Ah, the “Crew.” Think The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. Or Firefly. Ocean’s 11. Take your pick. I know there are a few more recent fantasy-type novels which feature this trope. The rag-tag band. A motley crew. A found family of misfits. So on and so forth.
This trope is very hit-or-miss for me and I think this stands to reason: you either like the crew…or you don’t. Since this trope deals heavily in multiple character dynamics, it requires a certain finesse to pull off. Because you’re usually dealing with a bigger roster of main characters, there’s that many more ways it can go wrong.
When it doesn’t Work
-This one’s pretty obvious. If all you have are underdeveloped characters, the whole thing will fall flat, no matter how awesome the heist (’cause it is usually a heist). This most commonly manifests as the “one-trait folly.” Each character is provided with one defining trait–“the mean one,” “the quiet one,” “the one who is in love with his weapon”–and we get constant call-backs to that one thing, but NOTHING ELSE. It starts to feel like everyone should just be wearing a name-tag with that one trait on it. Rarely does a book or a movie go quite that flat in characterization, but if you have to remind yourself who’s who when the action is flurrying, something got missed.
-when half the “crew” seems tacked-on. This is when there are 3 or 4 characters the author actually cares about, but that hardly constitutes a full crew, so they throw in another 4 or 5…but they just feel like excess baggage. All their banter feels awkward and forced, and they constantly have to pop their head in just to remind us that they’re there. Maybe this “excess” person is technically the best codebreaker…but for some reason it’s always one of the 3 or 4 main protagonists that end up doing everything anyway, leaving extra guy with nothing to do but nod as his expertise is made irrelevant.
-When a central romance dominates to the point that it creates unnatural character dynamics. Everything is reorganized, shoved, blunted, shifted for the romance. Unless it is literally a Romance novel (and sometimes even then!) this can ruin a thing. This is not an indictment against romance itself, mind you.
Simply take the example of some Classic Romantic Comedies (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, The Philadelphia Story) and then attempt to find a truly enduring Romantic Comedy from the last 10 years. Not too many, right? I have tried to analyze this phenomenon of the lack of really high quality Romantic Comedies in recent years, and I have identified two or three factors, one of which is side characters. The side characters in the older movies were really vivid. They were present, involved, hilarious, and enriching. They had their own insights and ideas. They existed not only to prove that the world consisted of more than these two central people, but that real relationships outside the romance itself matter and are a vital part of life.
If the whole structure of the crew is built awkwardly and inexplicably around a central romance, it ruins the family-feeling of the crew, demotes the remaining characters to window-dressing, and makes the romance itself boring because it’s all one channel, all the time.
-Too many Han Solos. Han Solo is awesome. I love Han Solo. But not everybody can be Han Solo. We need diversity of personality. This is a subtle temptation, because crews are usually doing capers or heists or whatever, and that usually implies roguish personalities. But if EVERYBODY is Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds, it’s boring.
Truth told, I haven’t actually seen this particular flaw very much. We recognize pretty quick that a crew begs diversity of personality.
And on that note:
When it Does Work/Why We Love It
-Diversity of personality. The wide range of interesting characters gives everyone someone to identify with–at least to some degree–or root for. Well done, the crew story offers a dazzling feast of characters and we get to watch them grow, act, and develop right before our eyes.
-Surface simplification, with hidden depths. This acts as a counter to the one-trait problem. Yes, at first, we have “The mean one,” “The weapons expert,” “The scholar,” and “The one we know nothing about.” We basically get character cards to start, and then we slowly get to discover what they are outside their area of expertise. Nuance unfolds. Every new tidbit about their background or personality becomes a delicious morsel.
-Character dynamics. The way those two banter, the way he acts like a brother to her, the way she holds back around him, the way he plays it close to the chest with that other guy, almost as if he doesn’t trust him. Once we are invested, every single drop of dialogue from our favorite characters becomes a thrill. Subtle nods make us feel welcomed into the found family, and silences speak loudly. If the character dynamics are good, we don’t even care what the heist is! It’s just a medium for interaction between people we have come to love.
-HOWEVER, there usually is a fun objective, heist, goal, whatever. And we like that too, because we like to see everything come together, everyone’s strengths utilized, and the close bond they have compensates for their individual weaknesses.
