Arrival and Some of Its Layers

We start today by talking about layers. I like layers existing in certain things – cake, bricks, geological strata – but spent a great deal of my life thinking that when you mention layers around any kind of art, that it immediately becomes the cue for pretentious wankery and arrogance to emerge to show you how smart other people can be while showing how clearly smart you’re not.

People would bring up the idea that this book or that film or the painting over there would have layers and I’d nod and make very agreeable sounds, really just in an effort to make them stop talking. It’s not that I couldn’t see all the layers, I just wasn’t very interested in getting that deep into what have been a very one comedy or nice piece of desktop wallpaper.

This changed a great deal over the last few years when I started getting my hands dirtier in story structure and developmental editing, because “layers” (the concept) had layers to it, and once you get past the part where people want to tell you something  some tweed-sucking academic once told them something in an airy tone that they later used to try and get a dry handjob in a closet from someone in their dorm, you see that layers are coiled springs of potential energy – the ability to convey information in a concentrated form without overtly stating it repeatedly.

I’ve seen Arrival 3 times now, it has layers, and I’d like to talk about them. In no way am I saying these are the only layers, these are just the ones I’ve seen in my 3 times. I absolutely encourage to go check it out for yourself. And before we go onward, yes, there are spoilers here, because it’s going to be impossible for me to mention these layers without giving away some plot elements for context. Don’t ever let spoilers dissuade you from checking something out, learning what Point B is when you’re at Point A still leaves you to discover the route, and still lets you draw your own conclusions as to how you felt.

Layer 1 – Challenging the traditional sci-fi organization

Arrival is a great movie. It’s enjoyable. It’s visually engaging. It’s got great acting. It’s well edited. The soundtrack is cool. Past that, it does a really interesting job in taking on one of the major elements in alien/monster-encounter media, the knowledge-malevolence axis (that’s not its real name, it’s named after a lady who wrote about it in the ’60s, I think her name started with an R, I cannot remember it, but we’re gonna talk about it as the axis because that’s what my notes have)

The knowledge-malevolence axis is the measure of how the alien or monster (also called “a creature” when you go back to B-films), regardless of whether they’re a time-traveling murder robot from the dystopic future, or they’re a benevolent water mirage, or a Xenomorph or Mr Hyde or whatever, interacts in a positive way with the humans in the media.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to rack up a body count, they rank higher in malevolence, because there’s no “positive” interaction, the humans don’t gain anything from the experience except possibly not dying.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to help or challenge humanity, then they’re not aggressive, and in fact are represented as smarter than humanity.

The shorthand is “as intelligence grows, body count drops”

Traditionally, if your aliens are straight-up murder factories, their intelligence isn’t really developed as a story point past whatever utility it serves in making the body count rise. They’ve got to smart enough to trap, fight, and kill humans, period.

And if your aliens are super geniuses with a mission, they don’t have to murder anyone, and don’t pursue that unless the antagonist of the film ends up meeting their end via tentacle, mental power or nifty CG.

Arrival smartly packages the knowledge-malevolence axis not in the aliens, but in the humans.

In the film, all the violence (from an aborted bombing to some tanks, helicopters and I think threatened missiles) is human-generated. Because the movie smartly points out that in the absence of a traditional alien antagonist that bleeds so we can kill it, we default back onto our second greatest fear – inferiority.

This tension is so often discarded in alien media. We see some uniformed guy questioning the protagonists as to the alien’s intentions, some lasers go off, and sure enough we know the alien’s intentions to invite us all to the dead body pile.

Here the uniformed guys take that same stance, but no lasers go off. So … they wait for the lasers to go off. And no lasers ever go off. But we have to assert some kind of toughness, so we’re ready with all this military bluster. The tension is one of humanity’s design.

So there’s no body count, there’s no overt threat (we’ll get there in the next layer), so what kind of alien-encounter film is this?

It isn’t. It’s a character study, there just happen to be aliens in it as vehicles for that study.

Onto the next layer.

Layer 2- Narrative Toolbox

I think we need to do just a little plot and character setup here. Our protagonist is a linguist (Amy Adams should get an award), and she’s recruited by the military to work on figuring out what our aliens are saying, so that we can figure out if there’s going to be a body count. She’s partnered with a physicist (because you can’t have a science fiction movie without science), and the pair of them go figure out how to talk to aliens.

