Tricking the Trap

I was asked recently about how to get a character out of a tough spot without contrivance or dragging the reasoning process on forever.

Pyotr Protagoniski is trapped on a narrow rock ledge halfway up a cliff. His back is pressed to the rock face. His feet are struggling for purchase on the rain-slick stones. His fingers are digging desperately for any projecting root to cling to or hold he can find. Wind and rain are lashing him. Above him, a helicopter hovers, and a sniper is leaning out with a high-powered rifle trained on him. Below, a squadron of mercenaries gather at the base of the cliff, ready to swarm up in pursuit.

Because of the high degree of physical danger, Pyotr doesn’t need to think much about what he should do next. Survival is obviously his goal. Depending on his personality, he may be experiencing terror or he may be fighting back panic in order to keep his wits. He may be even as cool as James Bond.

He should have few options available: he can escape or he can surrender or he can fight.

He needs to weigh those options briefly in an internalization. How can he escape? Does he have a para-sail device in his pocket that he can whip out and jump off the cliff with? If he goes for this option, how likely is it that the sniper will shoot a hole in his sail and send him plummeting to certain death? Is he able to gauge wind velocity and use the worsening weather conditions to evade the sniper?

Can he throw something that might damage the chopper blades? Does he have a weapon? Even so, if he fights he’ll probably be killed in the crossfire between his enemies.

If he surrenders, will they kill him or take him prisoner?

If you can narrow the options down to two instead of three, all the better! Weighing options is basically letting the character acknowledge the risks each one entails and deciding whether those risks are acceptable or too high.

A sentence or two examining each option is sufficient. Then the opponents should close in, and Pyotr is forced to decide and take action.

The story hasn’t been slowed down to a crawl, yet the illusion is established that the character gave the situation some consideration. His reasons should then make sense to the reader.

As for that para-sail device, the only way for Pyotr to have it without contrivance is to plant it in the story earlier. Maybe he tucks it impatiently in his pocket before he starts out that day.

One of the beloved traditions of a Bond film is that there’s always a scene where Q introduces Bond to his equipment. The audience knows that every gadget will be used later. A running joke is Bond’s impatience with having things explained to him while Q drones seriously on. The audience is on Bond’s side, eager to see the cool gizmos and aware that Bond will use them in far more creative ways than Q could ever imagine.

What works for the James Bond franchise as a tongue-in-cheek play on the technique of planting probably isn’t something that the rest of us can copy. Think instead of your own clever way to plant a means of success for your protagonist.

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