Over the years I have developed a theory about how plots and action
develop in most films. The best way to explain it is to look
at a typical canal system (you know like with locks and dams).
Essentially, a canal works like this the boat enters the canal
at one end, the dike or wall raises up behind it, and water is
then pumped into the holding area effectively raising the boat
up to the next level, whereupon the process starts over again.
Films function in much the same manner, they open up with an
incident that captures the audiences attention and (if they are
functioning properly), then slowly increase the tension (via
a series of episodes or incidents), until the film reaches its
conclusion. Just like a canal system action does not increase
in a straight arc instead it increases in stages. Generally speaking,
each of these stages is followed by some sort of comic relief
(a tension breaker - or pause), before the next episode and increase
in tension occurs.
So why do films utilize comic relief as a tension breaker? Why
not simply move from one exciting event to another with no break
in-between? There are any number of theories about this but my
personal favorite is one I have lovingly christened the adrenaline
factor. It works like this, back in the dimmer reaches of
history our ancestors were confronted with numerous physical obstacles,
trials and tribulations which they were unprepared to deal with.
For example take your average Joe who is out foraging for food
in the forest when he unexpectedly comes across a large (and extremely
hungry) carnivore - one with excessively long fangs. What does
our hero do? Under normal circumstances (barring the intervention
of some higher power) he ends up as dinner. Enter the adrenal
gland - natures little added shot of steam. The adrenal gland
gives our average Joe a little more energy to run a little bit
faster, or fight a little bit harder - in short it is natures
way of making sure that Joe is capable of surviving. The problem
is that when an audience is watching a film (at least a good one),
it willingly suspends disbelief - in short the audience forgets
that it is only a movie. As a result of this, the audience's
adrenal gland is busy pumping out that shot of steam just like
it would if there was a giant multifanged beastie hot on their
trail. So what are their options? Well, they could always run
laps around the theater (authors note: theater managers and other
audience members tend to take a dim view of this), or they could
pummel the person sitting next to them (theater managers and other
audience members also tend to take a dim view of this). Many
people sublimate this urge by hanging onto the person sitting
next to them (this is particularly dangerous if you do not know
the person sitting next to you). As a consequence, the prudent
film maker inserts little tension breakers into the movie to give
the audience a little time to calm down and to give the film maker
an opportunity to set the audience up for the next scary sequence.
Probably the best example of a film that that follow this type
of format is Steven Speilberg's classic monster epic "Jaws".
The film is a textbook example of a cause and effect plot scenario
from its opening inciting incident to its eventual dénouement.
It also features some dandy little tension breakers.