“I’d run my whole life long to reach you; paddle my way across Atlantic and Pacific; traverse Jungle and Desert to find you; climb cliffs and drop from the sky to rescue you. Anything to be close to you. Any way to say I love you.” ― Heather Kris Thomas, A Place for You and Me
I was sitting around today, lamenting the upcoming series finale of Breaking Bad, while admiring the writing staff’s brilliant ability to jam the show’s characters up in impossible situations and finding creative ways to extricate them from no-way-out scenarios. Which, of course, got me thinking about The Art of the Rescue.
Don’t worry, this post is gonna be a light one. No how-to instructions—-although there is a list, I’m a writer, it’s in my blood, sue me—-or tips and tricks. Just a brief look at a few of the more common variety rescue archetypes:
Damsel/Dude in Distress
The person in distress is essentially a beloved character who has been rendered helpless and placed in danger in order to distract or delay the protagonist, leaving the villain to get on with their nefarious scheme.
Save the Girl/Guy
Different from the example above, here the person in danger is the love interest of the protagonist and when it comes time for the hero to make the sadistic choice of whether to save the life of the one she/he loves over anybody (companions, friends, family) or anything (a city, the world, the universe) else, there’s a moment of hesitation.
The trick is to have your main character struggle with the choice for the right length of time. Too short and your protagonist can come across as cold-hearted. Too long and they wallow in a pool of wishy-washiness.
A possible workaround would be for your hero to come up with a third option where both rescues can be achieved, and if you can pull this off properly, your main character wins the coveted medal for the clever badassdom.
The Dive Rescue
You’ve seen this time and time again.
A young child chases their runaway ball or some poor, unsuspecting sod wanders out into the street and lands smack dab in the path of a speeding semi-truck—whose horn works but the brakes don’t— and a character rushes out to snatch the child from impending doom, or dive-shoves the person out of harm’s way.
The variant of this is a character on the sidelines who dives into the path of a bullet or knife or other projectile weapon. This character tends to yell, “No!”, often in slow motion and lives long enough to confess their true feelings for the protagonist or to offer the one crucial piece of advice needed for the hero to complete their task.
If You Go, We All Go
Hand in hand—no pun intended—with the dive save, this rescue occurs when someone falls off a roof or a cliff to their most certain death… but, just before they slip out of reach, another character dives and catches them by the wrist. Then, as they both start slipping over the edge, another person catches the last person’s wrist, and so on and so on…
One Last Thing Before I Die
One of the protagonist’s friends or allies is presumably killed in the midst of a struggle and now the hero is on the ropes and is about to meet their end… when, just in the nick of time, the but-I-thought-you-were-dead-friend/ally intervenes and saves the main character’s life, giving them the Heroic Resolve to keep fighting. This risen from the dead character actually survives about fifty percent of the time.
The Big Guns Arrive
When a character—who can also be the protagonist in this scenario—is staring certain death in the face, and resigns themselves to it, because they know nothing can save him/her now…
BOOM! The door kicks in and standing in the doorway is the cavalry, ready to chew bubblegum and kick some ass! And they’re all out of… you get the drift.
Typically a ragtag bunch of minor characters whom the protagonist has saved in the past have banded together to mount a rescue. The great thing about these guys is that they don’t always succeed in stomping a new mudhole in the baddie’s keister. Their primary function is to free the protagonist and let her/him do all the heavy lifting.
One final thought before i let you go, the thing you need to be mindful of when penning your last minute rescue is avoiding the dreaded pit of Deus ex Machina:
Latin for god out of the machine, the term stems from ancient Greek theater and refers to scenes in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right, often near the end of the play.
Modern day Deus Ex Machina occurs when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in a sudden, unexpected way. Classic examples include:
- In Homer’s The Odyssey, after Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors, the families of the suitors show up at the farm of Laertes seeking vengeance. As a battle is about to begin, Athena appears in the last few lines of the poem and tells both parties to stop, to which they comply.
- In William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, just as the protagonist Ralph is about to be killed by the band of “hunters” at the end of the story, a ship appears from nowhere onto the island, drawn by the smoke produced by the wildfire on the island. One of the ship’s officers rescues Ralph. He and the rest of the boys are then taken from the island.
- In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Jim apprehended in the heart of the South and Huck unable to rescue him, Tom Sawyer reenters the story, having come hundreds of miles downriver to visit a relative. Huck’s reunion with Tom gives him the opportunity to free Jim and allows a channel for the resolution of all dangling storylines that the book had left behind in St. Petersburg, Missouri.
- In Molière’s The School for Wives, Agnès is suddenly found out to have been betrothed all along to another man, which spares her from having to marry Arnolphe.
- In Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, scientists race to find a way to contain an extremely dangerous extraterrestrial virus. In the end, they fail and the virus escapes into the atmosphere, but conveniently for mankind the virus mutates into a completely harmless form.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable. You will inevitably come to a place in one of your many and various stories where you’ve painted yourself into a corner with no other way out. If this should happen and you decide to coax god out of the machine, make sure your surprise solution not only moves the story forward but also causes minimal damage to the overall tone and ambiance of your piece.
Sally forth and be rescuingly writeful.
— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys