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What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Three

Die HardSo I’ve been meaning to write the last three Die Hard posts for a couple of months now, transforming my raw notes into something readable, but my life was basically mugged by putting together the GenreCon program, then chairing panels at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, then coping with the fact that GenreCon’s attendance kinda exploded, then actually running the con, then going to the UK, then watching my deadlines go boom, then moving then, then…

Well, shit, I guess I’m out of excuses, and it’s time to finish this series off, albeit nearly three quarters of a year after it started.

WHAT WRITERS OUGHT TO KNOW ABOUT DIE HARD, PART THREE

Since it’s been a while, it might be worth going back to taking a refresher look at the posts regarding Die Hard’s Ongoing Metaphors and my notes breaking down The First Act. In fact, even if you remember the second post, go back anyway. I adore first acts. They’re some of the busiest places in any story, driven by a ruthless efficiency ’cause they have to set everything up in a very short space of time.

Today we start looking at the Second Act, whereupon we need to tackle one of the fundamental lies of the Three Act Structure – IT HAS FOUR FUCKING PARTS. The first act is all set-up, the last act is all climax and dénouement, and the middle-act is this two-step journey that is all about building up to a critical mid-point then moving away from it. Any book on structure worth it’s salt will break it down like that too – journey to the midpoint, journey away from the midpoint, third act. Yet we stick with the Three Act Structure ’cause writers are stubborn and in love with the number three. Fuckers.

Rather than confuse everyone and fucking with the numerology of the three-act structure, I’m just going to talk about the way Die Hard handles Act Two, Part One. Bear with me.

ACT TWO, PART ONE – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

So, to recap: narrative is a structural system, and one that’s pretty damn easy to hack once you have an understanding of how it works. The First Act is full of complexities that need exploring, but the second act is much less complex. It’s where all the stuff we traditionally think of as “the story” starts happening, ’cause we get to stop paying setting the internal conflict of our protagonist and start distracting the audience with, well, “terrorists” with machineguns.

Act Two, Part One generally has much fewer beats you need to hit than the opening act, since your main job at this point is basically throwing a series of try->fail cycles at your protagonist. It’s also harder to write, ’cause it’s the point where the lack of structure is replaced by a need to keep escalating the narrative tension while simultaneously distracting the audience with subplots.

Or, in the hands of scriptwriters of lesser skill than the team behind Die Hard, the point where you distract the audience with a series of pointless shit they need to wade through until the story gets interesting again.

To recap, let me list the absolute key scenes/movements that mark the major story beats in your first act:

  • Establishing the World
  • Introducing the Narrative Conflict
  • Having the Protagonist Choose Not to Engage
  • Introducing Some Kind of Object Lesson/Mentor
  • Break the Protagonist Out of Their Reluctance/Kick off the Second Act with a Bang

In contrast, here’s the list of key scenes/movements that mark the major beats in the first half of your second act:

  • The Mid-Point of the Story

Seriously, that’s it. After hitting five separate narrative movements in the first act, you’re basically filling in time before you reach the mid-point of the story, where you take the protagonist to a very dark place (or, if you’re feeling nicer than the universe is to John McClane, a very happy place) and teach them an important lesson that will change everything forever.

And this is the real key of the mid-point – it’s a narrative pivot. It gives the protagonist all the information and tools they need to know in order to resolve their primary internal conflict, then makes it impossible to immediately utilize those tools. It spins the action off in a new direction. It changes things in an interesting way and gives the story a whole new dynamic.

Everything else that happens in this act leading up to that midpoint is just setting up the sub-stories – there’s usually more than one – and giving the viewer enough signifiers to suggest that there’s a whole bunch of secondary characters/antagonists/problems that have their own narrative arcs under way.

The trick with these sub-plots is that they’re all going to tie into your primary plot in some way,, and flesh out the kinds of conflicts you’re exploring there. Scriptwriting guru Blake Snyder sums the first act up as the presentation of the thesis, and the second act (both parts of it) as a chance to explore the anti-thesis.

The way Die Hard does this is by laying in subplot after subplot, which create the complications that keeps thing from being resolved too easily. With that in mind, I’m going to start looking at the subplots that are kicked off and developed in this part of the film, leading up to the major mid-point action where John McClane’s life is changed forever.Once again, the structure tends to happen in narrative movements – sequences of scenes that built to a specific point and either set-up or advance a subplot in a major way.

Once again, I’ll throw in the time-codes for those who are playing along at home.

Strap yourselves in, ’cause this is going to be a long one.

SECOND ACT MOVEMENTS: INTRODUCING THE SUBPLOTS

SUBPLOT ONE: WHY ARE THERE TERRORISTS IN NAKATOMI TOWERS? (23:00 – 32:45)

So we left the end of Act One with Hans and his “terrorist” pals invading the office Christmas party, while a barefoot John McClane disappears up a stairwell. We get a few scenes of John walking through the partially constructed upper levels of the tower after making his escape, trying to make phone calls and generally discovering how screwed he is. Basically, reinforcing that shit has gotten real.

Then we get to the real meat of the films major subplot: Hans and crew are here, doing evil, and they need to be stopped. And because the film has concerned itself with setting up the plot about John and Holly’s marriage for the first twenty minutes, it puts some real effort into this.

Our focus is shifted away from John for a prolonged period for the first time since the film started, and we are given a whole bunch of info about Hans and crew: that they’re educated (pay attention to early dialogue); that they’ve planned well (look at how well Hans has researched his first victim, Mr Takagi); that they’re politely evil (Hans takes great care to be polite to his victim and compliment him about clothing/work/etc).

And while this film is all about introducing Hans, there are little flashes of camera work where we’re given an insight into some of the other characters:

  • We got a two-second shot of Karl, the second-in-command among the terrorists, who will later get his own subplot with John and stands out because he’s the only terrorist who moves in this scene apart from Hans. Everyone else just stands there, looking armed and European.
  • We get a moment where Ellis backs away from Hans as the terrorist leader walks past, reaffirming the hints we had that Ellis is a chickenshit asshole back in act one and letting us know that he’s not going to be one of the faceless crowd of victims.
  • We get the momentary stare between Holly and Hans when Takagi identifies himself, a precursor to the fact that she will be the adversary who stands up to Hans on the hostage side of things.

All of this takes, like, six seconds, but it’s genius. This film, I swear to god, it does the little things so fucking well. There are flashes back to John every now and then, reminding us that he’s there, but this are on par with the little flashes to the terrorist truck that occurred through the first act. A reminder that John is there, doing stuff, now that the film is rolling out the welcome mat for Hans.

These flashes to John aren’t really about advancing the story. What these flashes do really well, though, is add to the mystery – right after we get another showcase of Hans as an educated, well-off chap when he comments on the quality of Takagi’s suit, we cut to a shot of John spotting the terrorists moving around some heavy-duty military hardware. It up the mystery and the stakes. What the fuck is this well-dressed, educated, English mother-fucker doing here? When Takagi asks what kind of terrorist he is, Hans laughs the idea off without providing an answer.

Hans is all about the contrasts and the mystery. He makes Alexander the Great references and talks about reading Forbes, then shoots Takagi in cold blood. He’s also the perfect foil for John – while McClane struggles to talk to the people in his life, from his fellow travelers to his limo driver to his wife – Hans is perfectly capable of holding a conversation about all the minutia of Holly’s big-business world.

