Some short time ago, for the sake of my own self-education, I began the in-depth study of a particular film using the “Start/Stop” technique of story analysis promoted by UCLA screenwriting professor William Froug in his book Zen and the Art of Screenwriting (Silman St. James Press, 1996).
I had used this study technique on a couple of films before now, but this time I spent far more time and energy, went far deeper into the text, and gave far more attention to how and why the film's story worked than Froug possibly ever intended. After several months, and 207 individual scenes, I had 81 pages of single-spaced, type-written notes. I then condensed that into 23 pages of hand-written notes.
You may be surprised that the subject of my study was not a revered “art film”, or one of the hailed modern “masterpieces” of cinema, but 1988's Die Hard, (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza, directed by John McTiernan). What drew me to study Die Hard was its tightly structured plot and its endless ability to create suspense in its audience – plus, the fact that, more than 20 years later, all of its hundreds of imitators have failed to match the experience of the original. I now know why. Die Hard is an excellent piece of writing by a set of artists who KNOW how to create a story experience for an audience. I probably learned more from this movie than from my final year of film school. What follows are some of the highlights of that education:
PART 1: BAD GUYS NEED LOVE TOO
A staple element of the action genre, an absolutely necessary component that makes an action move an action movie is the BAD GUY. The Villain. A pure embodiment of antagonism, unconditionally dedicated to stop at nothing to destroy the hero.
The worth of a story's hero is based on the value of the hero's actions. To follow that, the value of the hero's actions all matters on the strength of the force of antagonism opposing the hero. A hero's victory means nothing if it was easy to come by. Therefore, you must agree that the stronger the antagonist, the stronger the story experience, especially in the action genre.. It is actions from the antagonist that start the story and propels the hero into action, and it is the continued pressure from the antagonist that forces the story to develop forward to a climax.
Yet sadly, in many of the unsatisfying action movies out there, the antagonist is the weakest link. I have seen so many cartoonish antagonists that are flat, cardboard little men who seem to do nothing more than scowl, laugh manically, intimidate others, or just generally loiter abount being “evil.” Many action villains seem to exist for no reason other than to wait around until the hero to finally manages to kill them.
A great antagonist should be an equal to the protagonist. He is in fact a second protagonist- a protagonist gone wrong, your hero's evil twin. The villain deserves – even demands – equal attention from the writer as the hero. The hero and villain must be evenly matched, and each need to be developed as much care and attention as the other. This principle is shines clear and bright in one of moviedom's best villains, Mr. Hans Gruber.
1. THE ANTAGONIST SPINE
As briefly mentioned in my October article on the Story Spine, it is not enough for only the protagonist to to follow the course of a well-planned character spine, but all important characters should follow spines of their own, including the antagonist. The only way to turn an action villain from a stagnant cartoonish fiend to an exciting, unstoppable force that threatens to flatten the hero at every breath is to give the antagonist an ANTAGONIST SPINE, an spine of action just as strong as the protagonist's.
The protagonist of Die Hard is NYPD officer John McClane (Bruce Willis). McClane's spine is clear.
His PROBLEM: He and his wife Holly are trapped in a building seized by terrorists. His GOAL: to get he and Holly out of the building alive. His PATH OF ACTION: McClane takes various actions to first get the attention of the police, and then to keep LAPD and FBI incompetence from killing them all. His CONFLICT: Hans Gruber and his dozen or so gun-wielding henchmen wish to kill him, as well as the LAPD and FBI members who refuse to listen to him. His STAKES: His and Holly's life.
Now, lets flip the script. Lets look at this movie as if McClane were not the protagonist, but Hans Gruber. What is Hans's Story Spine?
Hans's GOAL: To steal the money from the building's vault and escape scott-free. Han's PROBLEM: Achieving this is a nearly impossible task. Hans's PLAN OF ACTION: Carry out and intricately planned series of actions to get into the vault and escape right under the authorities' noses. Hans's CONFLICT: Officer John McClane, a “poisoned pill in the works” is running around free in the building, actively working to wreck his plans. Hans's STAKES: On the up side, he can escape with hundreds of millions of dollars. On the down side, imprisonment or death.
