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Monday, July 6, 2015

Interstellar: Ramping up Try/Fail Cycles

In writing, a try/fail cycle is the main character's attempt to resolve the story's problem. There are at least three try/fail cycles in every well-written story (of this structure). Often the main character will fail the first two cycles, but not always. In Interstellar, the first try/fail is the first planet they visit, the second try/fail is the second planet they visit, and the third try/fail is the black hole.

A good writer wants each try/fail cycle to be bigger or better than the previous one. That's one key to writing a successful story. Escalate. Escalate. Escalate. The writer has got to keep increasing the tension, the stakes, and the costs.

Like I said last time, Interstellar has huge stakes and costs, and the Nolans ramp them up to the max-- all at the first planet they visit, the first try/fail cycle! Most writers wouldn't be able to do that. Do you know why?

Because if a writer starts that big in the first try/fail cycle,  he or she has to jump over that bar to do something bigger or better, more suspenseful than that. If your story starts too big, with the costs and stakes all ramped up from the get-go, then there is nowhere else to take your story that can be bigger or better than what just happened. In other words, the story's tension will all be downhill from there.

But the Nolans are exceptional writers, and they pulled off what most writers, even great writers, can't. They managed to still heighten the stakes and tension, even after basically maxing it all out on the first try/fail cycle. These guys are freaking talented.

When I was watching Interstellar for the first time, after Miller's planet, I was freaking out. That was only the first try/fail cycle. And there were still two other planets to visit! Where the crap were the writers going to take the tension next? How the heck do you escalate this story, from this point forward? I even wondered if it wouldn't escalate, because I couldn't conceive how it could, but I'd heard such good things about the movie, I knew the writers had to have figured something at least decent out.

The Nolans set the writing bar extremely high with the first try/fail cycle.

And then I proceeded to watch them jump over it.

Where the heck did Jonathon and Christopher Nolan come from?

And they were so clever in all of it. They were so clever in jumping over the bar. They didn't try to jump over it by escalating the same things even more, which is what a lot of beginning writers do. They didn't try to, say, go to a planet where one hour equals 10 years instead of seven. No. They were smart because they made each try/fail cycle so different (and yet just as satisfying). And by doing that, you are able to skyrocket all of them out.

In the first try/fail cycle, the main conflict is a person vs. nature conflict, as the crew has to deal with the enormous waves. It's also a conflict that deals with sources, with time as a source. Those get skyscraped.

The second try/fail cycle (Mann's planet) centers on a person vs. person conflict: Dr. Mann vs. Cooper. Yes, nature plays a role (when Cooper is suffocating), but it's not the main focus. The Nolans gave us something different, and then maxed that conflict out, by Dr. Mann not only trying to kill Cooper, but by him stealing the ranger and blowing up the Endurance (an extremely high cost). In this try/fail cycle, we are facing an antagonist who can think and scheme and act in a conscious attempt to stop the hero. It's intense because we feel Dr. Mann's desperation, and when he says, while fighting Cooper, that a 50-50% chance of living is the best he's had in years, we know that Dr. Mann will try to survive, no matter the cost. There is nothing to big, or too drastic, that he won't attempt, and just knowing that, hikes up the tension.

Then we get the third try/fail cycle with the black hole, and again, it feels so different from the others. Cooper is facing the unknown, and that brings its own kind of terror and wonder into it. This try/fail cycle is more scientific, but it still brings high emotional tension and high intellectual tension with it, as Cooper has to watch himself walk out on Murph again and then figure out what is going on.

So the Nolans made each try/fail cycle different, and then ramped them up. By doing this, they were able to take the tension way, way up, exceed the audience's expectations, and keep the story from feeling long and monotonous.

They were able to create huge conflicts, and were able to resolve them. This takes real talent. If a writer tries to create gigantic conflicts, then he or she is stuck trying to figure out how the characters are going to solve them. Sometimes the writer writes herself into a corner, and has to go back and shrink the conflict to something that's easier to solve. But the Nolans had huge conflicts in their story and were able to pull it all together to actually come up with a solution for them. As an audience, I don't think we fully appreciate the magnitude of this. But when you look at all the pieces (that at times seemed impossible to fit together, like ghosts and gravity) and conflicts, you'll start to glean the talent it takes to pull it all together, and pull it all together so flawlessly.

Surely the Nolans are some of the most talented writers in Hollywood right now. That's this person's opinion anyway.


  1. Cool. Sometimes I scare people with my enthusiasm for stories.

  2. Hey! What do You thik about Interstellar's critics with respect Of sobreexposition, and Brand lines about love?

    1. Hi Genesis, thanks for commenting! Sorry, could you expound? sobreexposition? (typo?)


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