Is there any villainous scheme more lovingly cliché than the deathtrap? If you’ve consumed movies, TV shows, or books for even a small amount of time, you’ve no doubt encountered at least one of these scenarios. And if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
You know the score: The hero has been captured by his or her nemesis, but instead of suffering an immediate death, the protagonist has been put into a situation that will eventually kill him or her. Whether that death will come in 60 seconds or 60 days, the situation always seems bleak. Of course, our protagonist will cheat death, almost always at the very last moment.
Yes, like all clichés, deathtraps are filled with familiar ideas and their outcomes are easily seen from a mile away. But that does not make them any less fun. We consume stories to be both surprised by developments that we did not see coming and comforted by familiar elements. Deathtraps are the perfect encapsulation of this balance. A hero should not easily triumph over evil and at some point his or her story must reach its nadir before proceeding to the climax. This is where deathtraps come in.
What Makes Deathtraps So Fun?
Audiences love their heroes to be tested and these perils are an easy way to create that struggle. The thrill of the deathtrap usually comes from encountering a scenario that has not been seen before, or one that turns expectations on their heads. After 23 James Bond films, it’s getting difficult to come up with a new deathtrap. In fact, several have been repeated in some form during that series over the years – shark pools in particular. But a writer still has to try.
The hero’s escape should also be unpredictable. Just picking a lock or cutting a rope is not as thrilling as it once was. The escape should reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonist, put him or her to a real test, and maybe give the villain a chance to gloat (another ever-present cliché). Some heroes should be regularly put in a deathtrap type of situation. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Batman, and other reoccurring mortal protagonists are all frequently put in these seemingly impossible situations. Knowing that they will get out, but not knowing how, is part of their long-lasting charm.
These dangers also tap into the charms of old school storytelling. Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ian Fleming all had a flair for these challenges. They also add an exotic feel to a story. Where else would our hero encounter a ravenous beast, a gloomy dungeon, an armed bomb, or a giant pit filled with acid/lava/spikes/fire?
When Deathtraps Kill the Story Instead of the Hero
Of course the greatest obstacle to a convincing trap is answering the question – why didn’t the villain just kill the hero right there? It’s usually an impossible question to answer. But hopefully your audience buys into the story enough by that point to not worry about the logic behind it. The second biggest question? How did the villain not see the flaw in the trap? So really, the hero should break the rules of the trap in some manner, or exploit what was meant to be a strength.
Sometimes, writers feel compelled to include a trap for the sake of tradition in the type of story they are telling. This can easily lead to a situation that turns the impractical into the ludicrous. Deathtraps were a mainstay of Batman comics and television for years, so their inclusion in a campy romp like Batman Forever makes sense, no matter what your opinions of that movie may be. But put it in something like The Dark Knight Rises (a ticking nuclear bomb for instance …) and it seems strange. The James Bond films (especially the Roger Moore era) were chockablock with deathtraps, and the fit perfectly. But put them in a Daniel Craig movie and they throw off the entire narrative. Although the most basic of traps, like a collapsing or burning building, can fulfill that need.
Another sour turn for deathtraps? When the easiest way out is obvious from the start, but never used. This is along the lines of a character running straight ahead as a statue falls instead of just running to the side. If the audience is shouting the obvious answer to the problem at the screen, either your hero or your narrative is moronic.
Making the Deathtrap Work for You
Of course, you can always blow past all these rules and make the most awesome deathtrap ever. Impractical in every way and designed by a villain completely out of his or her mind. We’ve seen it in plenty of parodies (sharks with lasers on their heads) and it can easily be a highlight of the story because it’s so silly. Like Ratigan’s trap in The Great Mouse Detective – a Rube Goldbergesque series of anvils, axes, and marbles meant to snap the Sherlock Holmes-inspired rodent heroes in a mousetrap. It’s a cartoon with detective mice, so the craziness of the trap is a great addition.
Or better yet, have the hero escape far before the impending doom would actually arrive. Have the narrative grounded in reality but the deathtrap as outlandish as can be. If a villain tries to violate the laws of physics, the trap logically fails or the hero escapes through simple forethought. These developments are not right for every story, but they can turn the entire concept on its ear in a moment’s notice.
Let’s face it, modern audiences have been exposed to every cliché in storytelling. Either you knowingly take them along for the ride by overcoming these shortcomings with strong characters and writing or you subvert their expectations in surprising ways. Anything in between may just be forgettable. And that’s the last thing you want with something as classically maniacal as a deathtrap.