An interesting thing happened on my way back from a family reunion two weeks ago. At the end of a very long five hour flight (redundancy intended) between Baltimore and San Diego, a passenger left his seat as we were landing, ran to the front, grabbed the door handles and yelled, “Let me off this plane! I have to get off the plane!”
What did he know that we didn’t?
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 down on the runway, but in reality, it all happened so fast.
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.
Like I said, it all happened so fast. It wasn’t until I’d disembarked and medicated myself with contraband (Starbucks white chocolate mocha) that the reality of it set in. Wow. 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. Seriously, I did. And after the dust settled, I bet you would, too.
We all write from life. That’s what gives our stories authenticity. We process our experiences through the thoughts and actions of our characters. We hope they can make sense of it for us. This should make us more observant, and perhaps it does.
Sometimes it’s not the big things that ground a scene or experience, but the small insights and observations that make it real. Here are some things I remember:
- The young man 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. She went on about how we all need to step up and be proactive about safety now. 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 other than a vague sense of descent. I remember thinking (praying, really) “ Come on, 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 black hole in time where we were standing outside looking in – before people started whispering and questioning.
- I realized that I hadn’t gotten up from my seat in five hours and I needed to (ahem) ‘go’. The five minute wait in our seats for the air marshal to show up was interminable.
The right story might not come along to use my experience, but what I observed in the reaction of such a large group of people to this situation was valuable. I know 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 bad guy.
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. God is good! And I sent an email to the airline commending the flight attendants for the quick response.