her head, which turns out to be a false expectation.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it begins at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Very intimidating. It would seem that they would be still, but he chooses to stand, so she does too, then he forces her to approach to an unsafe distance. (close enough for him to see on her badge that she’s a trainee, close enough for him to smell her perfume and judge her on it)
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
No, both welcome the conversation and have nothing better to do.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Miegs, her bag and shoes, Florence
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 She’s been warned that he bores quickly, and that she should get out as soon as possible.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Both, far more than either expects, but neither will admit it.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We want her to get Lecter to do what she wants, and to get clues about Bill.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Very much so. She wants info on Bill, he wants to get out of prison.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface conflict is over the questionnaire, suppressed is over Bill, Crawford, his desires
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Somewhat, but he also keeps blatantly mentioning each item.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Very much so, but they each call each on various things the other is hiding.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 She tries to use his own words to trap him into filling out form, he tricks and traps her many times.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 He makes her come closer. They can’t touch, but he smells her, which feels even more invasive.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 The questionnaire is violently shoved back and forth through the slot.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Yes, she admits facts about herself and admits that this is about Bill. He changes his mind at the very end of the scene and decides gives her a tip.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 She gets what she wants by giving in rather than standing her ground.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: What is Lecter like? Where did Bill come from? Will he help her? New: Who is Ms. Mofet? Were Lecter’s guesses about Clarice true?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Implied: it cuts out early on a cryptic comment.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 We are left with a hope that Lecter’s info will advance Sterling’s career. (I’m not sure that we’re really afraid yet of what he’ll do to her. It still seems like she can outsmart him at this point.)
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Even the small town officials who annoy the FBI. Even Lecter’s guards.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Very much so.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Nobody ever says “This is about the victim, dammit!” Lecter and Bill pursue their own pleasure, not “evil” or Satan or “darkness”.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Yes, Clarice is very professional about playing her cards close to the chest in her dealing with victim’s families and other lawmen.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Sort of, Clarice and Lecter both listen very well, but that’s key to their characters, so it’s fine.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
 Jargon of the FBI, the prison, the transsexual center, etc. This is a masterclass in FBI techniques.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Lecter: posh (a nice Chianti), Default personality trait: Lecter: sang froid, witty, gentle Chilton: sleazy, thin-skinned, Argument strategy: Lecter: memorizing everything you said, identifying discrepancies, flattery, then using that to hold you a higher strategy. Crawford, remain silent, force you to talk.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Everything is very clipped.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 The bug guys, for instance.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Somewhat. Our main pair speaks rather formally. There’s lots of “Clarice” and “Dr. Lecter.”
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 …but two of the main characters, Crawford and Lecter, are professors, so they get away with it.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
The characters are all 3D.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Very much so: the lambs scene.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Very much so.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, the big “Lambs” scene.
PART #6: TONE 9/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Serial killer, FBI
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Bill is caught, but Lecter gets away.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Sprightly, not-gritty, smart, with a slight edge of black comedy.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Can they catch Bill in three days before he kills again?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Lecter, Chilton and Crawford all share her interest in criminal psychology. Which will she end up like?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 The slow reveals of Bill’s house, Lecter’s escape plan coming together scene by scene (such as when he takes the pen).
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Failing the door check in practice, then getting it right in the field. At the end, she says the lambs have stopped screaming.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Girl is rescued, lambs stop screaming.
PART 7: THEME 12/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Evil vs. evil: empower one killer to stop another.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Not really. Nobody ever talks about the moral dilemma behind what they’re doing, which is fine.
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Is it okay to lie to Lecter? Okay to tell him anything? Even Bill has to choose between his losing his dog or losing his kill.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Somewhat. Despite all the realistic tradecraft, both Lecter and Bill turn out to be pretty unrealistic serial killers. This portrait of evil is more of a manifestation of ‘80s-era prejudices against other things (psychiatrists, transsexuals) than a realistic portrait of psychopathy. 
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Yes, it’s a very well-observed portrayal of life at the FBI and small-town life.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Echoes of Bundy and other cases.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 It respects the horror of those cases.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Lecter escapes as a result, for instance.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Moths representing transformation, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 The death’s head moth, the dog, the pen, the survey, the drawings, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 It’s implied that it was probably worth it, (maybe it would have felt very different if we ended on Lecter killing an innocent family, for instance)
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 They catch one only to lose another.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Lecter remains free, and we never fully understand the mechanics of his escape.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Very much so. We never see them second-guess the value of working with Lecter.
Final Score: 110 out of 122

Storyteller’s Rulebook #:133 Tough Decisions Must Have Tough Consequences

There are still lots of questions on the checklist with nothing to link to, so I’ll be periodically filling those in.

Is Lethal Weapon 2 the worst movie ever made?  Maybe, but I can say with certainty that it’s the most infuriating movie I’ve ever seen.

The villains are evil, snarling, Apartheid-loving South African drug dealers, but no matter how many people they kill, the police chief keeps snarling to Mel and Danny: “Forget it, guys, they have diplomatic immunity, there’s nothing we can do about it!  If you touch a hair on their head, I’ll have your badge!”

What a predicament!  How will our cops figure out a clever way around this conundrum?  Well, they don’t: they finally just get fed up and say “Screw it!”  They barge into the bad guys’ place and begin a raging gun battle.  Oh no, what will the consequences be for our heroes??  Answer: nothing.  They eventually call in back-up, the police arrive to help and then they all stand up and cheer together.

A similar recent example was Taken, in which Liam Neeson wants his daughter back so badly that he’s willing to do anything... He even shoots the Paris police chief’s wife and then refuses her treatment until the chief tells him the whereabouts of the bad guys!  Wow, he’s willing to throw his own freedom away in order to save his daughter! 

Except not.  Here’s how naïve I was: I genuinely expected the movie to end with Neeson in prison, getting a visit from his daughter, and assuring her that it’s all worth it if she’s okay.  Nope, it ends with Neeson happily flying home with his daughter without a care in the world.   Um… How does that work?

Now don’t get me wrong, I realize that a lot of people love these movies just as they are, and they wouldn’t be happy to see our heroes sitting in jail at the end, but nobody’s proud of themselves for loving these movies.  They get their adrenaline pumped, but when the credits roll, the taste of joy has already started to turn sour in their mouths.  They know it doesn’t really make any sense. 

As I mentioned here, two thrillers that have stood the test of time did a much better job with this: the economy gets wrecked in Jaws, and Lechter escapes in Silence of the Lambs.  Our heroes have made painful choices and must live with the grave consequences of the risks they took.   

One of the best movies of last year (which I totally forgot about by the time I did my “best of” list) was Win Win.  We’ve seen a million movies about lawyers who skirt ethical issues, then have to come clean, only to find some dubious cop-out at the end that allows them to keep their practice, so I was deeply gratified to see the final shot of this movie, which respected our intelligence and showed some real-world consequences.