-Sometimes the crew has been together for a long time, sometimes they are brought together before our eyes. It can be really enjoyable to watch the transition from “I’m just in it for the money” to “You are my brother and I will die for you!” I see this one done badly a lot. One minute the crew was gathered and everyone was passing out name tags along with areas of expertise, and after a mild run-in with a low level goon, somebody says “we’re a family now.”
If you don’t show your work, that isn’t going to fly.
On the other hand, if the crew has been together for a long time, it can be a joy to catch subtle hints of past experiences, of all the little things we don’t yet know about what brought them together.
The “Crew” trope feeds our love for variety, for family, for adventure, for a shared goal. It stokes a desire for intimate friendships where, at a word or a glance, one knows exactly what is going on in the others’ head, or exactly what to do, where to go, how to execute. We love to see everything (or, more importantly, everyone) come together just so. And since “Crew” stories nearly always have heists, they are often just plain fun. Puzzleboxes made of people for us to try and figure out.
I don’t know what the real name of this trope is, but it generally works like this: there’s a ticking clock of some lethal kind and the character has to run–and I mean RUN–to make it in time.
Run to slam a gate to keep the monster out.
Race to deliver a letter before a dreadful misunderstanding occurs.
Hurry to get out of the city before curfew lockdown.
Sprinting through field and forrest with the hounds baying just behind you.
You get the idea.
On the surface, this seems like a pretty straightforward trope, and I suppose it is, but since I find that I actually use and think about this trope in my daily life, I think it’s worth exploring.
Where do we see this trope? Why does it exist? Why is it that we don’t get bored of such an obvious and common narrative tool?
Off the top of my head I can think of two examples of this trope that impacted me, and I’m going to use them for the analysis.
The first is Shasta in The Horse and His Boy. Shasta’s companion, Aravis, has been wounded by a lion and must recover. Both talking horses, Bree and Hwin, are completely spent and must rest. But Shasta doesn’t get to rest. He has to keep going to warn of invasion. He can only just hope to precede the attackers by a very little bit, if at all. He has to run as fast as he can (remember, he’s already exhausted) in hopes that word can reach Archenland in time. If he doesn’t make it, Archenland won’t make it. If he does, they have a chance.
Thankfully, Shasta makes it.
The second example is of a far more serious nature, as it is based in actual history. It is the movie Gallipoli. In the film there are two extremely fast runners who enlist and fight in WWI. Towards the end of the film there is an assault planned by the ANZAC forces, meant to follow bombardment and proceed in three waves. The timing is bungled, and the first two waves are slaughtered almost instantly. There is some disagreement and miscommunication as to whether or not the third wave should proceed (it being quite clear to the viewer that they will be slaughtered just like the first two waves).
With disconnected phone lines, one of the runners is given a message to halt the third wave. He sprints. His friend–the other sprinter–is in the third wave. If the runner makes it, all those men are saved. If he doesn’t, they aren’t.
The runner doesn’t make it. The wave is sent to death.
Here’s the most obvious reason for the dash or die trope. Well done, a ticking clock creates tremendous tension. I honestly have never figured out what the difference is between the well-done ones and the poorly done ones. I only recognize the difference in what I think and feel.
When poorly done, the ticking clock feels silly and forced. I don’t really believe that anyone is in danger, and I don’t feel the fear and desperation of the runner. To me this indicates that the author didn’t enter into that tension, didn’t really put lives at stake, but simply overlaid it onto the scene because they wanted more tension and didn’t really know how else to go about it. I suspect this, because I can always tell when I am trying to “add tension” to my scenes but don’t personally feel it…it ends up being very paint-by-the-numbers. The stakes could be the fate of the world, and nobody will care.
When well done, the stakes could be relatively low (a mild misunderstanding) but my heart will still race. I wish I knew the trick to this, because it astounds me, and impresses me when well executed.
Value of Fierce Incentive
For the runner themselves, the incentive is razor-sharp. It’s dragging them like ropes, even against the will of their body. When dealing with motive, characters are often given a wide variety and it’s just a matter of context and timing as to which of those motives end up having the most driving power for action. It’s complex. Motives conflict, and muddy the waters, which can be interesting, but can also muddy our understanding of why a character is doing something, or why it’s important.