It’s worth pointing out here that 2 things become pretty clear: first, our protagonist has an easier time talking to aliens than people (and not in that overused Aspergers-is-a-superpower-way), and second, that this is a movie about what people say and what it means. Now before we get to how the alien language is fucking super rad, we need to lens this movie through the idea of communication. Who has what to say, and what does it mean?

Our protagonist has to, on a plot level, figure out what the aliens are saying.
Our protagonist has to, on a secondary level, figure out what her visions/dreams/thoughts mean (they grow progressively more intense as a b-plot and bookends in the film)

The aliens have to, on a plot level, communicate a particular set of ideas to the humans.
The aliens, have to, on a secondary level, validate a decision they make that’s not immediately apparent or stated to anyone else (we’re gonna talk about it, hang on)

The army has to, on a plot level, interpret the alien actions and take appropriate response.

Communication is the primary currency in power dynamics. It doesn’t matter if we communicate through words, gestures, asses getting kicked, or dance offs (dances off … is like courts martial and surgeons general?), characters communicate with the intention of either maintaining or changing a power dynamic.

Our protagonist has a unique position in the film – she’s subordinate in every power dynamic she is a part of, but she never loses agency and is a pro-active character for the majority of the film.

It’s her actions that lead to alien conversation. Her actions that resolve military tension. And ultimately her actions that end the film on brilliant gutpunch. She’s got agency for miles, and she uses it.

The other element in communication is about the distribution of information that we communicate. We know that based on the shapes of symbols we see as letters, and the sounds we know to associate with them, that a few lines and dots turn into words. And we know that because of where a word is in a sentence, it has a certain importance and value to the information we’re trying to convey.

For example:

My dog is asleep on the couch means you picture my dog, being asleep, on a couch, in that order.

When we jumble those words up (not change the words, just their positions, the package of information doesn’t make sense.

The on dog couch my is asleep isn’t something we understand based on how we’ve come to interpret language. Left to right, finding nouns, verbs, prepositions, and all that.  (I’m way simplifying the study of word order typology here)

Yes, foreign language readers, many languages either operate as subject-object-verb as well as subject-verb-object, so you can tumble that sentence around and see how it comes out in Korean or Quechua for instance and still makes reasonable sense to both eye and ear.

Now we get into something a little deeper. Let’s talk about embedding, because it’s part of the alien language and it’s one of the two primary elements that tie the protagonist and the big story question together (the other being the last 2 minutes of the film)

Embedding is the idea that you take an idea that can’t stand on its own (a clause) and you nest it like one of those Russian dolls in and around other clauses within a sentence. You bury the idea not to obscure it (at least not intentionally), you bury it to give it a context.

Like this:

The man that the woman heard left.

To dissect this, you’ve got some unpacking to do:

  1. “left” refers to a past tense verb, not the directional
  2. A marker like “that” should clue you in to find the next nearest verb (“heard” in this case) and consider that to be a clause on its own.

So, if we were going to visually organize this sentence it’ll turn into

The man || that the woman heard || left.

You can, rightfully for the sake of parsing, chop the sentence down to “The man left.”

But what about that clause, what about “that the woman heard”, it’s important, right? It gives a context in addition to us pictured an absent dude, yeah?

Yes, it is important. If we’re establishing that what happened to the person she heard is more important than the fact that she heard him at all, it’s super important (because the sentence ends with “left”, meaning his absence is the last thing we take before going forward). And if we’re establishing a contrast between people the woman did and didn’t hear, the it’s super important because it distinguishes one man from another.

Embedding as an unconscious writing practice (where we shoehorn in all kinds of stuff because it’s important but we’re not really sure where to put it but we don’t want to lose it so it has to go somewhere) is one of the most comment manuscript murderers that I see at Parvus. It’s a congestion of information that makes it difficult to follow along and develop the intended mental picture.

Embedding as a conscious writing practice, being deliberate in the packaging of an idea inside similar ideas, is a great way to add layers inside sentences, or put another way, layers inside layers.

This is like a turducken quesorito, which sounds gross now that I’ve written it out.

So why did I have to lay out embedding? Because it’s central to the other big part of the narrative stuff here – embedding allows for non-linear development.

