Summer, 1996. I was twelve, I’d just won the last battles of elementary school, and my dad, a long-time fan of the TV series, took me to see the big-screen adaptation of Mission: Impossible.
I didn’t understand it. The plot flopped back and forth too many times for my young brain to grasp, and the dialogue was joo jammed with complex lingo to translate. But I knew I wanted to understand it. I wanted to see it again. Yes, the stunts were amazing, and the action was unlike anything I’d seen before (a prone fight scene on top of a 200 mph train? Come on), but I was drawn to the questions it gave me.
What was the NOC list? Why was it so important? Did Prague really look like that? How did Ethan Hunt notice so many details during his conversation with Kittridge? We bought the VHS tape later that year and I watched it until the fangs of tracking rendered it inoperable.
Twenty-two years later, the sixth film in the franchise, Fallout, has just released. It might be my second favorite, after that slick and perplexing first installment of so many years ago. So how do they pull this off? With each new movie I expect to be underwhelmed, that the franchise is finally losing steam, but each holds and thrills me just like the last. Why do Mission: Impossible films still work?
The word is tension. Any great story, in any genre, has tension. You don’t watch an M:I film. You’re ripped through it on a fierce current of tension. How do they build tension? I picked out a few methods these films all employ, techniques I hope to weave into my own stories with similar effect.
But first, a quick reaction to each of the six movies, since I’m a huge nerd and I love them and this is my blog. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re familiar.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Directed by Brian DePalma, and possibly his most mainstream film, M:I’s centerpieces are its amazing stunt sequences, but its true virtues are its incredibly cool dialogue, twisty, unpredictable plot, and beautiful cinematography. Paul Hirsch’s staccato editing keeps the pace while your brain was still figuring out the last scene. A mystery hangs about this movie, visible in little flashes of the sly and unusual. Could Job 314 be Job 3:14? Go to the corner of these two streets, buy this pack of cigarettes, and ask the man sitting on the bench for a match. It’s classic spy noir shot through with blue-lit neotech, and it works. Also, if you want to take a trip to the mid-’90s, this film features: a theme song remix by two guys from U2, early Apple laptops, dial-up modems, “Dreams” by the Cranberries (RIP Delores), and a cameo by Emilio Estevez.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
The third installment was J.J. Abrams’s directorial debut, and nobody could’ve done it better. Abrams proved with The Force Awakens that he can fix a franchise through simple, lovable, fast-paced storytelling, but M:I III is where he figured this out. I want to call this movie’s star its perfect pacing, but the real star is Philip Seymour Hoffman. His menacing international arms dealer, Owen Davian, is one of my favorite cinematic villains. He’s always one step ahead, always calm and confident, from the very opening scene.
Ghost Protocol (2011)
Abrams took a producer’s chair and gave the helm to Brad Bird for the fourth chapter, and Bird’s experience directing simple kids movies like The Incredibles and The Iron Giant proved a benefit. Once again, the pacing is superb, with a frenetic chase scene hot on the heels of a classic M:I setup, which itself follows Ethan Hunt’s epic ascent up the side of the Burj Dubai. And yet, the conflicts remain personal and focused.
Rogue Nation (2015)
Director Christopher McQuarrie also wrote the screenplay for Rogue Nation, and it glows with that special luminescence of a movie told by a small team. Rogue Nation expands on the M:I mythos as we see the IMF defunded and Ethan go on the run. We’re also introduced to Ilsa Faust, Hunt’s favorite frenemy, and treated to a lovely tango of the two working together and doublecrossing one another.
McQuarrie returns for the latest movie, taking more artistic risks with editing and emotional “gotcha” moments, and they work well thanks to our investment in the characters. This film carries over most of the cast of Rogue Nation, even the vile and acidic Solomon Lane. Fallout mixes in shadowy, neo-noir moments reminiscent of the first film and the Daniel Craig Bond films. Its commitment to tension shines in three amazing chase scenes: one on the road, one on foot, and one between two helicopters. Yet none of this shrouds the deeper, warmer emotional beats that keep the franchise human.
Yes. I skipped M:I II. Because it’s bad. So very bad. We don’t need to discuss it anymore than you need to watch it.
All of these films are textbook lessons in tension. Some of this tension only comes with the medium of cinema. In the first move, DePalma tilts the camera for low-angle shots of Hunt and Kittredge’s confrontation in the aquarium restaurant, instantly putting us on alert. In Fallout, a music-only action scene portrays its dreamlike state as Hunt imagines how a mission will go.
But there are other lessons in tension that we prose authors can carry through to our writing with the same effect.
In an episode of their excellent podcast, Writing Excuses, Brandon Sanderson and co. properly define stakes, not as Hollywood often does, with bigger and bigger explosions, more people at risk, etc., but with deeper emotional consequence for the protagonists. This franchise understands this concept. Time and again, we’re presented with a world-ending superweapon, but the thought of blowing up a city doesn’t concern us nearly as much as the fate of Hunt’s family or friends.
