Flipping the Script

On January 15th, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 departed from LaGuardia airport.  In the climb out after takeoff, the plane was struck in both turbofan engines by a flock of Canadian geese. The engines caught fire and lost power immediately.  Captain Chesley Sullenberger was forced to ditch the plane moments later in the Hudson River.  It was called the most “successful ditching in aviation history” and instantly became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

One small perk of being a full-time writer is that I’m able to watch amazing and historical events as they happen when they’re covered by the media.  On this particular day, I remember getting a breaking news alert. I turned on the TV and there, to my astonishment, was a passenger jet floating in the middle of the Hudson River.

I was glued to the TV for hours. Afterward I read every article and watched every video that came out on it.  I’m a little bit of an aviation geek.  Before 9/11 there was a little patch of concrete out by the runway at Will Rogers World Airport here in Oklahoma City.  You could park your car there and the planes would take off right over your head.  When my husband and I were dating, we used to go to the observation deck at the airport and watch the activity of all the planes taxiing and taking off.  I even wrote a book about planes and made a movie about it, called Skid.

So when the movie Sully was made about the Miracle on the Hudson, I was first in line to see it.

It didn’t disappoint. I then saw it two more times in the theaters.  But probably not for the reason you’d expect.

I went back for one single scene.

In the movie, there is the crucial moment when the birds hit the engines with a loud boom and everyone quickly realizes they’re in trouble.  The engines are on fire and smoking. Peril at its finest.

But how the filmmakers chose to show this dramatic scene left me astonished.

As a storyteller, I would think the natural instinct would be the show the chaos of the moment. When we show chaos, we naturally show screaming and crying. The loss of control is an automatic visual cue for something going terribly wrong.

But in this moment, they decided to flip the script and in doing so, created such an eerie, scary, sacred, astounding moment that I went back two more times just to watch it again.

Instead of showing the dire circumstances through human emotion, they showed it through utter silence.  The plane, suddenly, wasn’t making a single sound.  The engines were gone.  Nothing mechanical was working, including the typical buzzing sound of the electricity inside the plane. This 172,000 pound plane was literally gliding and they chose to show it through eerie quietness.  The silence allowed us to hear the groaning and creaking of the metal that we would never ordinarily hear on a noisy flight.  It was an extraordinary storytelling choice that reminds me how vital it is to take a sharp right turn into the unexpected.

As you probably know, flipping the script simply means this: doing something unexpected when the reader or audience member is anticipating the expected.  This can mean in a single scene or for an entire story. This can mean in the plot or the character or even the setting.

Flipping the script is probably an overused term, but I find it is often underutilized.  As a writer, I have to constantly remind myself to find the right moments.  If you flip the script all the way through, it loses its effectiveness, of course. But when I find the perfect moment, I know it.

A good decade ago, I was writing a scene where a character (whom I needed to have a haunted past) realizes that his sister may be attempting suicide and rushes back to the house to try to save her.  When he gets there, he has found she has hung herself.

I remember sitting at my computer, watching that little cursor blink. The devastating thing would be that he didn’t make it in time.  But what, I asked, would be even more devastating than that?

It is later revealed in the story that he ended up making it in time to save her life.  But not in time to save her from brain damage and a drawn out life in a vegetative state.  He had, inadvertently, trapped her between life and death.  For that story, that is the place I found to flip the script.

As you work through your story, remind yourself to find a moment or two in your story where you might be able to deliver an astonishing turn of events for your reader—something they won’t see coming.  It’s likely because you didn’t see it coming either.  That’s the fun part about being a writer…you can even surprise yourself.  And when you’re surprised, your reader most likely will be too.

Whether your millionaire is driving a pinto, or your zombie is the protagonist, there’s always an advantage to going against the expected.

Along with seeing Sully three times at the theater, I’ve watched it twice since then.  During Oscar season that year, I was anticipating that it would sweep.  It didn’t even come close.  In fact, It was nominated for only one Oscar:

Best achievement in sound editing.

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  1. I loved that true story of the Miracle on the Hudson, too. It’s amazing what that pilot was able to do. Since my dad was an airline pilot, I always imagine him in those situations. He never had to land a plane on the Hudson, but he did spend his career with the lives of hundreds of thousands of souls in his hands. (He loved Skid, by the way. Said your research was spot on.)

    Off to find a way to flip my script. Thanks for the great post.

    1. Thanks, Robin! It means the world to me that your dad liked Skid. His remark about the research warms my heart 🙂

  2. This post came through as I was planning some character arcs for my work-in-progress. I take it as a challenge to go deeper then the regular structure and beats of my character’s development. Thanks, Rene!