While watching Die Hard the other night, I was delighted by a fantastic moment, so subtle and understated, that held a heavy subtext and told me so much about the characters while barely trying. It was the kind of thing that all writers should aspire to accomplish because its the most interesting and effective way to reveal character or provide exposition.
In the first act, John McClane arrives at Nakatomi Plaza, where his wife Holly works. We know at this point that they are separated because she moved to Los Angeles for work while he stayed in New York to work as a cop. Obviously their marriage wasn't the best for this to happen, but we have not seen them together yet and have learned very little about the current state of their relationship beyond the separation.
John goes to the security desk and says he's there to see Holly McClane. The guard instructs him to look her up on a computer. "Neat toy," he says of the touchscreen, unintentionally dating the film but in a charming way. He searches for M in the directory and is momentarily confused by the lack of a McClane, Holly. Then, with a growing unease, he searches for G and finds Gennero, Holly. He scowls.
This is fantastic storytelling. With this one action, we get a piece of information that tells us everything we need to know about their marriage before they even say hello. This moment at the security desk provides us a blank canvas with precise dimensions so that we know the structure of their marriage, and each line and action is a splash of color leading to the reveal of the full painting.
It's a tiny thing, a quick moment, but it's a fantastic feat of storytelling. May we all find such effective ways to write.
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