by James Scott Bell
My treadmill movie the other day was Fast Five.
I don’t like to think too much when I exercise.
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!
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.
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.
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?