The Great Purge, Day 7: The Entire Tone Section!

So here are the facts, people: If we’re going to cut 20 questions, then we need to get drastic. And what could be more drastic than lopping off one of our seven skills?

On trial: The entire “Tone” section of the checklist!

Why it was added: Tone is one of the least-discussed aspects of writing, but it’s one of the most important. Tone is how you control your audience’s overall experience and enjoyment. In some ways, controlling your tone is even more important than having a compelling hero: If your audience loves your tone, you’ve got them where you want them, even if everything else about your story sucks.

Which questions were those again?
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, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
 Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
 Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?

Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
 Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?

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?
 Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Are set-up and pay-offused to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
 Are reversible behaviorsused to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?

Deliberations: So each of these is vitally important, but are they actually useful questions to ask? As I’ve done my checklists, I’ve found these to be some of the most annoying questions to answer. Many of the questions have un-illuminating answers (identifying the genre and sub-genres). Some are phrased so oddly that few stories say yes. Some are phrased so vaguely that few stories can say no.

The verdict: So here’s where I admit something: I’ve already cut this chapter from the book. The book was just too damn long, and a whole chapter needed to go to get the page count down, so I finally just lopped this out in an impetuous moment. But now I have some remorse. For the rest of this project, let’s look for questions we may want to rescue from this section and move to other sections.

But first I’ll open it up to you. How useful is this section to you? If we lose the whole thing, which questions would you miss the most?

The Great Purge, Day 6: If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?

What oh what can we cut from the checklist? Today’s candidate:

On trial: If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?

Why it was added: To be honest, I don’t know. I had written a piece on a “Breaking Bad” scene that was cool, and I wanted an excuse to put it in the book? This is good advice, of course, but is it a useful question to ask when evaluating your work?

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: It’s a small scene.
  • An Education: It’s a pretty simple scene.
  • The Babadook: First: knock her out, then win her over.
  • Blazing Saddles: Give a speech, then get out alive.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes. We become very aware that they have two different types of weapon (sniper rifle vs. shotgun), with different ranges and so therefore they’ll have different tactics in this fight. It’s not just all out shooting and ducking.
  • Bridesmaids: First about drunkenness, then about tail light, then about date.
  • Casablanca: It’s not a big scene, and has one goal.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes. First Donnie must mollify Lefty, then figure out Sonny, then resist him.
  • Do the Right Thing: First, get some free extra cheese, then get some brothers on the wall, then get Buggin’ out of there before violence starts.
  • The Fighter: Introduce Charlene, stand up to family, win him back over.
  • The Fugitive: It’s a small scene.
  • Groundhog Day: First he wants sympathy, then he wants to convince her, then he wants her to leave with him.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Several strategies for confronting the dragon are progressed through.
  • In a Lonely Place: Yes, many.
  • Iron Man: It’s a small scene.
  • Raising Arizona: First they want in, then they want to find out about the baby, then they want to stay.
  • Rushmore: It’s a small scene.
  • The Shining: Yes: fix the stain, find out who’s buying the drinks, pass on role of killer, warn about Halloran.
  • Sideways: No.
  • Silence of the Lambs: The main goals of the questionnaire remains the same, but she progresses through a few hidden goals.
  • Star Wars: Find shelter, locate the tractor beam, go destroy it, convince Luke to stay, search for the princess, convince Han to help.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, first she wants a monkey funeral, and then wants someone to collaborate with.
Deliberations: First of all, there’s nothing wrong with having a small scene, so this doesn’t even apply to many well-written scenes, and even when it does, it’s not a particularly illuminating question.

The verdict: Surely this one can go, right?

The Great Purge, Day 5: Do the characters listen poorly?

Thanks for your help in deciding if these questions should remain in the checklist!

On trial: Do the characters listen poorly?

Why it was added: This is a tricky one. I, personally, love scenes where neither character is listening to others, but my brother says that this is because I, personally, don’t listen to what others are saying. This is possible. Regular reader James Kennedy raised an objection to this one, pointing out that improv teachers teach actors to always listen closely to the other character in order to act better. So which is it?

