Today’s edition of Plot Points features the 2009 thriller Taken. Although made on a modest budget of $25 million dollars, it went on to earn around $226 million worldwide (and that doesn’t include all the DVD income).
I think part of Taken’s success is due to its solid screenplay structure, and below are some of the screenwriting tips I learned by studying its structure. As always, this post also includes the movie’s plot points for you to do your own analysis and improve your understanding of script structure.
Kept up the suspense: Taken is a very lean screenplay and movie. It has absolutely no subplots (although there’s some character backstory cleverly worked in) but every scene, every moment has to do with Bryan’s quest to find his daughter and punish the people who abducted her. Because the plot was so tight and didn’t wander down the side roads of subplots, the audience was kept in sustained suspense that never let up until Bryan finally rescues Kim. That is after all, the whole point of a thriller: to keep the audience in suspense, on the edge of their seats as they wonder, “will the hero thwart evil?”
A thriller can have a subplot (oftentimes romantic in nature), but if it’s not done well, it can distract from the main story. If the subplot is complicated, delving into it can also confuse the audience, who will no longer be in the state of suspense that a well-crafted thriller creates. A complicated subplot can also take up precious screen time to set up, delaying the action parts, which…you guessed it…disrupts the audience’s feeling of suspense.
When you’re writing your own thriller, examine your plot and subplots (if you have any). Do they work well together? Do they relate to one another? Does the subplot enhance the action & suspense of your main story or does it distract from it? If you think that your subplot bogs down your thriller, see if you can bulk up the plot elements of your main story and perhaps eliminate your subplot altogether. Hey, it worked for Taken.
Cause and effect: Taken does a great job of planting the seeds of a scene in the scene which precedes it. The screenplay and movie especially make use of this tactic to give structure to Bryan’s mission to find his abducted daughter.
For example, Bryan finds Kim’s broken cell phone and examines its memory card. From the card, he retrieves a picture of Peter–one of his first clues. In the next scene, we see Peter at the airport about to rope in another victim before he is thwarted by Bryan.
Another example: When Bryan hires an Albanian translator, the translator tells Bryan that Albanian thugs are talking about a construction site–and in the next scene, Bryan’s at the construction site, wreaking havoc as he tries to find Kim.
And a third example, just for kicks: Bryan rescues a drugged girl from the construction site who was wearing Kim’s jacket. She remembers be taken at a party in a house with a red door. Bryan’s next stop? The house with the red door…and on and on it goes.
You might be thinking this is the simplest thing in the world. But you’d be surprised by how many movies don’t have a solid plot structure–and as a result, confuse their audience.
Crafting a tight plot in any genre of movie is easy if you use cause and effect to your advantage. For another movie that uses cause and effect to full effect *pun intended* check out Screenwriting Structure: Lessons from Back to the Future.
Empathy for the characters: A lot of thrillers rely on action and special effects to keep their audiences riveted. However, thrillers heavy on action but low on emotion are usually box office disasters. Taken far surpasses your standard thriller fare by getting the audience emotionally invested with Bryan and his quest from the screenplay’s opening pages.
First, we know that Bryan had a distant relationship with his daughter, and he’s given up his profession in order to be closer to her. Bryan’s got a lot going against him too.
Even though he’s got impressive skills (not to mention he’s easy on the eyes), he doesn’t have Stewart’s mega-wealth. (Stewart, if you recall, is Kim’s step-dad who treats her and loves her like his biological kid.) Plus, Bryan’s ex-wife, Lenore, seems to mock all of his attempts at reconciling with Kim. Not only is she frosty, but she also calls him “pathetic.”
Despite all of these drawbacks, it seems Bryan’s making strides in repairing their relationship, when Kim is taken from him. Losing your child is a horrible circumstance, and it’s made all the worse because Bryan might never have his chance to make amends.
The thought of that kind of tragedy makes the audience identify with Bryan right away because I think deep down, we’re all afraid that we might run out of time before we repair broken relationship bridges. (Not to get all Dr Phil on you.)
From the very beginning, we’re emotionally invested in these characters, and that’s why we care about the action. Without that emotion, your movie is little more than a bunch of audio-visual stimulation. When you’re revising your own screenplay, make sure the emotional story is strong. That’s what made Taken, Salt and Sherlock Holmes all screenplay success stories.
