Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!

Yeah, that’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Die Hard. Well, either that, or a man jumping off an exploding skyscraper roof with a firehouse tied around his waist. Maybe it just depends on my mood. Released back in 1988, this film kicked arse at the box office, spawned three four sequels, and as a result, has been ripped off more times than the white man at a Cherokee Nation casino:

  • Speed (1994) — Die Hard on a bus.
  • Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) — Die Hard on a boat.
  • Under Siege (1992) — Die Hard on a boat.
  • Executive Decision (1996) — Die Hard on a plane.
  • Con Air (1997) — Die Hard on a plane.
  • Air Force One (1997) — Die Hard on Air Force One.
  • Toy Soldiers (1991) — Die Hard in a boarding school.
  • Cliffhanger (1993)– Die Hard on a mountain.
  • Night at the Museum (2006)– Die Hard in a museum.
  • Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) — Die Hard in a mall.

Click here if you’re looking for the Die Hard script.
Click here to download my Die Hard screenplay analysis (PDF).


Die Hard Screenplay: The History

Die Hard Screenplay

Die Hard’s origins jump back to 1979. Based on the novel Nothing Last Forever by Roderick Thorp, it was intended as a sequel to The Detective, both a novel and a Frank Sinatra film of the same name. When Ol’ Blue Eyes turned down the film, this gem floated around a bit, nearly giving away its story to a potential Arnold Schwarzenegger Commando sequel.

In Nothing Last Forever, the protagonist, Joseph Leland, is a retired cop who flies to Los Angeles to visit his daughter, a career-minded young woman named Stephanie Gennaro. While at her employer’s Christmas party, Joseph must fight to save his daughter’s life when the building is taken over by a terrorist named Anton “Little Tony” Gruber. In Die Hard, screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E de Souza remained close to the source material with a few small repairs.

Die Hard Screenplay: The Theme

Die Hard Screenplay Holly McClane

Die Hard operates on the theme, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” John McClane’s much more than a streetwise cop, he’s a self-contained anti-terrorism unit. Hans is not a political terrorist, he’s a skillful — strike that — he’s an “exceptional thief.” Holly is a savvy business woman kicking ass in a man’s world. And Officer Al Powell, he’s not a timid cop, he’s a hero’s hero.

The screenplay also explores the diametrically opposed values of greed and virtue. McClane is a blue collar guy. He rides in the front seat of the limo. He could give two shits about the gold Rolex bonus Holly received from Nakatomi. In contrast, Hans personifies all things material. He knows Takagi wears a John Phillips suit from London. Why? Because he owns two himself. He’s after $640 million in bearer bonds, so he can spend his remaining days on a beach earning twenty percent. Hans would blow the very roof his trusted comrade hunted McClane on if it meant a ripple in the execution of the master plan. Then there’s McClane helping clear innocent people off a roof he knew was minutes, if not seconds, from bursting into a ball of flames, even after he discovered his wife was just taken hostage. These men couldn’t be further apart. Hans taking Holly’s gold Rolex with him to the pavement says it best: their conflict was much more than it seems; it was a clash of ideologies.

Die Hard Screenplay: The Structure

Die Hard Screenplay

Die Hard’s screenplay structure can throw you in the wrong direction. Upon first glance, it’s easy to interpret the first plot point as the takeover of the Nakatomi party, when it’s actually the middle beat of act one, marking the protagonist’s first step on the external line of action. In this case, McClane’s first action is to run, also going hand in hand with his internal goal of being selfish. The true first plot point is the murder of Nakatomi president, Joseph Takagi, and McClane’s decision to pull the fire alarm. The stakes are raised: This isn’t kidnapping or extortion; it’s life and death. It also echoes the midpoint, when McClane is more or less forced to throw a dead bad guy out the skyscraper’s window and shoot up Powell’s police car. Seemingly, this would be a victory for the protagonist, but it’s nothing more than a false-positive. Having the police escalate the situation was part of Hans’s plan all along. How can he fake his death without the police or FBI knowing of his operation to begin with? You steal $640 million and you’re looking over your shoulder your entire life…but not if they think you’re dead.

Die Hard Screenplay John McClane

Coming in around minute 95 is the second plot point. McClane has Hans in his grasp. Though he’s unaware of the plan to blow the roof, he receives a useful piece of information: Hans needs those damn detonators. However, when the screenwriter gives something good to the protagonist, he gives something better to the antagonist (up until the climax, that is). Steven de Souza and/or Jeb Stuart chose to expose McClane’s greatest physical weakness — his bare feet. After all, it’s completely within Hans’s character to size up a man by the clothes he wears. It’s here where McClane, out of machine gun bullets, is forced to leave the detonators and run across broken glass to escape.

Click here if you’re looking for the Die Hard script.
Click here to download my Die Hard screenplay analysis (PDF).


Die Hard Screenplay: The Beats

Die Hard Screenplay Holly Gennaro


Inciting Incident (internal) — minute 10 — In Nakatomi’s lobby, McClane discovers Holly’s using Gennaro as a last for business and it pisses him off. After all, he’s an old fashioned guy. He’s also too wrapped up in himself to understand she works for a Japanese-owned corporation, where her new last name gets her further in both sales and the politics of business.

Inciting Incident (external) — minute 11 — McClane walks into the party, a complete fish out of water. Mr. NYPD’s even kissed by man.

Strong Movement Forward — minute 24 —  Hans Gruber and his merry band of criminals crash the party.

Note:  this is McClane’s first real action on the external line. He knows, to save these people (and most importantly, himself), he must escape quick and without notice.

Plot Point #1 — minute 32 — McClane witnesses Takagi’s murder at the hands of Hans Gruber.

Decision — minute 35 — McClane pulls the fire alarm to alert the authorities.

Note:  the first plot point and decision in the screenplay come at page 30 and 33.

Die Hard Screenplay First Trial First Casualty


First Trial / First Casualty — minute 38 — In McClane’s first real trial, he fights Tony and good ol’ Tony breaks his neck when the two men wrestle down a flight of stairs.

Combat — minute 46 — McClane must have known there would be hell to pay when he killed Tony. This is the first real battle with the man out for blood, Tony’s brother, Karl. Don’t ever believe, for even a second, a ballet dancer can’t kill you. Those guys are really fucking strong…and flexible.

Die Hard Screenplay John McClane -- Welcome to the party, pal!

Midpoint — minute 58 — After a few missteps, McClane finally gets the attention of the police. All it took was him hurling a dead body out a window and nearly getting his future best friend killed. As stated before, police involvement seems like a good thing, but it’s really a false-positive. Hans needs the police to blow the roof and fake his death.


Assumption of Power — minute 77 — McClane uses the C4 he stole from one of the dead bad guys to kill a couple more.

Die Hard Screenplay Hans Gruber

Plot Point #2 — minute 95 — McClane gives the man he believes an escaped hostage his gun. When that man reveals himself as Hans Gruber, McClane isn’t necessarily surprised, he’s got those NYC street smarts after all, but not enough to stop Hans from noticing his bare feet.

Decision — minute 98 — Out of machine gun bullets with shattered glass all around his bare feet, McClane tosses everything he doesn’t need and makes a mad dash for the closest exit, leaving the detonators behind.


Point of No Return (internal) — minute 107 — Up until this point, McClane’s been playing his role as the cop: protect and serve. Here McClane crosses the “point of no return” on his internal line of action, where he admits to Powell his narcissism destroyed his marriage to Holly.

Point of No Return (external) — minute 115 — Life or death. McClane knows the roof is minutes, if not seconds, away from being blown and he fights his way up to save his wife and the hostages.  Even when he knows his wife has been kidnapped, he still helps clear the roof until the FBI, mistaking him for a terrorist, rain bullets over his head. This beat attaches one of my favorite point of no return moments in cinema history: a man jumping off an exploding skyscraper roof with a firehouse tied around his waist. It doesn’t get much better.

