Opening scenes: Yippi-kai-yay story lovers – lessons from Die Hard

Die Hard may seem an unlikely way to learn what makes a great introduction but you would be amazed. There is a reason why this movie is a classic and has an 8.2 rating on IMDB.

Everything you need to know about the protagonist and his biggest flaw are revealed before the credits even say DIE HARD.

DieHard

A plane touches down.
A man is gripping the arm rest of his aeroplane seat and the passenger next to him gives him some advice on how to “survive air travel”: walk around barefoot and make fists with your feet. He says,”Trust me, I’ve been doing this for nine years.”

The advisor looks up at John McClane as the latter gets his baggage from the compartment above and is horrified at the gun in his holster.

“It’s ok, I’m a cop. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 11 years.”

John takes down a huge teddy bear from the compartment.

As he moves past a flight attendants, she keeps his glance longer than she should. He looks back. Then looks after her.

The credits say DIE HARD.

In the two minutes before the credits, you have just been given all the information you need about the movie:

  • The main character is a cop. He carries a gun.
  • He is taking a big present which is the clue to the fact he hasn’t seen his children in a while
  • He is taking this flight despite not wanting to – he doesn’t like flying
  • He finds other women attractive so his marriage is in trouble, and
  • At some stage he is going to take his shoes off and be barefoot

If you’ve seen Die Hard then you know that his bare feet are his achilles heel, as such. Once the bad guys realise that he’s not wearing any shoes they can take advantage of it and cause him a lot of pain.

All this foreshadowing and introduction took two minutes. Most people watching won’t realise how detailed the opening scene has been because it is interesting. We want to know more about John McCain. This is tough guy Bruce Willis carrying a gun and a teddy bear and not liking being on a plane. Where is he going? What is he doing?

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So how can Die Hard help you with your opening scene. Here are the tips:

  • How can your scene be made compelling?
  • What does it say about your story?
  • How does it progress your story?
  • It’s a setting, a scene in its own right and a potential mirror of the ending.

Die Hard is based on the 1979 book by Roderick Thorp, Nothing Lasts Forever. The opening scene in the book however starts in a taxi that gets rear-ended. The Black driver has to get our protagonist to the terminal in 20 minutes but the guy who hit them is a maniac who is not letting them go. Leland, the protagonist, then tells the driver that he is an ex-cop, current security consultant. In this way we find out what the protagonist is willing to do, what he’s about, and the taxi driver gets set up to appear later in the story as well, just like in the movie.

The introduction is a bit longer than in the movie, which screenwriter Jeb Stuart changed to him already landing in the plane. Stuart knows a thing or two about action and suspense and he also wrote the screenplays for Lock UP featuring Sylvester Stallone, and the Fugitive with Harrison Ford.

He is excellent at knowing how to make the opening scene interesting, compelling, informative and useful. The useful part is the foreshadowing that you won’t realise is a vital bit of information but your subconscious will remember it and when it happens it will make even more of an impact.

You don’t need an action novel to use all these elements. Try it out on your opening scene and let me know how it goes. I’ll happily provide feedback.

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