Not here. We know exactly what’s at stake, and we know when it needs to happen, and we know why the protagonist is so desperate, why they are able to push past their normal physical limits. Everything is on the table. The incentive to run is visceral, adrenaline-soaked, acting like a raw scream in the ear.
Weight and Finality
This trope works best when the success or failure carries dreadful weight, and its impact is final.
When the consequences of failure are tempered–“oh, you’re too late, but some coincidence caused a deferred consequence, how lucky!! Now you get to try again”–that definitely obliterates the tension and value of a ticking clock.
Finality matters in the story because it matters in real life. Sometimes our decisions, or our failures are final. Not always, but sometimes. That’s why people love to watch doctor shows: the decisions of the doctors are often final, and often on the clock.
It’s a grander, more dangerous version of what we feel when we try to meet a non-negotiable deadline. When that happens, it can make our heart race. No less so in fiction.
As to impressing the weight of the thing on the reader (or viewer), the main factor that I’ve noticed is not whether the consequences are large or small, but whether we care about the effects in a personal way. Superhero movies frequently fail on this score. They simply make the consequences really, really big, so big that they become vague and impersonal. The fate of a city, of a nation, of the whole world, of the galaxy. Intellectually, we all know this is awful, but it’s hard to grasp something that big emotionally without tying it to a smaller person or thing. That’s why individual stories often help us understand a massive tragedy more readily than the horrible, overarching narrative.
No matter how big or small you go, if the emotional connection to the consequences is absent–the weight of failure, as it were–no amount of explosions, or ticking clocks, or dramatic pauses are going to make any difference.
I’m going to use another historical example here, but I will acknowledge up front that historical narratives are a bit of a “cheat” (a valid one) in that they actually happened. Weight and finality are inherent, because they are true. We can see a story unfold and know the ending full well, but we are still affected because it’s not just a story.
A last Example
I have rarely (if ever) seen a ticking clock and the sense of consequence used as well as in the film Dunkirk. This is first and foremost because it is a fictionalized rendering of actual events. Real people actually had all these experiences. But all actions or failures of action have direct and (nearly always) final consequences. The style of filming zeroes in with almost claustrophobic proximity, on just a few people. The fate of hundreds of thousands hangs in the air, but focusing on just a handful of people brings home what EVERYONE is going through a that moment in a way a broad sweep could never quite achieve.
In that film, small choices have fatal consequences. Over and over again. Mistakes, however understandable in the moment, result in irreversable outcomes. Many are saved. Many are lost. We see both. We see the last-second save, and the second-too-late loss. Just thinking about one particular scene right now sets a stone in my stomach.
Now Dunkirk is not a straightforward dash-or-die story, but it is a type of one if you look at the actual history. There was a ticking clock to get those soldiers off the beach. The longer it took, the more were likely to die. Consequences of a massive failure could have been devastating, and consequences of individual failure very final indeed.
That is a very sobering example, of course, so I will finish with something a bit more…mundane.
I like to run. It is one of the easiest, cheapest sports. Other than shoes, no equipment required. But I have to fight against a lazy streak when I run for time. In order to improve at speed or distances, you have to be at least a little uncomfortable at some point. A comfortable pace is nice sometimes, but it is a stagnant pace. At some point, you need to hurt a little to succeed. I resist this a little. I don’t want to be uncomfortable.
For years now I have often played this little game with myself when I find that lazy streak bucking up.
“What if someone’s life was at stake? What if the fate of the world rested on whether or not I am able to run fast enough? Would I be this lazy? I’ll pretend I have a message to deliver, and if I don’t keep an 8:30 pace for these last two miles, something terrible will happen.”
Obviously this is silly on the surface, just sort of a mind-trick I employ to try and maintain a minimum goal pace. But underneath, there’s a little something more to it. What if someone’s life really did depend on my willingness, my ability to push myself past all expected physical capacity? What if that tiny streak of laziness had consequences? In dire situations, lives really do hang on the muscle memory we’ve developed–mental, physcial, or moral muscle memory–or failed to develop.
The dash or die trope strips its characters of any insulation from their flaws, any superfluous factors, any easy outs. It tells us who the characters really are in the moment of desperation, and then it shows us the consequences.