Editor Roundtable: Arrival

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The team touches down into the Worldview genre this week with the 2016 science fiction revelation drama Arrival, written Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang, based on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” and directed by Denis Villeneuve.


The Story

Here’s a quick summary of the story adapated from IMDB.

When gigantic spaceships touch down in twelve locations around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is recruited by the US Military to lead an elite team of investigators charged with learning how to communicate with the aliens.

In the face of the alien presence, nations teeter on the verge of global war, setting off a race against time for Banks and her crew. Can she decipher the language before world military powers launch an attack? Hoping to unravel the mystery, she takes a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly all of mankind.

The Editor’s Six Core Questions

Want to learn more about the Editor’s Six Core Questions? Check out our Story Grid 101 episode.

1. What’s the Global Genre? Worldview-Revelation –  Jarie

The Worldview Genre is an arch-plot (hero’s journey) or or mini-plot (multiple characters) internal genre, showing the process by which cognitive dissonance upsets the balance of a character’s life, requiring a shift in their view of reality.

This story is an arch-plot of the protagonist hero Louise as she tries to figure out what the aliens want. The type of Worldview story is Worldview > Revelation since Louise goes from Ignorance to Wisdom as she figures out not only the alien language and their purpose on earth but how her own life is going to play out. This is especially tragic because of her daughter Hannah will get a rare disease and die.

Additional Comments

Jarie: This is a great example of how a hero like Louise saves the day, but also has to make a best bad choice with the information that she knows about the future. Her choice to have Hannah even knowing that she will die, must be heart wrenching. The whole story is built wonderfully and the “saving the world” main storyline is just smoke and mirrors to the real choice that Louise has to make—do I have Hannah knowing that she will die of a rare disease? This wisdom is an awful burden to bear. For some, they would say this is a science fiction movie but from a content genre it’s not. Science fiction is the reality genre on the 5 leaf clover of genres. The five would Content, Structure, Time, Reality, and Style. For us, we primarily focus on the Content Genre when we talk about the 12 genres for our movie selections.

Kim: After all the work Leslie and I have been doing on Internal Genres, Worldview-Revelation as the Global genre is one of my absolute favorite stories. They are just so much fun—you don’t even know you’re in one until the protagonist does!

Norman Friedman (the father of internal genres) definition of Revelation stories can be summarized with the following Cause & Effect statement: When a protagonist, with well-developed will but lacking in essential facts, experiences doubt about their circumstances which leads to a revelation of a shocking truth, they can make wise and appropriate decisions.

Revelation stories are about strong characters who are operating with the best intentions but with false knowledge. They are missing a key piece of information that they need.

Other Worldview genres are more about a character’s perspective on the world, but Revelation is about a character lacking essential facts. They believe what they believe only because they don’t know the information they’re missing. Once they find out this information, they can shift to wisdom and choose better suited actions.

But while all Revelation stories must advance to knowledge (or it’s not revelation) not all Revelation stories advance to wisdom. Oedipus learns the truth and rather than metabolizing it and acting with wisdom, he reverts to cognitive dissonance and gouges his eyes out. In Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character learns the truth about his family’s tragedy and that he has become delusional, but his mind cannot maintain it and slips back into Ignorance masked as Knowledge. In Arrival, however, we experience a glorious and meaningful shift to Wisdom.

Leslie: I identified the external genre as Action-Adventure, Labyrinth Plot. I look to the external life value shift (life/death) and what the character wants. Louise wants to save the people on the planet, among other things (her curiosity seems related to the Global-internal genre). In Action stories, the hero wants to defeat the villain and save the victim.

To determine the subgenre and plot of an action story, we look at the force of antagonism. The heptapods seem like they could be, but we soon learn that’s not their intent at all. The arrival of the heptapods creates a metaphoric labyrinth/maze-like edifice, though, and the actual shell a literal one, that the hero needs to learn to navigate to save the victims. Labyrinth is a great combination with Worldview Revelation. Die Hard is our Labyrinth Masterwork, so the alien situation and shell are the equivalent of Nakatomi Plaza. Who stands in for Hans Gruber? The villain is best embodied by the Chinese general, Sheng; Captain Marks and the security detail; and the nameless men in power that Colonel Weber must explain justify Louise’s actions.

