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Storytelling Strategies: Tension, Release and 'Interstellar'

Paul Joseph Gulino examines 'Interstellar' to show how too much story and too little setup can leave the audience on the outside looking in.

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Too much story and too little setup leave the audience on the outside looking in.

If you’ve ever flown on an airliner, you’ve had this experience: the engines are loud and noticeable on takeoff and climb, but as you reach cruising speed, you stop noticing them. You read a magazine, you fall asleep, you talk to a friend. It’s not that the engines have fallen silent — they are still annoyingly loud. What’s happened is that your perceptual system has become accustomed to the noise, a phenomena known as neuronal fatigue. When a stimulus strikes your senses at a constant level, your perceptual system filters it out — even if it’s loud — freeing you to focus on other phenomena.

The challenge for filmmakers is that they don’t want you to tune out of the “stimulus” they are providing for you — their films. Filmmakers do not want you to fall asleep, or read a magazine, or talk to a friend, while their movie is playing.

The best way to avoid neuronal fatigue in your audience is to vary the stimulus. To continue the airliner example: if you’re in mid-flight and the engines suddenly fall silent, you would definitely notice.

Over the years, filmmakers have employed the use of contrast to vary the stimulus and keep their audiences engaged — bright/dark, fast/slow, loud//soft, close-up/long shot. More central to the role of the storyteller is another contrast: between tension and release.

Tension is created when the audience hopes for one outcome of a situation and is afraid of another. The audience is held in suspense between the two outcomes. Tension needs to be set up (the audience given salient information, for example, two detectives seek to apprehend a suspect) and resolved (the suspect gets away). In between, the suspect is chased, and the two outcomes — they get him or they don’t — are suspended in the minds of the audience.

The relevant fact here is that it takes screen time to set up tension and screen time to release it. Which in turn means there are a limited number of times in a movie you can thrill the audience with tension and release.


Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). The film ends with an interstellar quest by Cooper to find her -- his true love. Unfortunately, there is so much going on in the film that this subplot, like much else in the film, is undeveloped.

Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). The film ends with an interstellar quest by Cooper to find her -- his true love. Unfortunately, there is so much going on in the film that this subplot, like much else in the film, is undeveloped.

It may be appropriate that the storytellers in a film with intergalactic reach like Interstellar (Jonathan and Christopher Nolan) chose to push the limit.

This ambitious film tries to tackle not only galactic-size questions, but a galactic-size plot that includes Cooper the former engineer and astronaut and now frustrated farmer, his loving but strained relationship with his ten-year-old daughter, his loving relationship with his son, a post-technological world that is slowly dying from crop blights and dust storms, gravitational anomalies and possible ghosts, a secret NASA base, a secret mission to go through wormhole to find habitable planets, a gargantuan, unsolved mathematical equation about gravity that, if solved, will save humankind (but which is really hopelessly unsolvable), a love interest named Brand (daughter of Professor Brand) who is in love with a far-away Dr. Mann, a scientist who is the “best of us” but who turns out to be a traitor, a journey to three planets via the wormhole, a journey into a black hole, the transmission of crucial data from behind the event horizon, which allows Cooper to travel back in time to let his daughter solve the mathematical equation which proves to be solvable after all, and Cooper’s subsequent arrival in the future in a hospital bed on the outskirts of Saturn, where he is able to reconcile with his now-elderly daughter on her deathbed.

That’s a lot of story, even for a film that stretches the limit of features at two hours and forty-five minutes. Is it too much story? No. But it’s too much story to fully exploit the material’s possibilities.

Because the storytellers in this case opted to tackle so much, they had to skimp on something else, and what they chose to skimp on was the setups, resulting in a film that has staccato quality, particularly in the last hour or so: one big moment unfolding after another, none of them set up in anything other than a most cursory way (a convenient scientist explaining this or that, or a an extra pod on the mother space ship we didn’t know about, or the robot figuring out something and sharing it).

We arrive at the cinematic equivalent of the airliner’s engines — loud, but always at the same sense-numbing level of stimulus.

Playing the Tension/Release Game

Counter-examples are innumerable in successful films. In another galaxy far away, Star Wars (1977), Luke, Han and Chewbacca fake their way into a detention block to rescue Princess Leia, and are confronted by the guards. That’s the setup: we are well aware of who these characters are, who the princess is, why she’s being held, what it means if she isn’t rescued, what will happen to them if they fail. Tension created: will they succeed? We hope they will; we are afraid they won't. This tension is held for five minutes, culminating in a shootout. At the end, they free her and escape through a hole in the wall. Tension is released. Loud battle sounds are replaced by the relative quiet of the garbage dump.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) seems perplexed by the sheer complexity of the movie he's in.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) seems perplexed by the sheer complexity of the movie he's in.

Soon enough, tension arises anew: the four must now escape the garbage dump, but there is some threatening creature in the water, and before long the walls start to close in. Tension: can they escape before getting killed? We hope they will; we're afraid they won't. This tension is in turn sustained for five more minutes until it is released when R2D2 shuts down the compactor -- a solution carefully set up before this scene.

Another good counter-example can be seen in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), a film that lacks the technological/CG fireworks of Interstellar but more than makes up for it in storytelling fireworks. Here, the climactic moments involve a dance competition wedded to a bet on it and on a football game, and suspended over all of it is the question of whether the main character’s ex-wife (Nikki) will ruin the main character’s (Pat’s) chances of winding up with the right woman (Tiffany).

The action proceeds rapid-fire, as in the last hour of Interstellar. The difference is that Silver Linings Playbook expended considerable time setting up its climax. By the time we arrive at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel for the dance competition, we have been introduced to the idea of the dance competition, seen Pat and Tiffany prepare, understand what is at stake for Tiffany, introduced to Pat Sr.’s gambling issue and understand what is at stake for him, and to Pat’s obsessive pursuit of his ex-wife Nikki. We’ve even been primed for the “big move” in the dance competition, and seen it rehearsed.

The script has thus been front-loaded for anticipation and excitement, so when the exciting moments arrive, the audience doesn’t have to rely on the reactions of the characters to find out if something good or bad is happening; the audience is already veering between hope and fear, participating emotionally in the story.

In contrast, the climactic moments of Interstellar are understandable emotionally only in the most primitive ways: we’re afraid the Cooper may die, or blow up, or the ship may blow up, or the mountain-size wave will wipe out the space ship, or the human race may end.

Toward a Solution

There are three solutions that would address this issue in Interstellar. 

One is to abandon the idea of incorporating all this material into a single film and break it into a multi-part epic. In this way, there would be time enough to invest in developing the many complexities of the story more fully, enhancing its overall impact.

Ultimately, the solution to Interstellar may lie beyond the event horizon of this black hole.

Ultimately, the solution to Interstellar may lie beyond the event horizon of this black hole.

The second is, obviously, to pare down the picture, to distill it to one of the big issues and wrap the script around that. For example: the betrayal of Dr. Mann. An entire picture could be worked around such a betrayal — and has been. The Wizard of Oz (1939) involves a profound disillusionment of the main character after finally finding the man she has been journeying to meet, upon whom she had based all her hope.

The third solution is to discover a wormhole that allows the manipulation of time so that more material can be fit into a two hour time frame.

Absent such a discovery, see the first two options.

Get more help writing tension and conflict with
Writing with Emotion, Tension & Conflict by Cheryl St. John