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Specs & The City: Subplots and 'Die Hard'

Welcome to the second week of our love-fest for Die Hard. Last week I talked about crafting action scenes and the multiple levels on which they should work. This week, I’d like to turn my attention towards something equally as important to your script; the subplots. Notice I used the plural. That’s because most scripts that achieve greatness (and actually, even the ones that just end up being pretty good) have more than one active subplot.

So how can one of the greatest action movies ever made help you learn to weave better subplots into your script? Let’s take a look at…

Subplots and ‘Die Hard’

Die Hard

Die Hard

Before we really get going, let’s review what a subplot actually is. According to that bastion of all knowledge, Wikipedia, a subplot is a secondary strand of the plot that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot" and it also “… may connect to main plots, in either time and place or in thematic significance.” I’d replace the word may for should in that last bit, but you get the point.

Now, applied in screenwriting terms, your main plot is your “A story,” and subplots are your “B story” or “C story” (or however many alphabet letters down your story takes you), and when used effectively, they can help develop the A story while also giving the audience a quick break from the main action. I talked about this briefly during my series of columns on the sequence method of screenwriting.

Think about it this way; is John McClane’s quest to kill all the terrorists getting to emotionally taxing for the audience? No problem; let’s spend a few minutes catching up with the reporter trying to score an interview with his kids. Once the audience is allowed to catch their breath, we can return to the havoc going on in Nakatomi Plaza with renewed energy and purpose.

Die Hard works so well because it not only has multiple subplots operating at the same time, but each one is actually important; directly impacting the main plot or developing the story in some vital way. Let’s take a look at each subplot and see what role they play.

This man LOVES his Twinkies

This man LOVES his Twinkies

  • Sgt. Al Powell McClane’s first contact with the outside world after the terrorist takeover, Sgt. Powell (a pre-Urkle Reginald Veljohnson)is a well-developed supporting character with his own issues to deal with. First, there’s the conflict with the superior officer who views McClane as an obstacle instead of a resource. At the same time, he’s dealing with a personal backstory that we explore as the film progresses involving the reason that he’s now on desk duty with the LAPD. Now, Powell obviously has a direct impact on the plot because of his contact throughout the film with McClane, but the subplot that’s developed adds a new level of emotional depth to the final scene where he shoots Karl. We’ve come to care for the character, and his journey through his subplot helps establish exactly how big a deal it is that he fires his pistol.
  • Reporter Richard Thornburg
    With Thornburg, Die Hard takes what could have been a cookie-cutter supporting character and finds an ingenious way to give it additional meaning. Thornburg’s subplot involves his search for a new way to cover the story of the Nakatomi Towers takeover, a successful search that leads him to eventually interview the McClane children on the air. On its own, this would have been a dick move and would have added some commentary on the way our media depersonalizes victims in order to score ratings, but in Die Hard, Hans see the broadcast. Now he’s aware that Holly is John’s wife, and this one interview sets up the final confrontation of the third act where McClane’s two main goals – saving his wife, and stopping the bad guy – both reach their climax at the same time.
  • Argyle
    A C-story at best, Argyle is the limo driver that brings McClane to Nakatomi Towers from the airport and ends up stuck in the parking garage once the terrorists strike. We go back to Argyle multiple times during the story; he never does much, but it reminds us that he’s there. And the payoff comes right before the climax of the film when Argyle rams a truck with his limo, stopping one of the terrorists that McClane hasn’t been able to get to. It’s a small role, but an important one, and it shows how you can tie even the smallest subplot into your main story.

Do you have a subplot(s) running through your script? Do you weave them in and out of the A-story, and do they serve a purpose that’s directly related to the main plot? If not, take the time to go back through and work on subplots during your next polish. You’ll be amazed at how much richer the world of your story becomes.

Until next week, come out the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs… and keep writing.

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