Thursday, December 17, 2009

Things I Learned from DIE HARD, Part II: Conflict and Plot Development


The plot of Die Hard demonstrates how quickly and easily a story can develop when both the protagonist and the antagonist have fully conceived, separate yet opposed, character spines. Since protagonist John McClane and antagonist Hans Gruber possess individual story goals that are completely opposed to each other, it means that every act John takes to reach his goal, simultaneously works AGAINST Hans achieving his goal, thus creating direct conflict. Likewise, every action that Hans takes to reach his goal of opening the vault and escaping with the money creates conflict in John's spine because it works against John's pursuit of his goal. This situation creates a story with what we can call “Push/Pull Plot Development.”
When it comes to action movies, it is best to always follow the rule, 'no matter what the protagonist does to try to make things better, the situation always ends up getting WORSE'. With every action, the hero tries to make gains, but, win or lose, it always ends up making things worse by creating unwanted complications. A push/pull relationship between your hero and antagonist illustrates how to make this happen. Simple physics states that with every action, there occurs an equal and opposite reaction. The physics of plot progression are similar, but slightly different: “For every action taken, there occurs an opposite, and even GREATER reaction.”
Like two men operating and old fashion railroad handcar, Die Hard's plot progresses by each side taking turns pushing and pulling. In the process, it moves the story forward, gaining velocity with each effort.
To demonstrate:
John McClane's ultimate story goal is “to get him and his wife out of this situation alive”. For the first half the the story, John's immediate goal that will work to achieve his main goal is “to get the police's attention.” So, John takes an action to try to achieve this: he pulls the fire alarm. However, this act only ends up creating unwanted consequences for John.
Han's immediate goal is “to maintain control over the building.” John pulling the fire alarm interferes with this goal. So, John's action creates an unwanted reaction from Hans: he cancels the alarm and sends a gunman to find John. But it doesn't stop there. Having a machine-gun wielding terrorist sent after him definitely gets in the way of John achieving his ultimate goal of survival. So, this action from Han's creates a second unwanted reaction from John. John not only reacts, but escalates the level of conflict: he kills the gunman, and uses the dead body to taunt Hans. However, this escalation by John is immediately followed by a greater escalation from Han's side. The dead gunman was the brother of Han's #1 henchman, Karl. Karl now wants to hunt down John and kill him.
The plot continues in this fashion, starting with a new first action by John:
- John makes another attempt to contact the police by calling from the roof with a radio.
- Unwanted reaction from Han's side: Karl and two others are sent to the roof to kill John.
- Unwanted escalated reaction from John: John flees their attempts to kill him and escapes into a ventilation shaft.
- Unwanted escalated reaction from Han's side: Karl attempts to track down John and kill him while he is trapped in the vent.
This sequence is resolved when John is saved by the bell. (A police officer has arrived to check things out). But the action/reaction once again begins anew at the top of this new sequence.
Every time a character reacts, their reaction is never random. Every action is always done for reasons that will achieve either the character's immediate goal or their ultimate goal: In John's case, survival/contact the police. In Han's case, control. (or in Karl's case, revenge).
A closer look at Die Hard also shows a push/pull between opposing sides can create great action sequences when done on a smaller scale, at a higher speed. Observe this short piece of action:


1. John's immediate goal is to get the hostages off the roof. The action he chooses to accomplish this is to fire his weapon into the air.
2. This action creates an unwanted reaction from FBI Agents Johnson & Johnson. The Johnsons think that John is a terrorist and begin to fire on him.
3. Shooting at John creates a reaction that the Johnsons do not want. John runs away and hides on the other side the the building where they can't get at him.
4. But, once again, John's action causes the agents to react in a way John doesn't want. They decide to circle around the building and kill him with a sniper rifle.
5. We have to wait until the next scene to discover John's reaction, one much bigger than his previous ones – to jump off the roof.
In any movie that demands a fast pace and strong conflict, character actions must not exist in a vacuum. Each move must be challenged by a countermove. When done at a slower pace, the push/pull creates suspense, when done quickly, it creates the sensation of things hurtling out of control.

