Wednesday, January 4, 2012
I Meant to do That: Three Things Die Hard Can Teach us About Seamless Plotting
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?