We get a little over seven minutes of Hans at the start of the second act, right up until he kills Takagi and goes about getting his money “the hard way.” This affirms him as a big deal – spending this long away from the protagonist is rare outside of an ensemble film – and it makes it clear that the tenor of the film has changed. We’re no longer in feel-good reconciliation land where John and Holly work out (or fail to work out) their differences; we have a new player on the board and he’s a bad, bad man.

One of the things that makes a great antagonist is their thorough belief that they are the good buy in their own story. I don’t know that you can argue this is true of Hans – he’s too self-aware – but that seven minute period we’ve just spent getting to know him basically serves as the act one for his story. He gets a hint of what’s coming to fuck-up his carefully laid plans when John makes a noise, but dismisses it when a quick search reveals nothing.While John’s internal journey is all about learning not to be a macho jerk so he can get back together with his wife, Hans has his own internal journey – and it largely revolves around being so convinced of his own genius that he doesn’t take threats seriously until they’re too late.

But that’s for future scenes. We get a little more information about Hans long-term goal and the vault – nearly impregnable, with a seventh lock the terrorists tech-guy can’t break – effectively presenting Hans with the impossible goal right as his own little “act one” wraps up. We have the basics of Han’s plot in a nutshell: the terrorists want to get into the high-tech, impregnable vault. We also have a mystery to keep us interested: who the hell are these guys and why do they want the vault so badly?

SUBPLOT TWO: THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT (32:34 – 40:00)

We move into the second major sub-plot that’ll be driving the second act – John fucking with the terrorists plans and generally serving as the fly in the ointment.

This is really the meat of the story – the point where we get introduced to the Try-Fail cycle. In essence, stories just repeat the same pattern over and over again – the character tries something to resolve their problem, but it doesn’t work. The next thing they try escalates things, but it too fails. This continues on for a while, until something finally succeeds.

John’s already started this when he tried to phone, but he sticks with the simple solutions as we move into the meaty part of this subplot – he get a lighter to the sprinkler system, hoping to get the fire department out. A solid plan, but the terrorists are ahead of him there. They cut things off and send out a guy with a machine-gun to take care of the problem.

John tried something. It failed. He’ll need to up his game next time he tries to get some attention.

Incidentally, the guy Hans’ sends out? A blond, glasses-wearing German named Tony, who happens to be the younger brother of the long-haired blonde, Karl, who got some focus in the previous movement. He goes searching for John, but John ambushes him, leading to one of the films exchanges that are pitch-perfect.

“You wont hurt me,” Tony says. “There are rules for policemen.”

“Yeah, that’s what my captain keeps telling me,” John replies, ever the rebel cop who struggling with the constraints of the world around him. It’s a nice call-back to act one, reminding us that despite all the minutes we’ve spent on Hans and his crew, this film is still about John McClane figuring out who he is and how he can get back together with his wife. It’s also a important thing to keep in mind as we go into the mid-point, ’cause being the rebel cop is a big part of what makes John and insufferable ass to his wife.

He tries to knock Tony out – an important thing to note, since John doesn’t start out trying to kill people – but they get into a fight, which ends when they tumble down the stairs. John’s killed his first bad guy and acquired the gun.This is good guy 101; John can talk the talk of being a maverick cop and we need a dead bad guy for the story to advance, but the audience likes him more when he doesn’t kill someone in cold blood.

If only future Die Hard films remembered this lesson. Or, you know, any of the lessons that can come from pulling apart Die Hard’s subplots.

*Sighs* *Glares at Die Hard 4 and 5*

Anyway, at 36:28 the film cuts back to Theo, the terrorist’s tech guy, hacking into the vault with Takagi’s details and cutting into the vault with a drill. It’s less than ten seconds long, but it serves an important purpose – refreshing our memory of that first sub-plot beat right before John unpacks Tony’s bag trying to answer the central question of the first subplot – who are these guys?

When he doesn’t get any reasonable answers, he decides to send a message via the building’s elevator: a dead Tony seated on a stool, with a sign on his chest that says: Now I have a Machinegun. Ho. ho. Ho.

It arrives just as Hans is threatening his hostages, making it very clear that nothing is going to go well for Hans tonight.And so our second sub-plot is introduced and ends up mirroring the first – with Hans and his crew trying to figure out is killing their guys, just like John is trying to figure out who the terrorists are.

Now that we’ve got the big main plot established (John learning to be a better human being and reconciling with his wife) and the major subplots are set up with long movements, we get to some of the lesser sub-plots that thread through the movie.

THE MINOR SUBPLOTS

Not all subplots are created equal. Once you’ve got your main plot and the one-or-two major subplots, there’s usually a series of minor subplots that get introduced. They get less time, ’cause they focus on the minor characters, and basically, at this point, you start to see the subplots stacking up one-another. Established with quick ten or twenty-second grabs that get their just by playing off the major subplots that have taken up the bulk of the second act thus far.

The neat thing about Die Hard is the way all its subplots are basically natural progressions of one another. Just as the first subplot is complication for John’s main storyline, and the second subplot is a complication for the first, subplots three, four and five are now complicating elements getting in the way of otherwise “easy” solutions to the major sub-plot arcs

SUBPLOT THREE: THE BUILDING IS AGAINST ME (Starts: 39:00 – 40:50)

We hit subplot three, where John is listening in on the terrorists from his hiding place on top of the elevator, only to have it start moving on him. It’s a little thing, less than a minute over, but the film calls back to it again and again – the building itself is against John, and not just because the terrorists control it.

Basically, the unfinished terrain of the building is going to inconvenience the hell out of John in the second act, but he’s going to learn things from it that will help him out in the second half of the film.

SUBPLOT FOUR: TELL KARL HIS BROTHER IS DEAD (Starts: 40:50 – 41:10)

At the 41 minute mark we learn why Karl has been given the little visual queues that make him stand out in the early parts of the second act – John has just killed his younger brother, and Karl is dead-set on getting revenge. Hans is trying to control him – he just wants the situation taken care of without affecting the plan – but Karl is an angry, angry German chap who really wants John’s blood now.

SUBPLOT FIVE: HOLLY ISN’T “BUSINESS” (41:11 – 41:40)

SUBPLOT SIX: ELLIS IS A DICKHEAD (41:11 – 41.40)

We then get a double-whammy – Holly and Ellis are watching the argument between Hans and Karl take place, and they figure out that John is the likely ’cause. Both these characters are on their own personal arc, just as John is, and we get an insight into those subplots as well.

Holly sees that John is alive and is immediately relieved; Ellis immediately thinks that John is going to get all of them killed.

“John’s doing his job,” Holly argues, the first time we’ve seen her show that aspect of his life some respect since the film began. This arc is as much about teaching Holly that she still loves her husband as the rest of the film is focused on breaking John of his macho bullshit.

Technically both these subplots started in act one, which is why they’re able to be dealt with so quickly here.

