Plausible Failure Modes

Last night I saw Interstellar, my first Hollywood movie since Viable Paradise. It allowed Kelly and I to try out our new Plot X-Ray Glasses.

One-sentence review: I thought the movie was okay; some great stuff, but also a lot of terrible stuff. But this post is not about Interstellar; the movie is just here to provide today’s example. (Minor spoilers ahead, however.)

What makes a threat feel real?

Early-ish in Interstellar, we have a scene where Mr. Sidekick tries for the first time to dock the launch vehicle with their mothership. The music swells and pounds… but if you ignore the emotional tug of the music and think about what’s happening, there is no tension here. You know the heroes cannot fail; what’s more, you know exactly how they will achieve their goal. What’s missing?

The missing element is a plausible failure mode. What happens if the astronauts fail to dock successfully? Then they never get on their spaceship and the movie ends. The story cannot progress unless the heroes succeed. Worse yet, there’s no tension* about how they will succeed. If something goes non-catastrophically wrong, the astronauts will pull back a couple of feet and try again; but that won’t happen in the movie, because it would make boring and repetitive viewing. While in-story the characters could fail (novice astronauts could crash and die), this is a movie about interstellar travel, with no backup ship or crew. Failure would end or derail the story. This is a challenge with no plausible failure mode.

Contrast with a later spaceflight challenge in Interstellar: their attempt to rescue the spinning and half-destroyed mothership. When that ship exploded, I thought, “I guess they need to get the heck away from the flying wreckage, and the movie’s next act will put them in Dr. Mann’s shoes of isolation and survival.” But instead we have an awesome spaceflight rescue scene! This scene (like most of the stuff on the ice planet) worked very well for me. We had a plausible failure mode, which made me legitimately curious how things would turn out. That curiosity greatly increased my interest in watching the scene unfold.

Moral of the story: a threat will be more believable, and thus more compelling, if it includes a plausible failure mode. Readers will be less afraid of a threat if they realize the writer cannot follow through.

If your threat risks ending or ruining the story, then the heroes cannot fail. If your reader/viewer is sufficiently engrossed that they aren’t thinking about the outcomes, you can get away with this. But if you really want to put the reader/viewer on the edge of their seat (proverbially or otherwise), give the threat a plausible failure mode.



*: This isn’t the only way to create tension, of course. For instance, inevitability can create tension. To stick to Interstellar examples, consider when Cooper and Dr. Mann** go out on the ice together. However, this generally requires inevitable failure/danger, not inevitable success.

**: While I really liked all the stuff with Dr. Mann, I have to say: they called him “Mann?” For the brilliant driven confident flawed self-preserving person who embodies the best and worst of humankind? Might as well have given him the first name Hugh.

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