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Monday, June 29, 2015

Interstellar: Skyscraping Costs

I've been talking about the writing techniques the Nolans used to really ramp up the Interstellar story and in particular, the audience's emotional journey with it. Today's post is all about taking the story's stakes and costs to the max. I mean, totally skyscraping them.

If you're not a writer, you might not know what I mean by "stakes" and "costs."

The stakes are what are "at stake" or "at risk" in the story, what your character has to lose. In The Hunger Games, Katniss's life is what is at stake, and the emotional (and physical) health of her sister. If Katniss doesn't win The Hunger Games, she'll die and Prim will be devastated. In some stories, a relationship is what is at stake. A lot of 90's movies are about the relationship between a father and son being at stake, because the father works too much. In other stories, it can be a job.

The costs are what the character has to do or give up to reach a goal and/or save those stakes. So in The Hunger Games, it cost Katniss some of her identity. At the very end of the book, she grows more and more confused over what part of her is real and what part was her just trying to survive. For Peeta, he says in Mockingjay that "to murder innocent people costs everything you are."

For the 90's movies, the dad usually learns some valuable lesson about the importance of family and has to tell work to shove off so he can spend time with his son. It costs him work.

In Interstellar, there are multiple stakes and each one is incredibly high. Note that, in the strongest stories, the stakes are going to broaden (meaning that the conflict gets bigger and includes more stuff in it) and are going to deepen (the conflict is going to become more personal). So the Nolans have both broad and deep stakes to play with.

Interstellar Stakes

  • Fate of the human race
    • As both for humans currently alive, and as a future species
  • Cooper's and all of the astronauts' lives
    • As both literally and in a more abstract sense, meaning their quality of life, not being able to have a real life, dealing with the chance of being lost in space for the rest of their lives (like Romily thought). It's the stake of a wasted life.
  • Cooper's relationship with his children.
    • Never being able to see them again
    • Never being able to make things right with Murph, and to some extent, Tom
Okay, wow, each of those stakes are pretty heavy duty. But see how some of them are "broad" and some of them are "deep." And they aren't just kind of broad, I mean, they are really broad--the fate of the whole human race? At the present and in the future? And they aren't just kind of deep. The relationship between Cooper and Murph is super deep--deep enough to save a species. What's also interesting to note is that each stake has two sides, two aspects, which makes them even more complex and more interesting.

The stakes in and of themselves are great enough for an exceptional story, one that will keep us on edge, make us emotionally invested. We can see big, huge stakes like this in epic fantasies, and probably most superhero movies.

These stakes are high in and of themselves, but the Nolans skyscraped another element to take tension and emotion to new heights: the costs.

Now, the concept of stakes and costs can overlap. Sometimes they can stack on top of each other and feed into each other for stunning story effects that I'll get to in a second. But just keep in mind, that yes, some of the costs are the same as the stakes, but that's because they are the costs of different stakes. If you're confused, just hang in there.

Let's look at the crazy costs in play here for Interstellar.

Interstellar Costs

  • Time. It takes time to carry out the mission
  • It costs all the supplies, fuel, etc.
  • Lives. Before Cooper goes out into space, 12 other astronauts have already gone out to 12 planets. Cooper can only visit up to three planets. He can save only up to three people, and even those people have given up parts of their "abstract" life--life's experiences. Cooper's mission also costs people's lives, Doyle's and Romily's.
  • Loss of family relationships. The mission means losing family relationships, sometimes physically by death, and other times through emotional distance. And frankly, just missing out on a loved one's life.
Not only are the stakes very high, but the costs to succeed at saving the human race are very high. And then, the Nolans ramp up these costs to new heights, new extremes. Time is a cost. It's a cost in loads of movies. But in Interstellar we aren't talking about losing time as we know it, we are really talking about losing time, to a devastating degree, to the extent that the whole human race could be dead in a matter of hours to Cooper.

For the supplies, as the movie progresses, the Endurance starts to lose fuel, but the significance of that cost gets ramped up when Dr. Mann blows up part of the Endurance. Now Cooper and Amelia don't even have the means to get to Edmunds's planet, let alone Earth.

