When writing a scene where your hero’s facing terrible peril, it’s tempting to throw them a lifeline. Send in reinforcements! Let someone else deal with the conflict so your hero stays safe!
But showing that there’s no help on the horizon can push a hero to find their own way out of danger.
If you need help sparking an idea for how to make this work for your story, the Writer Emergency Pack card “Lose the Cavalry” has some suggestions.
Let’s see how some of these ideas look on screen with an example…
How Die Hard keeps the cavalry from rescuing John McClane
For the first half of Die Hard, John McClane is completely on his own against Hans Gruber and his men. It’s not for lack of trying.
McClane isn’t foolish. He doesn’t want to take on a team of heavily armed terrorists by himself. But each time he tries to get help, he finds more obstacles to overcome.
The failures don’t help him in the moment, but they show McClane as a resourceful, determined hero.
Firefighters to the rescue?
With the phone lines cut and no way to directly contact the police, John comes up with another option: Pulling the fire alarms.
It’s a smart move, since first responders could draw out the terrorists and call for more backup.
Hans realizes what’s happening and has his fake security guard report a false alarm to send the firefighters away. Then he sends some of his men to the floor where John pulled the alarms.
It’s a swift one-two punch where John’s hope of getting help puts him in even more danger than before.
9-1-1 is a joke
After dispatching a terrorist and stealing their two-way radio, John heads to the roof. He tunes in to the emergency channel and attempts to get a dispatcher to send help to Nakatomi Plaza, explaining the hostage situation.
But the dispatchers get hung up on protocol. They tell him to use a phone to dial 9-1-1 since this is a secure radio channel. They also treat him like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, because they know about the “false alarm” at Nakatomi Plaza earlier that evening.
It’s only after they hear gunfire over his radio that they decide to send a single squad car to “do a drive by” and check on the story.
McClane gets some of what he wants, but not everything, and not fast enough. He’s outrunning terrorists with automatic weapons while his backup-to-be, Officer Al Powell, is shown on a snack run at a gas station.
This moves John closer to his goal of getting help to end the hostage situation, but he’s still in danger and needs to do most of the work himself.
Finally getting somebody’s attention
When Al rolls in to take a look, he radios dispatch that there’s no signs of disturbance. McClane watches from above as Al steps inside to speak to the terrorist disguised as a guard.
The fake guard reminds Al about the false alarm earlier as McClane realizes he needs to do something more to get some attention. He grabs a chair to break a window — which alerts two of the terrorists above him.
McClane’s third attempt to get attention turns against him when he needs to fight two of Gruber’s men before Al decides to drive away.
As McClane shoots the second terrorist he sees Al walking back to his car and comes up with one last tactic — throwing the body of one of the terrorists out the window onto Al’s car.
This gets Al’s attention. Success!
Unfortunately, it also causes several of Gruber’s men to open fire on Al, forcing Al to trash his squad car as he speeds away and calls for more backup.
This is what finally brings the police out in force… but there’s still over an hour left in the film.
Just because the cavalry finally showed up, it doesn’t mean they’re the answer to the hero’s problems.
When you’re having a writer emergency…
Does your hero need backup? Are you itching to send help?
- Go ahead and send the cavalry… but not all at once, or not on time.
- What’s the cost of getting help? Is there something the hero needs to do or give up to earn their backup?
- If the hero knows a way to get help, what obstacles can you throw in their path?
Find out how to get more tips like these from the Writer Emergency Pack!