Escape plots

It is fair to say that at one point or another, most people have indulged in a touch of escapism. When our own lives become a touch dreary or mundane, it is only natural that films and scriptwriters will try to whisk people away into a different world where people can lead a more exciting time. This is understandable but it is just one way in which plots try and deal with escape. Another way comes with people trying to escape from danger and this is a very common theme for plots as well.

With the advancement of technology and the ability to create even more special effects, catastrophe movies have become very popular. Whether people have been trying to escape from typhoons, earthquakes, floods or any other form of natural disaster, film makers have brought the sense of escape very much to life. With more people worried about the impact of climate change and what this will mean to weather conditions, there is a natural audience for this sort of movie. These movies work on the fact that there is a natural fear of these events occurring in our lifetime but there are also the good old fashioned elements of escaping and a hero emerging to lead people to safety.

The 1970s set the agenda for escape films

No matter how hard the latest batch of escape movies work, they will not beat the 1970s when it comes to a fantastic escape film. This was the era that redefined the rules on the escape plot and film and there was a choice to make. If you loved escape films, you were absolutely spoiled by the appearance of The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure. One featured a tall building which was on fire from which people had to escape. The other featured a ship that was sinking and people had to escape. Both were big budget films, both had a stellar cast of stars, both were massive films of their time. However, they both shared a very simple plot based around people having to work together in order to secure their safety.

It was inevitable that some people would have to die in these films. This was to emphasise the fact that there was real danger to the people and that the characters you know and love were at serious risk. One of the most important elements of a good escape story is to make sure that the danger is well stated. The best way of doing this is ensuring people die, implying as it does that the same fate may befall other characters.

An escape plot needs to have twists and turns

There also needs to be a number of twists and turns. Salvation should seem within easy reach at various points throughout the quest only for the obvious path to be blocked or the easy option to be denied. It wouldn’t make for a lengthy or exciting film if the first route was the successful route, but there is also a need to wear people down and make them feel frustrated at their efforts. For an escape plot to be really strong, the escapees need to be pushed to their limit. Salvation  must seem to be all but impossible.

In this sense, an escapee needs to come to terms with their own life. You’ll often find that someone escaping has previously lost track of the important things in life. With a good escape plot, you’ll commonly hear a key character, central to the escape plan, talking about how they’ll do things differently if they make it out alive. In this aspect, you can consider an escape plot as having similarities to a journey. Not only are people escaping from a very serious threat, they are escaping to a new them that will enable them to look at life differently or more positively. Physical salvation will lead to rebirth and moral salvation.

Whether the risk was fire, as in The Towering Inferno, or water, as in The Poseidon Adventure, the everyday nature of the risks brought people into the story. The danger was not through something out of the blue or the ordinary, it was from something that could befall most people. This creates empathy and a realisation of the jeopardy that we all face in every day life.

Escape is one of the major plots in the stories that we tell, particularly on the big screen. The characters in the story may go through hell and back before coming out the other side and, in a small way, the viewer will share this journey.

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Comedy plots

Although you may think that the main point of a comedy film is to make you laugh, it can’t all be jokes, anecdotes or comic interludes. A film needs to have peaks and troughs and even comedies need to have elements where there is a build and a release and, of course, if you are going to watch something that runs for 90 minutes or more, it should be enough to gain your interest.

This is why a good comedy needs to be more than just funny. It has to have a plot and this is where comedy writers can benefit from understanding the basics of a good plot. In order to show how you can take a simple plot and then use it as a platform to develop a great comic film, think about the following plot ideas:

• A misfit (or misfits) down on their luck
• A lucky break and things take a turn for the better
• A love issue / emotional aspect running alongside
• Have an enemy or opponent
• When things are looking up, give the character a real low point that looks to lose them everything
• Let the character save the day

These six ideas are quite simple and are backbones of many films, including comedies and broader genres. In Ghostbusters, for example, you initially have three men who are out of a job and struggling to find a purpose for their skills and expertise. In another great comedy, Mrs Doubtfire, you have a man who has lost his wife and kids through a divorce and custody hearings.

