The Man in the Chair

It's tough to find an original story. Some argue that there are only seven real plot lines. Some argue eleven. Robert Pobi is here to tell you otherwise. According to him, there's only one story. Join him on a quest through classic books and films as he argues his point.

Fiction writers (which includes film writers) complain that there is nothing new to write about. Apparently all the storylines, characters, plot points, and scenes have already been invented. Which I agree does sound dire. But the situation is even worse than that—they forget to mention that there is only one narrative plot. One story. 

I’ll let that sink in for a moment. 

People argue over whether there are seven, or eleven—or pick your number—variations on the story. They’re wrong. There’s one. Singular. It started with the first novel in the English language—Robinson Crusoe (we could argue the origin of the universal island archetype and all of the pseudo-Crusoes up to that point, but that’s another discussion). When you strip that one story down, it hits all the bases—which is really just Man against adversity. Internal adversity. External adversity. That’s it. One story. Every other piece of fiction is just a twist on our man Crusoe. Every story from Jude the Obscure to When Harry Met Sally to Moby Dick to Alien has the same genetic building blocks. Again and again. Different islands, different problems, but islands and problems nonetheless. 

So what’s the point of writing if there’s only one narrative? 

Writers are optimists. It’s encoded in our genomes. Only an optimist can look at a four-inch stack of blank paper (or the equivalent empty hard drive space—about one-point-five megabytes for you sticklers out there) and think filling it with zeros and ones somehow has Meaning (especially when you factor in the inevitable year of sleepless nights, missed dinner parties, unread books, unswum lakes, and unloved lovers). It’s the kind of undertaking that gets rid of pessimists pretty fucking fast.  

And writers (correctly or incorrectly) believe that even though they might not have anything new to say, they might be able to trick the audience into thinking it’s new. Which sounds both too complicated and too simple at the same time, but it’s what’s going on. 

Let me explain. 

We’ll start with a scene that has been used so much in crime and thriller fiction and film that it’s become cliché; the man-tied-to-a-chair trope (again, Crusoe on his island, but in fractal form). From Shakespeare to Wes Anderson, it’s been used thousands of times. But you know what? It’s still around. Because in the hands of the right person that scene can still be a force of nature. 

When most people think of the guy-tied-to-a-chair scene, the knee-jerk incantation invariably conjures up some unfortunate schmuck fastened to a chair while another guy—probably a larger guy, possibly in a wife-beater—punches the shit out of him. 




Like I said—Shakespeare to Wes Anderson. 

So how has it survived? By writers making it their own. 

The first time I remember seeing this scene play out, I was a kid, and the film was Marathon Man (1976). William Goldman (who wrote both the book and the screenplay) traded in the big guy in a wife-beater for an eighty-five-year-old Laurence Olivier psychotically riffing on Joseph Mengele. But he wasn’t a pugilist—he got his kicks from drilling through Dustin Hoffman’s front teeth au naturel—without anesthetic, as it were. For hours. While he kept asking Hoffman, “Is it safe?” in a low hiss, again and again and again, as if he were a snake and those were the only words he knew. Talk to any dentist—they still get asked about that scene. 

I mean holy fuck, right? 

Another guy to up the stakes was Thomas Harris in his remarkable novel, Red Dragon (1981). Harris kept the chair but added wheels. And instead of handcuffs or rope, he had his bad guy use epoxy glue (it was Crazy Glue in both film versions) to fasten his victim to the old oak wheelchair as per the formula—Crusoe, island, adversity. Then the bad guy proceeded to chew his victim’s lips off with custom-made metal prosthetic teeth before dousing him with unleaded, firing him up like a sambuca on spring break, and rolling him down a hill and into the afterlife, a screaming Hot Wheels kebab (yes, I know you can’t be both a cocktail and a meat stick, but I’ll let this particular mixed-metaphor sneak by quality control).  

It’s a hard one to forget. 

A few years later, Oliver Stone revisited the scene in his script for Scarface (1983). Stone put the protagonist, Tony, in the audience’s seat, and made him watch as his friend was disassembled with a chainsaw (he was cuffed to a curtain rod in the bathroom instead of a chair). Again—Crusoe, island, adversity. The remarkable thing about this scene is not how freaked out we get, but how freaked out Tony doesn’t get. It was a really creative way of showing us what his tolerances were—apparently he was in permanent goblin mode.   

And, of course, there is the little piece of cinema that rewrote the code for the guy-tied-to-a-chair scene—Mr. Blonde tormenting Marvin the cop in Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Reservoir Dogs (1992). It comes at you like it’s got nowhere to take you that you haven’t already been before—some guy taped to a chair in a warehouse. Tarantino gives us a psychopath dancing to a catchy tune, a cop losing an ear to a straight razor, and a little gasoline in a jerry can. Same old same old—Crusoe, island, adversity. But by the time the scene ends…let’s just put it this way—Wes Craven (the director of Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream franchise) walked out of the theater the first time he saw it.  

Again, holy fuck, right?

Even The Avengers (2012) managed to give us a new look at the old trope (don’t tell my friends that I’m using this as an example—they’ll stop serving me the good booze). Again, all of the classic elements—a beautiful woman tied to a chair, a bad guy asking the questions, and a meathead who keeps doling out slaps. Then a call comes in on the bad guy’s cell phone and the entire scene does a one-eighty where the audience finds out that the woman in the chair is actually the one doing the interrogating. It’s a nice little piece of writing that shows that you don’t just go after the window-dressing, you can make structural changes to the foundation to get where you want.

Same scene, different approach. Crusoe. Island. Adversity. Again and again and again. 

I’ve used the man-tied-to-a-chair scene before and I will most certainly come back to it again. I had my bad guy use the handy nasal applicator on a can of spray foam insulation to, well, you know—insulate his victim. Nasally. Fun, right? Another time I used a landmine and a guy who had passed I-don’t-give-a-fuck a long time ago. Both must have worked because I still get emails about those scenes all the time.   


Crusoe. Island. Adversity. 

Start paying attention to the car chases and the fight scenes and the self-surgery and you’ll see that they also all have the same building blocks (Man, island, adversity). A writer’s job is to find a new way to curate the story—to put it together in their own way. And if they’re any good, you’ll see just how fabulous Robinson Crusoe still is.

About Do No Harm by Robert Pobi:

Lucas Page is a polymath, astrophysicist, professor, husband, father of five adopted children, bestselling author, and ex-FBI agent—emphasis on “ex.” Severely wounded after being caught in an explosion, Page left the FBI behind and put his focus on the rebuilding the rest of his life. But Page is uniquely gifted in being able to recognize patterns that elude others, a skill that brings the F.B.I. knocking at his door again and again.

Lucas Page’s wife Erin loses a friend, a gifted plastic surgeon, to suicide and Lucas begins to realize how many people Erin knew that have died in the past year, in freak accidents and now suicide. Intrigued despite himself, Page begins digging through obituaries and realizes that there’s a pattern—a bad one. These deaths don’t make sense unless the doctors are being murdered, the target of a particularly clever killer. This time, the FBI wants as little to do with Lucas as he does with them so he’s left with only one option—ignore it and go back to his normal life. But then, the pattern reveals that the next victim is likely to be…Erin herself.

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