Anne: I saw the language itself as a labyrinth. The protagonists are confronted with a circular, evanescent form of visual communication, with squiggles and curls and byways. It looks like a labyrinth, and it serves as one they must traverse to “get out”—that is, communicate with the Heptapods and save the world.

2. What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Worldview story?

Conventions – Kim

Protagonist is an expert in their field: Louise is an expert linguist / translator, she teaches at university, already has top secret clearance from a previous job she helped the military with, and is the go to person in her field. (In Sixth Sense, Malcolm Crowe is an honored child-psychologist, in Shutter Island Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is a Detective, in Oedipus he is the king, etc.) This is important to establish at the onset of the story to solidify the audience expectation that the protagonist knows what they’re doing, we have no reason to doubt them or their abilities.

A clear goal or want that they are actively pursuing that involves solving some kind of mystery: For Louise, it’s to communicate with the Heptapods and find out “Where they’re from, what they want, why they’re here.” (In Sixth Sense, Malcolm wants to help Cole, Oedipus wants to find the King’s murderer, Shutter Island is trying to solve a missing person case.)

Clues that tip them off that something is not quite right. (They experience cognitive dissonance and know they are missing a key piece of information. They believe it relates to their original goal and are ignorant to that it relates to themselves in a major way. The opposite of red herrings because these clues point to the truth but the protagonist dismisses them or just doesn’t fully pursue them because they don’t know what they mean): Louise starts having visions / memories of her daughter. Of course the wonderful part of this film is that we believe it’s the past and she is experiencing grief, not that it’s the future and a child she does not recognize.

A clear Point of No Return: the moment when the Protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be. This is the revelation moment (the Key event in a Revelation story, the moment when the protagonist realizes the Truth. It’s not just a twist, it’s a reversal of all the protagonist believed about themselves or their circumstances): This should probably be listed as an obligatory scene instead, but it ties directly to the next convention…

The Truth is directly revelation to the protagonist in major way: For Louise, this entire time she has been experiencing these visions but she didn’t know what they were or what they meant. When she learns that she can see the future, her own future, she realizes this child is her child. (In Sixth Sense it’s that Malcolm is a ghost, Oedipus murdered the king, in Shutter Island it’s the tragedy of his family made him delusional)

Strong Mentor figure – This convention is a standard for Worldview stories, but because the protagonist of a Revelation story is already pretty sophisticated it seems less necessary. The mentor may feel more like a sidekick. In Arrival, Abbott and Costello play mentors, and Ian Donnelly is a sidekick.

Big Social Problem as subtext (racism, misogyny, class conflict, etc.) – In Arrival, we have aliens landing with leads to global crisis between nations.  

Shapeshifters as hypocrites: secondary characters say one thing, do another – Not quite the same as we’re used to seeing in other Worldview stories, but we do have two characters who shapeshift — the US military captain who was part of the team but shifts to violence, and the Chinese General who starts out suspicious and aggressive and shifts to peace / altruism.

Win-but-lose, lose-but-win bittersweet ending – Louise saves the world, and finds love, but knows the way it all ends. Still she chooses it anyway.

Obligatory Scenes – Valerie

An Inciting Opportunity or Challenge – Colonel Webber arrives in Louise’s office and asks her to translate a recording of the aliens. (at approx 11 minute mark)

Protagonist denies responsibility to respond – The denial of responsibility comes in two steps. (1) In the same scene, Louise tells the Colonel that it’s impossible to translate from an audio file. That if he wants her to help, she must to interact with the aliens. While Louise is not denying responsibility to help with the broader alien issue, she’s denying that she has a responsibility to practice her craft in the way that the military dictates. (2) After Louise “lashes out” Webber gives her an ultimatum, “This is not a negotiation. If I leave here, your chance is gone.” Louise lets him leave, but gives him advice for evaluating the skill of the next linguist they approach. “Before you commit to him, ask him the sanskrit word for war and its meaning.”

