Your Characters Must Earn Their Way Out of Trouble

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My treadmill movie the other day was Fast Five.

I don’t like to think too much when I exercise.
Fast Five free online
The movie, part of the wildly successful franchise, has two opening set pieces. In the first, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is rescued from a prison bus by his car-driving cohorts, led by Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). The three of them end up hiding out in Rio de Janeiro.

In the second set piece, Dom and his team set out to steal three cars off a moving train (why bother with a mere car dealership?) They need to pull this off without anybody on the train (including engineers, conductors, several DEA agents, and passengers with window seats) realizing that an off-road, tricked-out tow truck is tracking alongside as two guys use blow torches to peel off a large section of train car.

In other words, mindless fun.

There’s some betrayal, some fighting, some shots fired, one explosion, and naturally O’Conner ends up dangling from the side of the train just as it is approaching a steel bridge that will shave off the distressed con like Tom Selleck’s morning stubble.

Never fear, though. Dom is in a car! O’Conner manages to jump onto the back of the car right before the bridge … and right before Dom and car and O’Conner drive off the cliff.

They fall a couple hundred feet, splashing into a conveniently placed lake.

Unfortunately, as they come up for air, they are met by half a dozen local drug thugs with machine guns.

So far, so good (plot wise). They have gotten into trouble, then out of trouble, and immediately into more trouble.

We cut to a scene in a Rio warehouse, where Dom and O’Conner are hanging by their wrists, shackled by heavy chains.

The super villain, backed by his armed-to-the-teeth crew, informs our two heroes that he knows Dom’s sister is in possession of one of the stolen cars, and he wants to know where it is. If they will tell him, he’ll let them go.

Naturally, our leads swear, scoff, and glare.

Now, what does any super villain worth his salt do in such a situation? Begin the torture, of course. Get them to talk!

Right?

Wrong! Instead, the super villain says he can locate the sister himself, and quietly walks out with all but two of this thugs.

So now we have our two leads, hanging like sides of beef, under the watchful eye of a duo of armed goons.

What’s any goon worth his salt going to do? Use our heroes for target practice.

Right?

Wrong! One of the goons, without his weapon at the ready, walks right up to O’Conner so the latter can kick said goon right in the chest

But that won’t do anything, will it? After all, the two heroes are still in chains. All the thug has to do is brush himself off and restore order.

Right?

Wrong!

For it is here that Dom breaks his chains.

All he does, without any leverage whatsoever, using only his magnificent deltoids, is thrust his arms outward. His wrist manacles snap, and the chains break. This is so Dom can immediately head butt the other thug, who has pulled out his gun.

Meanwhile, O’Conner is able to wrap his legs around the first thug’s neck.

The sequence, from the super-villain walkout to the subduing of the twin (and, apparently, too-stupid-to-live) armed goons takes about ten seconds.

Over the whir of the treadmill I shouted, “Come on, man! You can’t just do that!”

Nevertheless, I kept on watching, for all that took place before the appearance Mr. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the largest federal agent known to man.

Which leads, shortly thereafter, to two more of my favorite “Come on, man!” movie thriller tropes:

a) The locked, heavy-steel door that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson smashes open with one kick.

b) Our heroes running across the tin roofs of Rio, chased by a dozen machine-gun-wielding agents, as bullets spray around their heads and legs, taking out windows and bricks and laundry, but never one single bullet hitting any of them anywhere.

This is where I ended my workout.

Those of us who write in the thriller, crime, mystery and suspense genres cannot get away with this. We cannot allow our readers to Come-on-man us.

Which means we cannot get our characters out of trouble by pure coincidence, Deus ex machina, or the temporary suspension of the laws of physics.

They have to earn their way out.

What do I mean?

A good novel is about a character’s life-and-death struggle (physical, professional, or psychological). The character, in meeting the challenges, must demonstrate strength of will. It is through the exercise of this strength that the character transforms (or, in the case of a tragedy) fails to transform.

The thriller writer gets his characters into deep trouble. Backs them into corners, as they say. The characters must get themselves out because of their own logical efforts. Breaking chains just ‘cuz is not a logical effort.

This does not mean, I hasten to add, that another character cannot show up to rescue your hero. But—and here’s the key—the circumstances for that rescue must be set up by the character beforehand

If your character is in physical peril, he can earn his way out by: a) exercising some physical prowess that has been set up in the beginning and conforms to reality; b) use some gadget he’s been hiding, also set up in the beginning (this was the function of Q in the James Bond movies); c) another character with whom the hero has had contact before. Often this is an enemy that turns ally, because of some act of kindness or moral persuasion. Thus, at the end of Casablanca, Louis lets Rick off the hook for killing Major Strasser. Why? Because he’s observed Rick’s increasingly heroic behavior and decided, finally, to show some spine against the Nazis.

The other kind of peril is the need to solve a mystery. This is, of course, the sine-qua-non of the classic mystery involving a sleuth. But it can also be a subplot in a thriller, or any other plot for that matter

In this case, the character earns the solution by an exercise of the mind. Miss Marple has her powers of observation and knowledge of the human condition. Holmes has his power of deduction. Bosch has the doggedness of his detective training. Castle uses his knowledge of fiction technique.

Thus, the mystery is solved when the final piece of the puzzle clicks into place in the sleuth’s mind. This is what my friend Tom Sawyer, former show runner for Murder, She Wrote, calls “the penny drop.” It’s that last little thing that happens, seemingly small (like a penny dropping on the floor) that the sleuth puts together with all the other cogitations to this point, to finally solve the whole thing. As Tom explains it in his excelent Fiction Writing Demystified:

As with other such devices it’s important, even if the penny drop is prompted for the protagonist by some lucky accident or coincidence, that most of the other elements of the equation are earned — the result of his or her doing.

So … never get your characters out of trouble without some sort of set-up that justifies the escape. You can have this figured out beforehand (plotters!) or you can get into a corner and then go back and figure out how to set up the escape (pantsers!)

Just remember what it says in the good book (of fiction writing): Thy hero shalt not escape by delts alone. 

What about you? Ever backed your hero into an inescapable corner? What did you do about it? 

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30 thoughts on “Your Characters Must Earn Their Way Out of Trouble

  1. I have found this is an area where critiquers definitely help me. Sometimes I have written those scenarios, wavered as to whether or not the characters get themselves out of trouble too conveniently, and then the critiquers settle the matter for me. And sometimes, honestly, I use those too-convenient moments as an excuse–the ole “Well they got away with that in such and such TV show or movie, why can’t I?” Then after I’m done grumbling at the critique I get to work and make the characters work to get out of their fix. 😎 It’s an easy trap to fall into.

    • The old screenwriters used to call this skating fast on thin ice. Just get through it and move on with the story. Of course, that was back in the day when we didn’t have DVDs and replay capability!

  2. Come on, man! You’re telling me you ran on the treadmill for 100 minutes, long enough to watch a whole movie? You are a super hero!

    • Ha ha….a) I walk …. and b) see where I said “This is where I ended my workout”? If I recall correctly all that I described happens within the first 25 minutes! (They don’t call these movies “Fast” for nothing.)

  3. Foreshadowing is everything. I believe it was Johnny Carson who said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.” Your mention of Q from the James Bond stories is exactly right. Plus, the audience is going to want to keep watching to see how he uses the gizmo to get out of trouble.

    Many times, I have to go back and layer in the foreshadowing (yeah, I’m a “planster”) as I come upon a skill a character needs to get out of a jam. He has to scale a wall in scene 64? Okay, go back to scene 3 and show him putting his rock climbing equipment away.

    Same goes for personality traits, etc. If we hadn’t seen Indiana Jones freak out at the snake in the plane, the whole scene in the snake pit would have lost a good chunk of its impact.

    I’ve done my own blog posts on foreshadowing. If anyone’s interested, just type “foreshadowing” into the search box on my website.

  4. Ah, isn’t it nice to be able to go back and plant what we need to? Or we can do it the other way. We can find ourselves writing something not knowing what it means down the line. And then down the line we pay it off … or cut it!

  5. Darn. I was reading so fast I missed it. That was a lot of action for 25 minutes–but informative. I was starting to worry that my WIP has too much action in first 125 pages. Maybe not.

    • Well now … be sure to give the readers a “chance to catch their breath.” That’s how you control pace and deepen the character bond. But that’s a subject for a future post!

  6. How about the Mary Poppins bag? I set up beforehand my character’s backpack having all his “necessities” and usually if something is needed (within reason) he’s got it in the bag.

  7. Ha! I forgot Felix had a magic bag. I’ll be mindful of your tips. Thanks!

  8. I like the amulets, the gadgets, with which the lead has been forearmed. And I like it better when that gadget has been slipped into the plot under the pretense of a significance other than just a future weapon, such as the wounded warrior who wears a jagged cross, made from a piece of the helicopter frame that saved his life when his chopper was shot down. That amulet becomes a multi-use tool to cut bindings, stop bullets, etc. to save him once again.

    And when I have the hero backed into an inescapable corner? That’s when I call a time out, a “Hold everything” pause. Sleep is usually my creative solution locator.

    Thanks for another great post. I finished Romeo’s Hammer this week. I love Romeo’s go-to resource, his rabbi, for pulling a solution out of the net. And I still hope Romeo finds Sophie in a future book.

    • You know, that sleep thing is pretty powerful, isn’t it? We should make it a habit to ask ourselves questions about our WIP before nodding off…then write down notes first thing in the morning!

  9. Nice analysis and helpful hints. The Furious franchis only gets more illogical as time goes on. It appears in Hollywood today, if you can think it up, we can shoot it with aid of computers and frantic editing.
    It’s up to the writer to think of more credible solutions, even if off beat or unorthodox. As long as it is logical.

