For screenwriters, Interstellar is a study in convergence. In my opinion, setting up a story vortex is the single most important technique in popular screenwriting today (found in the Anatomy of Story Masterclass). With Interstellar we see both the potential and the challenge of this technique.
Convergence is a technique of plot. It occurs when the writer crosscuts between two or more main characters and storylines, at progressively greater speeds, leading to a single point in space and time where everything is resolved at once.
Why is this vortex so important in film? Unlike serial television, film is a one-time event. So theoretically we can get the most powerful dramatic impact in a movie by starting the vortex with the widest expanse in space and time and narrowing down to one point all in that 2-hour event (or, in the case of a film by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, 2 hours 49 minutes).
Plot is the most misunderstood of all the major story skills, involving more techniques than all the other major story skills combined. One of the biggest misconceptions about plot is that it is a series of unrelated obstacles the hero must overcome. But this creates an episodic story that keeps hitting the same beat until the narrative drive simply stops. Plot is really the entire line of interconnected events, the superstructure or extension bridge that must span the full length of the story.
The Nolans are masters of plot. In fact they are so good at it that they are the only screenwriters in popular filmmaking today who consistently have too much plot in their films. Whether from hubris or from artistic challenge, the Nolans try to stretch the plot span as long as possible, with as many story threads as they can get away with. Beginning with The Dark Knight Rises, and continuing through Interstellar, their ambition has been inspiring, but their execution has been a bridge too far.
The problem when you create such a long suspension span is that you force the viewer to make huge leaps of logic, believability, motive force and emotion. For example, in The Dark Knight Rises, the plot is so vast and complex that it collapses from a lack of forward narrative drive. In Inception the plot outlasts the emotion, so the story becomes less involving as it proceeds.
Interstellar is their most ambitious plot yet. Both Interstellar and Inception set up a giant vortex in which all plot lines converge to a single point in space and time. In Inception, the hero and his team travel to three levels of the subconscious to fulfill the goal of planting an idea in someone’s mind. In Interstellar, the hero and his team travel to three worlds to fulfill the goal of finding a new place for humans to live.
But Interstellar has a stronger emotional kick at the end because of how the writers handle the vortex point. In Inception, the point at which all the plot lines converge happens when the van, packed with sleeping team members, hits the water. All three main action lines come to a stunning conclusion at this split-second in time. But that’s not the end of the movie. The hero still has to go into his deepest subconscious world to confront his nasty ex-wife and get back his kids whose faces we’ve never seen. So the emotional payoff just isn’t there.
With Interstellar, on the other hand, the Nolans create a massive vortex that weds plot to emotion, because the vortex point of the story comes at the moment the hero, Cooper, meets his long lost daughter, Murph, who is now much older than he. This father-daughter relationship has been set up from the beginning as the central relationship of the film, and it has been developed in painful detail throughout. So when the complex plotlines all come together at this communion, it’s an emotional knockout punch that leaves the audience in shock. And it’s followed immediately by the hero heading off to save the other female lead, Brand. That’s a helluva one-two punch.
Interstellar shows the tremendous payoff when a plot vortex is done properly. But it also shows us the flaws of the vortex technique, especially when writers make the suspension span this long and complex. For one thing, the story goes on for a good hour before any narrative drive kicks in, not to mention emotional involvement for the viewer. For another, there’s virtually no conflict in the first half of the film, which makes it pretty slow going.
The long and complex setup of the vortex also means that the plot holes are as big as the universe. Let me quickly say that criticism by some reviewers about the fallacy of the science in this movie is ridiculous, and totally irrelevant. The story involves wormholes, time travel, five dimensions and traveling through black holes. The science at this level is complete conjecture and is in the movie for fictional reasons only.
Science fiction is not a manual for successful space travel. It’s a story frame – indeed the biggest frame in all storytelling – designed in Interstellar to juxtapose all of humanity with the most intimate father-daughter relationship. All of the science fiction elements in the film are there to allow the writers to make extreme contrasts of character and theme, which are made possible and further intensified by the power of the film medium to crosscut (for all Science Fiction story beats, see the Horror-Fantasy-Science Fiction Class on CD).
But there is a big difference between physics theories and plot holes. The Nolans can throw all kinds of technical jargon at the audience at warp speed, which no one can begin to process in one viewing, in order to convince us that their movie is based on the latest science. It all feels very authentic. But it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is creating a set of rules that govern plausible cause and effect in this story. The farther you make us travel in space and time from the beginning of the story to the end, the more you have to justify, in an easily understandable way, how the hero gets to the convergent point. And that doesn’t happen here.
Some of the difficulty comes from the fact that this story is based on time travel, a technique which inevitably creates absurdities and plot holes. Time travel always involves a Mobius strip of causation whereby anyone who went back in time to change something that will happen in the future would have been so affected by the change in the future that he couldn’t have gone back in time in the first place. So it goes ad infinitum into nothingness.
Those time travel anomalies can be forgiven here, as they must be if you are going to watch science fiction at all. But there are basic questions about the hero’s movements in the plot that seem the height of contrivance. In other words, they are there because the writers have to get the hero to a certain place at a certain time, and that should never be obvious to the viewer.
For example, how do the surviving humans find the hero when he emerges from the black hole, conveniently just before his oxygen runs out? How does he travel through the black hole and show up in his home library, but on the other side? And how does he show up in the library simultaneously in two different time periods when his daughter is standing there? How does incredibly complex data involving relativity and quantum mechanics, which Murph will use to save mankind, get translated into Morse code? I could go on, but you get the point.
In a plot heavy movie like this, the last thing you want is for the mechanisms of the plot machine to show. That just takes away from the beauty of the grand design, which is really quite amazing here.
With the Nolan brothers you have a rare example of writers who not only know the craft of popular storytelling, they also push the limits of the art form. That’s why they have so much to teach us, especially in the area of plot. Of all the elements that went into the success of Interstellar, the one most important for screenwriters to study is the vortex. If you can apply this technique to your stories, your chances of success will go up tremendously.