Stories are driven by conflict. The protagonist wants/needs something—to become a gigolo in New York, to produce the worst show in the history of Broadway, to track down the Ark of the Covenant, whatever. As he pursues this goal, he must face a series of obstacles, each more difficult to overcome than the last. When no more forces stand to oppose him (or when he loses and learns an important lesson), the story is over.
I cannot overstate the importance of this sense of escalation. If the hero is struggling to rescue a princess, for example, he can’t just fight five identical ninja one at a time—the conflict will feel flat, static, dissatisfying. The first ninja has to fight bare-handed, the second with a katana, the third with flaming eye lasers, then the fourth has to ambush the hero at the end of a maze of deadly traps, and the final one has to wield a demonic blade forged by Muramasa that summons the spirits of Miyamoto Musashi, Araki Mataemon, and Yagyu Jubei. That way, each battle challenges the protagonist in new ways, forcing him to fight more aggressively and/or intelligently.
The trick (and I struggle with this all the time) is making this escalation feel organic within the context of the narrative. A writer should never have to contrive complications and reversals; they should arise naturally from the situation. This illusion of realism will produce a well-constructed film in any genre, from drama
In fact, I’d argue that action writers need to be especially careful about how they escalate their conflicts. An action film depends on thrilling the audience; if it’s poorly put together, it doesn’t have much to fall back on. To illustrate this, I’d like to compare two relatively recent releases: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Contraband.
There’s an immaculately paced sequence midway through Ghost Protocol that starts with Tom Cruise scaling the largest building in the world and ends with him losing his enemy in a sandstorm. The objective is clear: fool the targets into believing they’ve successfully handed off the nuclear launch codes, then tail the buyer to the Big Bad. The plan is clear: take control of the elevators and disguise a lower floor as the rendezvous point. The stakes are clear: if the team fails, they’ll have no way of proving their innocence, leaving nobody to oppose the impending global nuclear war. There’s also a major obstacle built into the situation: they’re disavowed, so they’re ill-equipped and without backup.
Complications quickly arise. Simon Pegg discovers he can’t remotely access the elevator controls—they’ll need to plug directly into the building’s server room, and the only viable entry point is through an exterior window. As Cruise starts the perilous climb, supported by a malfunctioning pair of gadget gloves, the rest of the team scrambles to dress the decoy floor. But the buyer is approaching ahead of schedule, and he’s brought an expert to verify the codes—the operation will fall apart unless they hand him the authentic documents. This raises the stakes: if they fail, the Big Bad will be one step closer to realizing his dark ambitions. And on top of that…
But I’ve made my point. This entire sequence is a gracefully choreographed dance. As soon as Cruise and the gang address one problem, two more spring up. It’s a breathless race against the clock that forces the characters to make difficult split-second decisions—choices that define who they are. Since the various moving pieces are so firmly established, none of the complications feel out of place—or, if they do, the viewer is too engaged to notice.
Contraband falls short of Ghost Protocol’s structural elegance. The writers seem to believe that “complication” means “whatever happens to most inconvenience Marky Mark at the moment, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense.” The result isn’t a snowball effect, but a chaotic rockslide. The boulders come rolling all at once, and Marky Mark jumps and dodges and stumbles his way through them more or less unharmed. That’s not suspenseful; it’s frustrating.
It starts promisingly enough. As in Ghost Protocol, the protagonist’s goal is clear: he wants to protect his wife and kids. The plan is also clear: he’ll smuggle counterfeit currency to settle the debt with the Big Bad. And the stakes are clear: if he fails, his family’s in deep trouble. A simple setup, but more than enough to draw the viewer in. Marky Mark plays a sympathetic character; we want to see him succeed.
Then he starts off his little caper by nearly plowing the boat into the docks. Right off the bat, we begin to doubt our hero’s competence as a smuggler; no matter how often the other characters insist he’s “the best,” he’ll never bounce back from that rather severe blunder. As in Ghost Protocol, the crew faces a ticking clock, but here it’s entirely irrelevant. Every time we cut back to the ship, Marky Mark’s buddies manage to delay the “imminent departure” without any apparent consequences. This drains any urgency the Funky Bunch’s drive to retrieve the funny money might have had; every twist is an obvious ploy to artificially prolong the running time. The script finally buckles under the weight of its own contrivances when the maniacal counterfeiter forces our intrepid rogues to ride along on an art heist. This unnatural development serves two purposes, neither of which justifies its inclusion: first, it (I repeat) inconveniences Marky Mark; second, it sets the movie up to end on a flaccid punch line.
Ghost Protocol kept me on the edge of my seat, asking myself, How will they get out of this mess? While watching Contraband, my thought process didn’t venture much farther than, When will they get on with it? That is the importance of effective escalation.
[Originally written January 31, 2012.]