Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Creating Roller Coaster Tension in The Abyss

(Spoilers: The Abyss)

I was watching The Abyss (written by James Cameron) the other day and I noticed a particularly excellent sequence that illustrates how to create roller coaster tension in a scene. One of the problems that afflicts most beginning writers and many first drafts of experienced writers (mine included) is a failure to create a real back-and-forth in the tension of the scenes.

I think this is a particular pitfall for those, like me, who rely on detailed outlines. (There are many other pitfalls for those who don’t use outlines, though!) I know when I sit down to write a scene what needs to happen in that scene. So that’s what I write. Often I execute that event quite well and with a lot of tension. But in my first drafts I sometimes find that the scenes are a little too straightforward and one dimensional.

Let me quickly set up the sequence in The Abyss I want to discuss:

COFFEY is a soldier who has been sent down to an underwater drilling structure to look for survivors of a submarine accident. He’s suffering from decompression sickness which makes him mentally unstable. Communication and access to the surface has been cut off by a storm and the crew has encountered strange alien beings. Coffey has decided to use a small robot sub (“Big Geek”) to send a nuclear warhead into the trench where the aliens live. Our heroes, oil worker BUD and engineer LINDSEY, are determined to stop him. We pick the sequence up when Coffey has launched from the facility in a small submarine with Big Geek attached to its arm. Bud is pursuing him in a dive suit while Lindsey prepares to launch the facility’s second small submarine to join the chase.

The scene that follows might be described in one of my outlines like this:

“Bud and Lindsey attack Coffey’s sub. Both subs are damaged. Coffey manages to launch Big Geek which descends into the trench. But Coffey’s sub is so badly damaged it sinks into the trench as well, imploding under the pressure. Bud and Lindsey’s sub is left disabled.”

So Coffey’s goal in the scene is to launch Big Geek. Lindsey and Bud’s goal is to stop him. Pretty basic set up, but Cameron gives us lots of juicy twists and turns along the way. Here’s how it works:

First, Bud catches up to Coffey’s sub. He’s unable to remove Big Geek so instead he ties a rope to it and swims back toward the structure. Coffey launches Big Geek but Bud manages to tie off the rope in the nick of time. Big Geek’s prop spins pointlessly as the rope prevents its descent. Our heroes are succeeding!

But of course there’s still Coffey to worry about. He attacks Bud with the sub. Bud’s pretty vulnerable out in the open in his dive suit. Coffey gets him trapped against the trench wall. Uh oh.

But Lindsey arrives in the second sub, slamming into Coffey’s sub. Bud gets to safety by climbing into Lindsey’s sub. Things are looking good!

Except then Bud’s hastily tied knot slips loose!* Little Geek dives into the trench. Our heroes are about to fail!

Lindsey’s sub pursues and Bud operates the external arm, just catching the end of the rope and stopping Big Geek again. Whew, disaster averted.

Wham! Coffey’s gotten his sub moving and rams into Lindsey’s sub. Big Geek slips free and heads into the trench. Coffey and Lindsey battle it out with their respective vehicles. It’s underwater demolition derby. Finally, Lindsey damages Coffey’s sub so badly that it sinks into the trench, eventually imploding.

However, Lindsey and Bud’s sub is without power and Big Geek is off to deliver its payload. Our heroes have failed. But it’s going to get worse. Next comes the best scene in the movie…which I’ll discuss in my next post!

For now, though, notice what happens in the above sequence: Our heroes are in trouble, nearly get out of it, then almost fail, then apparently succeed, then ultimately fail.

Think about how those ups and downs play with an audience’s hope and fear. It’s far more effective than a straightforward approach to the scene where Coffey simply succeeded in launching Big Geek before the sub battle. However, note that the straightforward approach would have been just as serviceable from a structural and plot standpoint.

Having the characters get closer and then farther from their goal keeps the audience guessing as to how your scenes will turn out. If your scenes always progress linearly, the audience will become subconsciously aware of it and will start to guess where things are going before you get there. Eventually they’ll feel bored even if your story is solid.

For this to work properly you must be careful not to repeat the same action. Bud doesn’t tie Big Geek up over and over only to have the knot fail over and over. Repetition is just as predictable as a linear approach.

You want to give your audience that roller coaster ride and rollercoasters are constantly changing, rising, falling, turning this way and that. And this isn't just for action scenes. You can and should do it in scenes with two people talking in a room. Let’s say you need a scene where a man seduces his friend’s wife. The straightforward approach is he turns on the charm while she resists until finally he overcomes her resistance.

But how much more interesting if he charms her to the point where they kiss – but then she pushes him away. She can’t do it. She gets up to leave. He stops her at the door. Slowly charms her back over to the couch. She gets up again – this is wrong! He kisses her – she fights it – then finally gives in.

Now that’s a scene!

*Another screenwriting axiom: audiences buy things like the knot slipping free if they work against the hero. If the failure of the knot had helped Bud it would have felt cheap and coincidental. The hero must succeed by their own wits or skills. Chance always works against them.

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