The lucky break in Ghostbusters comes with the team getting hired to examine a hotel whereas in Mrs Doubtfire, it is with Daniel obtaining the role as the nanny. The love interest in Ghostbusters is Sigourney Weaver and she gets used by Zuul and in Mrs Doubtfire, the emotional attachment of a man and his kids runs through the story. There is still fondness between man and wife but it is the father and children aspect that really drives it.
People want Ghostbusters to fail and major enemies are summoned from other realms. In Mrs Doubtfire, there is a new love interest for the mum and the local authorities don’t believe that Daniel is a suitable dad.

In both films, things are going well for both characters when a twist occurs. The Ghostbusters (now up to 4 members) are thrown in jail and Daniel/Mrs Doubtfire has to be in the same place in both guises, which inevitably causes confusion and his secret being found out and this leads to him losing all custody of his kids. Both films see the main characters at their lowest point but this is where they rise like heroes to save the day and come out on top.

You have two very different comedy films, opting for different styles of humour, but the solid plot behind both films provides the perfect setting for the comedy moments that arise. Whether it is the wisecracks from Bill Murray or the slapstick humour from Robin Williams, these comedies are very different but both achieve massive laughs while taking the audience on a journey.

While great acting, fantastic dialogue, effects and many funny moments are crucial in the success of these comedies, the plots provide a strong part of the success. It is unlikely that people can associate with people who hunt ghosts for a living or with a man who becomes a cross-dressed to see his children but the basic plot points are familiar to most people. The fact that adversity can be overcome in such a funny and natural manner means that these films were always likely to be such a smash hit.

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The Agatha Christie Legacy

Agatha Christie is one of the most popular crime novelists of all time and the popularity of the murder mystery genre owes much to her legacy. She is well known for more than 60 detective novels which depict the investigations of Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, as well as Tommy and Tuppence.

Agatha Christie was born into an upper middle class family and she served in a hospital during World War I.  At first, as so many authors find, she found it hard to get her work noticed but her first book was published in 1920  by Bodley Head. This was the Mysterious Affair at Styles, which is also the first time that we meet Hercule Poirot.

The Guinness Book of Records states that Agatha Christie is the best selling novelist of all time, having sold 4 billion copies of her books so far. Many of her books have been adapted for radio, video games, comics and television. More than 30 films have been made based on her characters.

Between 1926 and 1928 Agatha Christie didn’t publish any books due to problems in her personal life, including a divorce. Thankfully from 1930 onwards she again became prolific. Although she is well known for her novels, Agatha Christie also had a wide interest in archeology and she visited various excavation sites all over the world uncovering ancient relics. Many of her books contain archeological references because of this interest. She traveled extensively and, again, the plots and stories in her books reflect this.

Agatha Christie is surpassed in sales only by the Bible and William Shakespeare, which is an astonishing achievement. Our own Murder Mystery Events contain many references to her work, it’s almost impossible to work in this genre without that happening.

Find out more about our Murder Mysteries here

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The backstory of a murder mystery

The backstory of a script essentially concerns events which occurred before the performed murder mystery, as seen by the audience. The opening scene of the performance is the hook. This is when the murder takes place and then clues are given by the actors who will become suspects in the case. Each suspect has a motive and displays a method, for example they might hand the victim a cigar or even throw a drink in their face.

The backstory comes out as the suspects are questioned by the tables as they walk around. There is also an opportunity for public questioning where each table appoints someone to stand up and put a question to a suspect in front of the whole room. Some people revel in this opportunity to release their inner Rumpole!

A significant part of the backstory is given in the form of written clues; letters between the suspects or suspects and victims, bank statements and newspaper clippings are all examples.

Between what is seen on the night and all of the backstory evidence collected a picture will emerge and each team (table) will be able to come up with a theory covering method, motive and murderer.

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Murder mystery verdicts

Further to my previous blog about why people commit real murders here are the twelve verdicts from a murder mystery dinner that we ran before Christmas. As you can see there is a variety of theories on the motive. One very suspicious team even thought it was a staged suicide!

