A Story is a Promise
Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling book cover

A fifth edition of my writing workbookA Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling is available as an ebook from Amazon for $2.99 and as a trade paperback from CreateSpace for $13.99.

Essays on the Craft of Writing
About the Author

Using a Timeline to Tell a Story

Notes on the Movie Arrival

Arrival is an amazing film that uses its timeline to convey a story about the nature of time. It's based on the Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang; the film is directed by Denis Villeneuve.

The film begins with somber music and a voiceover, and a woman saying, "I used to think this was the beginning of your story...we are so bound by time, by it's order." The scene changes to a young woman with a baby, a wedding band on her finger. The scene then switches to the woman with a young girl playing with a toy horse.

This narration sets up that this will be a story about the nature of time.

Continuing, "I remember moments in the middle."

The scene switches to the girl now a teenager being examined by a doctor as her mother watches.

We are being shown different moments in time in the mother and daughter's life.

Next is a scene with the mother with her just deceased, bald daughter in a hospital bed, and her mother leaving the scene and the narration, "But now I'm not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings."

The set up here appears to be flashbacks of the daughter being born, growing up, and dying. What the author of the short story, Ted Chiang, reveals late in the film is that all these scenes are really happening in the future and something has happened that allows the mother to experience these future memories before they happen in a traditional sense as beginning, middle, and end. The narrator's voice over has set this up to be understood later.

In storytelling terms, these opening scenes are referred to as a frame, as in frame for the story.

Every moment of this film is at the service and purpose of the filmmaker and the storyteller. The film is a tremendous example of how shifts in time - those moments - can help tell a complete story.

The films shifts to the woman's arrival at a school with a commotion happening in the background that she ignores. She goes into an almost empty classroom to give a presentation and asks where everyone is, but no one has an answer. She is a linguist professor. As she speaks, she realizes some of the few students in the class are paying attention to their incoming cell phone calls and one student asks her to turn on a TV news station.

That wordlessly conveys the message, something important is happening. This is a common technique both in films and novels. It's done often because it works to convey a question that the story will subsequently answer.

To sustain the drama, instead of initially seeing what's on the screen, we just hear a news report talking about an object and Montana the state being locked down. By not showing us the screen, what we're hearing is again drawing us in to know what the professor is seeing. Again, a simple, powerful technique.

Then the news that more objects have landed around the world, but we just see the students intently watching the screen. What has landed is being held back for a revelation.

Next, a loud siren goes off and the scene shifts to the college being evacuated and jets flying overhead. All very dramatic. It's escalating the drama without telling us what's happening.

Louise, the professor, makes it to her home on a lake. It comes across via radio that there are now twelve alien ships at different locations around Earth.

She channel surfs to get information, but we still haven't seen one of the ships. Again, simple technique to draw the audience forward. Note it works because as the audience, we want to know more.

In the morning, she returns to the empty school and her classroom. In her office, a military officer arrives. He plays her a recording of the aliens responding to questions and asks her to translate, but her response is that she would need to be with the aliens to do that. The officer leaves.

On the news, the Russian and Chinese are at the U.N. talking about sharing information about the aliens. This will become more important later in the story, although it comes across as background information here. Note that it's background information with an important purpose in the story. Everything we've been shown so far relates to the story.

The officer returns to ask her to be part of a team seeking to communicate with the aliens.. On the helicopter ride to the alien ship, the look on her face says she's finally seen the alien craft, and now the audience does as well, an oblong black craft that seems to hang in the sky. It's a pay off to a question raised earlier.

The helicopter lands in a make shift military camp.

Inside one of the large tents are screens with people communicating with the other eleven landing sites. Everyone at each landing site is apparently is at a starting point of needing answers, any answers, about what the aliens want or intend. These questions are communicated clearly to the audience. That the different sites are in communication is also important to the story; it's not just background information. It serves a purpose. In a weakly told story film, background details are just information, details.

Ian, another scientist, and Louise are prepped to enter the alien ship. They have to re-orient themselves to a new sense of what is up and down when they enter the ship, a great metaphor for this strange new world they are entering.

There's a light at the end of a tunnel. What's in the light?

These questions are all set up neatly.

The aliens arrive. They are giants, with no human likeness (no Star Trek aliens here). The aliens are later referred to as Heptapods, based on their shape.

The scientists try and understand a recording of the session. In the background, TV news talks about riots around the US.

A report from another site says they have no clue how to communicate with the aliens.

