Tension, Indiana Jones, and Deus Ex Machina

Last week, I watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it got me thinking: the Indiana Jones movies do an excellent job keeping you on your toes. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen them, but they still have me biting my nails or sitting on the edge of my seat.

So what exactly makes them so good at this? Let’s take a look at the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark:

We open with Indiana and some companions delving into some old ruins to look for a golden statue. On the way in, Indiana spots all of the traps and gets around them. He finds the statue and replaces it with a bag of carefully-wieghed sand, because this is yet another trap. Unfortunately, trying to match the weight of a statue just by looking at it isn’t a very accurate way of doing things, and the trap gets set off anyway. So they have to race out of the ruins, and on the way out, either Indy or his companion set off every single trap they avoided on the way in. On top of this, his companion betrays him and tries to take the statue for himself, only to die in one of the traps. But, miraculously, Indy survives, only to have the statue stolen from him as soon as he gets out. He makes a narrow escape with the help of another friend.

The rest of the movie follows a similar pattern: Indy sets out to do something, encounters relatively few snags getting to it, but on the way back out, everything goes wrong. He gets attacked, trapped, or stolen from, and it seems as if every struggle was for naught. So it seems impossible that everything could turn out okay in the end, because Indiana Jones makes so many mistakes and has the rottenest luck.

This is what makes them such great movies. Indy fails just as often as he succeeds, if not more often. And several times his successes either foreshadow or bring about more failures. Good plots and characters have a balance of successes and failures: too many successes and it’s boring and predictable, too many failures and it seems too hopeless. This is the key to building tension: if your readers can’t guess whether things will go well or go badly, they’ll be sitting on the edge of their seats the whole time.

The one thing you have to be careful about with this model is deus ex machina, or a new twist, power, or random event that comes literally out of nowhere and solves every unsolvable problem. The Ark of the Covenant would have been deus ex machina if it had never been mentioned earlier on in the movie that it had great, mysterious powers.

However, there is a good example of deus ex machina in the next movie, the Temple of Doom: after the main villian, Mola Ram, is killed, Indy and his companions are still being attacked by his followers with no apparent means of escape. Miraculously, the British Indian Army arrives and shoots down all remaining antagonists.

Deus ex machina isn’t necessarily always bad, but if you decide to use it, be very careful how you handle it: make sure there’s a good explanation for it (and that you don’t use it too often).

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