You wouldn’t splash gasoline on the walls of your home, then toss a few matches while strolling out the door. In real life, this kind of willful destruction is criminal.
In fiction, it’s crucial.
As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back. Sure, their stated quest might be to get home, but your job is to make sure that wherever they end up is a new and different place.
Writers tend towards benevolence. We love our characters, and want to see them thrive. So it can be hard to accept that what our hero actually needs is to have everything taken away, be it by fire, flood, divorce or zombie uprising. No matter the story, no matter the genre, we need to find ways to strip characters of their insulating bubbles of normalcy.
The Fire (or other catastrophe) often occurs as an inciting incident, setting the wheels of plot in motion. In The House Bunny, Anna Faris’s character is kicked out of the Playboy Mansion by page 10. In Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s family is killed.
Just as often, The Fire signals the end of the first act. In Star Wars, Luke returns home to find his aunt and uncle dead. In 9 to 5, the trio of secretaries has inadvertently kidnapped their boss. There’s no going back to the way things were.
But The Fire can work just as well later in the story, effectively burning bridges characters have just crossed. Three of my upcoming projects feature second-act or third-act Fires that not only keep the momentum going, but also remind the audience of the scale and stakes. 1 Late fires ward off complacency in everything from The Dark Knight to Revenge of the Nerds.
It’s easy to think of dozens of great movies that never really burn the house down. But the better exercise is to look at your own scripts and ask, (a) what could burn, and (b) why haven’t I lit it on fire?
- There’s something uniquely cinematic about destroying a giant set. A TV show, no matter its ambitions, generally has to protect its standing sets until at least the end of a season. ↩