SECOND ACT MOVEMENTS: ADVANCING SUBPLOTS

Having introduced a whole bunch of major and minor subplots in their own movements, the film now start moving things forward in a series of narrative movements that will advance one or ore of the subplots while introducing one final major subplot to the mix.It mixes this up by throwing out a few extra  subplots, just to keep things spicy (generally speaking, a film will run about 6 or 7 subplots; Die Hard goes a little overboard, but it’s very confident in its presentation)

MOVEMENT: MAYDAY! MAYDAY (41:40- 43:40)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Four

The film sees John make his way to the roof, trying to raise contacts on the radio he stole from poor dead Tony. Once again we see the Try-Fail cycle in action, only this time the fail advances a couple of our subplots – alerting Hans and Karl to John’s presence, and letting them know where he is.

Once again we’re reminded of John’s inability to get along with people in authority, as the local dispatch more or less dismisses his reports of terrorist activity. We get to see multiple subplots advance, as it touches on both John disrupting the terrorist plans and Hans really wanting to get revenge for his brother’s death.

SUBPLOT SEVEN: HELLO SERGEANT AL (43:30 – 44:28)

The film’s seventh subplot revolves around Al, the local cop whose sent out to investigate what’s going on at Nakatomi. Like Hans, he’s introduced to the film as a contrasting character to John McClane, only in Al’s case he’s an overweight desk cop with a pregnant wife at home. You know, unlike McClane, who has a list of scumbags to catch as long as his arm and a wife who went to the far side of the country without him.

Anyway, we meet him in Seven-Eleven, buying a terrifying amount of junk food, before he’s sent out to the Tower to investigate what’s going on. What’s important about this scene is what occurs in the final seconds – every other member of the LA police force John deals with is basically presented as incompetent and a fuck-up. It’s highlighted in the scenes just prior to this, when the dispatch ignores John’s warning. Al isn’t like that. He will have his moments of getting things wrong, but ultimately he’s the LA analogue of John McClane, an everyman who can be trusted to do the right thing when guided by his street-smarts and instinct.

Thus, it’s telling that before he heads to Nakatomi he takes a look at the building from a distance, and he sees the flash of gunfire on the roof. He’s the first local to realise there’s something bad going on…and if only he listened to his instincts (which is the fatal flaw Al’s grappling with, just as John is grappling with his own internal struggle), he could do a lot more to help John out.

Again, this isn’t a major subplot, so it’s given a short, sharp scene to kick things off.

MOVEMENT: GUNFIGHT ON THE ROOF/INTO THE DUCTS (43:40 – 50:30)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Three, Subplot Four

And so we get into the section of the film that people are probably remembering when they write Die Hard off as a dumb action movie. The running gunfight takes place on the roof – John versus a bunch of Hans’ thugs, including Karl who methodically stalks John while everyone else is running around with their machine guns on full auto. John takes cover, fires back. Karl looks dangerous ’cause he’s being methodical, and eventually John gets cornered and has to escape into the air vents.

First thing he encounters – a big fucking fan, ’cause THE BUILDING IS AGAINST ME – but he sneaks his way through and gets away just as Karl and co start opening fire.

It’s a temporary respite – Karl and co quickly figure out he’s found his way into the elevator shafts – and we get some conflict between Karl and Hans when it’s revealed that they can lock down the elevator and trap John there. Karl turns off the radio – he isn’t going to be content with “trapping” John after the death of his brother.

Meanwhile, John escapes into the air ducts, in what’s one of the movies most iconic images, and we get the scene that’s been riffed on so many times that it’s become a cliche – Karl shooting up the ducts, then testing them to find John – only this time Hans manages to assert control over the situation moments before Karl would have found John.

It’s important to note that Karl was on the verge of succeeding here; Hans calls him off. That’s ’cause Han’s internal flaw, as a character, is his faith in his own intelligence and planning. He can’t conceive of someone disrupting things to the point that John does, therefore he isn’t willing to risk things yet.

Man, he’s going to pay for that. If only he listened to Karl more…

MOVEMENT: THE DRIVE BY (50:30 – 55:30)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Three, Subplot Seven

Al shows up at Nakatomi in his patrol car – something that’s perceived as being a far greater threat than John. He phones through to dispatch, tells them nothing seems to be up, and both John and Hans focus their attention on what happens next.

Al goes in to talk to the terrorist playing security guard in the lobby, Karl and his team join the snipers watching over things from the windows, John finds his way to a window upstairs and starts trying to smash a window so he can get a warning to Al and call in the cavalry.

Naturally, ’cause this is Die Hard, it leads to a desperate fire-fight between John and two of Hans’ flunkies while Al is deciding there’s nothing worth seeing. When it looks like Al is leaving, John gets his attention by dropping a body through the window.

The terrorists open fire and Al backs away like he’s driving through a warzone, all-to-aware that there’s something going on. We get a brief glimpse of Argyle, the limo driver from act one, oblivious to what’s going on as he grooves to hip-hop. Technically you could argue this is a subplot unto itself, but it’s really more of a running joke that pays off near the climax, so I’ve not really recorded it as such.

Al crashes his car and calls in assistance; the cavalry is finally on its way.

SUBPLOT EIGHT: NEVER TRUST THE PRESS (55:30 – 55:50)

We’re running towards the mid-point of the film, so we get another subplot started when the film cuts to Richard Thornburg, asshole journalist and all-round despicable prick. He’s in the process of lying to some woman about being able to get reservations when he overhears Al’s call, and he’s immediately on the case.

HEADING INTO THE MIDPOINT

MOVEMENT: THE COPS ARRIVE (55:50 – 58:20)
ADVANCES: SUBPLOT ONE, SUBPLOT TWO, SUBPLOT SIX

Suddenly the world around Nakatomi towers is filed with cop cars and sirens. We get a quick reminder that Ellis is a prick (“Never thought I’d be pleased to hear that sound”) before Hans Gruber asserts his control over the situation. In fact, he suggest that this is all part of the plan, which once again reminds us we have no idea who he really is and what he wants with the vault.

Then, mid-speech, he’s interrupted by his radio and we get one of those moments that can make or break a film – the first actual confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, and the mid-point of the story where the narrative circumstances change.

The cop cars are the first clue that we’re playing by a new set of rules in the second half of the film; suddenly McClane has back-up out there, which gives him renewed confidence. He responds by calling Hans on the radio and getting in his face, a moment of triumph. John, you see, think’s he’s won. The cops are here. The cavalry. It’s like he’s forgotten his relationship with authority figures.

Playing this scene out by radio is genius, ’cause you get to have your cake and eat it two. The first meeting between protagonist and antagonist is always rich with drama, but keeping the two apart and unable to see each other means they get to replay this beat later in the film when they meet in the flesh.

We also get our first major advancement of the first subplot when John finds the C4 and the detonators among the bags of the terrorists he killed in the first scene. More questions we don’t know the answer to, but also a major advancement on John’s status as Fly in the Ointment to Hans’ plan – without the detonators and C4, he can’t get into the vault. Suddenly John is no longer an irritation, he’s an active problem that needs to be solved.

There is an exchange about cowboys – a neat nod to the fact that this is, essentially, a Western narrative in terms of its major beats, it just stripped away all of the things that would ordinarily make us think “Western.” John is a stranger who rides into town and disrupts the plans of the local banditos, trusting in his own sense of justice and ability with a gun.

MOVEMENT: THORNBURG IS AN ASSHOLE (58:20 – 59:09)
ADVANCES: Subplot Eight.

