Superbad: A Masterclass in Ruining Your Hero's Life
Updated: Feb 8
What is a story without conflict? Who is a protagonist without a mountain of adversity to climb that seems determined to beat them down at every opportunity?
The answer is nothing. Without a character wanting something, being prevented from getting it, there is no story. Only situation.
The antagonist doesn’t need to be tangible, the stakes don’t have to be life and death, but there does need to be hurdles that prevent your hero from getting the thing they want the most. Hurdles that require your character to leave their comfort zone, and learn a lesson, in order to prevail. How else can your hero rise victorious like a phoenix from the ashes if everything is plain sailing?
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all stories, but for the vast majority it will.
So, how do we give our protagonist these hurdles? We RUIN THEIR LIFE.
You might be wondering how this relates to the 2007 movie, Superbad, written by our favourite stoner, Seth Rogen, and his childhood friend, Evan Goldberg.
It might seem unlikely, but Superbad is a great example of a perfectly written script. It is a veritable Masterclass in stopping your hero from getting the thing they want in ways that continuously raise the stakes.
This movie knows exactly what it is. It has caper after caper flowing organically from the last, and it closes every plot thread it raises, perfectly resolving the A-plot in the process.
Ruining your protagonist’s life is the simplest way to keep them compelling, even when they’re not so likable. If you can keep throwing curveballs, be they from an antagonist, or as in the case of Superbad, from the hero’s own stupidity, you will keep your story moving forward. The best rewards are those that are hard won, so we want to make things as difficult as possible.
To many people this might seem easier said than done, but it’s actually very simple. So, to better understand how this works, let’s take a look at how Superbad creates conflict and stakes for its heroes.
ACT ONE - THE SET UP
Protagonist, Seth, and his awkward best-friend, Evan, are about to graduate high school and want to be ‘good at sex’ before they head off to college in the Fall.
Seth believes the way to do this is to get Jules and Becka, he and Evan’s respective crushes, to fall in love with them and make them their summer girlfriends.
All they need is a plan to get the girls to notice them…
The Call to Action
Seth learns Jules is having a party, but she doesn’t know how to get alcohol for it.
However, as luck would have it, Fogel, Seth and Evan’s dipshit friend, just happens to be getting a fake ID that very same day.
Seth, in all his genius, claims he can get the booze for the party, believing this is the perfect plan to trick Jules into being his summer girlfriend. Jules agrees, and gives Seth money along with a list of alcohol he should get for the party.
In an attempt to ingratiate himself with Becka, Evan offers to buy her alcohol for the party too, and she requests for him to get her Goldschläger.
The boys now have a clear mission - GET BOOZE FOR THE PARTY!
ACT TWO - THE GAMBIT(/S)
Seth and Evan go to meet Fogel after school. However, in typical dipshit fashion, they find Fogel has put a ‘stupid fucking made-up name’ on his fake ID, which presents them with their first problem.
Surely, no cashier is going to accept this obviously fake ID. Now what?
During this interaction, Fogel tries to discuss he and Evan’s College rooming situation, and we learn that Evan is keeping a secret from Seth. Foreshadowing for later in the story.
Solution to Problem One
After a failed attempt to buy booze from a big box store, Seth reverts to his original plan of forcing Fogel to use the fake ID at a Liquor Store, despite his certainty that it will fail.
Somehow, the fake ID is accepted, only for a masked man to punch out Fogel and rob the store - prompting the cashier to call the cops!
Problem Two (set up of B-Plot)
The cops arrive at the store, and none-the-wiser to the robbery that just occurred, Seth and Evan assume Fogel is the one being arrested.
Worried their plan will be ruined, Seth starts panicking, while Evan worries about what will happen to Fogel.
Lucky for Fogel, the cops are cool and agree to drive him to his destination with the booze, which sets up the story’s B-Plot.
Meanwhile, Seth and Evan, still panicking about the plan, continue to argue in the parking lot but are interrupted when Seth is hit by a car.
Solution to Problem Two
When the Driver hops out of the car, he tells Seth and Evan he is driving on a suspended license and begs them not to report the incident.
Seeing this as leverage, Seth tries to shake the Driver down to buy them booze, unfortunately this is a dead end because the Driver is also broke.
However, the Driver tells them he is headed to a party where he can get them booze. Despite Evan’s protests, Seth agrees to go with the Driver to the party.
This puts the mission back on course, or so it would seem…
While en-route to their destination, the cops receive a call to deal with a drunk and disorderly at a local bar and ask Fogel if he minds going with them. Though initially nervous, Fogel agrees to go as long as they drop him off right after.
When they arrive, they find out a hobo is causing trouble at the bar. However, when the cops try to usher him out, the hobo runs away. Fogel - through sheer dumb luck - manages to stop the hobo in his tracks allowing the cops to make the arrest.
The cops praise Fogel for his part in the arrest and decide to stay at the bar for a drink, where they all get to know each other. For now, Fogel forgets about his friends and gets down to some shenanigans with the cops.
