So it’s been awhile for you loyal readers, and I have to admit this blog is still casting about for its true identity. This blog is like Jason Bourne. There’s a killer idea somewhere inside it, but first you have to sort through the jumbled memories and the missing passports and a sinister Brian Cox. And why do I always get him mixed up with Brian Dennehy? Did the world really need two grumpy old character actors named Brian?
What I’d really like to do is talk about is the art of crafting a good story. As a writer, it’s a subject I find endlessly fascinating. So many tunnels to explore. So many hidden passages. So many dead ends. My life is one big exhibition hall for this topic. I come into contact with stories every day, either things that I watch or read, or things that I’m writing myself. It seems there’s a lesson to be learned in all of them.
Take Star Wars. It has a reputation as an action movie, but it actually takes its time to develop. In the first hour, there are only a handful of sequences that can be considered action. An opening space battle, good. Ben cuts off a guy’s arm. Han shoots Greedo, then later blasts some troops as they take off from Mos Eisley.
When it comes to conflict, mortal danger is one of the most extreme situations a character can find him or herself in. So far, Luke and Han haven’t really seen a lot of action. But once on the Death Star, consider this escalating series of events, each of which puts our heroes lives on the line:
- Han, Luke, and Chewie open fire in the cell block trying to rescue Leia.
- Troops show up and pin them in the corridor.
- Leia blasts an escape route into the trash compactor, where Han nearly kills them all with a ricochet laser bolt.
- Luke then gets sucked under water by a snake creature.
- Then the walls start closing in.
- C-3PO rescues them, but troops show up immediately and they are forced to separate to avoid getting killed.
- Luke and Leia get trapped on a tiny platform above an endless pit.
- Troops try to blast them from across the pit.
- Luke and Leia make a daring swing across the pit.
- Han and Chewie run into an entire garrison of troops and run for their lives.
- Ben ends up in a lightsaber duel to the death with Vader.
- The rest of the heroes shoot their way back onto the Millenium Falcon.
- TIE Fighters pursue them and Han and Luke have to shoot them down in order to escape.
That’s a lot of potential death scenes. Ben didn’t even make it out alive. And they come at you one right after another. Boom! Boom! Boom! What started as a search for lost droids on a sleepy desert planet has suddenly turned into Die Hard on a Death Star, and I think it’s a big reason why fans fell in love with the movie. It put the characters in a series of escalating conflicts, in which one wrong move could end them.
What strikes me is that none of these action scenes is especially imaginative. Big pit, deadly snake, troopers with guns. The setting makes them unique, but there’s nothing we haven’t seen before (the magnetic shield that causes the ricochet laser blast comes closest). What makes them fun is how one follows another, without letting up. Once this action sequence kicks into high gear, you don’t get a breather until the heroes are on their way to Yavin, to prepare for the final battle.
I think the lesson here is that you don’t have to always invent new ways to endanger your heroes. You just have to keep your foot on the gas.