We get a quick twenty-second grab of Richard Thornburg, asshole reporter, arguing with his producer. He thinks there’s a big story at Nakatomi and he can get the jump on things. His producer disagrees. Mostly, this scene is all about letting us know that everyone Thornburg works with thinks he’s an asshole. He’s going to serve some major plot purpose later, but for the moment the film is just making sure that we really, really hate him.

MOVEMENT: “CALL ME ROY” (59:09 – 61:40)
Advances: Subplot One, Subplot Two, Subplot Seven

Karl and his boys rush back to the offices to report to Hans about how badly John having the detonators will screw them. Hans checks in with his guy on the vault, checking on the time. Realises that there is now a major problem, which changes the tenor of subplot two in a big way; John is fucking with The Plan.

Al tries to radio John, but the terrorists here. John and Al start a conversation about what’s going on; Hans is still clinging to the idea that this isn’t a big deal – John isn’t yet a threat, ’cause he’s not FBI – but we come back to the detonators being a big deal yet again, pushing the mystery of exactly who Hans is and what his crew is doing here.

John finishes reporting in, settles in with a cigarette to relax for the first time since the second act started.  He seriously thinks everything is going to be okay now. ‘Cause he can’t see the middle of the film coming up on him, turning everything on its head.

MOVEMENT: NOTHING GOOD COMES FROM AUTHORITY FIGURES (61:40 – 62:50)
ADVANCES: Subplot Seven

The cops mobilize in force and the chief of police shows up, thus ensuring that everything is going to go wrong because they’ve put an authority figure in charge of the operation instead of leaving things to Al.

What’s important here is Al trusting his hunch for the first time – an important step in his own personal growth through the movie

MOVEMENT: Gennaro, Holly Gennaro (62:50 – 64:20)
ADVANCES: Main Plot, Subplot Five

We’re in another run of short, sharp scenes that advance the subplots of major characters who aren’t John or Hans. In this case, the scene belongs to Holly, who stands up to Hans and demands toilet breaks for the hostages and a sofa for her pregnant colleague.

We get the reminder here, right on the threshold of the mid-point, because we need to touch on the main plot for a second. We see Holly being good at her job – she’s in charge, now that Takagi has been killed – but also the fear that Hans is going to discover her relationship with John through the family photograph she lay face-down on shelf during the first act.

Hans senses something’s wrong and fishes, but Holly tells him her name is Gennaro rather than McClane.

MOVEMENT: LOCKED IN (64:20 – 65:00)
ADVANCES: Subplot Eight, Argyle

Another short scene that’s all about checking in with the folks we know from the first act. In this case, Richard Thornburg’s report shows up o Argyle’s television in the limo, and the poor kid drops his glass of scotch and panics, searching for a way out of the car park.

MOVEMENT: WE’RE GOING IN (65:00 – 66:00)
ADVANCES: Subplot Seven

We get a short scene Al, the LA Chief of Police, and the rest of the force. They’re preparing for an assault on the building, having chosen to believe that John’s report to Al isn’t credible, and Al isn’t happy about that.

We’ve now had five short, sharp scenes in a row, which serves to build tension after seeing John settle down to relax a just a few minutes earlier. Instinctively, we’re responding to the quick pace of the cuts; we know something bad is coming, even if John does not.

AND FINALLY, ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE

I mentioned up the front that the first half of the second act only has one major story beat it needs to hit, in contrast to the five or six involved in the first act. That major beat is the mid-point – traditionally the point where something major happens that alters the terrain of the story in permanent and unavoidable ways. It’s also the point where the character’s internal arc usually does a 180 – the thing they think they want falls away, and they learn something about what they’re really after.

Die Hard has one of the smartest mid-points I know, because it’s so incredibly fucking subtle in the way it executes the personal change in its protagonist, John McClane.

MIDPOINT: THE ASSAULT (66:00 – 74:00)

And so we hit the halfway point of the film. It kicks off dead in the centre of the movie’s running time, and it’s the big, set-piece scene where a whole bunch of things come together. John sees the floodlights, asks Al what’s going on. Al gives him a warning and John knows, without a doubt, that it’s a bad idea.

We get a few shots of Argyle trying to find a way out of the building; we see John trying to get a vantage point. Mostly we see Hans and his crew preparing for the assault, utterly unconcerned by the cops presence.

The cops go in. It’s going to be a massacre.

And John sits in his vantage point, helpless to do anything. “You macho assholes,” he shouts. “No. No. No.”

Macho assholes? Wait, isn’t half the problem between John and his wife based on the fact he’s a macho asshole? Die Hard is distracting you with guns and explosions, but we’ve just seen a moment of personal growth in John’s character arc.

The raid goes from bad to worse, with the only person of any common sense among the LA cops proving to be Al, the desk cop. The cops send in an armoured car. The terrorists blow it up with a really, really heavy-duty missile launcher. If you were kidding yourself that these guys were really terrorists, it’s pretty much gone by this point.

John just looks on, unable to do anything but beg Hans for mercy. He comes up with a plan a few minutes too late, dropping the C4 down an elevator shaft to stop the missile launcher from doing any more damage, but the damage is done (and the elevator shaft direct the fire back at John, ’cause the building hates him).

So we’ve got massive property damage, some dead cops, and the situation in Nakatomi towers has radically changed. Things could have gone so different.

If only the cops had listened to John, the authority on the situation, they could have handled things differently and not made such a mess. If only they hadn’t been macho, pig-headed cops who disregarded the rules, then…

Oh, wait, we’re using action as a metaphor for John’s personal growth again, aren’t we? He prides himself on being a rogue cop, trusting his instincts and refusing to listen to anyone else, but he’s just been given a first-hand example of what happens when you ignore people, and he doesn’t like the helpless feeling it gave him.

END OF ACT TWO, PART ONE

So at 5,000 words this clocks in a little longer than my usual Tuesday blog post, which is one of the reasons why there’s been a long gulf between part two and part three. I’ll try to get Part Four, dealing with the second half of the second act, up towards the end of August.

What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Two

So my friend Kevin was in town this weekend to talk about a project he’s putting together, which meant we spent a lot of time talking about narrative structure and the way character works and how to do a lot of effective storytelling without wasting too much time on things.

Die Hard, unfortunately, wasn’t in the list, but it’s amazing how much you start noticing when your reading of an episode/movie moves from the passive to the active. I do this kind of thing for fun, since I’m kinda obsessed with structure, and even I start noticing different things when I have to actively explain how things work to someone else.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWhat follows is a pretty close examination of the Die Hard‘s first act, which means we’re going to spend a whole bunch of words looking over what’s effectively just twenty minutes of film. This post will probably stand alone, but it builds on some of the things I mentioned last week. You may want to go back and review if you haven’t read part one of this series.

This is also going to be a longish post, ’cause First Acts are generally packed to the gills with information. You may want to get yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit or two.

You’ll also want a copy of Die Hard handy, ’cause if you can get to the end of this post without wanting to re-watch the movie, you’re a better man than I.

THE FIRST ACT – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

So you’re going to need to know the basics of how first acts work if the following is going to make any sense, but that’s generally a good thing for writers to understand anyway. People who aren’t writers frequently rhapsodize about how awesome it must be to be “creative” for a living, but the truth is that narrative is actually a highly structured system of conveying information. A writer’s job, especially in film and television, is usually to write to that structure and find interesting twists on the individual components.