Forced to respond, the Protagonist lashes out against the requirement to change their behavior – Still in the same scene: Colonel Webber calls Louise to task for saying she needs to interact with the aliens. She was able to translate another document from audio, so why not this one. Louise’s response is professional and succinct: in the previous case, she already knew the language. “I’m just telling you what it would take to do this job.” Note: “lashing out” is a relative term and has to be in keeping with the character and the setting. Louise’s version of lashing out is quite mild by some standards, but it’s perfect for her.

Protagonist learns what the Antagonist’s object of desire is – There are multiple forces of antagonism in this film, namely the US Government (represented primarily by Colonel Webber and Agent Halpern), the Chinese Government and even the language barrier itself. The various governments see the aliens as antagonists, but since that’s not Louise’s point of view, it’s not the audience’s point of view either – even when the symbol for “Use Weapon” is displayed. From Louise’s point of view, the antagonist is the US government – the system that demands she rush to conclusions in spite of her professional opinion that communication like this can not be rushed.

That said, Louise is first aware of the antagonist’s object of desire in the above scene (11 min into the film). Webber wants her to translate an audio. The antagonist (the government) wants quick answers. (Note: the antagonist’s and protagonist’s objects of desire are on theme. They want to move quickly, she wants to move slowly … it’s all about time, how long things take and how time is perceived.) Louise is reminded of this over and over again, for example, (1) in the helicopter on the way to Montana, Webber tells her that priority one is to find out what the aliens want, and where they’re from (but really, priority one is to be able to communicate on a basic level) (2) after first communication (the visual signs) Webber says Louise’s approach will take too long and she counters that it’s faster, and (3) when Webber questions Louise’s vocabulary list. The list of examples goes on and on.

Protagonist’s initial strategy to outwit the Antagonists fails – I’m going back to the scene in Louise’s office at approximately 11 minutes into the film. She’s being asked to translate a language she’s never heard, from an audio. It’s obvious that she’s curious about the aliens and how they communicate, not just what they communicate. She asks how many are speaking and how Webber knows they’re speaking (do they have mouths). Although she very likely does need to legitimately interact with them to communicate, it could also be seen as an attempt to outwit Webber. “Outwit” might seem like a strong word to use, especially since her point might be genuine, but Webber picks up on it immediately. “I know what you’re doing. I’m not taking you to Montana. It’s all I can do to keep it from turning into a tourist site for everybody who has a TS [top secret] clearance.”

During an All Is Lost moment, Protagonist realizes they must change their black/white view of the world to allow for life’s irony – Louise’s all is lost moment comes when the US military pulls up stakes and decides to leave camp. This comes after Louise has had her solo visit to the alien ship. She has explained to Webber that she understands what the weapon is (aliens’ language) and what it does (changes perception of time), but Webber won’t listen. Up to this point, Louise has more-or-less played by the rules (white lie re Kangaroo) and has believed that they were all working as a team. When Webber won’t listen to her, or take her discovery further up the chain, Louise changes tactics. She must go against her own government and commit an act of treason in order to restore peace. The irony is that it’s the person whom her government perceived as the threat, is actually the person who listened to her. Her own team, didn’t listen.

The action moment is when the Protagonist’s gifts are expressed as acceptance of an imperfect world  – Louise’s gift as a linguist is expressed at approximately 1hr 40 min, when she cracks the code of the alien language. She understands that the weapon is their language, and that when you understand it, you perceive time in a non-linear way. Her gift as a person (spiritual gift) is that even though she knows the future she embraces it – the pain of it, and the pleasure. “Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads, I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.”

The protagonist’s loss of innocence is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the universe – At approx 1 hr 43 min, there’s a voiceover that not only expresses Louise’s spiritual gift (outlined above), it demonstrates that her innocence is lost and rewarded. Prior to her encounter with the aliens, she perceived time in a linear way (as we all do). Now, however, she understands that time can be perceived differently, that there is no beginning or end – she even names her daughter Hannah (a palindrome). Her reward/gift is that she’s learned to embrace every moment life brings; the bad along with the good.

Additional Comment

Anne: The Berkeley linguist’s interpretations of the Sanskrit word for war is ”argument,” whereas Louise gives the word’s earlier and more concrete meaning, “need for more cattle.” This convinces the the Colonel that Louise thinks more deeply about language, and shows him (and us) that she will prefer a less violent, more thoughtful approach to communicating with the aliens.

