Story Shots: Twisting tropes with Die Hard

Welcome to another Story Shot, this time looking at how to use tropes effectively via the iconic action classic, Die Hard. As always, spoilers ahead.

Die Hard follows New York cop John McClane as he fights off a group of hostage takers and thieves within his estranged wife’s office building after they launch a heist during the company’s annual Christmas party. It’s a master class in action movies, scoring, pacing, and more, with an amazing story behind its creation, but as many of those topics have no doubt been covered by smarter and more articulate people than myself, I’ve decided to choose something a little more off the beaten path for this post: tropes.

One of the best things about Die Hard is its characters. Almost every one of them is unique and memorable, from the steadfast and caring Al to the crazy pair of FBI Guys to the Crunch-bar-snacking thief. What really stuck out to me in this year’s watching, however, was how efficient Die Hard is in showing us who these people are. As an example, Ellis embodies the classic image of a fast-living, cocaine-snorting, 80’s power businessman from the very first time we see him hitting on John’s wife Holly and rubbing his nose. Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson is instantly recognizable as the clout-wielding boss with his eye on the top the moment he starts bossing people around at the building’s perimeter. We know instantly the type of people that Hans, Theo, Argyle, and even the businessman on the plane next to John are. At the same time, the cast is vibrant and unique, with bits of humor, mannerisms, and one-liners that leave you looking forward to seeing them every time you watch.

Now, some of this comes down strictly to the skill of the filmmakers, who combine good casting, acting, and directing with great costumes and snappy writing to bring everything together. I know that. On the other hand, I’d like to put forth the theory today that part of how they achieve all of this so quickly is by utilizing tropes.

So, what is a trope? Simply put, it’s a cliche: the characters, plot points, etc. that are so re-used that they require almost no effort for the viewer to recognize them. Examples include the plucky orphan protagonist, evil stepmothers, and the tragic but beautiful teen love interest. Tropes tell us not only about a character’s looks or personality but also about their potential backstory, class, behaviors, and motives. They’re abbreviations for more fully-fledged characters and ideas. This is where the writer/creator comes in. People always say tropes exist because they work. They’ve passed the test of time to prove that they can be powerful story elements loaded with meaning. Because they’ve been used so many times, however, it’s important to make the tropes in any given story distinct from the thousands of valiant knights and damsels in distress that have come before. Good writing often comes from playing off of or subverting reader/viewer expectations. That’s where tropes come in.

How it works

In Die Hard, the writers use tropes in a variety of different ways, including for humor, surprise, character development, tension, and catharsis. I’ll give a few examples:

  • When the grizzled, gun-toting ‘terrorists’ set up for their first real showdown with the police, one of them sees a Crunch bar in a hotel lobby counter. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he decides to steal the candy anyway, surprising the viewer with a funny and human note.
  • When FBI agents Johnson and Johnson fly in to take the villains out in their helicopter, one of them reminisces about Vietnam. The other laughs, saying he was only in middle school at the time. As the two agents, with identical suits and names, are portrayed early on as cookie-cutter, steamrolling G-men, this adds a surprising contrast and vivacity to their otherwise purposefully imposing and awe-inspiring (at least to Robinson) visage.
  • When the FBI agents turn off the power, they bully a local electrical worker and his boss, informing him he can either turn the power off or lose his job. As proxy for the everyday Joe with government agents literally towering over him, the worker gets viewers to instantly recognize and sympathize with his plight (with the added bonus of further souring the viewer’s opinion of the agents).

Why it works

As I mentioned above, tropes are shorthand, denoting flat characters or situations from which writers and creators can build. In Die Hard, the filmmakers take extreme advantage of this, establishing characters quickly in firm, well-rooted roles to inform us not only about the background and personality of characters but also about their likely behaviors and motives. Not only does this save a tremendous amount of time in character development, but it also gives the writers room to both subvert and support viewer expectations based on those tropes. When Ellis is trying to work with Gruber to bring John in, we know based on their basic character profiles (idiot corporate ladder climber, ruthless thief, and hero cop), that things are not going to go well for Ellis. When we (and the gas station attendant) think Al is buying a bunch of twinkies for himself, we learn that his wife is actually pregnant and he’s (allegedly) buying them to curb a craving. Both are examples of using tropes to skillful advantage.

I hope you enjoyed this Story Shot. If you’d like more short bursts of story strategy, make sure to sign up for my newsletter or blog in the appropriate sidebars (you may need to exit mobile-only mode if you’re on your phone), and if you’d like to see my story skills in action, please consider buying my YA fantasy novel, The Yochni’s Eye.

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