Conflict aplenty: Having conflict in all of your scenes is a major screenplay writing tenet. Bryan is in conflict with a whole host of characters — and not just the villains who abducted his daughter. He has a frosty relationship with Lenore, his ex-wife. His relationship with his daughter is not much better.
When Bryan arrives in Paris, his old French colleague, Jean-Claude is cordial but distant. Jean-Claude is more afraid of cleaning up Bryan’s “mess” than in helping him. Finally, Bryan doesn’t even have a smooth relationship with his Albanian translator as discussed in screenwriting tip #3 in 8 Screenwriting Tips from Taken. Creating a conflict with even such a minor character is a hallmark of a screenwriting pro.
Realism: Taken follows the same model of action as the Bourne trilogy. No special effects (except for one major explosion) or fancy gadgets (just some snazzy Audis), and I think that style of story-telling still resonates with the movie-going public.
This technique doesn’t work however, if there’s no basis for your hero’s awesome ninja skills. Screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen took care of any disbelief by introducing Bryan’s background early.
We know he did shady work in the Middle East, that he got into trouble with Langley for leaving a mission to attend his daughter’s birthday party. Also, we saw him quickly dispatch with the pop star Sheera’s attacker. So when we see Bryan take out hordes of Albanians all at once…it’s a little more believable. At the very least, when we witness those major action sequences, we don’t disengage from the story as we wonder, “how in the heck can he do that?
And now, onto the plot points:
Plot Points from Taken
- We see scenes from a 5-year-old girl’s birthday party. Everyone looks so happy.
- Bryan Mills, the girl’s father, wakes up in a squalid apartment. He buys a karaoke machine and gift wraps it with obsessive precision.
- He brings it to a tricked-out mansion where Lenore, his ex-wife greets him frostily. Their only child, Kim, (the girl from the birthday party all grown up) opens Bryan’s gift. She loves it because she wants to be a singer.
- Kim’s step-dad, Stewart, brings her his gift — a thoroughbred horse. Kim abandons Bryan (and his gift) to ride the steed. Stewart greets Bryan cordially.
- Bryan adds a photo of Kim to his scrapbook. He has pictures from all of her birthdays.
- Bringing beer and BBQ, friends visit Bryan. Bryan gave up his CIA job to be closer to Kim. We learn that he even left Beirut in the middle of a mission to go to Kim’s birthday. He got into major trouble for it.
- One of Bryan’s friends offers him a security detail with a famous singer. Bryan accepts.
- The pop singer makes a grand entrance to hordes of screaming fans. Backstage, Bryan asks her for tips on becoming a singer. She brushes him off. During the concert, Bryan talks to Kim. They set up a lunch date.
- After the concert, a guy comes after the singer with a knife. Bryan dispatches with him quickly and gets the singer safely into a car.
- In gratitude, she gives him the phone numbers to her manager and vocal coach to give to Kim.
- At lunch, Kim asks Bryan’s permission to go to France with her friend, Amanda. Bryan is wary, but Lenore downplays his concerns. She scolds him and calls him “pathetic.”
- Bryan visits Kim at her step-dad’s mansion and agrees to let her go if she agrees to certain conditions. He drives her to the airport and they talk about his government job. He said he prevented bad things from happening.
- At the airport, Bryan learns Kim isn’t just going to France–she’s traveling all over Europe to follow U2. Bryan is NOT happy, but Lenore tells him he can’t smother Kim or he’ll lose her.
- Kim and Amanda land in Paris. At a taxi stand, they meet Peter, who asks to share a taxi with them into the city. But he’s not the innocent youngster he seems to be…but a spotter.
- Amanda’s apartment is awesome and they have it all to themselves. Amanda teases Kim about hooking up with a French guy before she blasts some music. Kim doesn’t hear her dad call.
- Finally, she picks up and confesses they have no chaperons. As she’s talking to her dad, she sees men enter the apartment and abduct Amanda. Kim quickly tells her dad about Peter as Bryan starts to record the conversation. He tells Kim to hide under the bed…but it won’t stop them from taking her. He instructs her to leave her phone on and yell out a description of the men when they come.
- One of the men finds Kim’s cell phone. Bryan tells him he will find them and kill them. The man says in heavily accented English, “good luck.”