3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Jarie

POV: The POV is 1st person and from the perspective of Louise. She is in every scene. You also get some 2nd person perspective during the flashback periods as Louise watches her own past/present unfold.

Narrative Device: First person from Louise’s perspective, flashback, and dreams. There is also some suspense and misdirection in that you don’t know what’s the past, present, or future until the big reveal at the end.

Additional Comments

Valerie: Brilliant use of suspense and dramatic irony to create narrative drive. With respect to the aliens, the audience never knows more than Louise. We are constantly asking questions and trying to solve the puzzle – which is so much fun! In terms of Louise’s personal story, the writers used dramatic irony; the audience knows that Louise has a child, but she doesn’t know that. Caveat here, I believe the story is told in flashback (given the opening voice over) which would mean that Louise does know she has a child in those opening scenes, but in the flashback she doesn’t. I hesitate to even use words like flashback when talking about this film. The whole point is that, according to the aliens, time is not linear – and Louise eventually understands this too once she fully comprehends their language. Given that, the whole notion of a flashback is irrelevant.

Kim: The narrative drive here is so fascinating, because we think we’re operating with the same amount of information as Louise, only to discover that she doesn’t recognize this child, it shifts to something else — narrative irony? The filmmaker uses our assumption of linear storytelling to set us up for this ultimate payoff moment. Magnific!

4. What are the Objects of Desire, AKA wants and needs? – Jarie

Wants:  Louise wants to figure out what the aliens want.

Needs:  Louise needs to accept the pain and sorrow of life in order to live with the joy.

Additional Comment

Kim: So the Want comes from the External Genre, which in this case it’s about finding out the alien’s purpose. The Need is related to the Internal Genre which in this case is the key piece of missing information — now that Louise has learned the Heptapod’s language, she experiences time like them and is having memories of her own future. This is the key to solving the external genre.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? – Jarie

The baseline controlling ideas are

Positive: Wisdom and meaning prevail when we learn to express our gifts in a world that we accept as imperfect.

Negative: Ignorance, naiveté or meaninglessness reign when we fail to mature past a black-and-white view of the world.

From Louise’s perspective, this ends in her obtaining wisdom about the world, which is positive since she expresses her gifts to save the world although she is clearly torn by knowing the future. This future includes her having a daughter, getting divorced, and having her daughter Hannah die.

Even when we know the future, our destiny is preordained. We have no free will to change it and that wisdom is a painful burden to bear. Life is about loss and we cannot avoid that even if we know the future.

Additional Comments

Jarie: The original story that this is based on, “Story of Your Life”, is a science fiction novella by American writer Ted Chiang, which was first published in 1998. It’s narrated by Louise just like Arrival. Some of the details are a bit different but the general story is the same and touches on the concept of Free Will or rather if you know the future, can you change it? That’s why it’s a perfect Worldview > Revelation internal genre plot since the wisdom of the future means nothing if you can’t change it. Life is about loss. You cannot avoid that and whether or not you have free will is irrelevant — you cannot get away from it.

Kim: To me the Controlling Idea is much more positive than that. It feels like Louise actively chooses her future rather than being powerless to change it. The Wisdom feels expressed in that even though it requires loss, there is far more to be gained. I think this is true for all of us whether we can see the future or not — life is painful and full of grief, but choosing to be vulnerable and creating connections with one another brings meaning in the midst of it. Something about this choosing to be vulnerable and creating connection with one another feels relevant to the Internal and External genres in this movie. Louise did this, the President of China did this, and then the world did this.

Valerie: I second Kim’s comments. I wanted to add too, that this story is about time – and that time is perceived/a perception. Once again, I point to Steven Pressfield’s excellent series about theme on his Writing Wednesday’s blog (series starts here) where he says that theme is expressed in every aspect of story; protagonist, antagonist, title, inciting incident, climax, supporting characters and so on. This film is an excellent case study in theme and how it permeates every aspect of story.

6. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? –  Anne

Beginning Hook – When alien spacecraft arrive all over the earth, linguistic scientist Louise Banks is recruited to find a way to communicate with them, but when confronted with actual aliens, she must conquer her terror and overcome the resistance of military minds to begin the long project of learning their language.

