Wednesday, January 04, 2012

What "Die Hard" Can Teach Us About Seamless Plotting

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The hubby and I like to watch holiday-themed movies over the holidays, so naturally, Die Hard made the list this year. I haven't seen it in ages, but for a movie that came out in 1988, it still holds up remarkably well. One reason for that is the script. I was surprised at how well plot elements were seamlessly woven in. You'd think a big shoot 'em up action movie wouldn't pay attention to details, but this one does. And we can learn from it to make our stories read just as seamlessly.

Odds are you won't write a seamless story on the first draft, but you can make it read as if you planned it that way all along.

Making Fists With Your Feet
One important plot element of Die Hard is that the hero, John McClane, is trapped in a high rise under attack and is totally unprepared for it. He's barefoot, wearing nothing but dress pants and an undershirt. It seems like a small detail, but it makes him appear more vulnerable and in way over his head. It thematically says "this guy has nothing to fight with and is practically helpless." I doubt you'd have the same sympathy toward him if he went through this dressed in jeans, and t-shirt and work boots. He wouldn't be so "naked."

But how to get him in that vulnerable position without it feeling contrived?

It's set up wonderfully in the opening scene. John is on a plane flying in to meet his wife for the holidays. He doesn't like flying, and the man in the seat next to him says the best cure for jet lag is to take off your shoes and make fists with your feet. A small, throw away detail that makes you chuckle a little, but later, when John goes into the bathroom to wash up, he does this (and it does make him feel better). This is when the bad guys show up and start shooting, forcing John to run without shoes. Even better, this detail comes into play later to raise the stakes again when the bad guys use John's bare feet against him.

How you can use this: If you know your protag has to be/do/know something later in the story, look for ways to prep the story for a plausible reason why. This is especially true for details that might stretch credibility at all. And don't just think they can have one affect. Look for ways this detail can have lasting effects.

A Photo Comes Back to Bite You
Things go wrong in plots, and we usually need something to happen to make them go really wrong at some point. A way for the hero to be caught off guard, or for the worst to happen when least expected. Die Hard has a great early on moment when John's estranged wife Holly (who is using her maiden name for work) is looking at a family photo on her desk. The marriage isn't good when the story opens, so she reaches over and turns the photo face down.

A perfectly natural thing to do, yet it accomplished so much plotwise. The antag, Hans, uses this office later in the story. He has no idea of the connection between Holly and John, yet everyone knows what will happen if Hans finds out Holly is John's wife. And you know he's going to find out at some point, but when, and how? It's great anticipation, and you forget about that little turned down photo from the beginning. It isn't until much later that Hans turns over that photo and figures it out. Turning down the photo accomplished nice character development and showed the troubled relationship between Holly and John, and did more than just setup a later event. It worked so well on its own you didn't think much about it. But later, it's right there to cause trouble.

How you can use this: Little seeds can grow into big problems. Try looking at you big "oh no" moments and see where you might plant a seed early on that helps your antag. We often spend time making sure the protag's story unfolds well, but why not let the luck turn in your antag's favor once in a while. If it's due to something the protag did, even better.

People Have the Right to Know the Truth
Antags aren't the only ones who can cause trouble. Random people trying to do something can also affect the plot, sometimes in unexpected ways. Reporter Richard Thornburg hears over the police radio about events at the high rise and sets out to get the story. He's a jerk, but he's there to do what he feels is right. To tell the story, even though the story might hurt the folks inside the building. His outside interference (him chasing his own goal) merges with earlier details (like the turned down photo), to trigger a major increase in stakes. Due to his actions, Hans finds out Holly is John's wife. The worst has happened.

How you can use this: Outside forces are wonderful ways to add unexpected wrinkles to a problem. People trying to do the right thing and it goes wrong, or the unforeseen thing happens and sends events in a totally new direction. Don't look only at what your protag and antag are doing at key moments in your plot. What are the other characters doing? What's going on locally that is out of their control? While the protag and antag typically go head to head, other factors can and will affect events.

Die Hard does a lot of things right. If you haven't seen it in a while (or have never seen it) I recommend watching it and studying how they slip in clues and put the plot pieces together. There are so many more than what I mentioned here. Wonderful twists and turns, escalating stakes, and even a solid character arc.

Do you seed your stories with details that have relevance later? Do you revise with this in mind? Are there places you could add details right now to make your current WIP better?


  1. I love this post. I think the little seeds you're talking about make the story just as much as the bigger plot points. For me, some of the seeds come by accident during drafting and my job during revisions is to spot and strengthen them so that they help tighten the plot the whole way through.

  2. Cool post. While I haven't seen the movie, we studied the script in sceenplay writing class, and so I'm familiar with it. :-)

    I try to seed the story with references for later. I just did add one reference, which may or may not be caught by the reader at the end of the story, but I've been trying to add more reference to the MC thinking about her parents, that way when she finds out at the end they're in trouble, she doesn't sound so cold (and it gives her more reason to want to rescue them in book 2).

