Last night I decided to watch the Ron Howard directed film Apollo 13. I think it was the first time I’d seen it since it opened in theaters back in 1995. I’ve wanted to see it again, partly to preview for our twelve year old. She has a great love of all things connected to outer space and a fascination with the Apollo missions especially, but I wanted to check out the film’s intensity level.
I’m not sure why I chose to watch it late last night. I think I just needed to tumble into a good story, and I remembered this was a good one. And indeed it was.
If you’re not familiar with the film, Apollo 13 is based on the real life story of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970. Two missions had already landed men on the moon, and by 1970, strangely enough, the space program’s success was becoming “old hat” for the American people. So much so that when Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks in the film) and his crewmates Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) transmitted their first broadcast back to earth, on day three in space, none of the networks even bothered to show it.
However, newscasters were soon showing everything about the mission they possibly could. That’s because when they were 173,000 miles from earth (let that number sink in) one of their oxygen tanks exploded, crippling the command module and forcing the men to move to the lunar landing module. They used it as a “lifeboat” until they could find a way, in conjunction with a lot of help from mission control back on earth, to get home. This proved highly problematic in all sorts of ways, as the film dramatically presents.
A true story of near catastrophe and ultimate triumph would seem to present you with a dramatic story-shape that you don’t need to tinker with very much. Still, I think the writers and director did a great job of bringing out the dramatic tension in some very creative ways.
We all know the tried and true shape of a dramatic narrative, where someone starts in one direction toward a goal and then gets thwarted. There’s an obstacle in their way, and they have to find out a way around it (or under it or over it!) to accomplish their goal. One thing I love about Apollo 13 is that the highly worthy goal that our heroes start toward is never accomplished, and yet the goal they do end up accomplishing, which seems so much more ordinary, turns out to pull on their strength and heroism in even deeper ways.
The change of their trajectory – from moonward to homeward – marks a major shift in the goal of the story and in the inner orientation of the main characters. Up until now, we’ve been with them as they’ve excitedly trained to fly this spacecraft and land on the moon. When it becomes clear that “we’ve lost the moon,” as Lovell says rather bleakly, when they realize that they can no longer pursue the lunar landing because they will need every ounce of their power to turn around and get home, we are momentarily deflated. The film pays tribute to that by giving Lovell a moment as he looks down at the lunar surface and imagines what it would be like to step out and fulfill his dream. Then we can practically see the dawning realization on all of their faces as it occurs to them that surviving and returning to earth is the new goal, and it’s going to be much harder than anything they ever anticipated about the flight.
Sometimes your character’s original goal does not turn out to be what really needs accomplishing. The heart of your story, and your character’s deepest desires, may not be revealed until deep into the plot.
As storytellers, we don’t have to jump up and down and point when this happens. We can find small but profound ways to indicate the “turn” that is taking place in the outward and inner narratives. Again, I love how Apollo 13 does this. Early in the film, it showed us Lovell looking up at the night sky. He sees the moon, a place he has already orbited (on an earlier flight) so a place he’s begun to know, but one that still fascinates him. He longs to go there again and this time to step out on it surface. He holds his thumb up and moves it back and forth so that it blots out the moon. So tiny really, so far away, yet real, and a place he longs to be.
The visual sticks with us because we see him do the same thing again, but this time in reverse. When they are in the spacecraft near the moon, he looks out the window and sees the earth. He holds up his thumb and blots it out and then moves his thumb and reveals it again. So tiny really, so far away, yet real, and a place he longs to be. In fact, the longing to get back to earth suddenly feels far deeper and more urgent than the push for the moon (it helps that we’ve seen him in the context of his loving family). And the fact that he can so easily block out the earth with his thumb heightens the tension, because we realize just how faraway it is.
A tiny picture, a small repeated gesture – that’s all it takes. We know without words (though the script writers give him some words about it later) that we’re now focusing on the homeward goal. Plan A is gone. Plan B is what matters. And it turns out that Plan B is the heart of our story.
Besides the change in story trajectory, Apollo 13 also does a great job of providing us with glimpses of secondary characters and their motivations and longings. One of my favorite ways it does this is through the character of Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the command module pilot who trained for the mission and then was scratched from the first string just a few days prior to lift-off because he’d been exposed to the measles and they couldn’t risk him getting sick while in space. The irony of and perhaps the providence behind that decision unfolds as the film progresses. This is, interestingly, one of the places where the filmmakers used creative license by creating an even larger role for Mattingly than he had in real-life. While he was an important member of the ground crew that figured out how to get the astronauts home, the film played up his contribution (conflating several real life people’s contributions into one) to emphasize how deeply a part of this mission he still felt, and how invested in the outcome. The choice to strengthen and use his character in that way was a terrific choice.
Creative prompts and exercises:
- Think of a story idea where the initial goal or quest seems very straightforward. Create an obstacle that blocks your character from that goal. Then instead of the character getting around the obstacle and proceeding toward the original goal, thwart them entirely and provide them with a new goal.
Note: your mission, as a writer, is to change the story trajectory entirely, not in a way that feels like it’s cheating (as though you’re not delivering on what the story initially appeared to be about) but in a way that deepens our understanding of the main character and what he really wants. It may be that the character himself does not realize what he really wants until that moment, or realizes that his first goal, no matter how worthy, is still of secondary importance to this new goal. Lovell really wanted to get to the moon. I’m sure it broke his heart, in some ways, that he never achieved that dream. But in a moment of crisis, he realized he wanted other things more: to continue to live, to get back to the life and family he loved and to the earth that was his home.
You can try this exercise with a dramatic or heroic quest or you can try it on a smaller, more domestic canvas. Lots of characters in literature, even the ones who aren’t heading out on big outward adventures, come to a deeper realization of what they really desire. Lizzy Bennett thinks she wants to make a “good” marriage, but her understanding of what a good marriage constitutes changes and deepens as Pride and Prejudice unfolds. So much so that we see her turn down two marriage proposals, seemingly thwarted in her desire to wed, before she finally gets to a place where she is ready to accept one!
Your story may cover vast outer distances or small inner ones, but in either case, changing the character’s direction and goal can add layers of richness to the story.