In another session with the aliens, Louise holds up a white board that says 'human'. An alien responds by projecting an inky circle onto the glass that separates them. Communication. But what does it mean? The answer to the question, can we communicate? raises a larger question, what is the message?

Now Louise has to explain to her military handler who wants more information why this slow process of language will take longer but is necessary.

A new complication, the leader of the Chinese team mistrusts the Americans.

At the next session, Louise takes off her gear so she can introduce herself to the aliens, who respond with their circles that appear to be their names. In the background, a soldier looks on with concern. His concern plays out later in the film. Again, everything we see in the film has a purpose.

Louise has more day dreams about her daughter.

The film now takes the time to use narration to offer information about the Heptapods and their ships and what is known about them. Note how deep we are into the film before this information comes out. It comes out because viewers want the information. In weak storytelling, viewers are given information ahead of being given a reason to want it.

It turns out alien language has no concept of time being forward and backwards. Note how this ties into the narration at the beginning of the film.

For the humans, a month passes at they build a vocabulary with the aliens.

Louise and Ian have a heart to heart at the camp.

The uneasy soldier listens to a ring wing radio announcer saying the aliens need an armed response.

Louise has a memory of teaching her daughter language. She has another memory of her daughter, now older, in a hospital bed.

Is Louise being affected by conversing with the aliens? Is it affecting her thinking?

The Chinese and then the Russians are mobilizing forces. What do they intend? It increases the drama. The question arises, are the Chinese using the game of Go to converse with the aliens? If so, it frames questions in terms of tactics, winning and losing, gaining an advantage over a foe. If they are communicating to the aliens in such a language, does it inflect what they believe the aliens are communicating?

The military handler tells Louise that they need to know now what the aliens intend.

The aliens offer a message about using weapons.

Considering this a threat, China and Russia break their connection to the joint link to understand the aliens.

Do the aliens want to see the different factions on Earth go to war?

A soldier loads a bomb into the alien ship with a five minute timer.

Louise and Ian return to speak to the aliens about this ambiguous message about weapons and Louise puts her hands on the glass, creating a message using her hands while she has a day dream about her daughter's birth.

One alien puts up a message of many small circles.

Then, an alien creates a shock wave that pushes Ian and Louise out of the communication chamber as the bomb goes off.

Louise wakes up in the military base by the ship.

How will the aliens respond to the bomb? Their ship draws up into the sky but doesn't leave. What are they preparing to do?

The film has a wonderful process of setting out questions that are answered, but raise new questions.

China declares war on the aliens, with a twenty-four hour deadline for action. Again, note how this sets up an anticipation of action and increases the tension of the story.

Louise day dreams about her pre-teen daughter and tells her to call her scientist father for an answer a question.

The aliens' last message communicated that it was one in a part of twelve, which suggests all the factions need to work together. But the factions no longer cooperate. What can Louise do?

The alien ship sends down a pod to take Louise up into the ship.

Now she is in the ship with an alien that she can see in its realm, no longer separated.

She's told she has a weapon.

The alien finally conveys their purpose, that they'll need humanity's help in three thousand years. Something about their visit now is meant to help humanity.

Louise realizes the child she sees will be her child in the future, that the weapon opens a new conception of time for humanity.

What will she do now?

The alien ships that hung vertically in the sky now float to a horizontal position.

Louise looks at a book she wrote in the future about the aliens, that to learn their language is to be free of linear time.

Louise now sees herself at a banquet in the future where she meets General Chang, the Chinese general who wants to take action against the aliens in the present. He shows her his private cell number, which she has never seen, although she realizes she has called him. She is remembering the future.

She steals a CIA operative's cell to call China but the military people are aware of the call and search for her.

In the future, the general tells her the message she gave him that led him to call off the attack. She'll able to speak the message to him in the present.

We cut to news reports that the Chinese are now negotiating with the other alien sites to share all information.

The alien ships rise from the horizontal to a vertical position and turn into a mist that disappears.

The film ends at the beach house with Ian and Louise and their baby daughter Hannah and Ian in another moment asking Louise if she wants to make a baby. Louise agrees, knowing that she will give birth to a daughter who will die as a pre-teen, but they were share so many moments in time that Louise can now experience at will.

Beautiful film, with a time line that operates to convey what the story is about. How the time line is used is part of the fabric of the story.

Every moment in the film has a design and purpose that advances the story. Like the aliens, the storyteller saw his story in all its moments and put them together in a dramatic sequence.

Bravura storytelling!

An amazing film that is a textbook on the craft of using a time line to tell a story. Ted Chiang is a master storyteller.

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