Die Hard Screenplay Hans Gruber

Climax — minute 123 — McClane’s outnumbered, damn near out of bullets, and running on empty. Great place for a climax, huh? He has just two bullets in his gun. The bad guys are still armed and dangerous, and they have his wife as a hostage. It’s this moment that brings together both the external and internal lines of action. McClane must save his wife and overcome the selfishness that defined him in their marriage. He must know, in that instance, he’s gonna take a bullet and possibly die. I mean, he’s survived this far…how lucky can one guy be? He’s just gotta get off enough shots to allow Holly to escape and he does it with flying colors.

William Robert Rich
William Robert Rich

William Robert Rich is a story analyst, screenwriter, and co-author of Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan. He's currently based in Austin, Texas.

Articles: 120


  1. John doesn’t need to time the C4 when he drops it down the elevator shaft. While this is not established clearly with his POV looking down, it’s certain that the elevator car that the terrorists took down to the second floor is still there waiting for them at the second floor.

    So John drops the makeshift bomb down the elevator shaft, it strikes the elevator car, blowing up the TV, which fires the detonators, which blows up the C4, and then (because the filmmakers set this up beautifully) that C4 explosion blows up the RPGs that had (conveniently) fallen off the cart right next to said elevator.

    That final explosion is what takes out everyone on the second floor.

    So the seemingly innocuous beat where the ammo falls off the cart (and they decide to leave it in haste) is actually critical to making this chain reaction so successful.

    I hope that helps.

  2. Don’t agree with the comments on the inciting incident AT ALL. The story is about terrorists/thieves who take over a building in order to steal bearer bonds. So tell me, what does the maiden name of John’s wife or the fact that John is a fish out of water in a white collar world have to do with the A Story at all? It doesn’t! Tell me, what specifically do either of these two plot points incite the protagonist to do?? Nothing!
    The inciting incident is clearly the point where the terrorists crash the party and John hears the gunshots and screams.

    • An inciting incident puts the story in motion; a disruption to the protagonist’s ordinary world. Just as much as the story is about what Hans Gruber does and how the protagonist reacts, McClane’s marriage problems share equal importance. They’re living apart and he’s got too much pride to move and support her dreams. Seeing Holly use Gennaro as her last name drops an emotional bomb on McClane. He’s come to Los Angeles to make things better and it’s not off to a good start. If this scene didn’t exist, the internal “Point of No Return” wouldn’t carry as much weigh and neither would the climax, saving his wife from the bad guy. Externally, John walking into the party feeds into this, as well. What does John want more than anything else? To get his wife away from that damn building. And he does just that at the end.

    • No, the story is about a cop who is separated from his wife, who made a career move, and he’s dumped into a shit storm. The maiden name is a mechanism that adds to the tension between John and Holly. It’s a pretty simple story and at the end they reunite. What is it you don’t get? Sheesh.

  3. That’s an accurate take on the B Story, thus what you call an ‘internal’ inciting incident would be correct. The A Story is all about a cop who wants to save his wife and her coworkers from thieves and terrorists, thus the inciting incident (‘external’ if you will… or simply, the movie’s inciting incident) is 1,000% the terrorists crashing the party.

    I do find your analysis very insightful, far more insightful than what I could come up with… but we’re talking about the A Story, the story that slaps you in the face, the story that reflects the logline and premise of the movie. That’s what the inciting incident should reflect. Google ‘Die Hard’ film analysis and 6 out of 6 agree!

    • I use a structure paradigm with my beat sheets that follows how the vast majority of Hollywood films work. This is great for people who want to learn how to structure their screenplays. From time to time, I will alter the structure when I feel it’s right (Michael Clayton, BTTF, Fight Club, to name a few), but don’t see a need here. In the first act, you have a disruption to the ordinary world (II) followed by a strong step on the external line of action, ending with a big turn and decision. Three beats distinct beats. Die Hard follows this to a T-square.