Die Hard's storyline progresses with this simple two-sided push/pull up until the midpoint of the story. (The 58 minute mark, after John has gotten Sgt. Powell's attention by throwing a body onto his car). At this point, new players are suddenly added to the story. The story complicates quickly as new story forces arrive outside of the building. First, it is the Los Angeles Police Department, led by the self-important and incompetent Lieutenant Robinson. Then, (after being humiliated and defeated through conflict by both John and Hans) they are replaced by the far more menacing FBI agents Johnson & Johnson.
The first thing to notice is that although John has been working so hard up to this point to contact the authorities, doing so does not make his life easier. It, as always, only makes things worse. The LAPD and FBI are not on John's side. They refuse to listen to him, and for the most part refuse to even acknowledge him. Rather than do things the way that our hero knows they should be done to save the hostages' lives, they would rather foolishly do things in a way that plays right into the villains' hands. And these actions all end up THREATENING John's chances of achieving his goal. Because the LAPD/FBI stand in direct conflict to John achieving his goal, they become a SECOND source of antagonism.
But, just because the cops/feds outside are a source of antagonism, it doesn't mean they are on the same side as Hans. Far from it. They are in direct conflict with Hans as well as with John. The authorities are neither good guys nor bad guys. They are a completely separate force. What the writers have done is develop the story from a two-side conflict into a three-sided one. Each side of the conflict is directly opposed to the other two sides. The conflict has gone from linear to triangular.
The advantages of a triangular conflict over a simpler linear one become clear in Die Hard's second half. The story's midpoint could have been an event that weakened story tension (John McClane no longer has to fight the terrorists directly, because the cops are now here to take over), instead, it ends up escalating the tension exponentially. This is simply because there are now more levels of conflict, and thus far more potential for dramatic action. There was one conflict in the first half of the story: John-Hans. In the second half, there are three times as many: John-Hans, John-LAPD/FBI, and Hans-LAPD/FBI. Not only is there now no shortage of conflict, but having three lines running at the same time allows the storyteller to jump from one to the other, keeping suspense high and action tight in each line so none of them have any chance of running out of gas. This cross-cutting between levels of conflict is something like tag-team wrestling for writers. Always keep sending the fresh man in.
Note that Lt. Robinson nor the Johnsons never become strong enough to usurp the role of main antagonist from Hans. Though antagonistic, they are not villainous. They exist in a moral grey area. They are more like pests than villains. Their antagonism comes from ignorance or incompetence, not evil intentions. It's just like the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A triangular conflict is the Hero, the Villain, and the Pest.
Triangular conflicts can be found in other places in the script, particularly in a certain scene sequence at the 1:20:00 mark. Holly's obnoxious coworker Ellis creates a triangular conflict when he approaches Hans to offer his help in negotiating John's surrender. Though he claims he is doing it on their behalf, Ellis is only looking to serve himself. Neither Hans nor John likes Ellis. They are both in conflict with him in these scenes. Just like the LAPD and FBI, Ellis's actions are based on ignorance. He complicates things by making himself a pest. This makes a great scene with three levels of conflict: Hans-Ellis, John-Ellis, and John-Hans.

Lt. Robinson: Anytime you want to go home, Sergeant... consider yourself dismissed.
Sgt. Powell: No, sir! You couldn't drag me away.
The midpoint of Die Hard created a particular challenge for its writers. For the protagonist John McClane to have any dramatic relationship with this third new party and create this triangular antagonism- John needed to be in DIRECT conflict with them. Without any direct conflict between John and the LAPD/FBI, the storyline would suddenly be split into with two separate conflicts (John/Hans, and Hans/LAPD-FBI). This would have severely weakened the story by forcing the hero into a passive secondary role with no influence over the actions of the third party outside. John would be able to do nothing but sit and watch while the authorities screw up everything.
But here's the problem: how can a writer maintain direct conflict between these two sides when the story's situation prevents any kind of direct contact between them? John McClane is trapped inside the tower. The police and the feds are stuck outside. It is hard, next to impossible even, for John to conflict directly with them if he cannot physically BE there with them.
I can imagine that early drafts of this script were burdened with this problem. There might have been scene after scene of John trying to contact the LAPD on the radio to argue with them, only to be ignored time and time again. Our hero John would be powerless, turned into a weak protagonist unable to have an active control over story events. Or perhaps, there were drafts where John actually was able to have meaningful contact with Lt. Robinson. But that doesn't work either. Robinson is supposed to be a source of antagonism. He is supposed to stand in the way of John achieving his goal.
So what did the writers do? They did the same thing that any high-power businessperson would do when they can't be somewhere they really need to be. They send someone to represent them. They create a proxy to act on their behalf. And on John's behalf, the writers created Sgt. Al Powell.
Officer John McClane and Sgt. Powell (played by Reginald VelJohnson) are two characters cut from the same cloth. The are both urban street cops with working-class values. They act alike, think alike, have the similar opinions, and laugh at each other's jokes. Powell always thinks what John thinks, knows what John knows, and wants what John wants - no matter how arrogant or incompetent everyone else on the police force is.
John does not need to spend much time trying to conflict directly with Robinson or the Johnsons, because Powell is there to do it FOR him. Every one of Powell's scenes after the midpoint involves Powell fighting for John. Fighting for John to be recognized, fighting for John's safety, fighting to get those in charge to do what John needs them to do, almost as if John were down there arguing with them himself. Powell represents John in a place where John can't be. These scenes work because Powell is used as a proxy for the protagonist.
Powell isn't the only character used as a proxy. In the third act, John finds himself in over his head in a long, climactic battle to the death with Karl. Meanwhile, the story continues to develop on the other storylines. Since John is currently too busy fighting with Karl to conflict with the antagonist Hans, the main John/Hans conflict threatens to go flat at the worst possible moment. The writers succeed at avoiding this by allowing Holly to pick up the slack and take over the Hans conflict on her husband's behalf. In a way, she saves the third act, holding it steady until John is finally able to meet Hans face-to-face for the film's dramatic climax.

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