This sounds terrible, I know, but it’s not. A strong understanding of how narrative arcs work makes your job extremely easy as a writer.

The vast majority of long-form story-telling will follow something that vaguely represents the three-act structure I’m using as the basis for breaking down Die Hard. They’ll call it different things, they’ll focus on slightly different components, but they all largely revolve around a familiar series of beats or movements. The best part is, you already know them on some subconscious level. You’ve been seeing them in movies for so long that they’re an ingrained part of how we watch and understand stories, so things feel wrong when the structure is messed with.

I largely picked up my understanding of it from reading books about screenplays/structure (I recommend The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray and pretty much any book on writing screenplays), too much Joseph Campbell at uni, and a lot of time breaking narratives that don’t work down when teaching creative writing.

What you need to know about the first act of a story is this: it’s generally there to create context for the action that follows by setting the stakes of the story. It will tell you what the emotional arc of the narrative is, it’ll set up the physical conflict that’s going to give people something to focus on (since internal changes are hard to map), and it’ll introduce you to many of the major players and the major metaphors associated with them.

In narrative/screenwriting terms, this is usually done by breaking the process down into several key moments:

  • Establishing the World
  • Introducing the Narrative Conflict
  • Having the Protagonist Choose Not to Engage
  • Introducing Some Kind of Object Lesson/Mentor
  • Break the Protagonist Out of Their Reluctance/Kick off the Second Act with a Bang

One of the reasons I’m doing this with Die Hard? It’s one of those stories that is so tightly written and subtle that you almost don’t notice when it’s hitting these key traits, ’cause almost none of them involve terrorists.

The argument that I made last week about Die Hard being about John McClane setting aside his pride/masculinity to accept his wife? I can make that with confidence, because that’s what all the set-up for this story is about. It sets up the inner conflict, the major symbols that will be serving as the metaphor of those conflicts, and then lets the terrorists loose as a complicating factor while our protagonist undergoes a profound transformation.

I’m going to take these movements within the first act one by one, calling out the interesting things that are happening within the movie. It’s worth stressing that these movements always happen in order, but will frequently involve hitting the same beat multiple times, particularly when establishing a bunch of characters. To make things easier, I’ve marked out the time-codes from my copy of the film, which gives you a chance to see when/where I see the breaks happening as we move from phase to phase.

MOVEMENT ONE: ESTABLISHING THE WORLD

PART ONE: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WIFE AND THE GUN (Time Code: 0:00 to 2:00)

The very first images we get in Die Hard are loaded with metaphorical meaning. There’s ten seconds of a plan landing against a backdrop of orange sunset – a colour that calls to mind the kind of cinematography associated with the Western genre that the film is going to reference a time or two more before we’re done. This is a classic Western opening – a stranger riding into town – only this time the horse is a seven-four-seven.

When we cut to the interior of the plan, there’s another focused shot: a close-up of McClane’s hand, gripping the arm-rest tight, wedding band in plain view. We pan up, never seeing John McClane’s face, to the guy in the next seat. He’s a business man, a comfortable flyer, and he notices John’s distress.

“You don’t like flying, do you?” he asks, and immediately we’re on John’s side. It’s a quiet, subtle way of setting up the protagonist, but it works immensely well. We’ve all been stuck on public transport and had someone try to strike up a conversation. We all know how awkward it can be, especially when the question isn’t wanted. John doesn’t want the question to be asked – he’s a man so reserved we haven’t even seen his face yet – and no matter how well-intentioned his neighbor may be, he’s butting into someone’s life. Even John’s non-committal response to the question isn’t enough to shut up the neighbor eager to assert his authority, based on nine years of air travel.

Looking at this scene twenty-odd years later, it’s easy to lose track of how revolutionary and smart this opening is. Keep in mind that Die Hard was released at the tail end of the eighties, at a time when the protagonists of action films were generally named Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and showing any kind of vulnerability was either verboten or a narrative throw-away before the explosions started. Those were narratives about super-men, massively-muscled and nigh indestructible. John McClane is woefully, painfully human, afflicted with the most basic of fears: flying.

Having established his vulnerability, the film immediately turns towards establishing McClane’s credibility as a hero. The plane lands. He goes to collect his overhead luggage, and the annoying exec spots John’s gun.

“It’s okay,” McClane says. “I’m a cop. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 11 years.” He takes a little pleasure at the nervousness the businessman displays here, which is impressive – there are very few people who can make the smirk an endearing facial expression, and Bruce Willis can do it.

In one smooth movement, less than 2 minutes into the film, we’ve set up the core of who John is: he’s defined by his job, and his job is represented by the gun he keeps at his side. The gun is John’s object, the thing that defines his character, but it’s at odds with who he really is – that’s why the first thing we see is his wedding band. These two metaphors are going to be put into conflict again and again throughout the film, since they represent the two halves of John’s personality.

For now, it’s the handgun that gets the majority of the attention, the thing that’s called out in dialogue. That’s because they’re setting McClane up as the new-age sheriff, willing to keep the law in the unruly Western frontier (if you just had a “holy shit, this is why the film is set in LA” epiphany, give yourself a gold star. If you didn’t…well, think about it. Figuring out why that’s a little-but-significant thing is a step towards realising why this film is so smart).

PART 2: A MOM ON THE MOVE (Time Code: 2:18 to 5:00)

We go from the airport to Nakatomi towers, where we meet John’s other half for this film (both literally and metaphorically).

There’s a party going on, a CEO making a speech from the balcony. This takes up the foreground, but it isn’t what we notice. What we notice is Holly, who is the only person moving and continuing to work while the rest of the office stops to listen.  This is only a few seconds, but it tells us a lot: 1) she’s important enough to keep working while the boss talks, without fear of censure; 2) she’s invested enough in her job that she’s willing to work while everyone else is celebrating Christmas.

The scene progresses: Holly’s propositioned by Harry Ellis (played by the inimitable Hart Bochner) and fends him off with images off Christmas: eggnog, chestnuts, Rudolf and Frosty. She may be a woman invested in her job, but family remains important to her. Christmas remains important to her. Any fear we have that she gets lost in her job is eradicated when she sends her pregnant assistant out to join the party – Holly may be invested in what she does, but she’s not demanding everyone work with her. She’s a good boss, a good person, a good mother. We like her.

She calls her family, talks to her kids. Asks the nanny if John McClane has called (he hasn’t), and suggests that the spare bed gets made up in case John comes to stay for the weekend. It’s a nice gesture, an overture to the story the film is really telling, but we get a clue that all is not right in the world when she turns the family photograph on her desk face down. She may be willing to let John visit, but all is not well in their world. Shit has gone down, although we don’t yet know what.

With that, we hit the five minute mark, and our set-up is done. We know who these characters are now, we’ve got a hint of the stakes they’re fighting for. We don’t yet know what conflict is going to crash into their lives and change them forever, but we know that it’s coming.

MOVEMENT TWO: SETTING UP THE CONFLICT

PART ONE: ARGYLE (Time Code: 5:00 to 8:30)

Having established our main characters, Die Hard lights a slow-burning fuse that will eventually push these two to breaking point (and, were it not for the timely intervention of some faux-terrorists, probably push them apart forever; this, too, is important, ’cause it means the “terrorists” are a necessary part of changing these two forever rather than a throw-away plot element).

