Thursday, June 3, 2010

How to Escalate the Suck Factor, Star Wars Style

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Star Wars. I was the only girl in my grade that had a metal Star Wars lunchbox, and I had Star Wars sheets, and even Luke and Leia dolls. It was pretty great. I’m not like a Star Wars fanatic or anything. It’s a great movie (and when I say “it,” I mean the original, but also the original three movies collectively). Apparently, I was three or so when the first film came out and my crazy parents took me to the theater. I was diverted by the striking resemblance between Chewbacca and my cat, Elco, and I shouted "Elco! Meow! Meow!" every time he came on screen. My parents had to take turns taking me out of the theater.

Anyway, Spike TV ran a Star Wars marathon all Memorial Day weekend and Mr. Sierra and I couldn’t help but watch even though we had to sit through interminably long commercials. I’m glad I did. It's been a while since I saw Star Wars, and of course now I looked at it differently -- I looked for what it can teach me about story. And guess what! Star Wars can teach us a lot about plot tension. Take a looky-loo:

In the original Star Wars film (episode IV if you keep track of those things), Luke and Han Solo enter the Death Star. There they discover that Princess Leia is being held prisoner (bad) and is scheduled for termination (worse). They go to the prisoner level to rescue her. They’re wearing stolen Storm Trooper suits, and they handcuff a reluctant and surly Chewbacca/Elco to pretend they’re transporting him as a prisioner.

The first bit of tension comes when they arrive in the prison level and arouse suspicion. So they shoot all the guards on that level. Luke runs off to find Leia’s cell, and Han tries to tell the inquiring guard over the com that they had a “weapon malfunction,” but everything’s fine. The guard on the com is all "Whatevs" and he says he's sending troops in. Tension!

Luke rescues Leia, but then they have to get away from the troops that came down to investigate and find the guards all shot up. Unfortunately, there’s no way off the floor; they’re trapped. So they go into the garbage chute. And here’s where it gets really good. Now they’re in the garbage chute, and the guards are after them, and there’s no way out. THEN a nasty scary slithery monster slides around their feet! Pretty bad, huh? I’d be shaking. Slithery monsters are BAD. But it gets WORSE. The walls start collapsing! Really fast! Things just keep getting suckier and suckier!

(And by the way, HOW AWESOME are these Star Wars trash compactor book ends? I KNOW, right?)

This is a high tension moment. As we know, C3PO has R2D2 shut off the garbage and they’re fine. But then there’s the matter of getting away, and the movie is great at escalating that tension, too. Luke and Leia run down a hall, chased by storm troopers! But the bridge is shot out! So Luke throws a really thin and breakable-looking rope thingy from his handy Storm Trooper belt (I'd have kept it, too) and they swing to safety. Your breath is held while they swing.

See how the action keeps making things suckier and suckier for them? The whole movie is like this. The next time you watch an action movie, watch for the way the story goes from bad to much worse. That's great storytelling. You need to push yourself to get that. For example, I had a sucky thing happen in the climactic event in my WIP. But after I saw Star Wars that weekend, I knew I had to add more sucky things in there to draw out the tension, and I'm glad I did.

(Also check out this Lego Death Star. They never had that when I was a kid!)

What movies do you like that make things suckier and suckier for the characters?


Christine H said...

Too funny! My son is 8 and totally into Star Wars. I think he likes the original movies better than the later ones. But, um, the very first movie in theaters was Episode IV, not III. Episode III is the one where Anakin gets burned up in the lava. Ew. I always skip that on the DVD.

We own all of them. So we can watch them without commercials. Heh.

My son wants a Lego Death Star. It's like $300 or something. Uh, no. Maybe when he's 16 and has a job.

I like "Lord of the Rings" for increasing danger. I mean, destruction of the whole world (for reasons known only to Sauron) is pretty much as bad as it gets. But, really, why bother to have the world if you're going to destroy it? That's the part I never understand.

And Star Trek. I'm a huge Star Trek fan, too. The Borg are, in my opinion, the absolutely creepiest bad guys ever.

Simon C. Larter said...

Hm. I said something similar a while back in reference to the new Star Trek movie. The opening sequence is one big ball of suck rolling downhill picking up more suck as it goes for the main characters. Definitely an attention grabber, yeah?

And lest you think I'm being uncharacteristically apropos in your comment section, I should note that I'm simply luring you into a false sense of security. Naturally.

Christine H said...

P.S. Check this out! It's a great example of a plot summary. (I LOVE Lego Star Wars.)

May the 4th Be With You

DL Hammons said...

Another great example of this concept that jumps out at me is in the movie "Back to the Furture" at the climax where the 'Doc' & 'Marty' are attempting to propel the car back to the future by harnessing a bolt of lightning. The cable becoming unplugged on the clock...the car stalling out...the cable coming unplugged at the base when the top is fixed...all with the clock ticking! Excellent example of wrenching up the SUCK!

Great post!

Amalia T. said...

I'm still trying to decide how you don't own the original trilogy on DVD. :P

Incidentally, I also had a metal Star Wars lunchbox! Return of the Jedi variety!

Awesome post! :)

Julie Dao said...

Yes! There's nothing like conflict piling up to pull you right into a story. Look at Lord of the Rings, for instance. A ring gets lost. It ends up in our protagonist's hands. Scary black hooded dudes begin chasing him. He finds out he has to WALK across Middle Earth to throw the ring into a volcano, but wait - he has to cross through enemy territory AND face the fact that the ring lures bad guys. And one of his friends dies. AND if he fails, all of his friends will die. Talk about going from bad to worse!

Travener said...

Well, I don't know about characters, but I do know that the more "Showgirls" kept going, the more it sucked for the audience.

JEM said...

I haven't watched Star Wars in a while, but I might need to revisit the films now...

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Okay, so I've never been a big Star Wars person (although the hubs is a big fan.) I've only seen them once and that was a long time ago. Maybe I would appreciate them more now. But anyhoo, I think you made a great illustration of run your protag up a tree and then throw rocks at them--lots of rocks.

I call those moments the "oh, you've got to be effing kidding me" moments--because you know that's what your character is saying to you. Like, really? You're going to do THAT to me too.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Great input, guys. Don, I especially remember that Back to the Future scene --it's a good example of suck factor -- and you're holding your breath going "Please God do not let the plug pop out again!"

And Amalia, I own the DVDs. But when it comes on TV, I watch anyway. Sad. But commercials allow me to Tweet and write :)

Melissa said...

I loved Star Wars when I was little. I remember my parents bribed one of my older cousins to to with me to see The Return of the Jedi when I was in first grade.

KLM said...

I am so a Star Wars geek. Look, I've dragged my poison ivyed self to the keyboard just to tell you so. Have you ever seen such bravery?

I think it's the Harrison Ford factor, honestly. All movies featuring Harrison Ford have that constant ratcheting of suck and disaster up and up and up until you think, how on earth is he going to get out of this one? It's awesome.

Alicia J. Frey said...

OK, let me start by saying the trash compactor bookends are three shades of awesome! I really need to work on my tension. Mine is more like lots of tension, little release, some more tension, little release. I think I need to put my characters in their own form of trash compactor!

Great post!!

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.