How the movie “Die Hard” taught me the importance of mini-goals.
Whether you like action movies or not, the 1988 “Die Hard” movie is one great action flick that grabs you right from the start and never lets go. (The multitude of diluted “Die Hard” sequels shows how to take a really good idea, remove all the subtlety that made the original movie so great, and show lots of meaningless action and mindless special effects to turn out a crappy movie.)
Breaking down “Die Hard” into roughly 15 minute segments, Act I begins with Bruce Willis establishing his underlying problems. He’s afraid of flying and he’s separated from his wife. Those two seemingly separate problems will drive the entire movie from this point on.
In the first 15 minute segment, Bruce Willis is simply trying to get from the airport to the office Christmas party where his wife works. The exposition is where he lands in Los Angeles. The Rising Action is where he’s unsure of what to expect and starts fighting with his wife, and the Climax is when he’s stuck in the office, feeling like he’s blown his chance to get together with his wife.
The second 15 minute segment of Act I occurs when the terrorists seize control (Exposition), round everybody up and nearly catch Bruce Willis (Rising Action), and takes control, leaving Bruce Willis stranded and alone. Two distinct segments in Act I that can be summarized like this:
Get from airport to office party
Get away from terrorists taking over party
Notice how each segment is a mini-goal in itself? That’s where I found my own screenplays falling apart is because they never seemed to lead anywhere, and if they did lead somewhere, the climax for that mini-goal came so late that it still felt like the character actions were meaningless. By establishing clear mini-goals, you literally lead the viewer through your story.
Okay, let’s look at Act II. The first mini-goal (15 minute segment) occurs when Bruce Willis is first hunted by the terrorists (Exposition), battles them (Rising Action), and defeats them (Climax).
The second 15 minute segment occurs when Bruce Willis drops a dead terrorist in the elevator for the other terrorists to find (Exposition), gets hunted again while trying to get help from the outside (Rising Action), and finally gets the police to acknowledge there’s a problem by dropping a dead terrorist on a police car (Climax).
This marks the midpoint of the movie and is what I call a False Victory. In the old days, movies used to have intermissions where they would physically stop the movie, close the curtain, and give everyone a chance to go to the bathroom and buy more snacks. These intermissions or halfway points almost always ended on a big up emotional high or a big depressing ending. If the movie ended at a high, then you can be sure sixty minutes later, it would end in a down point but ultimately be happy. If it ended at a down point, it would end at a happy point sixty minutes later, but ultimately end on a down note once more.
Anyway, this False Victory occurs in the halfway point and is where the hero reaches a goal, but finds that it doesn’t really solve his problem. For the second half of Act II, the villain takes control and the hero has to react.
The third segment of Act II is where the police arrive and the whole world realizes there are terrorists (Exposition), the terrorists wipe out the invading police while Bruce Willis fights the terrorists (Rising Action), and the police are ultimately defeated (Climax).
The fourth 15 minute segment of Act II occurs when the terrorists start hunting Bruce Willis down while revealing their true goal (Exposition), battle Bruce Willis while struggling to open the safe (Rising Action), and get the safe open while seriously hurting Bruce Willis (Climax). While the midpoint of the movie left Bruce Willis seemingly in control after contacting the police, the end of Act II always leaves the hero isolated and alone when he (or she) realizes that the False Victory in the middle of the movie failed and he has to realize this problem.
In “Die Hard”, the False Victory is trying to get the police to help. The second half of Act II shows that why this is a False Victory when the police screw up the rescue attempt.
At this point, Act II looks like this:
First hunted by terrorists when they discover he’s trying to get help by pulling a fire alarm.
Bruce Willis finally gets help by throwing a dead terrorist on a police car. (False Victory: He gets the police to help.)
The police raid the building and are defeated.
The terrorists achieve their goal and hunt down Bruce Willis, trapping and hurting him.
Act III is where everything comes together. The first 15 minute segment of Act III is when the hero starts a new plan that relies solely on himself. That’s when Bruce Willis realizes the terrorists are going to blow the roof apart with all the hostages (Exposition). Then he battles the terrorists and the incompetent police (Rising Action), only to succeed and find himself isolated once more (Climax).
The final 15 minute segment of Act III is where Bruce Willis realizes he has to face the had terrorist (Exposition), battle him (Rising Action), and win by saving his wife at the same time (Climax).
Bruce Willis foils the terrorist plan to blow the roof apart.
Bruce Willis saves his wife by killing the head terrorist.
Read the “Die Hard” script on the Internet or watch the movie again and look for these 15 minute segments that form mini-goals along the way. The first time I read the “Die Hard” script, I realized that these mini-goals worked together like links in a chain to create a great movie. When a movie sucks, (like most of them do), it’s probably because one or more of these 15 minute segments is weak or unrelated to the rest of the movie. To keep all 15 minute segments related to one another, you need to foreshadow later scenes and then payoff those setups to link scenes to each other.