      McClane is a selfish man who learns to do right by his wife. That’s the arc. The climax is all about saving Holly. Killing Hans (and having him take a symbol of the material life that McClane rejects to the pavement with him) is just icing on the cake. This is what makes Die Hard special; the reason for delaying the entrance of the terrorists. When they storm the party, he doesn’t opt for a suicide mission like the climax, he runs and saves his ass (24 minutes in / 2nd major beat / first step on external line). It’s only when he realizes they’re willing to kill that he chooses to do anything and that’s 35 minutes in (turn / decision).

  4. Interesting – never connected the dropped weapon/ammo with the C4 elevator shaft explosion; that was an awesome connection. Also about the symbolism of the Rolex going down with Hans – really nice observation!

    A couple nits though: you’re misassigning “Protagonist” here. John is the “hero”, Hans is the “protagonist”. That’s what the writer says (in the commentary track and in lectures he’s given), and understanding this is a revelation.

    He also said, “The movie is about a guy trying to save his marriage.” You can see that “what the movie is about” forms the skeletal theme upon which all the loud parts are hung. The reason he’s flown there, the midpoint soul-searching, the final reuniting: three pins that hold up all the boom-boom and give it direction and humanity. Incidentally, at the end Holly has learned to appreciate John as much as he’s learned to appreciate her: she belts the reporter in fine McClane style!

    Now to click your link to the script – hopefully it’s the real one in PDF and not some internet transcriber’s typo-filled single-page copy of it…


    • Thanks for stopping by, Jimmy. You definitely make me want to grab the DVD and listen to the commentary. Is it both deSouza and Stuart on the track? I just listened to McTiernan’s commentary on Predator. No big revelations as far as story, but his tales of studio woes and working with talent are a nice addition.

      Now, regarding protagonist vs hero, it’s easy to get tangled up in semantics. On one hand, Hans gets the external line moving, but the internal line is very much about the McClane and Holly. And if the film is “about a guy trying to save his marriage,” that only points towards McClane as the protagonist. deSouze and/or Stuart are just saying, “this film is different!” And it most certainly is. People are still talking about it twenty-five years later.

  5. I think it’s fair to say that the original “Die Hard” is the 1935 film “China Seas” starring Clark Gable as the captain of a cruise liner that gets taken over by pirates.(Die Hard on a boat) A great film that set a precedence. Perhaps there was another before this but I’m not aware of it.

  6. We studied the Die Hard screenplay when I took the screenwriting course at Vancouver Film School. The perfect action film, and is very structurally sound. I loved reading your analysis.

  7. I hate how people try to justify this as a great movie with a perfect screenplay because it was different from other 80’s action movies & somehow a success when it’s actually boring & corny.
    *Hook- a cop that’s afraid of flying, wow amazing!
    *Inciting Incident- does not exist in this movie. Stop the BS!
    *Lock in- he’s literally locked in a building & can’t get out,no choices made,wow amazing!
    That’s ACT 1
    I watched little bit more when the bad guys take everyone hostage but quickly lost interest in an old movie i was told was the greatest action movie ever made which clearly sucked & i turned it off.

    Here’s how it would be a good movie for its time & a decent screenplay if done correctly.
    1.The argument with his wife turns ugly & she tells him to leave thus giving him a CHOICE to leave BEFORE the bad guys show up.
    2. Actually having an inciting incident BEFORE he’s literally locked in.
    3.Maybe showing the bad guys planning,stealing,killing cops etc as an interesting hook in the first minutes of the movie then show the hero having lame conversations about feet on a plane & cracking jokes.

    • Oh dear. If you can’t analyse a film regardless of whether or not you personally liked that film you’re not going to get very far as a writer.

  8. I’m glad someone finally acknowledges the II is when he learns Holly isn’t using his name. Most sites just say it’s when the terrorists show up.

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