On a recent episode of “Lost,” a character climbed through air ducts to get past heavy blast doors, which had trapped him and another character. By narrative standards, this sequence would seem unremarkable. Except for one thing:
“Lost” takes place on a freaking magical island.
You’ve got polar bears, black smoke monsters, and a cabal of mysterious Others. There’s no shortage of dramatic opportunities, which is why it’s so disheartening to see the show reach for that lowest-hanging fruit: a guy in an air duct.
I’ve lived a fairly adventurous life. I’ve travelled to five continents. But the only time I’ve seen the inside of an air duct is television and movies, when a character — generally the hero — has to be clever enough (and small enough) to climb through a conveniently-accessible air duct.
Be it action-adventure, comedy or horror, the air duct has become the hack screenwriter’s go-to passageway. In fact, it’s rumored the season finale of “Yes, Dear” will take place entirely in air ducts.
Ladies and gentlemen, screenwriters, it’s time to stop.
Let’s back away from the keyboard and look at the situation with fresh eyes.
- Most air ducts are not nearly large enough to hold a grown man.
- Even if large enough, they’re not built to support a grown man’s weight.
- “Secure” facilities — where characters are most likely to climb through air vents — are exactly the places that wouldn’t have hero-sized air vents.
Thanks to continuous bombardment in television and movies, the idea of characters shimmying through air ducts has become not just a cliché, but almost a given. The moment a hero finds himself stuck someplace, we expect his eyes to drift north to that spot just below the ceiling, where an oversized grate is beckoning: “Just yank twice! I’m not screwed in or anything!”
Here’s what I’m proposing: The Screenwriter’s Vow of Air Vent Chastity.
I, John August, hereby swear that I shall never place a character inside an air duct, ventilation shaft, or any other euphemism for a building system designed to move air around.
One day, I’d love to win an Oscar. An Emmy. A Tony Award. But if all I accomplished in my screenwriting life were reducing the number of times characters climbed through air vents, I’d consider my work successful.
So if you’re on board, please sign in the comments section and tell all your screenwriting friends. Remember, only you can prevent clichés.