Value Shift and Polarity Shift of Beginning Hook – Internal: Ignorance to cognitive dissonance. Louise moves from an ordinary life to knowing that there are aliens. External: Louise refuses the call then accepts the call to help save the world.

  1. Inciting incident: Alien ships appear silently all around the globe.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Global crisis grows. Someone is being medically evacuated from the landing site, incapacitated by overwhelm at encountering the aliens. The ascent into the heptapod shell requires a leap of faith to a perpendicular plane of gravity.
  3. Crisis Question: Will Louise overcome her terror and approach the heptapods or or cave and fail the mission?
  4. Climax: She makes the leap and faces the aliens.
  5. Resolution: She returns to the base unscathed, but without any new theories or information.

Middle Build –  While a linguistic breakthrough triggers strange visions for Louise, she and Ian must work against the clock to understand the heptapods’ reasons for coming to earth in order to keep the world’s military forces from starting a war. But when rogue group of soldiers set off a bomb inside the alien ship, the heptapods prove their goodwill by saving Louise and Ian and not retaliating. Instead, they reveal their whole secret to Louise, and then leave earth.

Value Shift and Polarity Shift of Middle Build – Cognitive dissonance to Understanding. Negative to slightly positive.

  1. Inciting incident: When Louise tries a written communication with the heptapods, she gets a response which looks like some kind of writing.
  2. Progressive Complication: An image of the heptapods is leaked to the world. Captain Marks decides to plant a bomb in the alien craft, which kills one of the heptapods. Midpoint Shift: Louise and Ian agree that “everything that happens in there comes down to the two of us,” It’s Louise and Ian against the world.
  3. Turning Point: Ian and Louise have a major breakthrough on the language, and understand that the heptapods are offering a gift, not a threat.
  4. Crisis Question: Will the military shut down operations at the landing site and prepare for world war, or will Louise convey her message?
  5. Climax: Louise approaches the heptapods alone, stalling the withdrawal.
  6. Resolution: The heptapods deliver their message to Louise, that knowledge of their language imparts an ability to operate outside of linear time, and that Louise will be instrumental in helping save them 3000 years in the future.

Ending Payoff – When Louise understands that her visions are actually experiences from the future, she must risk her life and Ian’s to communicate a critical message to the Chinese general, or else bear responsibility for a global war. She must also decide whether to have a child with Ian that she knows will die of a rare disease. She contacts Sheng and averts war, and she agrees to have the child, with all the loss and sorrow she knows that will entail.

Value Shift and Polarity Shift of Ending Payoff – Understanding to Wisdom, positive to a bittersweet win-but-lose ending

  1. Inciting incident: The camp is being evacuated as Louise’s future visions reveal the details of her future mission.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Louise sees a future meeting with the Chinese general who tells her what she must do in the past.
  3. Crisis Question: Will Louise be able to contact the Chinese general in the present and deliver the message, or will the intelligence forces stop her?
  4. Climax: She steals a phone and with Ian’s help delivers the message.
  5. Resolution: Louise accepts her future role as the translator of the heptapod language for the world, and decides to have a child with Ian, but does not reveal everything she knows to him.

Additional Comment

Kim: I see it as BH goes from Ignorance masked as sophistication to ignorance, MB is Ignorance to Knowledge, EP is Knowledge to Wisdom (this is the same pattern as Sixth Sense and I think a common pattern for Revelation. The values are a gradual progression rather than jumping around. The important thing to remember is that the Revelation is specific –it’s not about how to communicate with the aliens, it’s about the key information that she is missing.  

7. Other Story-Related Observations

Valerie: Not a good example, but a fun fact. Captain Marks is played by Mark O’Brien; a fabulous (and hilarious) actor, writer, director and producer from my hometown. He’s worth keeping an eye on!

As mentioned above, brilliant use of suspense and dramatic irony to create narrative drive.

As mentioned above, Arrival is an excellent case study in theme.

This film illustrates the reason why writers need to understand story structure. First we need to master structure and then we innovate it. Without a thorough understanding of form, the filmmakers would never have been able to pull this off.

It’s crime next time as we sneak into the 2008 caper comedy Mad Money. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.