- Bryan drives to Lenore’s and tells them Kim was taken. His friend analyzes the recording. From the abductors’ voices, he knows they’re Albanians who specialize in trafficking young, white women.
- On one of Stewart’s private planes, Bryan listens to his recording over and over again.
- He arrives in Paris, scales the apartment building’s wall, and scopes out Amanda’s apartment, imagining how the crime was committed. He finds Kim’s broken phone and removes its memory card.
- With the card, he can see pictures Kim took with her phone. On one of them, he can see Peter’s reflection.
- At the airport, Peter ropes in another victim–then Bryan punches him. But Bryan is blindsided by Peter’s accomplice. Peter manages to escape. Bryan chases him. Peter jumps onto a truck…then into the road–and gets run over.
- Bryan meets an old colleage, Jean-Claude, who has a desk job having to do with international security. He worries about Peter’s death and how it looks.
- Bryan drives to Porte-de-Clichy (and is followed by Jean-Claude’s assistant). Bryan hires a translator.
- Bryan talks to a hooker. An Albanian thug threatens Bryan. As they talk, Bryan hooks a radio transmitter to the thug’s clothing. The translator translates (reluctantly) what he hears through the transmitter.
- Bryan drives to a highway construction site where the workers pay money to enter a temporary housing unit filled with makeshift stalls, each containing a drugged prostitute. Bryan looks for Kim and punches out a guy he thinks is kissing her…it’s not her, but a girl with Kim’s jacket. Mayhem ensues. Bryan kicks major butt, then gets into a white SUV after placing the drugged girl in the backseat.
- A bunch of oil barrels explode, followed by a high speed chase up and down the construction site. Bryan evades the Albanians–and Jean-Claude’s tail.
- In a hotel room, he takes care of the drugged girl. For the first time, we see him break down and cry.
- Jean-Claude and Bryan talk on cell phones as Jean-Claude tries to triangulate Bryan’s location. Jean-Claude chastises Bryan for the mess he made. The French government wants to send him packing back to the US.
- Bryan asks the drugged girl (now better) about the jacket. She was cold and Kim gave the jacket to her. She was abducted at a house with a red door.
- Bryan finds the house and pretends to be Inspector Jean-Claude. He interrupts a bunch of Albanians playing cards. He says he’s there to negotiate a bribe.
- They agree to pay the increased price. Bryan reveals he’s Kim’s dad and that he’s there to kill them–as he promised on the phone only a few hours ago. Bryan takes all the men down and searches for Kim. He finds a bunch of drugged girls, including Amanda, who choked on her own vomit and died.
- Bryan tortures one of the Albanians and learns about the prostitution ring’s ringleader, Pierre St-Clair.
- Bryan visits Jean-Claude’s apartment. Surprise! Jean-Claude retrieves a gun he hid in the bathroom. Bryan reveals he knows about the bribes in Jean-Claude’s department. Jean-Claude threatens Bryan with his weapon–but Bryan took out its bullets. Bryan gives Jean-Claude’s wife a flesh wound in order to get Jean-Claude to access a database which contains information on St-Clair.
- With a fake police badge, Bryan gatecrashes St-Clair’s party and discovers a live auction of young “certified pure” girls. The last girl is Kim.
- Bryan threatens a Saudi to get him to buy Kim. As they leave their snazzy auction booth, someone conks Bryan on the back of the head.
- After Bryan reveals he’s Kim’s dad, St-Clair tells Bryan (who’s tied up) that he’s a family man but this is his business.
- St-Clair’s men try to strangle Bryan but he breaks free and kills all of his captors…as well as St-Clair.
- Bryan runs frantically through the Parisian streets, in pursuit of a car with Kim in it. He steals a car, drives to a bridge, jumps off of it and onto a boat where Kimmy was sent. As he lands, he takes out a sentry…then a few more, before the boat’s guards go on the alert.
- Bryan dispatches with all of them, and then opens the door to a sheik’s bedroom. Kim is with him and he holds a knife to her throat.
- Bryan shoots him in the forehead. Kim runs to her dad and cries in his arms.
- At the LA airport, Lenore and Stewart thank Bryan for rescuing Kim.
- Bryan takes Kim to visit the pop star.
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