We cut back to the airport. John is following a line of people away from the baggage claim, but in one of those tiny moments that you barely notice, he’s the only person looking around and trying to get his bearings. Everyone else is powering forward, straight ahead, going where they’re going. John McClane is the only person here feeling a little lost.

He notices a young couple greeting one another, the young lady leaping into her paramours arms. “California,” John says, like it’s the state’s fault, when really he’s just covering the thing that’s really bothering him – there’s no Holly here to meet him. He’s on his own. For the rest of the first act, “fucking California,” become’s John’s code for “I hate this place/job/person that has taken away my wife.”

Then Argyle appears, a limo driver among a row of drivers, holding a sign with John’s name on it and the Nakatomi logo.

This, too, is a smart moment in the movie. Argyle is new to his job – John’s his first customer – and he’s nervous as hell about things. He doesn’t know how to act yet, unlike the stoic limo drivers picking up people who aren’t the protagonist of this film. “It’s my first time driving a limo,” he says.

“It’s my first time riding in one,” John says, and they two men strike a kind of affinity for one another.

A stoic limo driver would have been a disaster in this sequence, a false note. We’re going to learn that John really doesn’t like his wife’s job or her company, and a stoic driver would have been a symbol of the faceless corporation that took her away from him. Quiet authority, unwilling to engage. Argyle, nervous and unsure, isn’t a threat to John or his masculinity, so they bond.

All of this takes less than a minute, by which times we’re in the limo and we get another glimpse into who John McClane is: he’s seated in the front seat, putting himself on equal footing with Argyle. Two ordinary guys, unassuming and uncomfortable with wealth. Even as Argyle tries to sell John on the limo, talking up it’s features, John is unwilling to engage. He yawns. Ignores the spiel.

Because they’ve bonded, Argyle gets to asks a whole bunch of questions that the audience is eager to know about John and Holly’s relationship, and because they’ve bonded, John gives honest, albeit reluctant, answers: they’re married; Holly moved out West for work six months ago; he stayed in New York; they’re officially separated. Why aren’t things working out?

“She had a good job that turned into a great career.” John didn’t come along because he’s a New York cop with a six month backlog of New York scum bags he’s still trying to put behind bars. He can’t just pull up stakes and leave.

And because Argyle is the comic relief character, the court jester of this film, he gets to speak truth to power: “In other words, you thought she wasn’t going to make it out here, and she’d come crawling back to you, so why bother to pack, right?”

Almost immediately afterwards, Argyle puts on a rap track (it is still 1988 here). “Don’t you have any Christmas music?” John asks, echoing Holly’s response to Ellis a few minutes earlier. For all their differences, Holly and John are still united in what they really want. Christmas. Family. Each other. If only they could work their shit out.

PART TWO: NAKATOMI TOWERS (Time Code: 8:31 to 13:30)

Having dumped a whole bunch of back-story on us in the preceding three minutes, the film starts really putting the screws into John. He walks into Nakatomi, heads over to the front desk. “I’m here to see Holly McClane,” he tells the guard on duty.

“Just type it in there,” the guard says, pointing to a computer. “Cute toy,” John says, and he searches for his wife’s name under M, doesn’t find it. Searches for her name under Gennaro. It’s totally there.Shit.

Sheer fucking brilliance packed into less than twenty seconds.

The key thing we’re meant to take away from this scene is that Holly is operating under her maiden name, a point that will stick in John’s craw and become a key point in the next phase of the movie. We could learn exactly the same thing by having a human guard check a ledger, which is how most movies at the time would handle it, but the computer does so much more. Consider the following:

  • The fact that so much of this building is computer controlled is an important plot point, so establishing it early is important. The genius of Die Hard is how seamlessly it ties this sort of thing to other aspects of the narrative, setting something up while simultaneously distracting you with the emotional kick of the scene.
  • It reinforces that John isn’t part of his wife’s world. She lives in a place where these computers are common, he isn’t impressed by them any more than he’s impressed by the limo. He’s a cowboy, a maverick, built to handle the frontier. Technology isn’t his thing. Hell, passenger jets aren’t his thing. He’s a simple man, all about the face-to-face. A throwback to an earlier time.
  • It means the security guard gets to be sympathetic in the few moments he’s got on screen, empathising with John’s loathing of technology. Since we already like John, we feel for the man whose on his side, even if the guard is stuck working with the hated machine. Considering this nameless security guard isn’t long for this world, having him even mildly sympathetic means there’s something at stake when he gets shot a few minutes from now.

John heads upstairs. Notices the cameras, the observation, the omnipresent security. He doesn’t like it.

He likes it even less when he hits the party upstairs, plunging into the Christmas celebration Holly worked through earlier in the film. There’s violins, waiters serving cocktails, people in suits. Not John’s place at all, and he’s ignored by everyone.

Everyone except Holly’s boss, who spots John and welcomes him. A friend John doesn’t want, but is willing to accept in the face of the chaotic party. We learn that Takagi sent the limo, is a nice guy who speaks well of his careers.

We transition to Holly’s office, where John and Takagi run into Ellis snorting cocaine. It’s a key scene for John, since he needs to stamp down on his nature – he’s a New York cop, adverse to scum bags, and Hart Bochner is a master of inserting a little extra scum bag into every scene he’s in as Ellis. He’s arrogant, he’s drugged up, and he boasts about his achievements. He’s everything John dislikes about the corporation, everything John fears Holly will become, distilled into one character. John doesn’t like him. Neither do we, the viewers.

Once again, its important to note that the scene needs Takagi and Ellis. The former needs to come off as a nice guy, someone John can like, ’cause John both needs a means to connect to the office if he’s ever going to understand Holly’s job, and because Takagi is going to be die in the opening minutes of the second act and we need to like him for that death to have an impact. It’s the same trick they pulled with the computer a few minutes earlier, just writ a little larger.

Ellis needs to be a scum bag because we need the conflict – someone for John to but heads with. If John had met Takagi and liked him, its a step towards reconciling with Holly and her work. This would be great for the characters, but it’s not great for the plot. We’re in the first act. We want them ready to fight, ready to deny their true wants and desires in favour of the things that distract them.

This is where the film really starts to hit boiling point, since we’ve brought John right into the heart of Holly’s domain. She’s not there, not quite yet, but John’s been confronted by machines, ostentatious displays of wealth, a throw-away two-second scene where he’s kissed on the cheek by a guy who wishes him a Merry Christmas, and a scumbag like Ellis that John can’t arrest. People may say bad things about Bruce Willis’s acting chops, but he totally fucking nails it here. We have no doubt exactly how much John hates all this.

And then Holly appears, twelve minutes and fifty seconds into the film, still holding files and working through the party. She pauses, whispers John’s name; it’s the first thing that’s made her pause in the entire film. This is significant. John McClane is something important enough to stop her in her tracks, the woman who doesn’t stop for parties or bosses or anything else. You can see the hope that the two will reconcile right there, in that moment, but everything goes wrong. Her boss says something, bringing her work up when they least want it. She crosses the room and greets John, kisses him on the cheek. It’s awkward, but not impossible to imagine that things will get better.

