Go and take a running jump, they say. Sound dramatic advice if you ask me. I realised a while ago just how frequently gravity features in fiction. Whether its from a satellite, a cathedral spire, a balcony, a tower or, arguably the most classic cliche, a clifftop, the number of characters who have plummeted – all too often to their deaths – is legion.
I myself love a bit of freefall. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the nature of the event. Helplessness, weightlessness, hopelessness, there is something shockingly dramatic about the sight of a human being taking a plunge.
For examples of just how many characters have fallen off various objects to their doom one need look no further than that greatest of artistic studios, Disney. From Mufasa to Clayton, Gaston to Emperor Palpatine (what? He’s Disney now!), the number of characters who have fallen in every sense of the word is counted in the dozens.
Why? An obvious answer seems to be that dying by the will of gravity is a lot more acceptable and a lot cleaner (notice you never see the tidy-up operation afterwards…) than dying at someone’s hands. Sure, plenty of these characters were pushed or otherwise coerced over the edge, but it still leaves their killer, often the hero, with clean hands. Literally. The faltering footstep or the refusal to accept the outstretched fingers of reconciliation provides the final evidence of a moral corruption which dooms these characters to their sad but apparently inevitable fates.
Such dramatic device is undeniably a tried-and-tested success, but personally I’ve found the most powerful falls to be not accidental or the vengeance of a wrathful story-plotter, but rather those jumps freely taken. I’m still not sure why, but the tiny cut-scene in Ubisoft’s amazing WW2 shooter Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway remains the most dramatic jump I’ve ever seen (it can be found here at 5.14). Despite being so apparently small and mediocre, its power lies in the fact that the character doing the jumping has just spent the last 5 minutes racing through a burning building. Here we’re presented with a simple yet incredibly grave choice. Burn or jump. Because the alternative is so horrific, the jump becomes all the more powerful. Throwing yourself head-first from a window without knowing what lies beyond is all sorts of messed up fearless-desperateness, and who doesn’t like a bit of that in their fiction?
I myself got a little taste of near-freefall when I went bungee jumping last year. I’m anything but an adrenaline junkie – I’ve never even been on a roller coaster! But there’s something incredibly alluring about that lonely step into nothing. Bringing it into fiction involves literally sending your characters over the edge. How people – real or fictitious – react when they’re standing on it looking down tells you a great deal about them.