As an audience, when we set out on this space journey with Cooper, we have a sense of what the costs are, but the Nolans totally skyscrape them, and do so very quickly--in the first planet the team visits.

The costs of visiting the first of three planets is extremely high. A newer writer would never skyscrape the cost of the first planet like that (I'll explain why in a future post), but the Nolans did, and they could, because they are phenomenal writers.

Here are the costs of visiting Miller's planet:

  • Time, one hour equals about 7 Earth years. So Miller's planet costs them 23 Earth years!
  • Lives. Miller is already dead (it cost her life for her to visit that planet). Doyle dies. And Romily loses years off his life waiting for Cooper to get back to the Endurance.
  • Supplies. They now don't have enough fuel to visit Mann's and Edmunds's planets and make it back to Earth
  • Relationships. Cooper has missed out on 23 years of his children's lives, and he can't get that back! It's gone. Not only that, but he's lost communication with them.
What. The heck. 

Do you see how freaking crazy those costs are? All for one planet? All for the first planet? (There's still two more to visit!)

The Nolans just took all the costs and skyscraped them, beyond what we had ever expected, beyond what we had even imagine! It's shocking. It's devastating. 

And the result?

An extremely powerful emotional response.

And after all these crazy high costs, we have to sit with Cooper and watch a whole 23 freaking years of his children's lives in a matter of minutes. The condensation of it all makes it incredibly potent.

The result? Especially paired with that pairing of emotions I talked about last time?

Sharp, sharp heartache. 

And if you even just watch those videos with Cooper, you'll see how the Nolans are still pairing opposite emotions to make each one sharper. We get the joy of Tom finishing school, getting married, having a son, then tragedy over his son's death and Cooper's dad's death, and finally Tom saying goodbye to Cooper, because he believes him to be dead. Then we get Murph's anger that's paired with her own hurt and regret. And of course, all of this is overshadowed by loss, because Cooper missed it all. And he can't communicate back to them.

The writing is fantastic!

And the Nolans' continue to skyscrape the costs. As Dr. Brand dies, we learn that the survival of the human species actually costs the abandonment of the existing humans. Going into the black hole costs 50 years. Those are years with his children Cooper can never get back.

Okay, ready for the next cool thing the Nolans did with stakes and costs? This is one of my favorite plotting techniques that I don't think I have the skill to pull off consciously in my own writing yet. (Someday. Someday.)

Remember how I said some of the costs were also some of the stakes?

That's because some stakes are the costs of other stakes.

This space mission, meant to save the human race, costs the astronauts' lives and relationships. Once we hit that twist with Dr. Brand's death (about Plan A being fake) in the middle of the film, we realize that in order to save the human species, we must leave the existing humans for dead.

The cost of accomplishing the overall goal is abandoning Plan A (which in a way, was the overall goal, at least for Cooper). The cost of accomplishing this goal is losing the other stakes.

You can't save, or even minimize the loss of the other stakes, because they are the cost. You have to give them up. You have to sacrifice them to save the most important stake.

Let me explain this in another way. Because it can get confusing and feel circular. Let's get back to The Hunger Games, (spoilers ahead if you haven't read the books) which actually does a similar thing in the trilogy as a whole, though it's not as obvious. Katniss volunteers to be a tribute to save her sister. As the series continues, Prim's safety is a driving force for Katniss. She doesn't want Snow to kill Prim. Katniss wants to make a better world partly for Prim. But the cost of making a better world is Prim.

Prim was what was at stake. But she becomes a cost in order to save a different stake--the state of Panem.

So the main goal can get swallowed up in saving another stake.

The things you can do with this technique are powerful.

Sometimes it can seem like the main goal and the cost are the same thing. For Cooper, the whole point of going into space is to save the human race, but in order to save the human race, he has to let it die. It's like the cost is the same thing as the stake.

The very reason Cooper went on this mission is also the cost of fulfilling that reason.

It kicks up the tension to a new level.

So, here is what the Nolans did:

  • Selected high stakes and high costs
  • Completely ramped up the costs, making them so high they break through and beyond our expectations for a devastating effect.
  • Made what was at stake the cost of other stakes.

Now that's killer writing.


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