Then Ellis is there, just to fuck things up for everyone. “Show him the watch,” he says, alerting both John and the audience to the object that will stand in for Holly’s core narrative choice in this film. “It’s a Rolex.”

That does the trick. John’s first instinct when faced with his wife’s success is retreat, and he lapses back into that now. “I’m sure I’ll see it later,” he says. “Is there a place I can wash up?”

The man is out of there, fast as he can be, ’cause he isn’t willing to face the choice between his ring or his gun yet.

MOVEMENT THREE: FAILURE TO ENGAGE

THE BATHROOM SCENE (Time Code: 13:31 to 16:17)

So I first got interested in writing this series when I was talking about narrative structure to a friend of mine, and mentioned that the primary role of the protagonist is to run the hell away from the plot for the majority of the first act. This is the core of what makes a protagonist interesting – that they sense the great chances coming their way and avoid going through it.

Audiences are sadists. We much prefer seeing our heroes reluctant and in pain.

“What about Die Hard?” my friend said. “When does John run away?”

I didn’t have an answer for her, not at that moment, so I sat down and started blocking out the movie scene by scene. And when I was done, I adored the movie even more than I did when I started.

This process starts thirteen minutes and thirty seconds into the film. There’s a few seconds where we see the exterior of the building and the terrorists showing up.

And then we cut the bathroom. McClane is washing up, Holly is right there. They talk about how good it is to see each other. Holly asks where he’s staying. “Things happened so fast,” she says. “I didn’t get a chance to ask you on the phone.”

McClane tells her about a former captain – a tie to his job. He’s retired out here, offered John a place to stay.

“He lives in the middle of nowhere,” Holly says. “Why don’t you stay with me?”

The eventually build up to the point where she asks him to stay in her spare room and see the kids’ they both agree it’d be nice. It’s a feel-good moment for the audience, a hint that perhaps Ellis hasn’t ruined everything. There is still common ground these two people can find.

And then a random couple burst into the room from the Christmas party, break the mood, and exit again.

And immediately afterwards Holly says “I missed you,” and McClane responds with “I guess you didn’t miss my name, though, huh? Except when you were signing cheques.” Even the body language changes here: hands in his pockets, belligerent, not at all interested in reconciling if it means giving in and admitting she may be his equal.

And the argument begins. Another interruption – this time by Holly’s pregnant assistant, calls Holly back to the part where she has to be an important member of the Nakatomi team (if this post wasn’t three thousand words long already, I’d spend some time theorizing on the importance of having a pregnant woman make this announcement, but my inner lit-theorist is probably showing badly enough for one post).

Holly excuses herself, goes out to work. John beats himself up for being an idiot.

And with that, we’ve set up characters and primed them for the story to come. They aren’t ready to change yet, not without a catalyst that sets things off, but fortunately that’s about to start.

MOVEMENT FOUR: MENTOR FIGURES

MENTOR FIGURE ONE: SOMETIMES ALL YOU NEED IS A WHOLE BUNCH OF TERRORISTS (Time Code: 16:18 to 20:10)

In romantic comedies the mentor figure – the person who exists to guide the protagonist through the confusing world they find themselves in – is usually a best friend figure. In epic fantasies, it’s usually a literal mentor, with a white beard and wizard robes.

In Die Hard, our mentor is a squad of terrorists who invade Nakatomi towers and kill the security guards on the ground floor, taking over their role.

They get a nice, long introduction here, a necessary extravagance given that they haven’t really had a presence in the film thus far, and their competence is immediately apparent. They do their job fast. One character makes jokes as they kill. They’re not sweating a damn thing as they go through the motions. These guys may be scum, but they’re scum that have their shit together.

The we see the kind of our mentors: Hans. Walking at the forefront of the armed “terrorists” as they ease their way into the film and lock the place down.

Holly and John aren’t in this scene, but there’s no doubt that it changes things. This story, which has been all about two people who can’t live together anymore, is about to veer off in a very different direction. And because the film has primed us for this moment, through its title (Die Hard) and the trailer focusing on explosions and the poster advertising 40 stories of terror, our interest kicks up a notch.

Think this is insignificant? It’s not. Our expectations for how a plot works are set from the moment we engage with these things, and keep developing throughout the first act. If you’d titled Die Hard something like The California Reconciliation, the arrival of the terrorists would feel jarring.

Despite what your mother told you, we do read books by their cover. It’s why there are all sorts of conventions that separate fantasy covers from romance covers from thriller covers from literary covers, to prime the reader for the kind of novel they’re about to read. Films do the same thing. Covers matter. Trailers matter. Titles matter.

And once you know this, and start paying attention to it, you can play with the expectations these things generate. Which is why Die Hard can get away with leaving its “terrorist” take over of the tower as something of a secondary plot, ’cause we’ve been waiting for this moment since the first time we saw the movie poster.

MENTOR FIGURE TWO: SOMETIMES ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS STRIP OFF YOUR SHOES AND SOCKS (Time Code: 20:11 to approximately 23:00)

Of course, terrorists alone aren’t going to cut it in terms of pushing the film forward. John McClane can learn a lot by liberating machine guns and explosives off people, but he isn’t meant to be indestructible. We need him vulnerable in every way we can imagine, so we cut to a shot of him seated in the bathroom, barefoot and creating fists with his toes on the rug.

And once again a make a little squeal of excitement as I realise exactly how smart this film is. Not just because they’ve made our protagonist barefoot, which will prove to be the ultimate sign of vulnerability as the film goes on, a thing that separates McClane from both his enemies and the legion of army-boot wearing heroes that dominated the eighties.

Everyone notices that. The film goes out of its way to highlight the physical vulnerability being barefoot represents.

What’s far more significant is this: John McClane, the man who loathes his wife’s job and the limo, the man who took smug satisfaction in the nerves of the businessman who sat next to him on the flight over when said businessmen saw John’s gun…

…that guy has taken the businessman’s advice, and realises that it seems to work. He’s found a moment where he can connect with the business world his wife exists in, even if it’s in a small and seemingly insignificant way.

The moment immediately leads to John flipping open his wallet to get Argyle’s card, letting the limo driver know that he may end up staying with Holly. It’s a chance for us to see how much family means to John when we spot a photograph of his wife and kids in his wallet.

And because he’s on the phone, John gets some advanced warning that something’s gone horribly wrong when the siege begins and Hans’ crew cuts the phone lines with a chainsaw.

John’s going to pay and pay hard for taking that businessmen’s advice from the opening minutes of the film.

But it’s also going to save his life, in more ways than one.

We get a shot of Hans and his boys walking into the party, machines guns at the ready. John is puzzling over the phone as the first shorts are fired. There’s an attack going on, Holly’s caught in the middle of it. John escapes to the upper levels, barefoot and barely armed, courtesy of his advanced warning.

The film is off to the races, and our first act is done. We have hit the event that breaks the protagonist out of their I don’t wanna engage with this fugue and forced them to engage with their internal conflict. Thus we hit the all-important:

END OF ACT ONE

God fucking damn I love this film.

At this point you’ve stuck with me for about four thousand words of explanatory stuff about the first act (and trust me, I’ve been relatively restrained here), so I’m going to cut things short. Next week’s post will probably be towards the end of the week instead of Tuesday, as I’m heading to the RWA conference in Perth this weekend.

