I By Laura Owen
Mission: Impossible has been entertaining audiences for the past 25-years and with two more instalments due to be released in the next few years the near 60-year-old frontman, Tom Cruise is making no plans to slow down. Seriously, not even a global pandemic can stand in the way of production!
Each film is bigger and better than its predecessor, with riskier stunts, higher budgets, and even higher stakes. The franchise is standing the test of time by constantly keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. After 24-years of impossible missions, how does the franchise manage to still keep us on our toes?
Disclaimer: There will be spoilers moving forward.
The franchise follows field agent Ethan Hunt and his team as they handle, dangerous and highly sensitive missions for the IMF that have been deemed impossible. Using creative and intricate writing the franchise is constantly bringing versatility to a genre that can fall victim to unoriginality and predictability. This is no accident.
By breaking down the techniques used to keep the tensions high throughout the films, we can gain a better understanding of how to apply it to our writing. In his book Writing For Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias outlines four steps to creating tension in your screenplay (2005).
1. Creating Empathy for the Protagonist.
Giving your audience a reason to care for the protagonist is fundamental. If your audience doesn’t care about what happens to the protagonist they’re not going to be engaged in the story you’re telling.
You need to show the audience something that’s going evoke empathy, something that’s going to help them connect and relate to your protagonist. This is particularly important when your protagonist isn’t your everyman.
This is something that is done multiple times throughout the franchise but the most impactful example of this is Hunt’s choice to end his marriage to continue serving his country. It’s explained Mission: Impossible Fallout that the obligation to prevent bad things from happening in the world plagued Ethan and Julia’s marriage. This is a sacrifice both Julia and Ethan made to allow him to fulfil his duty. Having Hunt not being able to be with who he loves because who he is, evokes empathy in the hearts of the audience.
2. Establish the Level of Threat.
The goals of your protagonist should be clear, this is half the battle. From there you need to show your audience what will happen should the protagonist fail, reinforcing the importance of your protagonist’s goal. Show the audience why they should care about the outcome.
One of the biggest staples of the franchise is the mission pitch. Using generic objects the details of Hunt’s mission are presented to him. The objective of the mission is stated clearly. There’s a bad guy that Hunt needs to defeat if he doesn’t then bad things will happen to good people. The goal is clear. The threat is clear. The audience knows why they should care and what will happen if Hunt should fail.
3. Equal Odds of Success vs. Failure.
Any situation you put your protagonist in needs to be one that they can fail or succeed in. The operative word being they. The situation needs to be relative to them. Take John Wick, for example, an excellent assassin, an expert in martial arts, and a skilled marksman. He’s placed in situations that continuously test his skillset showing us his character. If you were to place him in one of Hunt’s scenarios where the use of espionage and extreme physical exertion due to stunts is a necessity he wouldn’t thrive the same and vice versa.
A great example of this would be from Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol. The team are in Dubai and on a mission at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Events unfold resulting in Hunt having to scale eleven stories on the side of the building 119 stories from the ground. To do this he’s equipped with two technically enhanced adhesive gloves that have barely passed the testing phase. There’s also a time limit and an enormous sand storm approaching. Think of the ways that Hunt can fail. He could fall, he could be two slow, the gloves could malfunction, however, he’s Ethan Hunt.
Ghost Protocol is the fourth instalment in the franchise. Up to this point, the number of things we’ve seen Hunt accomplish is jaw-dropping. This stunt is bigger than the rest due to his character already being established in the previous movies. His skillset works in his favour, the more it’s built up the more obstacles such as a time limit, a defective glove, the task of scaling the tallest building in the world need to stack up against it to compete.
4. Prolong the Anticipation of the Outcome.
“Make ‘em laugh. Make ‘em cry. Make ‘em wait.”
- William Goldman
As Iglesias states ‘we’re in the business of emotion’ and anticipation is a big one. You can’t reward the audience too easily. You need to build and maximise the emotional impact in the scene without it the reward could fall flat. There are many different ways to do this. Let’s take a look at the main techniques used in the franchise.
Balance Between Frustration and Reward
This is the fun part. You need to enforce the uncertainty of the outcome. Your characters need to make mistakes. In most action movies the antagonist and the protagonist go head to head a few times and the protagonist usually looses until the climax, but this can be done on a smaller scale from scene to scene.
At the climax of the third instalment, Hunt is in Shanghai and after a mile run, or should I say, sprint is sneaking into the den of the villain to rescue Julia. As moves closer toward Julia, he knocks over some pans and alerts the nearby henchmen. This causes frustration as another obstacle is put in his way. Once he defeats his opponents he finally reaches Julia. Then the explosive that has been implanted in his head is triggered as the villain enters creating yet another obstacle.
Instead of simply placing obstacle after obstacle in front of your protagonist until they reach their goal allow them to be rewarded slightly. At that moment Hunt believes he’s done it. He saved Julia. We’re reminded of their love. We’re reminded of what Hunt is fighting for. When it’s placed under threat again it heightens our attachment, impacting us more.
Another way to increase the build of tension is by creating a sense of urgency and adding further obstruction. A good example of this is in the third instalment of the series at the climax. Hunt has just defeated the villain but he has one more fight left, the one for his life. Ethan has a small explosive device implanted in his brain and from earlier exposition, we know that he doesn’t have a lot of time. He has no medical equipment and has to improvise with the contents of a dirty kitchen. The only tool he has is, Julia a trained medical professional granted, but she's still out of her depth. A make-shift defibrillator is made and Ethan is shocked stopping his heart. Now, Julia needs to restart his heart but there’s further obstruction.
Julia needs to act fast to save Ethan’s life, but there are more of the henchmen trying to kill her husband. She has to now defend her husband that’s clinically dead on the floor with a gun that she’s doesn’t know how to use. This further obstruction combined with the already established urgency lifts the tension to another level. After a minute or two she’s taken out the men trying to kill her and Ethan then she has to restart Ethan’s heart, but again, we have to wait. Nothing is given to us too easily. Julia performs CPR but it doesn’t work. Time passes, Ethan lies lifeless on the floor. Frustration kicks in and Julia resorts to pounding on his chest and in the last moments of hope we have, Ethan’s heart begins to beat again.
You need to push your audience to the edge. The timing is important. You need to build moments to allow for the right amount of release and emotional impact. But don’t build too high, don’t push too far or you risk losing your audience.
This is the formula that’s used throughout the franchise but alone it’s not enough. The creativity and originality of each scenario make the sequences what they are. The obstacles have a significant part to play in the storytelling experience. They provide opportunities for the MI team to come up with creative, risky, character-defining solutions.
For more on this be sure to read Writing For Emotional Impact, by Karl Iglesias.
(Ref: Iglesias, Karl. Writing for Emotional Impact. 2005. Wingspan Press. California, US. Image Copyright: The Loop, Paramount Pictures)
Laura Owen is a screenwriter based in Manchester, with a particular interest in thrillers. Laura is a graduate of Falmouth University’s Writing For Script and Screen masters programme.
Find Laura online at @Laura_Owen2