After the close of my final StoryMakers MasterClass in 2019, I needed to decompress. So I went to watch “Lemans 66” (a.k.a. Ford vs. Ferrari) playing at the cinema. The movie is based on the true story of how Ford challenged Ferrari to win the 1966 Lemans – arguably the most demanding and prestigious auto race in the world.
Walking home afterwards, I asked myself what makes this story so engaging? When everyone knew before entering the theatre that Ford’s underdog racing team (played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale) would triumph in the end.
The answer is tension.
So here are 4 Tips for Building Tension in a Story when the outcome is a historical fact.
- Foreshadow What’s Coming. Start building tension as soon as the audience gets the basics (characters, setting) of the story. By offering clues about characters or situations that will come in later scenes, you create a tension as the audience anticipates what you have foreshadowed. In Lemans 66, we see Damon’s character, Caroll Shellby, toughing out the final laps of the 1956 Lemans race – so exhausted from 24 hours of non-stop racing, he’s barely able to keep control of the car. Leaving viewers to wonder if he has the “right stuff” to win, or will crash and burn before crossing the finish line.
- Disrupt Expectations. In order to keep your audience engaged throughout the story, subvert audience expectations and keep them guessing about what’s going to happen next. Lemans 66 features too many turning points to list here, but one example is when Ford’s elite racing team is about to depart for France to challenge Ferrari at Lemans, their best driver, Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale, is at the last minute cut from the team and left behind. We love the unexpected because it raises questions about characters and the outcomes of a story’s turning points.
- Add Comic Relief. Building too much tension can wear out your audience. One way to give them a break from incescent apprehension is letting the audience know something the characters in the story don’t. In Lemans 66, we feel the pressure ratcheting up as the Ford team battles to come from behind and overtake Ferrari’s lead. The camera cuts to the pit stop boxes of Ferrari where we observe Ford’s team leader Shelby, surreptitiously stealing all of Ferrari’s stop watches. A few minutes of white-knuckle racing later, we smile as the Ferrari team is beside themselves, unable to clock their driver’s lap time because they can’t find their stopwatches. Humorous moments like this offer a little comic distraction while reassuring viewers the storyteller understands the gravity of the narrative.
- End With The Unexpected. In the final act, a good story should leave a memorable impression the audience can feel good about. To do this, storytellers often introduce a final twist or insight to a character’s qualities we didn’t anticipate.
Toward the end of the climatic 1966 LeMans race, Ford driver Ken Miles is comfortably in the lead but has been told by Ford’s executives to slow down and let their other two race entries catch up – so all Ford’s cars cross the finish line together. Throughout the movie, we’ve come to know Miles as a brilliant but rogue driver who listens to no one but his own instinct to win.
The tension builds as he goes faster and faster, until with one lap to go, he unexpectedly does what the auto executives asked, slowing down and leading the Ford race cars across the finish line. But when he is ruled to have finished second due to a technicality, our emotions whiplash from contentment to outrage back to admiration as he graciously accepts 2nd place – his win stolen by corporate greed.
In spite of knowing the outcome of the movie, the unexpected twist at the end of Lemans 66 was the cherry on top of a very intense yet satisfying story – and one I highly recommend regardless of the spoilers I’ve shared in this post.