When it does get posted, we’ll be looking at the first half of the second act, where a lot of the meat of the story happens. See you all then.

What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard (Part One)

Die HardNormally, when I sit down to write a Trashy Tuesday Writing School post, it’s because I’m trying to redeem some element of sitting down and watching a terrible movie. Films like the Josh Kirby series, which started badly and ended badly and reached a high water mark around number 3, or Speed Racer, which is a triumph of style but a massive failure as a script, or Robot Jox with…well, you get the picture.

I should not that trashy isn’t applied to these films as a statement of quality – I adore the Speed Racer film for its ambition, and loathe Josh Kirby for…well, reasons that will require a blog post of their own. Trashy is instead used as an aesthetic judgement, a way of categorizing films that are unified by a sense of pop-cultural kitsch and the ability to seep into the popular consciousness.

True, not all trashy films are good. In fact, most of them are pretty terrible; at best, they’re guilty pleasures. We could talk about the how and why of that, ’cause the psychology of it is both interesting and kinda terrifying, but that’s not what today is about. Today is about that rarity: a Trashy film that is also good on almost every level you can imagine.

Today is about Die Hard, and what writers can learn from it.

See, Die Hard easily one of the trashiest of trashy films (on account of explosions, quotable lines, and narrative goofiness) while still being one of the most tightly produced movies ever made. While it wasn’t the film that everyone picked when I asked for their #TrashyTuesdayMovie preferences, it’s overwhelmingly the one I end up talking to people about when I chat to people face-to-face.

Lets make this clear: Die Hard is outstanding and ridiculously well-crafted. It’s easy to forget that, here in 2013, when the distance between us and the first film is muddied by X sequels of dubious quality, including several that fuck with the original formula and therefore transmute what’s essentially a man-against-the-world narrative into a buddy-cop cop where John McClain takes down helicopters with airborne taxi cabs.

For our purposes, fuck the sequels; we’re talking about Die Hard number one. John McClain trapped in the NakatomiTowers with a bunch of terrorists. Perhaps the greatest action movie ever made, a masterpiece of narrative structure. The rest of this series is going to focus on pulling apart that structure, act by act, but for the moment I wanted to kick things off with an overview.

Two whit, these are just a handful of things to pay attention to when you watch Die Hard:

1) ONE PLOT, TWO STORIES

Ask most people what Die Hard is about, and they’ll give you a précis that’s fairly similar to the one I used in the preceding paragraph: cop, high-rise, terrorists. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s the stuff that you’re supposed to notice, the flashy explosions and the quippy lines and Bruce Willis jumping off the tower alone.

The slightly more advanced answer is that it’s all about an everyman triumphing over extraordinary odds. If you’ve ever thought that, give yourself a gold star. Your English teacher will be very proud, and you’re kicking towards the slightly more advanced level of reading that writers tend to operate at when they’re interested in narrative.

Here’s what Die Hard is really about: a man learning to set aside his pride/masculinity and accept his wife as an equal. And an every-man cop trying to stop a group of terrorists who have taken over Nakatomi tower.

Lets make no mistake: the eighties were a dark time for intelligent action movies. There were plenty of schlocky films out there, trashy-as-hell masterpieces that excelled at one-liners, kung-fu, and big explosions, but they lacked the emotional core that makes Die Hard great. Here, the action is just an excuse to explore the inner landscape of John McClain’s character (if you’re wondering, this is what’s absent in Die Hard 2, which is why it’s comparatively pants compared to its predecessor).

Your goal, as a writer, should largely revolve around capturing two stories. The first is all about the physical conflict, the things that actually leap out and challenge your protagonist. The second is internal, a profound emotional or moral change that transforms the inner landscape of the person you’re writing about.

And Die Hard does this. It does it so fucking well it hurts, ’cause you never actually notice how subtly it’s playing you until you stop paying attention to the explosions and figure it out.

2) THREE ACT STRUCTURE FTW

For the record, I don’t think all narratives need to follow a three-act narrative structure (hereby referred to as TAS), but it is enormously prevalent in films and it’s a damn useful tool to have in your toolbox when you’re writing things. There’s a multitude of places online that will tell how the TAS works, but for my money the breakdown runs something like this:

  • Act One: Set the stakes. Show the reader/viewer your character, your world, and all your major metaphors. Introduce conflict and let your character run away from it until they have no freakin’ choice but to go and solve the problem.
  • Act Two, Part One: Having been forced to try and resolve an problem they wanted no part of, your protagonist starts protaging for real and learns the rules of whatever new situation they’ve been thrust into. Keep raising the stakes until you hit the middle of your story. Give your character a win at this point (or, you know, shatter them entirely), but let them learn something that completely changes their understanding of what’s actually going on.
  • Act Two, Part Two: After shattering your protagonist’s worldview at the middle of the story, things get bleak. The law of narrative says every high-point where the protagonist gets a win is followed by a low where you make them pay (writers are basically sadists). Gleefully torture your protagonist. I promise you, no-one will mind. Build tension. Show the reader how your character has evolved. The second act ends when you bring together a number of important details, and make the climax inevitable. It’s not going to happen immediately, but your protagonist knows all the things they need to know in order to confront and overcome both the antagonist and their inner conflict.
  • Act Three: The road to the climax, where your protagonist rushes towards the bit final scene where they make a moral decision, then follow things up with the dénouement where we learn how their life has changed.

There’s a whole bunch of little things that happen in each of these acts, narrative beats that you trust the film to hit, which is one of the reason I ended up breaking this into parts. Die Hard hits those beats like clockwork (not altogether unexpected for a film), and it plays them for all they’re worth.

3) METAPHORS MATTER

Yeah, I know, you graduated from high-school and celebrated the fact that you no longer had to search for the super-secret-hidden-meanings behind objects within your favourite books and films, and you’ve heard a whole of writers talk about the fact that they don’t do this shit intentionally. I don’t fucking care. Repeat after me: METAPHOR IS A GODDAMN POWERFUL TOOL FOR WRITERS.

You learn to use the goddamn tools if you’re going to play around building narratives.

The metaphor pretty-much everyone remembers from Die Hard is John McClain spending the film shoeless, which is a brilliant choice all on its own. There’s plenty of other things to start paying attention to if you watch closely: Holly McClane’s watch, Al Powell’s uniform and cop car, Nakatomi Towers itself, and the fact that the entire thing is set at Christmas. I can’t tell you how many of them were intentional – I’d place good money on the first two, at least – but they’re all a part of how-and-why this film builds itself up.

Here’s the joy of metaphors: you can say important things about the state of a character by messing with the objects we’ve come to associate with them. It’s one of those sneaky ways in writers are all “show, don’t tell” in fiction, but also the way in which film-makers try to avoid beating us over the beat with bad dialogue. A barefoot John McClain says “vulnerable” in a way that a dozen characters saying “there’s no way he can stand up this” doesn’t.

Also, Die Hard is the world’s greatest Christmas movie. If you don’t believe me, tell your friends it’s what you’re planning on watching on Christmas day, and see how many people abandon their families to come hang out.

We’re already a whole lot of words in, and we’ve barely gotten started, so I’m going to cut things off here. Next Tuesday: all the things to pay attention to during Act One of Die Hard, with some focus on why all the metaphors I mentioned are worth paying attention to…