John McClane and Hans possess completely separate spines aimed at separate goals, but the situation forces these goals into conflict with each other. All John wants to do is get out of the building alive with his wife. Unfortunately, Hans can't achieve his goal if that should happen. The plot of Die Hard plays out as two main characters in constant pursuit of separate spines, constantly reacting as the actions of the opposite character infringe upon the pursuit of their own goal. With only a little re-writing this entire script could be completely reversed, with Hans as the protagonist and John as the antagonist, and the plot would still work.
Not only does Hans have his own spine, he possesses his own three-act plot structure, complete with turning points. These three acts and their associated turning points are not the same as the plot structure of the main story. Those belong to the main Story Spine- (the protagonist's spine). THAT structure belongs to John McClane. Han's spine has its own structure and each of his turning points exist in direct relation to Hans advancing towards HIS goal.
Let's take a look at the story structure as it belongs to John McClane, and compare it to the story events that relate to Hans's spine.
Main Plot Structure (the Protagonist Spine)
John's entrance to the story: John's airplane lands at LAX (Scene 1, 0:00:01)
Inciting Incident - (the moment where the direct conflict first appears that forces the character to take action): Terrorists invade the Nakatomi building. ( Scene 19, 0:21:00)
First Act Turning Point: John watches Hans execute Mr. Takagi. John now understands that these men are willing to kill and he is the only one who can stop them. (Scene 35, 0:31:30)
Midpoint: John achieves his immediate goal- he finally gets the attention of the police by throwing a dead body onto Officer Powell's police car. (Scene 91, 00:58:00)
Second Act Turning Point: John discovers the explosives on the roof. (Scene 166, 1:46:15)
Climax: John saves Holly by causing Hans to fall to his death (Scene 201, 2:02:15)
Hans's Plot Structure (the Antagonist Spine)
Hans's entrance to the story: A truck carrying Hans travels towards the Nakatomi building. (Scene 17, 0:13:00)
Inciting Incident: John sends a message to Hans through the dead body of one of his henchmen (Until now, things have gone as planned for Hans. This is the first moment he learns of any direct conflict in the way of his goal) (Scene 50, 0:40:00)
First Act Turning Point: Hans learns that John has stolen the detonators (something his plan cannot succeed without) (Scene 98, 0:56:30)
Midpoint: Hans gets the detonators back. (Scene 149, 1:32:30)
Second Act Turning Point: Hans successfully opens the vault. (Scene 158, 1:41:00)
Climax: Hans fails to achieve his goal of escaping with the money. He is defeated by John and falls to his death. (Scene 202, 2:02:50)
Since Hans entered the story seventeen minutes late, each of his turning points are displaced timewise from the main plot's turning points by approximately that same amount – but, the turning points continue to occur at the same interval of time as those of the main plot (appx 15 minutes between Hans's inciting incident and his first turning point, appx 30 minutes between his first turning point and midpoint, and so on). The structure of both spines starts to move closer and closer to each other as the story progresses until they ultimately meet at the climax where both spines are resolved, one in victory, the other in defeat.
2. EMPATHY & AFFECTION: WE'RE ALWAYS HURT BY THE ONES WE LOVE
Which would hurt you more? A betrayal by someone you hate, or by someone you love and respect? Which would be more unexpected?
Let take a look at the stereotypical one-dimensional villains found often in cartoons, comic books, and bad action movies. These guys are 100% bad. And they never miss a chance to prove it. Every moment, pushing it over the top, snarling, yelling, wringing their hands in twisted glee, berating their allies, threatening the innocent, constant acts of cruelty and immorality. Then, let's say this villain decides to kill a man in cold blood. Well, this doesn't have that much impact on the audience, does it? Why? Because the audience expects it! They have seen nothing of the villain except villainy, so killing a man is just another drop in the bucket. It is normal, it is boring. If the writer wants to surprise the audience, he should make the villain do something nice. However, this murder, no matter how gruesome will fall flat because the audience has become desensitized. These villains aren't scary. They're boring.
Now, lets look at Hans Gruber. Sure, Hans is as cruel and black-hearted as anyone. But, damn if we aren't given enough good reasons to like him in spite of it! Hans is witty, sophisticated, urbane, well-spoken, confident, and brilliant. He would be a fascinating individual should you meet him in real life. Even if one doesn't like Hans, they must admit that they at least admire him. Even if one doesn't want to be his friend, they would at least want to remain within earshot of him at a party.
