In the most recent chapter of Covalent I have one of my main characters, Aylme, brought to her absolute limit as she has rushes her unconscious comrades from danger, including one that is quite a bit larger than she is. Thus far she has been quick-thinking, resourceful, and determined, but one exertion after another I have been wearing the character down to the bone. She is exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically, nearly out of fresh ideas, fighting down fear, and asking more of her muscles than ever before. And, I hope, the readers are feeling that same exhaustion themselves, as if they have been right alongside her, wearing down their minds and bodies as she has.
Coincidentally, I am also trying to create that exact same sensation in my refactoring of The Storm. Here I have two sailors caught in a storm, their boats tethered together, working to their limits to overcome one life-threatening threat after another.
But why do some action-packed stories make us feel energized, like we’ve just been for a brisk walk, while others give us the sense of having been put through the wringer, totally depleted of all our energy? Well, let’s take a look at one of my favorite exhausting films to see what lessons we can glean from it.
The Master of Exhaust)
If there’s any director who has a monopoly on tiring tales, it’s Steven Spielberg. Think of Indiana Jones staggering to his feet after the lengthy tank fight in The Last Crusade. Think of Martin Brody hanging from the sinking mast at the end of Jaws. Think of Captain Miller slumped on the ground at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Think of Alan Grant reclining into his helicopter seat at the end of Jurassic Park. All of these characters have gone to their absolute limits and beyond. Whatever they have achieved by the end of their story, they have obtained it only by wringing out every last bit of themselves, down to the last drop. In fact, some of them have given so much that they won’t be making it home alive.
But these films are all from the height of Spielberg’s career, and I’m going to instead bring attention to one of his lesser-known works, a made-for-television movie that came out in 1971 called Duel. This film tells the story of a simple man named David Mann, who is driving through the Mojave desert for a business trip. Along the way he overtakes a large diesel truck. The truck driver attempts to pass him back again, but Mann maintains his lead, and in doing so incurs the wrath of the other man. And when I say “incurs the wrath,” I mean that the diesel truck driver now means to out-and-out kill him, as evidenced when he nearly baits Mann into driving full-speed into an oncoming vehicle!
Thus begins the duel for which the film is named. Mann is at an extreme disadvantage in his small sedan. He has a bit of an edge in speed and dexterity, but those are small comforts given the size and strength of the relentless behemoth that bears down on him in one life-threatening attack after another.
In terms of character and themes, Duel is a pretty simple film. There are very few characters, very few locations, and it only runs for 90 minutes. But in that simplicity it allows itself to focus purely on one aspect: the exhaustion of a relentless chase. It fills out its time and wears out its audience by consistently coming up with one nail-biting sequence after another. There is that moment where the diesel truck is pressing Mann’s car from behind, trying to force it into an oncoming train. Then there is that time Mann runs for a phone booth to call the police, just to have the truck come blasting down, smashing the booth to bits. Then there are the moments Mann tries to lose himself behind the killer-vehicle, just to find that it has hidden in wait further down the road.
The film exhausts the viewer because it employs one unique danger after another. Each is new and novel and takes a little bit of our energy to process. If we saw the same sort of thrill repeated over and over it wouldn’t get our blood pumping nearly so much, but the constantly fresh experiences take a toll on us over time.
This isn’t all, though. The film also employs another trick that Spielberg utilized many times later in his other films. It shows us the main character breaking down, one small part at a time. Mann doesn’t pass through a battle, heal back at home, then return fresh to another fight. No, he slowly falls apart in one, long, continuous grind. He progresses from relaxed, to irritated, to angry, to horrified, to fearful, to flat-out desperate. And even has he breaks down, his car gets dents and dings, breaks its radiator, loses parts, and has trouble even starting. Each new scene it is looking worse and worse, that much closer to falling apart entirely.
90 minutes might not be very long for a film, but it is extremely long for such a prolonged beatdown! And being the empathetic creatures that we are, we cannot help but share in its burden.
Applying the Lessons)
One unique danger after another, a single, unwavering deterioration of the character. These are the two principles that create an exhausting tale.
And I have tried to employ both of these principles in Covalent. I have kept the focus locked on Aylme for the last chapter, and will continue to do so in the next, showing a single, prolonged instance of her being worn down bit-by-bit, her resources progressively breaking around her, one novel situation being replaced by another, constantly driving towards that point of collapse. I have also been doing the exact same thing in The Storm, describing how both the nerve and the boats of our sailors break apart from one unique trauma after another.
At the end of it all, if I’ve done things right, my audiences will not have done anything directly strenuous themselves, but they’ll still be utterly fatigued just for having been witness to all these agonizing trials. My stories won’t just take the vitality from my characters, they will demand a small bit of life from the readers as well!