A perfect example is in M:I III. Abrams casts his trademark “Mystery Box” as an item known only as the “Rabbit’s Foot.” The script makes a point of telling us that our heroes don’t even know what it does, only that it’s catastrophic in nature. Hunt and his team must go rogue, steal it, and bring it to the stoic Owen Davian in order to save Hunt’s fiance, Julia. It’s almost like Abrams is telling us, “Yes, millions of people could die, but you only need to care about one.” The film even opens out of sequence, with Davian threatening to kill Julia in front of Hunt if he doesn’t deliver, and the scene is brutal. Here, just watch it.
This is how we raise stakes. Not by threatening to blow up the universe. By putting one person in that universe who our protagonist cares about more than anything else. Threaten that one person, or item, or job, or place, and you have tension.
Action stories can’t be all action. Watch any of the later Transformers movies if you want to find this out the hard way. We have to let the action breathe. M:I gets this. We often get a scene where, after the team’s plan comes apart at the seams and they barely escape, they regroup and recap, discussing what to do next. It’s usually in some cool, dusty little hotel room like the Moroccan Villa in Rogue Nation. In Fallout, after an insane chase scene that jumps from a box truck to a motorcycle, threading through the streets and subways of Paris, Hunt calmly retreats to an underground waterway, and we get a quiet moment to process before- you guessed it- the chase continues in a car (a really awesome classic BMW 5-Series, which Tom Cruise really drove for the filming).
These breaks in action are key. They allow the audience to stop and think, to wonder what’s going to happen next, to ponder the questions presented by the plot. See, we writers think it’s all up to us, that every bit of tension and interest is all about what we put on the page. But I believe it’s not so much about what we write, but about creating an exothermic reaction with the reader’s mind. The reader’s questions expand our stories exponentially, turning one page into five. This is the essence of the Mystery Box. It’s not about what is happening, but what could happen.
A good story will do this naturally, but too much action, non-stop, will smother this fire like a shovel-full of mud. We must give our readers a chance to process.
Here, watch this. Focus specifically at the dialogue exchanges as the beginning and end.
Can you feel it? The tension between these two? Yes, both Tom Cruise and Vanessa Redgrave are superb, but the word choice is key. It’s not about what they’re saying, it’s about what they’re not saying. This is a clash of wills. Max is an international arms and information broker, surrounded by loyal, armed men. Hunt is just a brash, young operative, his life teetering on nothing but his confidence. He’s just lied to her about his identity so he could get a meeting. She could snap his fingers and have him killed. So how does he start? “I want 150,000 dollars.” They’re fencing.
Furthermore, the dialogue doesn’t coddle the audience with simplicity. We might not understand exactly what they’re talking about immediately, but that’s okay. We’re not having the world of black ops translated to us, the laymen. We’re listening to a raw exchange through a keyhole. They’re competent. They understand each other. “You’ll have Virginia farm boys hopping around like jackrabbits.” Hunt is talking about the CIA, based in Langley, Virginia. He could’ve just said “CIA,” but the instead, the metaphor does a few things for tension: It shows that Hunt isn’t afraid to make light of a dangerous situation. Max is a player, but so is he. And it shows that he understands his opponent. He’s doesn’t underestimate her experience or her intelligence.
Even the closing conversation between Barnes and Kittridge shares this lingo-laced tension. “What are we going to do, put a guy at the airport?” Unlike Max and Hunt, Barnes and Kittridge are not equals. Kittridge lectures Barnes, simplifying his speech to illustrate the ridiculousness of Barnes’s ideas.
Writing raw dialogue that doesn’t lose the reader is a difficult balance, and it requires knowing your audience, but we should make our readers work to understand our dialogue. Make them think about it. Make them sweat. This will build tension.
At Realm Makers 2015, I took a class with the legendary David Farland (Dave Wolverton to his sci-fi fans), and he stressed the importance of transporting readers away from their usual setting. All the most successful movies ever have plucked audiences out of theaters and flung them across the galaxy, back in time, or into another world entirely.
Mission: Impossible movies visit countless different locations, many of them unfamiliar to us undertraveled Americans. Prague, Morocco, London, Dubai, Paris, Kashmir, Shanghai, Sydney, Mumbai, Langley- to name a few. We’re always switching locations, jetting from one continent to the next, taking trains, riding in trucks. We barely ever see the same set twice.
Wide travel is great for broadening scope, but how does it foster tension? By creating kinetic momentum. Our heroes are always in motion, and we must keep up. Just within the first few minutes of Fallout, we’re treated to a scene in what looks like China, followed by a short scene in Belfast, and a longer one in Berlin. Imagine traveling between those three locations in a single trip. Imagine doing so in a matter of hours. Or minutes. Or seconds. Feel a little…tense? There’s a natural motion here, and just like travel in real life, it’s engaging.
Even if you’re writing an urban story, consider how many places within a single city you can take your reader. Brandon Sanderson’s centric Mistborn trilogy barely ever travels outside of Luthadel, yet we’re constantly treated to new banquet halls, castle rooftops, and stinking alleys. Keep the audience in motion.
Stakes, breaks, dialogue, and transportation are all solid methods for building tension within a story, but there are countless others. What are your favorite tensioners?