1. The writer – revenge because he stole his script. Three teams chose this

2. The writer – because he was having an affair with the actress and he was about to be discovered.

3. The wife – because under the terms of the pre-nup she will get nothing if they divorce and she was having an affair. Three teams chose this.

4. The financier – because the victim was about to expose him as a gangster in his autobiography. Two teams chose this.

5. The actress – because she was pregnant with the victim’s child and he wanted her to have an abortion. Two teams chose this but the second added that she wanted to claim on his estate.

6. No-one – it was a suicide!

On this occasion  the murderer was the writer because his script had been stolen, so three teams guessed correctly. We change the murderer regularly, so it’s a bit like The Mousetrap and this means that even if someone has seen it before (or reads this blog) they never know whodunnit on the night. They key is that only the murderer can lie, which means that teams need to catch him or her out to successfully solve the mystery.

Interestingly each suspect was accused by at least one team, so it’s not easy. The various methods were also equally spread. The victim is poisoned but it could have been via a cigar, a drink in a glass, a drink thrown or an injection. Each suspect had a potential method.

The murder mystery in this case was Little House Of Horrors.

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Why do people commit murder?

Motivation is an interesting subject. We have the seven virtues which, although not motives for murder, explain motivation for doing good. They are faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance and prudence. We’ll find them, hopefully, on the side of law and order.

Then we head for the dark side and look at the deadly sins; pride, envy, gluttony, lust, wrath, greed and sloth. Now we’re getting into the nitty gritty of why people commit crimes. Research into stories reported on in the media found that the most common types of story involved; fear, greed, lust, power, need and curiosity. When we start to think about murder some of the most common motives are revenge, money, gang rivalry, business jealousy, deceit and property disputes. People tend to gravitate towards sex and money as the main motives but there are many more.

In the book ‘Not Dead Enough’ by Peter James a diagram in a Police incident room is described. In the oval in middle was the simple word: ‘motive’ and arranged around it, at the end of spokes, were the words; jealousy, racism, anger / fright, robbery, power / control, desire, gain, payment, homophobia, hate, revenge, psychotic, sexual and maintain active lifestyle. One of the characters suggests that two are missing;  kicks and kudos.  Examples are given of a gang setting fire to an old lady in a bus shelter for kicks and a gang member killing as part of an initiation into the gang to explain kudos.

So, there are many potential reasons for murder and plots don’t need to just stick to the basics of sex and money. In fact, they’re usually much improved if they don’t. Have I missed any motivations?

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Improving the Murder Mystery script

Murder Mystery actorsMurder mystery events usually take place over a dinner. There is a script and running order along with physical clues which might include bank statements, letters and contracts. The clues and the scenes acted out come together like a jigsaw and guests can interview the suspects in a role play / improvisation style setting. Because of this no two events are the same; there’s always something new and different that happens.

Each actor plays each role differently. We have a pool of actors so there may be three or four who play specific roles in the scripts. The aim is for an actor to make themselves look like the possible killer, so they have to maximise how guilty they appear. However, only the murderer is allowed to lie.

The guests must work out three things; Method (how the victim was killed), Motive (why) and Murderer (who). All of the suspects do something that could be a method, all of them have a motive and any of them could be the murderer.

Recently we had 100 people with a total of 10 teams, so 10 tables of 10 people. Five methods were guessed by the teams. One was correct and four teams guessed the same incorrect answer. One answer was completely new – there’s no limit to the creativity of our guests!

The correct motive was given by two teams. There was a spread of five different versions and generally they involved money. This is a fairly typical result with money and sex being the post common motives. Finally, one team guessed the correct suspect. Two of the suspects only had one team think it was them, so we can give the actors feedback and tell them to make themselves seem more guilty next time.

Because we run the same show many times and we get the feedback, in the form of the solutions. that the guests put forward we can assess performances and let actors know they need to be more or less guilty and this means that we can constantly perfect the show. So, our Murder Mysteries really do have a continuous improvement aspect. This show was our Little House Of Horrors script.

 

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