From Don Draper to Anakin Skywalker: Small Stakes

I’ve been getting into Mad Men lately. Now, I had previously watched the first few episodes of the first season, but I stopped watching it because I wasn’t really at a point in my life where it interested me. It didn’t seem relevant to me at the time: I wasn’t writing, the setting didn’t really interest me, and I think, most importantly, that a lot of the hostile environment presented in the story makes me anxious. I mean, pillow grasping anxiety. I suspect it’s because I’ve lived in hostile environments more than once in my life and know too well that feeling of being an outsider with no real port in the storm. Thinking about it now, I wonder why I haven’t harnessed that feeling into something in one of my works, and maybe I will in the future, but we’re not talking about that right now. I’m talking about Mad Men, and why it speaks to me more now than then. Then I was in a pretty bad place and not really ready to pile on anxiety. Now, however, I can sit back and observe it as a writer.

It’s absolutely brilliant. I’ll admit it’s a little heavy-handed at times. It does go a little too far – for instance, I thought there might be one male character who could view a woman as a human being, but no, they all have to be assholes. I get that the message is about the society in which they existed, but it strains credulity just a little to think that there wasn’t at least one man who had questioned conventional wisdom.  I overlooked it since some the characters seem to be more archetypes than real people (well, outside of Don Draper and Peggy Olson), but it bothered me a little.

What Mad Men has really excelled at so far is the use of tension. That’s what has ratcheted up my anxiety levels so much. Tension was always kind of a vague buzzword for me when I started writing. I understood on some level that you had to build tension and how to effectively balance tension, but it never meant much to me beyond a handful of important-sounding words. I realize now that the problem I was facing was that I viewed this tension as some sort of definable quantity. You know, “write X and you’ll increase the tension in the story by Y amount”. A formula, I suppose. There should be some quantifiable skill that I just wasn’t grasping.

I’ve come to realize that building tension is an art. It seems to be the nature of the beast that it’s nigh-impossible to create a one-size-fits-all definition for building tension in a story. That’s what was so hard to grasp back then. Now I have some ideas of how to build tension, and I can attempt to communicate them, but I think if you haven’t really been practicing it in your writing, it may just fall on deaf ears. Tension in writing is like that infamous definition of porn – you just know it when you see it.

I do know that one of the most important factors in creating tension for a character is to establish an emotional connection between the reader and the character. The reader has to care about the character for there to be any tension at all. You think it’s a coincidence that we meet Peggy before the onslaught begins? That we see her as this idealistic, somewhat naive, girl upon whom a viewer can project. If she was just a cardboard cutout or an unknown being put through this meat grinder of the soul – what would it matter? Even if the consequences were piled high, if the character were a soulless robot, who would really give a damn?

The Star Wars prequels are a perfect example of this. The stakes in the original prequels are arguably underwhelming by comparison: the Empire has already won and is simply consolidating control. What is lost if the Rebellion loses? The Rebellion itself ceases to exist and the Empire continues to run the show. It sucks, no doubt, but the status quo holds up. In the prequels, however, you have civil war on a galactic scale and if somebody fails their objective (and who the hell can really parse out some of the objectives in the prequels), it has more far-reaching consequences as the Republic itself would fall. Objectively, from an outsider’s point of view and not taking the characters into view, the prequels just have more at stake.

However, the tension in the OT is so much higher than the prequels. I don’t think anyone could argue that. And why? Well, not to be too flippant about it, but who gives a damn about Mannequin Skywalker? Every single emotional situation that he is involved in fails to ring true. That’s because Lucas has never given us an emotional connection with him. He even had an ace in the hole by starting the character off as a kid and managed to make everyone hate the kid. That also gets into matters of direction which obviously have no place here, but we’re talking from the point of view of a writer writing the screenplay.

If you can build someone as a believable human being, the stakes could be ridiculous from an objective point of view, but to that person it is life or death. That is key to building tension. Now you have that connection, you establish what the character wants, and then you start throwing in the obstacles to that goal. Again, kind of hard to define tension exactly by this view because you have to look at the character’s situation and ask yourself what each setback means, as well as how much tension it introduces to the story. Are you putting too much too soon (frontloading)? Should I save some of these issues for later?

Getting back to the prequels, having Anakin’s mother killed so soon in the series was way too much. Ideally you either put that at the end of the second act or beginning of the third act. I suspect some of the reason for that battle on Geonosis feeling hollow is that you see no consequence for Anakin’s outburst. Padme even stays with him. There’s no tension, even though it should be a hugely emotionally weighted scene.

So there we get into something else – you build tension by consequences. So now we have the character’s identity, what the character wants, the frustrations they face, and the consequences of the character overcoming the obstacle. Yes, there is a victory in overcoming, but it’s a good idea to have some repercussions and echoes there. Anakin slaughters a bunch of innocents, Padme disowns and leaves him. Now you have added tension; he’s lost his mother and the woman with whom he was falling in love. What does he do now? That becomes a focal point for later in the story.

I think as I continue to watch Mad Men and pick up little bits on how they’re doing it, I’ll talk about it more here. It’s something that I’m ready to learn about and grow into, especially as I’m about to write a thriller.

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One Comment

  1. “if the character were a soulless robot, who would really give a damn?” Good point. This also made me think of the other side (I think we’ve discussed this?), the superhero side. Even they need some sort of tragic flaw, it makes them human, ergo, gives us a connection to them. Even with Superman, he isn’t allowed to be himself. He can’t be with Lois (and not being a comic fan, these are purely cinematic references). No one can know his identity. All of these things are obstacles to him… THE MAN OF STEEL!

    I appreciate this post as I’m on the brink of getting back to work on my second novel. Tension was one thing I really had to focus on with The Imaginings (and the biggest question I ask my readers). I’m touting a supernatural thriller, which means it has to be thrilling, right? Anyway, you’ve helped me with my focus as I start up again.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

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