An interesting thing happened on my way back from a family reunion a few weeks ago. At the end of a very long five hour flight between Baltimore and San Diego, a passenger bolted from his seat as we were landing, sprinted to the front, grabbed the door handles and yelled, “Let me off this plane! I have to get off the plane! ”
Two male flight attendants tackled him and pinned him down as we all watched, dumbfounded. It seemed like an eternity before the wheels finally touched the runway, but in reality, it took only moments.
What goes through your mind when stuff like this happens? Initially, you can’t really believe what you’re seeing because you have no frame of reference for it. It’s not every day that someone goes haywire on a flight and tries to get off before the plane has landed. Fellow passengers glance around at each other, just as startled and nervous and disbelieving as you, seeking some kind of verification that it’s really happening.
It wasn’t until I’d disembarked and medicated myself with a white chocolate mocha that the reality of it set in. It could have turned out so differently if… no, we’re not going there. But I wouldn’t be a writer, if at some point I didn’t shamelessly wonder how I could use this in a story. Most writers would.
Digging through the rubble of life gives stories authenticity. As writers, we often process our own experiences through the thoughts and actions of our characters. Sometimes these experiences provide snapshots of what makes people tick. Sometimes it’s a way for writers to make sense of life.
Here are some things I stored away in my inner journal:
- The young man on the plane didn’t struggle after he was tackled. He grew docile and cooperative immediately. Had he been subdued or was he biding his time?
- He looked like any other 20-something in shorts and a t-shirt. He could have been my son…or yours. Tragically innocent or understatedly evil?
- The woman beside me in the aisle seat said that if she’d known he was coming, she would have stuck out her foot to trip him. It brought out her inner ninja.
- Several passengers were gracious and wondered if he had mental health issues, rather than making assumptions of malicious intent.
- The young man was barefooted. The security officer found his flipflops at his seat. If he’d been intentional about causing harm, wouldn’t he have slipped his feet into his shoes before running to the front? It seemed more likely that he panicked and reacted to some turbulence.
- The whole incident seemed to go on forever because all the window shades were drawn to keep out the heat and we had no idea how close we were to landing. I remember thinking (praying!) and trying to will the plane to touch down.
- It occurred to me how odd that all three flight attendants were brawny males. When does that ever happen? In fiction, it would sound contrived, but in reality it was ordained, I think.
- Even the babies and little children were quiet. There was a moment of silence — a pause in the universe — before people started whispering and questioning.
What I observed in the reaction of such a large group of people to this situation was story fodder. I saw how a simple thing like altering the physical setting (having the shades drawn, adding some turbulence) can disorient the protagonist, slow down time and heighten suspense. How one person can find her inner ninja while another sympathizes with a potentially volatile and dangerous character. How something as simple as shoes left behind can suggest the difference between spontaneous or premeditated actions, a confused soul or a scoundrel.
Every writer makes use of personal experiences, but if we fail to look past the obvious event and dissect the nuances of the scene and the reactions of those involved, we may miss the chance to incorporate them into story.
As a side note, when I had time to consider it all, I was deeply moved and grateful for the grace shown to us all on that flight. And I sent an email to the airline commending the flight attendants for the quick response.