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, they all keep ignoring each other’s concerns.
  • An Education: Yes.
  • The Babadook: Yes. Davis has a great “not really listening” face.
  • Blazing Saddles: Not really.
  • Blue Velvet: They’re fairly good listeners.
  • The Bourne Identity: Not really, they’re pretty good listeners
  • Bridesmaids: Lillian doesn’t hear that Annie doesn’t want to do it, etc.
  • Casablanca: Yes. Rick keeps asking Sam for advice and then failing to hear it.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes.
  • Do the Right Thing: Very much so.
  • The Fighter: Very much so.
  • The Fugitive: Very much so.
  • Groundhog Day: Yes.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Very much so.
  • In a Lonely Place: Very much so.
  • Iron Man: Very much so. Tony never listens, period.
  • Raising Arizona: Yes.
  • Rushmore: Yes.
  • The Shining: Yes, very much so.
  • Sideways: Very much so.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Sort of, Clarice and Lecter both listen very well, but that’s key to their characters, so it’s fine.
  • Star Wars: Owen and Luke talk past each other, nobody listens to Threepio, etc. 
  • Sunset Boulevard: Very much so. He and Norma never seem to hear a thing the other says.
Deliberations: All but three answer yes, and for many it’s enthusiastic (but for the three that don’t, it’s not a problem.) Obviously, I find this to be important, but is it possible that I’m wrong. If I cut it, is it implied anyway by the surrounding questions?

The verdict: Combine with the following questions to become “Do the characters listen poorly and/or interrupt each other more often than not?”? And/or is there a better way to rephrase it to eliminate James’s objection? What say you: Does listening generally help or hurt a scene/story/perfomance?

The Great Purge, Day 4: Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?

We’re still looking for questions we can snip out of checklist:

On trial: Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?

Why it was added: I think that focusing on tradecraft is important and little-recognized, and it’s one of the most marketable skills a writer-for-hire can have. As I pointed out in the original piece, this is what makes you the “go-to writer” for jobs in your wheelhouse.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, lots of talk about shares, quarantine procedure, etc.
  • An Education: The “stats” scam, for instance.
  • The Babadook: NA. Other than those snippets of dialogue, there’s no real profession being portrayed.
  • Blazing Saddles: Yes. He’s a real sheriff: he puts up wanted posters, dries out drunks in his cells, etc. The rail-laying is also believable.
  • Blue Velvet: No. Almost everybody is an amateur, and the dialogue is oddly stylized.
  • The Bourne Identity: Very much so.
  • Bridesmaids: Not really. Professions don’t play a big role in this movie.
  • Casablanca: Yes, for each profession: “Round up the usual suspects.”
  • Donnie Brasco: Very much so, the difference between friend of mine / friend of ours, etc.
  • Do the Right Thing: Not really. We don’t learn very much about the pizza business here.
  • The Fighter: Very much so. “Stepping-stone” “Head-body-head” etc.
  • The Fugitive: Very much so, with both doctors and marshals.
  • Groundhog Day: Yes, we see how travel weather segments are produced and how “the talent” is managed. It all feels right.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Believably re-creates the feeling of basic training.
  • In a Lonely Place: Yes, in many ways. For example: Dix’s monologue about how the breakfast scene is the ideal love scene, not suspecting that she no longer loves him, shows how the false omniscience of the screenwriter has blinded him to reality.
  • Iron Man: A good portrayal of how research and development of new technology actually works, and how corporate takeovers happen.
  • Raising Arizona: Somewhat: committing crimes with an unloaded gun because the sentences are so much shorter, banks putting in paint packets, etc.
  • Rushmore: Max’s expertise in theatre, caligraphy, etc
  • The Shining: Yes, a long description of the duties of caretakers.
  • Sideways: Of the vineyards, yes.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Very much so. This is a masterclass in FBI techniques.
  • Star Wars: Good smuggling tradecraft. Believable structure of the rebellion (hiding behind the cover of a phony diplomatic mission, etc.)
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, very much so.
Deliberations: It’s useful for some movies but very un-useful on a lot of others. This is one of those questions that I sigh when I get to and find myself twisting the material to answer it if it doesn’t seem to fit the movie. (Does Blazing Saddles really capture the tradecraft of track laying or sheriffing, and does it matter?) Nevertheless, this is a good thing to keep in mind, and it elicited some interesting answers. I think I have a solution:

The verdict: Combine it with the previous question to become “Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?”

