A number of years ago, I came up with a definition of my own for a plot device that I recognized as one of the most frequently-used and filled with possibilities. I call it the Stagecoach Scenario.
I borrowed the name from the classic 1939 movie Stagecoach, which demonstrates the idea in its most basic form. The setup is this: a group of people, usually (but not always) diverse in personality, background, profession and, depending on the setting of the story, social class—people who ordinarily would have little or no contact with one another—brought together in close quarters while traveling. Usually they are strangers to one another, sometimes there are unexpected (possibly unpleasant) reunions with past acquaintances involved. On the journey, some outside force poses a danger and/or strands them midway on their route, forcing them into closer communication with each other through a common struggle for survival. As a result, tensions and various relationships among the individuals come into play. The story's conflict derives from both the question of whether they will escape the threatened disaster and what will happen among them in the meantime.
All these elements are easily identifiable in Stagecoach: the close quarters are the stagecoach itself, the passengers the varied group of characters, the journey across the desert, the hostile Indians are the danger from outside. But once you've recognized the basic plot structure, you can see it framing dozens of different stories. A modern equivalent is the airplane disaster film, from The High and the Mighty onward. You have basically the same setup: the diverse group of passengers, the outside force of engine trouble or weather literally threatening the safety of the plane. With a few variations, you could have the same situation on a ship—or a train—or even a bus.
Introducing a crime and a criminal into the pool of characters adds another layer of complexity. Who is hiding something? Is one of the group not what they seem to be? Do they pose a hazard to their companions? The Stagecoach Scenario even serves as the frame for classic whodunits. Agatha Christie used it multiple times with stunning results. Murder On the Orient Express is a stellar example of the travel plot, with the snowbound train serving as the close quarters. In true Christie fashion she uses the basic setup, a crowd of diverse characters thrown together, as an integral part of her mystery plot. The limited amount of people present in a travel setting is helpful for a mystery writer, as John Curran notes in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks; it provides a limited pool of suspects to concentrate on, and the usually remote location also gives the detective a free hand (as in Appointment With Death, for instance). It's the outside force, the stranding snow, that gives Poirot the freedom to make his investigation in Murder On the Orient Express. Christie successfully used almost every single method of transportation mentioned above, including the ship (Death On the Nile) and the airplane (Death In the Clouds), but Murder On the Orient Express remains the finest example of 'stranded murder.'
But the Stagecoach Scenario can be stationary too. Take the hostage story, for instance (The Petrified Forest is a textbook case). In war stories or in Westerns, a siege produces the same effect: trapped characters, outside threat and internal conflict. The Old West is a particularly propitious setting, considering that it's filled with potential outside dangers and a great diversity of character types that can be brought together. An excellent example of this in book form is Last Stand At Papago Wells by Louis L'Amour. In this story the group of characters—men and women, Army and civilian, innocent and guilty, fugitives and pursuers—are trapped in a desert stronghold, surrounded by hostile Apaches and with a diminishing supply of water, with the tensions and suspicion among themselves proving an enemy as dangerous as the Indians.
It doesn't stop there. I've noticed that some war movies share a similar structure—again you have the dissimilar group (the soldiers, recruited from all walks of life) the exotic locale (overseas) the outside danger (hazards of war), the characters forced into close association and dependence on each other. And then there's the classic English country-house mystery, another device for gathering a cross-section of characters together and watching the sparks fly.
The defining feature of this scenario, in whatever setting, is that it's character-driven. Outside forces may apply the pressure, but the interest lies in how the characters react to it and how they interact with each other while under that pressure. And this is where the author steps in, to craft their own unique characters and build their own story off the basic foundation. That's why I love this scenario—the possibilities are endless. Once aboard the stagecoach, anything can happen.
So what are your favorite examples of the Stagecoach Scenario in books and film? How many additional variations can you think of?
Adapted from an old piece on a now-defunct prior blog.