Writing Lessons from Arrival: Plot & Structure

Warning: Spoilers ahead. In fact, this will only make sense if you’ve seen the movie.

Arrival shows us that plot is an opportunity to make a story more than a string of events. Sure, we know that already. We’ve seen nonlinear narrative in linear forms since epic poetry, beginning in media res. But Arrival uses this idea expertly, and thinking about the movie is instructive. It can teach us how to use plot more effectively.

Arrival uses plot to bridge the gap between character and storyboard events, complicating how an audience sees both.

Our storytelling forms are all linear. That’s how we think. We represent narrative in: beginning, middle, end. We can jumble up the chronology, but an audience and form are both still bound by time. Arrival can’t escape time, but it does challenge how we understand story. Like the alien language we focus on in the movie, Arrival’s structure hands us all the information at once, repeatedly.

For instance, the “big reveal” — that Louise is learning a new way to perceive time as she learns the alien language — is obvious to the audience from the first scene, we just don’t know it yet. That scene feels eerily out of reach as we watch. And in hindsight, it’s as if we could have guessed how the movie would end from the opening monologue.

Parallel Plotting

Common advice says that writers should storyboard using one of these two rules: “and therefore” or “but, then.” Both phrases are supposed to represent the linking logic between scenes in a story. This logic is not always tied directly to the characters’ choices (though it probably should be), but to the development of the narrative as a whole, showing how problems arise and how the situation changes.

Arrival uses a parallel plotting method. We see events in a chronologically linear form — aliens arrive, attempts to communicate follow, then problems arise — but there is also the story of Dr. Louise Banks’ daughter sizzling in the background. The daughter’s story is told without an immediately apparent attachment to the movie’s chronology. Or, rather, we first see that attachment incorrectly, and start projecting on Louise a mood she hasn’t yet adopted. If there’s a phrase for it, it’s something like, “but also.”

Redefining the Big Reveal

At first glance, the story of Louise’s daughter serves as a humanizing frame narrative for Louise’s character development, but it is performing double-duty. It’s also the audience’s key to understanding the movie, and how its chronology works. The daughter story teaches us how the aliens changed Louise, the gift they gave her.

In turn, we are handed a gift: the big reveal. Fusing the story of Louise’s daughter with the moment when the audience discovers the aliens’ purpose is a brilliant move we can learn from. It creates room off-screen for the audience to rearrange pieces they have already seen, and to fully understand the movie. It produces narrative aftershocks.

How Do We Use It?

The next time a draft of a story seems flat or predictable, or you’re having trouble getting back into an idea you’ve had, maybe this is a technique you can use to add complexity. Stop trying to force a new scene. Instead, add a layer of character-driven or character-driving plot that can sit in the background.

In character development terms, it’s like giving a character a secret that affects their decisions, which we don’t see until after its consequences. In plot, it’s a piece of structure that haunts the story, only revealing itself when and as much as necessary.

It’s not a “twist” so much as a complicating factor. It doesn’t change the narrative arc’s structure, but informs how we understand the story and characters. And it’s worth having in the toolbox.

Want to know more about writing Arrival? Here’s an article by Arrival scriptwriter Eric Heisserer.

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