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Article - 'Heart-Stopping Moments' by Xanqui

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Jan 14, 2004

Blurb

Want to get your audience on the edges of their seats? Here are a few tips from Xanqui.

Body

One of the biggest shocks in storyline history was the death of Aeris Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII. Not only was the scene portrayed in beautiful (for that time) graphics, but it brought out the true feelings Cloud had for her. But her death was also much different than most deaths seen in video games and movies before. So what did her death have that no other death scene had? It wasn’t what the death scene had; it was what it lacked. Aeris was killed quickly, and swiftly, not even giving her a chance to say her final words as Cloud held her. Her death was subtle.

So how exactly does drama play into the effectiveness in such an important scene? The answer to that is: there doesn’t need to be drama. Of course, this is but one way to alter an entire storyline in one moment. They don’t always have to be subtle. The key is to create a moment that the audience would never expect.

The following passage was taken from the book of George Carlin. I didn’t actually read it, but I stole the passage from www.benworld.com. But it’s a good counter for Aeris’ death. Anyway, here it is:

My feeling is that as long as you're going to die, you should go out with a bang. Make a statement. Don't just "pass away." Die!
"Arnie passed away."
"He did?"
"Yes. Quietly in a chair."
"I didn't know."
"Well, that's the idea; no one knows."
"True. On the other hand, they said Jim died."
"Oh, yes, Jim died! He died, and now he's dead! He had a thirty-minute seizure in a hotel, danced across the lobby, and wound up in a fountain, twitching uncontrollably. Bellhops were actually applauding."
"God bless him, he went out big."


As you can see, going out big can be just as good as going out swiftly. Since you’ve pretty much get the idea of a subtle death, I’ll go into detail about going out big, like Jim.

First off, there needs to be a big audience to see this spectacular event. Not the audience to your storyline, but an audience as in lots of characters from your story there to witness it. It should be a show-stopping event, pausing even the greatest of battles. One of the best examples, I think, is the battle between Hector and Achilles during the Trojan War. (I’ve been using that a lot lately…). Achilles, the invincible warrior of the Greeks, and Hector, the great warrior of Troy, face off in one of the most famous duels in history, and it has been spoken about for thousands of years.

The two met in an open field, following the death of Patroclos, a close friend and cousin to Achilles. Hector had killed Patroclos, driving Achilles to insanity (he attacked Gods and such), so Achilles was determined to defeat him. Hector and Achilles were so powerful and legendary that soldiers were paralyzed in fear by just the sight of the opposing hero. One swing of the sword by either of the men would mean the deaths of many enemy soldiers.

Both men wielded spears, and Hector managed to make the first throw. He threw with such force, that the spear pierced Achilles’ new armor (made by the God Vulcan), and even nearly broke Achilles’ indestructible skin. Achilles, fazed by the blow, was unable to throw his return spear immediately. Hector, taking his only chance, reached for his second spear, but his arms bearer was gone! Achilles chased Hector around the walls of Troy several times before finally throwing a spear that killed Hector. Hector, with his last breath, begged Achilles to let his body rest in peace.


Obviously no one is going to give a crap about random soldier who died. The characters involved must be great, and legendary, or at least well-known to the audience.

The atmosphere is irrelevant during a heart-stopping moment. It can be dark, violent, or even peaceful. The important thing is to ensure that the atmosphere changes after the moment. But the atmosphere must change according to the situation.

Let’s say a great dark lord guy or something has been terrorizing the world, and he’s about to make his final move to destroy everything. It’s dark, raining, and the good guys are fighting the dark lord’s army brutally. The hero of the story faces off with the dark lord, on top of the great hill, and after a violent fight, severely crippling the hero, but killing the dark lord, everything comes to a stop. The battle comes to a close as the humans kill the remaining minions. It’s still raining, but all is silent. It was once loud and violent, but now it’s quiet and peaceful. Some men fall to their knees, crying, while others turn back to face their camp and walk home quietly. The hero drops his sword and heads home as well.

Now let’s reverse that. Let’s say that the dark lord kills the one hero who everyone believed would save the world from him. It’s still raining, and it’s still quite violent as the good guys fight the minions, but there must be a feeling of more evil and sadness. Soldiers will yell out the loudest battle cry they can come up with, and fight stronger and harder than ever before.

In both of those scenes, the mood changes instantly. This is what creates a heart-stopping moment. The audience was on the edge of their seat until the moment. Afterwards, they fell off of it.

Of course, not all heart-stopping moments involve death. The launch of a space shuttle is a great example. Everyone expects the unexpected, and many people who are on the project are biting their nails and pissing their pants during the first few minutes of a launch. It’s a very nerve-racking moment for them. But when they see the videos of the shuttle leaving the atmosphere and hear the voices in the cockpit, all is pleasing in their lives. They cheer and hug each other, and open bottles of champagne. So even here, there’s the instant change of atmosphere: from pants-pissing nervousness to hugging someone they hardly know.

Pretty basic stuff, most of it. But, like the things described in all of my articles, this can be used in any form of media that involves a story. Heart-stopping moments are a very effective way of forcing your audience to remember your story.

Anyway, I hope you found this article to be useful and helpful for your story. I’d appreciate any feedback, as that’s been my method of knowing what types of articles you like or don’t like, which makes it easier for me to come up with ideas. Oh, and thanks to my Latin teacher Mr. Brainerd for telling me the story of the Trojan War (which he’s awesome at doing). Also, thanks to Ben Hanning for not suing me for stealing from his website.