There is a sequence soon after Han's first appearance in the story, where Hans and his men take Mr. Takagi, the boss of the Nakatomi Corporation, to the executive conference room to ask for the vault's code. We learn a good deal about Hans on the way. Hans shows his sophisticated tastes by recognizing the designer of Takagi's suit. He reveals a high level of education by quoting Plutarch. He never yells, pushes, or threatens Mr. Takagi in a typically criminal manner. Instead, he is nothing but polite and respectful.
Then he blows Takagi's brains out.
It is a shocking moment. Why? The audience does not expect it. They have been led to see Hans as a charming, rational man. The audience has been led to admire him. And then Hans stabs them in the back.
But just like anyone who has fallen in love with the wrong person, the audience is led back to finding things to like about Hans. He charms us with his wit, impresses us with his genius, gains our respect by how he deals with Holly, shows far more restraint and good judgment when contrasted to the one-tracked brutality his righthand man Karl. He's not an evil man, just a thief trying to do his job.
Then he orders a pair of policeman to be burnt alive.
“Why, Hans, why?” asks the audience. “We thought you were our friend!” Even John McClane is shocked by how black-hearted the formerly reasonable Hans is revealed to be. It stings more because the audience has been allowed to like him. We can't believe that someone we like so much could do something so terrible. To make a great antagonist, he must become your audience's friend. Then let him stab them in the back!
Die Hard goes so far as to not only allow the audience to like their villain, but even give a few moments where the audience is encouraged to EMPATHIZE with him! At the 1 hour, 20 minute mark, Holly's coworker Ellis approaches Hans with what we find out to be the foolish proposal of negotiating John's surrender. Ellis's character is, to put it bluntly, a jackass. He is easily the most contemptible character in the script. Pompous and arrogant, a soulless phony in every way- someone you would hate to be stuck in a conversation with. Ellis chews the scenery in this scene, attempting to be charming, attempting to be clever and worldly – and failing miserably. Then we see Han's reaction. His tired, irritated reaction. In this scene, we the audience feel Han's pain. We know exactly what he is thinking. We have empathy for the antagonist. Sympathy for the devil. And we feel more connected to Hans as a result.
Then he shoots Ellis in the head.
3. PERSONALITY IS NOT A PRIVILEGE, IT IS A RIGHT
Whenever I see any low-grade action movie, movies such as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Commando, or nearly anything with Steven Seagal, there seems to be an obligatory third act sequence where the hero breaks into the villain's hideout and starts gunning down waves and waves of enemy guards. The same question hits me every time. Just who in the hell are all these people? Where did the villain possibly find so many poorly-trained morons who are willing to fight and die for someone so evil?
Time and time again, the most under served characters in any action movie is not the villain, but the dozens of supporting characters who work for that villain. The henchmen, the cronies, hired goons, whatever you want to call them. They are usually given such labels because writers treat them as nothing but a collection of faceless extras, devoid of any name, personality, or significance. These characters exist for nothing more than to be eventually slaughtered by the hero.
One thing I love about Die Hard, the one thing that sets its cast of characters apart from most action movies, is that its creators always made the effort to give EVERY character a personality. Nearly every one of Han's villains has been given some little thing to make them unique. I don't mean just the important supporting villains such as Karl or the clownish computer genius Theo, but nearly every one of the bad guys, from Karl's brother Tony to Theo's young assistant is given a moment or two to show us who they are.
Now, it isn't necessary to do a full character development on every single supporting character. You don't need to waste the time to communicate every person's name, background, the childhood trauma at age 6. All that is needed is one small moment, pausing for one moment to give a TELLING ACTION that communicates something unique about them. If the telling action is interesting enough, it can be all that is needed to let the audience's imagination fill in the rest.
I doubt anyone can remember the name of the blonde henchman tasked with impersonating the security guard in the front lobby, but he has been given a bunch of personality with his cowboy boots and friendly Texas accent. There's an Asian henchmen with a ponytail. We never hear his name, but know he has a sweet tooth! The little moment where we see him snagging a free candy bar humanizes what would otherwise be a faceless goon. Early in the first act, Karl's brother Tony is meticulously cutting off each individual phone line one by one, paying great attention to detail- then becomes incredibly annoyed as Karl cuts them all at once with a chainsaw. How much do we learn about these two people just by this one moment?
Actors always say “There are no small parts, only small actors.” This old saw applies to you the writer as well.