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…

  13 comments for “What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard (Part One)

  1. 12/08/2013 at 4:18 PM

    This post deserves sharing. consider it done. Have you thought about putting all of these posts in ebook form when you are done?

    • petermball
      13/08/2013 at 9:50 PM

      Possibly. I need to do some research into any copyright issues that would come up (which, I know, actually applies here, but there's something about whacking things into a book that makes things feel a little more concrete. Here, at least, I can take down anything that crosses the line without too much trouble).

  2. Thomas Pluck
    12/08/2013 at 7:13 PM

    Al learns to kill again! I need to view it again. does the watch fall with Hans? I thought it symbolized her giving up her job and I didn't like that. time to view it again more closely…

    • petermball
      13/08/2013 at 9:51 PM

      Yep, that's the one. It's the one sour note in an otherwise awesome film, since it resolves John's storyline but kinda destroys Holly's arc.

      • 14/08/2013 at 3:17 AM

        I disagree, fellas. I always thought the lost watch was a nod to Holly's toughness. If she hadn't earned the watch for her hard work, she may never have escaped Hans's clutches.

  3. 13/08/2013 at 2:46 AM

    I'm finishing up watching/analyzing Chinatown today, which is another great film, structurally speaking. Die Hard will be next.

    • petermball
      13/08/2013 at 9:52 PM

      Chinatown is, perhaps, the most perfectly structured film in existence. It's brilliant, but it's widely acknowledged to be brilliant. Die Hard is brilliant, but it's good qualities are generally overshadowed by the string of somewhat-less-brilliant sequels.

      • Thomas Pluck
        13/08/2013 at 10:31 PM

        No one likes to talk about The Two Jakes…

  4. 20/08/2013 at 9:56 AM

    A great read. I could be wrong, isn't it McClane not McClain?

    • petermball
      20/08/2013 at 8:47 PM

      It is. I wrote this installment from memory and didn't double-check the name before I posted it. I get it right (more or less) in the later installments, and when I grab a free moment I'll fix all the instances in this post.

      It's getting the free moment that's the tricky part. 'Tis the season of writer's festivals in my neck of the woods…

      • 21/08/2013 at 11:32 PM

        No worries. I'm always making mistakes in my articles. My girlfriend's mum likes to point them out.

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