  10. Thanks for bringing up these ever-so-convenient movie gimmicks, Jim. The one I hate most of all is the one you mentioned where the good guys are running and the bad guys are spraying the entire are with automatic weapon fire, and amazingly no one is hit. You forgot to add the part where the good guy pulls out his PISTOL, carefully aims, and takes out the bad guy with the automatic weapon. One shot.

    As I said, I hate this one the most, but it’s closely shadowed by the girl being pursued through woods (or a park) at night, and she falls down. I was about twenty-five years old before I realized women could maintain their balance while running.

    • Yeah, as least let someone get hit in the face with some exploding brick or something!

      Hadn’t thought about the girl falling down bit, but now that you mention it. I wonder if high heels had anything to do with it?

  11. “never one single bullet hitting any of them anywhere.”
    Only legit on “The A-Team” TV series, where even the good guys’ bullets never hit anyone. But we know from the start this isn’t even pretending to be a real thriller.

    So why do so many wannabe thrillers get away with it and make money? Don’t we as humans seek different kinds of escape? We escape into a thriller or a real love story for a certain “realistic” vicarious experience. We escape in the kind you’re talking about or a Harlequin romance to get a cheap sugar high–some of us all the time, all of us some of the time.

    • I think you’re exactly right, Eric. The best thriller and romance experiences allow us to escape … and I’d say, even more–escape INTO a dream. But if something happens that pulls us out of the dream (such as a “Come on, man!” moment) that works against the escapism, right?

      I recall an opening chapter from a trad pub thriller that had it all — nighttime, SWAT team, trapped protagonist, death on the line! Then I read Chapter 2, and it quickly became apparent there was absolutely NO NEED for a SWAT team, considering what was happening. A simple knock on the door by a single federal agent would have done the trick.

      I did not read Chapter 3 … or any other chapter. I was not in the mood to invest more time in this dream, if I was going be constantly shaken awake.

  12. Jim, great post, and one all thriller writers need to read and heed. One of the first thing Gayle Roper taught me at my first writing conference (see, I’ve learned from someone other than you) is that the hero must “do it himself,” not be rescued by miraculous means. This must have escaped some of the Hollywood writers.
    Oh, by the way. I know how many shots the various pistols hold, but have you ever wondered where these folks get the ones that hold 32 bullets without reloading?

    • Gayle is a great teacher. Helped many a writer. Gave me good advice early on, too.

      The unlimited ammo rule is a current Hollywood favorite, right?

  13. In my short sci-fi piece, I went to one of the oldest and most reliable tropes to get my hero out of a very tricky situation:

    I introduced a precocious 10-year-old who knows all the ins and outs of the underground world and can lead our hero where he needs to be.

    Hey, sometimes the oldest tricks are the best and there is a twist with the kid that is revealed in the very last line.

    Terri

  14. My characters occasionally use guns. Guns are tricky. Even when someone has had training, there’s a high probability that a shot won’t go where it’s supposed to be. Has the character ever used a gun before? Had training? Do they know how to load it? The old saw, “If you get stuck, bring in a (wo)man with a gun,” isn’t always the smartest solution.

    It’s interesting that films get away with “Oh, come on man!” moments and we can’t. No fair!

    Great blog, as always, JSB.

    • Right, Laura. In a movie theater, you can’t stop the film and go back. With a DVD you can, but still.

      But with a book, the moment the reader goes, “Come on” or “Wait a second” they can flip backward. And study the pages.

  15. All the talk of old TV and film reminded me of my favorite series Doctor Who. In the “classic era” in the 80’s, the writers took away the Doctor’s very convenient tool the sonic screwdriver. It had become an easy escape for the Doctor and his companions. They decided to go in the direction of the Doctor having to be clever to get out of situations. In recent years the sonic has been an on again off again tool(crutch) to get out of situations. Either way I love the show!

  16. Galaxy Quest also had the “deus ex machina” of being “based” on a TV series, and countdowns never ended in disaster because, after all, they HAD to survive for the next show.

    Can’t do that on the page~ but it was a great gag in this case~ (one of many).

    g

  17. Great post, as always, Jim. You note the first 25 minutes of the movie, but how about shows whose entire premise is based on, ‘C’mon man?” I find myself thinking that lately, as I’ve just started watching season 1 of True Blood. Like, “The discovery of synthesized blood has led vampires to come out of the closet? C’mon man.”

    And yet through two episodes, I find myself coming back to watch Anna Paquin pout her pouty lips, and shimmy her pretty bum across the screen. Maybe the writers know us better than we think – I’ll let you know after a few more episodes.

  18. I refer to it as the Batman syndrome. Batman has this utility belt with a batload of tools on it. He always has the right tool at the right moment, but if he carried every tool with him his belt would be so heavy he couldn’t walk. My friends and I always joke that Batman doesn’t know what tools he will need on his belt, but his writers do. Just once I want to see Batman not have the right tool on the utility belt and have to improvise.

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