  3. Great post! Haven't seen the movie, now I want to! I love writing posts that tie into movies or TV shows as it helps look at it in different ways. I've had seeds pop in during the first draft and I'm looking at the little guy wondering what the heck it means and then during revision I get an ah-ha moment and suddenly a plot problem is solved. Love it when that happens :) But most of the time I have to seed during revision...

  4. Nice, you make some very good points about why DIE HARD is still so good after all these years.

    I specially like when you mention that John is unprepared to fight. It stresses his attachment to his wife and this nagging (but oh-so-cool) feeling that they're late for the Christmas evening for their kids.

    It's the humanity of John McClane that makes his propensity to kick ass so delightful. It's an underdog story done right and paced right. McClane is a real underdog. He's wrestling with the bottle, wasting a talent he's unaware of.

    Very insightful post, ma'am.

  5. Good information. Made me think about my own writing and current WIP.

    BTW, loved DIE HARD. Now I'm going to have to go out and buy the DVD.

  6. This is such a great, insightful post! Just what I needed. You've given me something to chew on as I think about revising my WIP>

  7. We watched DIE HARD over the holidays too! I marveled at a lot of the details you mentioned, but I really like how you went completely in depth about how they were used later on.

    I like to print out the previous day's writing, and scan for throw away details and characters/event I didn't plan for, but could be used later. I like your list of specific things though, like another character with their own agenda.

    Excellent post!

  8. I love Die Hard! I finally managed to convince my wife that it's a valid Christmas movie...

    And you're right. Die Hard comes from a period in film-making when subtle story elements like that really mattered, even in action movies. Definitely one of the best.

  9. Lots of great practical examples. I also like Die Hard; I think some of those details were not so prevalent in later editions of the franchise, but the first one is great. Holds up well except for his wife's hair and fashion choices, but she was probably a babe in '88 :)

  10. Very helpful, practical advice. I definitely needed it :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  11. Excellent blog (again), Janice.It's come at just the right time for me too - off to look for some more seeding in my plot. ;)

  12. Great post, one to save and pour over again and again!! You've surprised me, in that I now want to watch this movie (again)!

    Thanks, Janice.

  13. This is so well-written and makes the points beautifully. GREAT post.

  14. Wow - great post. I love 'Die Hard' but you've helped me look at it in a whole new way as well as giving some thought-provoking writing tips.

  15. I return from holiday revels to find such a lovely post. I've never seen Die Hard, but you make me want to just for the details. I especially like the reminder to keep an eye on other character's motivations. That's one of those weak areas I've been trying to focus on more. (The other is transitions. Eek!)

  16. I like Die Hard. This isn't the first blog I've come across to use it as an example of good storytelling, so it must be a really good movie! :)

    Movies can help writers so much, I think. It helps to actually *see* the little clues that will be important later. I'm thinking of the new Sherlock Holmes movies, for instance. The Harry Potter books also do this -- seemingly random details that turn out to be massively important in later books, like the locket from book 5 or Dumbledore talking about his "inside man" (Snape) in book 3. Ok. Now that we've established how nerdy I am...

  17. Hilariously, I finished watching Die Hard for the first time literally minutes before reading this post.

  18. Bah, I just noticed my response from the other day never made it to the blog. Don't you hate that?

    I really love using movies as examples, because they're so easy to watch and spot the techniques. And folks can usually find time to watch a movie where they might not have time to read and study a whole book. Especially if it's a good book and they get drawn in and forget to study it :)

  19. Wow - found you over at Gene Lemp's Mash-up. This is wonderfully helpful. Lessons with examples are SO much more powerful and enlightening! Thanks for the analysis - this is going in my files.

  20. Laura, welcome to the blog! Good to have you. I love examples :) I sometimes spend more time on those than writing the actual post, LOL.

  21. Hello Janice!

    I'm new to the website but you now have (another) Dutch fan! Absolutely loving it!
    Just wondering, did you know Die Hard was actually based on a book?

    Keep writing and I will keep reading!

  22. SjoerdBergstra, welcome to the blog! Good to have you. I had no idea Die Hard was a book. I'm totally going to have to go look that up now. Thanks for the heads up!

  23. In writing, I've learned it's the rule of replacing "ands" and "buts" with "and sos" and "therfores".

    You have your story, and as lame as it is, you have to go back and rewrite it and fix some stuff. This is where you start trying to link parts of it.

    If two things happen, try to link them. It makes the story seem tighter than it really is. It wasn't planned this way, it was thought of after the fact, but that's the magic of writing. We only get to see the end result, not the hours of tweaking, like coming up with the idea of a topless calendar being used as a reference for John since he's unfamiliar with this building. It might have just been a joke, but it came back more than once in a rewrite as a reference to his location and having to circle around these guys.