Note: I loved this post from June 2010. Please enjoy again, with some edits for corrections and readability. Also, the comments on the original post were pretty awesome.
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. 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. And thus begun my fascination with the franchise.
When Spike TV ran a Star Wars marathon all Memorial Day 2010 weekend, 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:
- 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 prisoner.
- They arouse suspicion and so they shoot all the guards on that level. (bad)
- 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. (worse)
- 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. (bad)
- Unfortunately, there’s no way off the floor; they’re trapped. (worse!)
- So they go into the garbage chute. There’s no way out. (really bad)
- THEN a nasty scary slithery monster slides around their feet! (super duper bad)
- The walls start collapsing! Really fast! (really super mega bad!)
(And by the way, HOW AWESOME are these Star Wars trash compactor book ends? I KNOW, right?)
The garbage chute scene 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. (I made my character get hit by a bus, just because. It was great.)
How are you doing on making things suck for your characters?
Note: I am currently on maternity leave, so forgive me if I don't respond to comments. I baked this post before birth and froze it like a lasagna for today. But rest assured that I love you and appreciate your comments and will read them (because I get them emailed to me) during bouts of middle of the night nursing and other moments of wakefulness.