Remember the old television series “Mission Impossible”? It ran from 1966 to 1973 and featured an ultra-secret team of spies and covert operators who carried out highly sensitive missions for the (presumably) US government. The head of the Impossible Mission force was played by Peter Graves, and the series won several Emmys and Golden Globe awards during its run. (For the purposes of this blog, forget about the Tom Cruise movies which weren’t anywhere nearly as good.) I watched almost every episode of that series during its run on TV and enjoyed the way the characters carried out their jobs with confidence and aplomb. And that’s what I want to discuss here.
Every episode of “Mission Impossible” ran a characteristic course. The head of the team was given an assignment, he picked out a team, and they went about their business, frequently in a foreign country. They calmly and coolly got the job done and returned home, without giving away their mission or their identities. And that was all there was to it. No party afterward, nothing on the news the next day, no statements from the State Department, no announcements from the President. And no artificial, unrealistic enhancement of tension from the script writers, either.
I blogged once how Dr. McCoy in the original “Star Trek” series would frequently argue with Captain Kirk for no reason other than what appeared to be an enhancement of the tension. I didn’t like it. It was so unrealistic and artificial, and it detracted from the audience’s understanding of the character’s development. Dr. McCoy was very uncharacteristic as a physician sometimes. Fortunately, none of that occurred in “Mission Impossible,” and I very much appreciated it.
Some might have criticized the characters in “Mission Impossible” as being too calm, cool and collected, but I never did. They went about their duties and got the job done. Nobody yelled at anyone else. There were no arguments and no discussions; no artificial enhancement of the tension at all. No one questioned any orders. Each person knew his/her job and did it. Period. The tension came from the necessity of the team to do its job in a very difficult and secret environment, and then get out without being caught or revealed. They did it week after week, and of course, you, as the viewer, knew they’d get out by the end of the hour every time, but you were glued to the screen, watching how they did it. The fact that you knew they weren’t going to get caught and that you knew they’d do their job within that one hour didn’t matter, you watched anyway. (On one episode, the female lead, played by Barbara Bain, was captured, and the show was about how they got her out. Secretly and covertly, of course, using the same straight-forward techniques they used in all the other episodes.)
For someone like me, who has a strong interest in process, i.e., how things get done, I took the show to heart. The show was a demonstration of the fact that a writer doesn’t need to use artificial means of inflating tension in his stories just because he’s been told that there has to be tension or conflict on every page. Tension comes from within the setting. It comes from the situation the characters find themselves in and it can exist even when they are calmly and coolly doing their jobs. Tension comes from knowing there will be a severe punishment if they are caught, especially if the penalty is death, as it would have been in some of the fictitious countries in which the Impossible Mission team found themselves. I am willing to admit that perhaps this type of tension-building may work better on the screen than in a novel, but the concept is the same. Get tension in your setting and plot, not just people yelling at each other.