If you can package an idea within a sentence, and then take that sentence and put in a paragraph, and that whole paragraph creates a picture in the reader’s head, and that picture is shaped by context of all the other surrounding pictures, then it won’t matter what time this or that piece came into the mix if you’re already looking at the whole ensemble.

Back to the plot – the visions our protagonist has are due to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (no not the Klingon), which says that language either determines or at least influences thought, meaning that immersion in a material produces thoughts and therefore dreams in that material (like when you listen to the Moana soundtrack enough times you start thinking about being a voyager).  These visions are dreamlike, but they’re revelations of her future. The conceit of the alien language, the semagram nature of it and its ability to be embedded with information means that time is no longer constrained linearly, as in you can reach point C from point A even though B in the future that hasn’t happened yet is known to you and tells you how to do it.

Armed with future knowledge, she can take actions in the present to make sure the future happens.

Relevant to the subject of her visions (a dying child and a broken relationship), we go down one more level.

Level 3 Terminality

This is the level where I cried. I have zero shame in saying that, because it’s rare that I find this sort of idea expressed in a satisfying way that’s not playing completely for maudlin necessity. No one’s dying a noble sacrifice, no one’s dying to complete prophecy, people just … die. And it sucks, and it hurts.

So, you’re our protagonist, you find out that after you deal with these aliens, you’re gonna end up in a relationship, have a daughter, then lose that daughter early. The question then is – why have the daughter if you know how it ends? (See how this parallels to our spoilers mention up top?)

Our protagonist says yes, and we the audience take an uppercut to the breadbasket over it because we’re immediately shown the title and end credits. She knows what’s coming, she accepts it anyway. It’s gonna suck, but that’s her choice.

This isn’t a movie about aliens teaching us about linguistic relativity. This is a movie about embracing life and making decisions knowing that it will end in something more pointed than “everybody dies.” This is a movie about communicating and sharing that information even though it has consequences.

Her relationship ends not because the daughter dies, but because she knew the daughter was going to die and she didn’t tell her husband. Did he have a right to know? Would he have said yes to having the daughter or the relationship if he knew?

And likewise, if you needed there to be the daughter (Point C from the above layer) without the daughter how could you have reached Point B at all?

What we’re left with at this level is the question of knowing the future and allowing it to impact the present. To me, for me, that’s a big giant shout-out to terminal illness. Granted, I’m biased, but hey this is my blog and I’m me, but knowing the future absolute influences the present in positive and negative ways.

It’s great motivation for finally accomplishing dreams. It’s terrible reckoning as to the reality that a pet will likely outlive you. It’s great for encouraging a change in character, and woeful for coming to terms with just how awful that character was.

But it’s not all bad, just like it’s not all good. In Arrival, she got to have that relationship and a daughter, for a little while at least. Yeah, you can argue that it was unfair to be taken away so short, or that it was her own fault for inciting it all, but … she still had it, and it had to have some good moments, right?

And for me, yeah, it can suck knowing that there’s a finish line to the marathon I only recently starting caring about participating in, but I’m still running (well, ambling, I mean, shit, I’ve got bronchial pneumonia at the moment) and I’m not done yet.

It has good moments. And you hold onto them and you use them as raft, bumper car, touchstone, lighthouse, reference point, and starlight to get you through the bad moments.

Go watch this movie. Please. And then go create things.


Happy creating.

What Total Recall Taught Me About Storytelling and Gaming

I just came home after seeing the new version of Total Recall. I will avoid spoilers and will avoid specific commentary on the film, but before I go into what the movie taught me, I’d like to make a few points:

* I tire of the idea that the only way to demonstrate a “strong female character” is to give them a gun, get them bloody and occasionally make them grunt. There are many kinds of strength, and I am eagerly waiting for the next batch of media creators who realize that “strong women” aren’t limited to action beats.

* I do not like Kate Beckinsale’s nose. It seems quite shaved and pinched, and I’m concerned that she’s not taking in enough oxygen. It was rather hard to look away from it, since 90% of her shots were facial close-up. (That’s not a spoiler, just look at the trailers)
Note – for those who think the above point was too dysmorphic or sexist, my intent was just to point out that  it bothered me, much the same way people pointed out Christian Bale’s moles in Batman.