The Great Purge, Day 3: Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?

Hi guys. Once again, we’re working our way through the Checklist trying to cut out twenty questions, which is proving to be pretty hard. Today’s candidate:

On trial: Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?

Why it was added: It’s tricky. I never set out to craft an entirely new structure. At first I was just tweaking others’ models, and this is one step that appeared in others’ lists that I agreed with, so I didn’t give it much thought.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, we enjoy the gory deaths, the creeping dread and final reveal of the creature.
  • An Education: Very much so. They have delightful trips to Oxford and Paris.
  • The Babadook: We get traditional horror movie things: the book shows back up, scary phone calls. The Babadook is toying with his prey.
  • Blazing Saddles: He enjoys bamboozling them, and makes a friend in the Waco Kid.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, he enjoys his voyeurism, and even gets to have sex with his target.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, he discovers what a badass fighter and driver he is.
  • Bridesmaids: Bridesmaids bond somewhat.
  • Casablanca: Not Rick, who’s miserable, but we do get a long flashback to happier times here, so the audience gets some relief from Rick’s misery.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes. Has a lot of amusing conversations, bonds with Lefty, feeds the lion.
  • Do the Right Thing: Yes, he has fun with Vito, Senor Love Daddy, etc.
  • The Fighter: They have a strong relationship.
  • The Fugitive: Just a little tiny bit, when he jokes with the cop in the first hospital “Every time I look in the mirror, pal”
  • Groundhog Day: He gets in car chases, steals money, seduces his boss.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Loves first flight with the dragon.
  • In a Lonely Place: The hero has some fun, but the concept remains vague and we get no genre thrills.
  • Iron Man: He loves flying around with the armor.
  • Raising Arizona: They love having the kid.
  • Rushmore :He has a lot of fun. His Serpico play is hilarious.
  • The Shining: In horror movies, it’s usually the villain who has fun at this point (which the audience enjoys and the heroes hate) but this is more like a standard movie: Jack seems to do well here, (but we later find out he was faking it all). Danny definitely has fun here, big wheeling around and going through maze is fun for both he and Wendy.
  • Sideways: Not at this point, but it happens in the first and third quarter, with lots of beautiful driving and drinking montages.
  • Silence of the Lambs: She flirts with moth guys, shows some people up, seems to get good value out of Lecter.
  • Star Wars: Fun lightspeed effect, actual fun and games with chess game, lightsaber practice.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, as in a horror film, the villain has fun instead of the hero, and the audience enjoys that.
Deliberations: It’s tough! Those are some pretty illuminating answers, and this is definitely a big step that almost every story needs to hit, but if I keep it, the problem isn’t just that it’s too similar to others’ lists, it’s that my structure is “human nature” based: These are “the steps and missteps we all go through when solving large problems.” But this one is the only one explicitly cites market demands, so it doesn’t fit. So what do I do? Can I re-conceive it or rephrase the question to eliminate the problem? Or should I just cut it?

The verdict: I don’t know. It doesn’t fit but I’m loath to cut it. I leave it up to you! What do I do?

The Great Purge, Day 2: Character decisions driving the plot, rather than plot

Hi guys. Once again, we’re trying to cut the 140 checklist questions down to 120. On trial today is a question from the Structure section: By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?

