In Storytelling, Not Everything Must Go Wrong

I recently saw the movie Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Now, I’m not here to review the movie. I don’t feel I’m in a position to, given my passive knowledge of filmmaking. There are plenty of people better suited for that than I.

When it comes to movies, I only know what I like or dislike. In Gravity, I liked the discreet, yet enhancing use of 3D. One of the few times I’ve enjoyed 3D in this modern incarnation of it. Sandra Bullock struck me as believable and drew me in emotionally. And the overall look of the film was fantastic. It was beautiful to watch, and the shots from behind the helmet’s visor were unique and new to me. They made me think I knew what space looked and sounded like.

The only thing I didn’t like: the idea some writers seem to have that in a drama, to keep the tension high, everything that could go wrong, should go wrong. And, from a storytelling perspective, that I feel I can critique.

For anyone not familiar with Gravity, it’s the story of a woman stranded alone in space who must fight, via a precisely timed serious of events, to get herself back to Earth. Add to that the fact that she’s not a full-blown “astronaut,” just a doctor they sent up to install a new piece of equipment on the International Space Station, and you have the Hero’s thrilling struggle for survival. Will she make it home or die alone in space?

Now, take a second and imagine you’re in her position. You’re completely alone, in a spacesuit, floating around with the normal rules of movement, such as gravity dragging you down, not in play. If you start to drift away from your spaceship, and there is nothing manmade around to catch you, there is literally nothing to stop you from floating further and further away, as friction doesn’t exist. You can see Earth. It’s right in front of you, but you have no way to get to it. You’re just drifting around until you die. Terrifying, right?!

But wait! There is a way. There’s a capsule you can use to get back to Earth. The catch is it’s far away and you have a small chance of getting to it. Plus, if you do get there, remember you’re not an astronaut, and you’ve never flown a capsule before and have only a basic knowledge of how to fly one. Oh, and there’s no one you can talk to that can tell you how to fly it.

That, minus a few details, is the plot of Gravity. That is the tree our Hero Sandra Bullock is stuck up – will she make it down alive?

I don’t know about you, but for me that creates enough tension. The plan, as it was laid out, sounded nearly impossible to accomplish, yet she’d give it her best shot because, well, what else could she do? As a viewer, willing to suspend a lot of disbelief to be told this story, I was in.

But then the writers started adding in extra obstacles to “ratchet-up” the tension. I don’t want to give anything away, but here are a few hints: fire, tangled cords, Chinese. And that’s not all of them. The final one I can’t even list because it would give too much away, but it was the last straw for me. When it happened, I actually laughed out loud. It had all just become too much. The Hero had gone through an ENORMOUS number of obstacles, and when it looked like she was finally in the clear, they threw in this last, completely unnecessary obstacle that just made me shake my head and laugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think some additional obstacles are okay. There are always things ready to jump out of closets at the Hero. Just not every closet. And why not? Because, in my opinion, as a writer creating fiction you have to walk a fine line of the believable vs. unbelievable carefully.

As a viewer, I’m always aware that a movie is a work of fiction. (Unless it isn’t. Love me some documentaries.) I might be drawn in emotionally, to the point I forget the passing of time, but I’m never so enthralled that I forget I’m being told something someone made up. For me, the best movies never make me doubt that, while I know this story didn’t happen, it could happen. That’s true even with science fiction and fantasies, as long as the story operates believably in the rules of the world the writer has established.

For me, one of the ways a story can begin to become unbelievable is when a writer starts adding additional obstacles that are not really necessary to the main arch of the story and do little or nothing to move the story forward. At best, they make the viewer feel tenser, whether her or she needs to or not. But at worst, they are distracting and make the viewer question the movie. Then all you’ve done as a writer is swerve the story closer towards the implausible.

Instead, I prefer to see the writer allow the natural tension of the story he or she’s created to run its course. Trust that the basic premise of a woman stranded in space facing death is enough to carry a story. And in Gravity, it most definitely was enough for me. It didn’t need so many extra obstacles. The main one was big enough.

I’m not picking on this movie alone. Quite a few movies are guilty of this. Another that comes to mind is Precious. The protagonist suffers what would be for most of us an insurmountable number of tragedies. But, for me, a diagnosis she receives at the end of the movie, was one tragedy too many. After everything that had happened to Precious, this last thing made the story seem unbelievable to me. I didn’t feel sorry for her anymore because I felt the writer was trying too hard at that point to make me feel sorry. To be incredibly crass about it, it was as if I wanted to say to the writer: ‘I get it. I understand her life is tragic. This isn’t necessary.”

So does everything that can go wrong need to go wrong? No, I really don’t think so. Again, for me, it comes back to trust. As a writer, trust that your initial inciting incident that pushes your Hero down the path of struggle is enough to carry your story. Stop augmenting it. You only make it more unbelievable.