Problem Three (return to A-Plot)
When Seth and Evan arrive at the party, they quickly learn that it’s filled with crazy gangster types, and the Driver who brought them is not actually welcome there.
A nervous Evan insists they just cut their losses and leave. Seth, however, clear in his goal, is adamant they can get the booze they need and get out before things gets bad.
Unfortunately, the boys get separated and end up trapped in tricky situations... Seth dances with a drunk woman, while Evan gets mistaken for an acquaintance’s brother and is forced to sing to a group of terrifying coked-out gangsters.
Solution to Problem Three
Things come to a head when Seth smuggles out beer using detergent containers he stole from the Host’s basement. While trying to make an escape, the Host accosts Seth for dancing with his fiancée, the drunk girl from earlier, and tries to start a fight.
However, Seth is saved when a different fight between the Host and the Driver breaks out instead, causing the Host’s fiancée to call the cops. The chaos allows Seth and Evan to escape the party with the detergent bottles full of tainted beer.
Unfortunately, Evan is now pissed at Seth for putting them in a dangerous situation with nothing to show for it. The boys argue until Seth is once again hit by a car.
This time it’s the Fogel and the Cops!
Problem Four (and return to subplot)
It turns out the Cops were called to the area to break up the gangster party. However, they are also super drunk, and they just hit a kid with their car.
Showing their true colours, the ‘cool’ cops go to arrest Seth and Evan, using their good will with Fogel to get him to sign a witness statement to help them cover up the incident.
Realising they are in deep trouble, Seth and Evan once again start to panic. Until…
Solution to Problem Four
Fogel gets out of the car and sees that the people being arrested are his friends. Evan uses the confusion as an opportunity to leg it, which throws the drunk cops off their game and a chase ensues.
In the chaos, Fogel and Seth also make a run for it and all three boys somehow manage to evade the Cops, who are too drunk and unfit to keep up with Evan. The cops, realising that Fogel has ditched them, now have an axe to grind.
Seth is amazed that Fogel managed to get the liquor, and excited that their plan is now back on track, as they board a bus that will take them to Jules’s House.
However, the events of the night, and Seth’s shenanigans, have put a sour taste in Evan’s mouth, which Seth pretends not to be aware of.
Problem Five (and turning point)
While they are bickering, Fogel accidentally let’s slip that he and Evan will be rooming at College, which makes Seth angry and causes another fight.
During the argument they are accosted by a hobo, the one Fogel helped arrest earlier, who tries to fight them for their booze. Ending with the vodka Evan wanted for Becka (his gesture to make her love him) getting smashed on the ground and everyone getting thrown off the bus.
Now only a few blocks from the party, the boys decide to go their separate ways, suggesting their friendship is over.
ACT THREE - THE FINALE
The boys get to the party having succeeded in their mission. They got the booze, and everyone loves them, just as Seth had imagined.
Becka has been waiting for Evan and is excited to see him (with or without the token of love). Jules keeps smiling at Seth and he is the hit of the party. While a newly confident Fogel charms the hottest girl in class and gets laid. However, with the boys fighting the whole thing feels hollow.
For Seth and Evan, the things they thought they wanted weren’t worth destroying their relationship over. Becka is horribly drunk and gets sick while trying to hook up with Evan. While Seth confesses his feelings to Jules, but being completely drunk himself, manages to give her a black eye in the process.
It seems neither of them is going to achieve his goal, despite their mission being a ‘success’.
What could have gone wrong?
The cops, who have been on the prowl for Fogel and the other boys, arrive at Jules’s house to break up the party and start harassing the kids in the process.
Seth sees the cops, and in his drunken stupor, he thinks they have come to arrest them. In a true show of heroism, Seth scoops an almost paralytic Evan off the ground and escapes the party.
The cops ‘cock-block’ Fogel and threaten to arrest him. However, we learn the cops are just mad because Fogel hurt their feelings, and they eventually hug it out.
Finale & lesson learned
To show there are no hard feelings, the cops pretend to arrest Fogel so he looks cool in front of his class mates, before they head off to destroy the evidence of the night’s escapades.
Meanwhile, Evan wakes up to realise Seth has saved him from the cops, the boys make up and return to Evan’s house to sleep off the events of the night.
Their friendship returns to how it was at the start of the movie, with Seth accepting he will not achieve his goal. Seth admits that he knew Fogel and Evan would be rooming together at college and understood that he and Evan’s friendship would change once they left High School.
Seth, despite not achieving his goal, grew as a person.
Reward, Dénouement & Final Image
Next day, Seth and Evan head to the mall so Evan can buy a comforter for college. While there, they run into Jules and Becka, who have come to buy concealer and a new comforter, respectively.
Seth encourages Evan to help Becka buy the comforter, once again showing his personal growth, while he goes off with Jules to buy concealer.
By becoming a better person, Seth eventually achieved his goal.
In conclusion, whether or not Superbad is a movie you like, it is hard to deny that the structural elements of its story are well written and effective.
Hopefully, this has given you insight into how you can add conflict to your own narratives.
Have fun unleashing your inner sociopath and ruining your characters’ lives. Your stories will be better for it.