* I’m beginning to conclude that lens flares are used to conceal green screen composite shots – and are used to distract from what I call “blurry CGI motion syndrome”, those parts of scenes where suddenly a character moves too fluidly and hurriedly, seems to bleed a little (colorwise) on film and looks…sometimes cartoony. (See: Legolas in LOTR, several stunt-beats in the early Harry Potter movies and some parts of Twilight.)

Now, onto what I learned.

I. Subjective Reality

At its heart this movie (and the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) plays heavily with the questionable nature of reality, of what’s real and what isn’t, and what/who you can or can’t trust. This concept is often a goldmine when done well and lazy writing when executed poorly.

In writing, this idea is explored most often as an unreliable narrator, so that it is more often the audience and not the narrator who must navigate the blurred lines of truth and untruth. (In film this task often falls to the protagonist who is also the audience surrogate.)

In gaming, it’s a lot harder to pull this off, because most people want to play characters that have much of their facets already in place and seek only to improve upon them. Reality is expected to be somewhat dictated as a response to mechanics, as well as what (if any) expectations the players have based on what they bring to the table in terms of character ideas, themes or concepts.

A game that toys with this idea to my great satisfaction is Rite Publishing’s The Demolished Ones – a game that takes the idea of “I don’t know my character” (thanks amnesia!) and allows you to have an absolutely present-tense experience because you “remember” things in order to put them on your character sheet. So at once, the player is co-conspirator in the unreliability, having to choose whether or not a particular item, idea or moment is one they will use to their advantage for character improvement.

In my own writing and gaming, I tend to avoid explorations into what is and isn’t the case – this is in part because I doubt my ability to keep a daisy chain of misdirections going long term, and also I find it grating trying to figure out just how long a narrator is supposed to be unreliable, or if the degree I’m being uncertain is strong enough. Too many questions cross it off the writing list. In gaming, my players, well they get testy when they can’t figure out what is and isn’t happening.

The strength of subjective reality is not the adversarial nature of I-know-something-and-you-don’t, but rather the idea that whatever story you’re telling, you can throw a wrench into the chronology. Changing the “when” component of an event allows you to constantly reshuffle the order of development around, freeing you up to tell the best story possible.

Also, it allows you to play with the nature of expectation…but we’ll talk about that next.

II. Expectations

Expectation is one of the three E’s that you manipulate to create tension (the other two being Emotion and Excitement). Expectation what drives play and storytelling forward. We expect the protagonist to win, we expect the “boss fight” to be at the end of the film, book or adventure, and we expect three-act structure to permeate our experience.

In same cases there’s a spin on it (Nolan’s Memento presents the end of a story at the beginning, so the Third-First Act creates a sort of mobius loop, Leverage presents a heist or caper through flashbacks that bend the Second Act into the Third Act based on the lead-out of the First Act).

But expectations are not just macro views of story development. You can change expectations in-scene as well. The most common version of this is the betraying-character, who turns against the protagonist(s) when either the reasons are valid or when the story gets tired and needs a perk (I’m looking at you, Crystal Skull)

The same is true of objects. A gun can malfunction at the worst possible moment, the bomb could fail to detonate (or detonate too soon) or the printer could run out of paper just when you need it the most.

No expectation should be permanently set in concrete – it’s your story, do all that you have to make it the best story you can.

III. Psychic Distance

I talk a lot about Psychic Distance in Workshops. It’s the imagined camera between audience and character – zooming in for close-ups and emotional display, pulling back for exposition and demonstrations of scope.

Understanding that as a creator (author, game designer, GM, Storyteller, Director, etc) you control the speed of the “camera” by parceling out what and how much detail you give to your characters and non-player characters makes storytelling that much more a richer experience.

Remember too that players (and the audience, for you book types) will respond sympathetically rather than quantitatively — they’ll respond to a positive emotion positively and a negative emotion empathetically — rather than assess the situation mathematically and end up with emotions going to 11 as if to complete an equation of solving for X.

* * * 

Think of these elements as sliders, with the creator of the story able to ramp them up and play with them throughout the experience of the story (don’t think this is something you set once and then walk away from) – in fact, I would go so far to say that ‘riding the levels’ will keep the story experience fresh and evocative for the audience/players/readers.

Happy writing.