Why it was added: It’s good advice.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: No, there are still plot complications.
  • An Education: There’s a big plot reveal coming, but it feels like a character beat. She knew, deep down.
  • The Babadook: Yes and no. In horror the two are hard to tell apart.
  • Blazing Saddles: Yes.
  • Blue Velvet: To a certain extent, but this is one of those risky “character motivates, plot complicates” movies, so there’s more plot revealed in the second half than in the first half.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, there are no more plot elements introduced. The only surprise is a character surprise: why he didn’t kill Wombosi.
  • Bridesmaids: Yes.
  • Casablanca: Yes, there are no more surprises for Rick, now it’s his turn to surprise everybody else.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes. The ABSCAM screw-up is somewhat external, but it never drives the story.
  • Do the Right Thing: Yes.
  • The Fighter: Very much so.
  • The Fugitive: Yes, now he’s planning and driving the narrative, instead of just reacting.
  • Groundhog Day: Yes.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Yes.
  • In a Lonely Place: Yes. There is an outside plot development, the real killer’s confession, but it’s meaningless in light of the character complications.
  • Iron Man: Yes.
  • Raising Arizona: Somewhat. There are more character complications now, but there’s still lots of plot.
  • Rushmore: Yes.
  • The Shining: Well, that depends on whether you see the visions as real or not.
  • Sideways: Except for the bizarre but hilarious interlude with the waitress and her husband.
  • Silence of the Lambs: No new victims are taken.
  • Star Wars: Not really. This is a plot-packed movie.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, but there is one remaining plot issue involving the fact that Paramount wants to rent the car.
Deliberations: I don’t find these answers to be particularly illuminating. The real problem with this question is that it’s repetitive: If you do all of the other steps in the structure (spiritual crisis, etc.) then this will pretty much automatically happen.

The verdict: I think it should go.  Feel free to speak up if any of you have found it useful, or if you would miss it.

The Great Purge, Day 1: Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?

So we have a robust checklist for improving any manuscript, but it’s just too much. 140 questions is a lot, and some of the questions have turned out to be less helpful over the years, and the book needs to be shorter, so it’s time for the great purge! I’ll be nominating more than 20 questions to cut, with pros and cons for each one!

On trial: Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?

Why it was added: I wanted to remind writers that wild-and-crazy ideas were rarely as good as stories that started with classic templates and add one unique spin.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, the haunted house movie done on a space freighter.
  • Babadook: The haunted hause / demonic possession movie.
  • Blazing Saddles: Very much so: the appointed sheriff in a overrun western town was a classic subgenre, but this is a very new twist.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, an amateur detective story where the amateur is driven by impure motives.
  • Bourne Identity: Yes, a spy story but the spy is trying to solve the mystery of who he is and what his mission is.
  • Bridesmaids: A raunchy wedding-party comedy focused on the bridesmaids for once.
  • Casablanca: Yes, the forbidden love romance with Nazis thrown in.
  • Do the Right Thing: Sort of: The day-in-the-life-of-a-city genre had died out fifty years earlier, but this revived it with a new perspective.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes. Reverses the usual undercover story.
  • Education: Not much of a twist. Just a very classic coming of age cautionary tale, but exceptionally well done.
  • Fighter: Yes, a mix of boxing movie, crack movie, and family drama. But funny.
  • Fugitive: It’s not much of a twist, just an exceptionally good version of a very classic thriller template.
  • Groundhog Day: The “guy has to grow up and move on to the next stage of his life” romantic comedy gets a supernatural twist.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: No, that’s pretty damn original. It has elements of the war movie, the gladiator movie, the coming-of-age movie, etc., but it’s really something pretty new.
  • In a Lonely Place: It’s a “falsely accused” movie in which the accused doesn’t care to clear his name, and is guilty in his heart.
  • Iron Man: A superhero origin but he’s a cocky middle-aged asshole instead of a young do-gooder.
  • Raising Arizona: A zanier and sweeter rich-man’s-baby-gets-taken story.
  • Rushmore: Yes, the love triangle.
  • Shining: Yes, a non-gothic haunted house movie.
  • Sideways: No.
  • Silence of the Lambs: The serial killer hunt, but with another serial killer helping
  • Star Wars: A fairy tale in outer space.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Not really, it’s pretty original: part comedy, party noir, part satire.
Deliberations: Five movies say no, and it’s interesting (to me) to focus on how that makes them different from the other movies, but none of these examples suffers from saying no, and indeed I doubt many stories would. Ultimately this is more of an interesting tendency, rather than a standard to hold oneself to. Ultimately, if this is a rule that it rarely hurts to break, I think we can safely cut it.

Verdict: It’s out!