In my quest to become the greatest storyteller in the world (or at least in this basement), I've been spending a lot of time studying books, movies, and shows of all shapes and trying to learn me some lessons about what makes stories tick. Recently, I decided it might be of use (both to myself and to the three people reading this) to organize my thoughts and periodically write down the best chestnuts I've consciously picked up from my studies. Whether you're a storyteller yourself or someone who just loves experiencing good stories, I hope you'll take something of value away as you watch me lumber through this shaky-handed story dissection. Let's get to it.
This week, I'll be discussing the Netflix original movie, ARQ. Overall, I really enjoyed the movie. It kind of felt like Groundhog Day meets Equilibrium… only without the groundhog and the gun fu (and with time travel). We've got a great blend of suspenseful, home-invasion-variety action, those fun time travel shenanigans, and a sprinkling of desperate, on-the-rocks love, all set to an alluring backdrop of a gritty near-future Earth that's experienced some undisclosed manner of energy crisis and global meltdown. What's not to love?!
So without further ado, let's get to those storytelling lessons.
SPOILER ALERT: Seeing as we're going to be discussing aspects of how this story was told, there are going to be spoilers. Like lots of 'em. If you haven't seen the movie and would rather do that first, abandon ship! (And come back later if you so please.) Okay. Moving on.
1) Sometimes, less is much, much more
This isn't exactly a new one for me, but as a verbose, curious sort, I'm always impressed when storytellers manage to nail that “perfect” balance of telling the audience just enough to hook them without spoiling the intrigue. In my opinion, ARQ did a great job with this.
Right off the bat, we get the impression from the clothing, the holographic alarm clock, the invaders' air masks, and the general grungy appearance of everything that we're looking at a near-future, war-torn world (or at least one that's suffered some kind of large scale catastrophe that's seriously altered the status quo). From there, we progressively gather (largely from the background news broadcasts and the odd comment) that there is some war on between Torus and the Block (Bloc? I dunno…). Throughout the story, we learn extra tidbits here and there, but it all feels pretty organic.
At no point does someone sit down and go, “Well as you know, Ren, ever since Torus did XYZ, they've been at war with the Block, and here's what's at stake if they triumph.” Hell, we never even really find out what the “scripts” are that the Block gang broke into Ren's place to steal, and that's okay, because it doesn't really matter. We just kind of know that there is a Torus, and there is a Block, and they've got beef. For this story, that's enough (this also raises the point that if the story was supposed to be about the war between the two, it wouldn't be enough).
As a writer, I think it's pretty important to understand your world with a decent level of intricacy, but that doesn't mean you need to explain it all to the audience.
2) Nonsensical events can actually work (especially if they're actually not nonsensical)
Allow me to explain with two specific instances.
Instance one: when the Block members first drag Ren and Hannah into the basement and then are just like, “Hey, you know what? Maybe we'll just go eat some apples. You guys seem like you could use five minutes to try to escape or whatever.” This was a pretty big WTF moment for me. BUT, my irritation with that little detail just made it all the more rewarding when, in one of the later loops, Hannah goes, “Just give us five minutes,” to which Father replies something along the lines of, “Yeah, because that's not gonna look suspicious AF or anything.” That little tiny detail really amused me and raised the story a few pegs from people doing things because plot and stuff to people actually doing things for specific, believable reasons.
Instance two: When Ren mentions that the ARQ is a perpetual motion machine, I was pretty much like, “Hey, it's sci fi–that's completely fine.” But then they worked in Ren's discovery that his perpetual motion machine is not actually a perpetual motion machine and that it isn't creating or replenishing fuel at all but really just cyclically reverting back to a fully-fueled state and then acting like a normal generator. I loved it. Admittedly, that still leaves the whole time-loop thing with no explanation whatsoever, but that doesn't really bother me. For things that we actually can't explain with our current understanding of the universe (like backward time travel), I don't think the, “This works, but we don't actually understand why,” device is a storytelling crime.
3) You don't have to try to explain every nuance of why the world or the plot works
This definitely falls under the umbrella of the idea in point #1 above, but I wanted to delve a bit more into a specific instance of over-explaining (or, more accurately, providing a poor explanation where no explanation was really required).
When asked how the ARQ works, Ren basically says that we have fuel cells spinning a turbine and that somehow that turbine is replenishing the fuel cells (while apparently producing extra energy on top of that? this kind of irked me at first, as it seems like a violation of energy conservation, but as discussed above, this actually ends up being explained in a pretty cool way). Okay, so perpetual motion… whatever, we know it works in this world, and we know that they don't really understand why (yet). That's enough. It works.
But then when they realize Hannah and the other Block members have also begun remembering previous iterations of their time-traveling journey, Ren has to throw out his little, “Oh yeah, the ARQ produces electromagnetic fields that could, like, affect the human brain and junk.”
Ren could have just as easily been like, “Wow, that's weird… I have no idea why that's happening or how it works!” and I would have been completely fine with it. By trying to explain that specific mechanic of the plot, they temporarily pulled me out of the story with an unsatisfactory answer to a question I didn't really care that much about.
BONUS: If you want a truly horrendous culprit of this kind of thing, watch the CW show, The Flash. Holy god.
“We have to destabilize his cellular matrix and junk, at the cellular level, for science, and reasons… FREQUENCIES!”
Admittedly, I still enjoy watching the show anyway, but a little part of me dies inside every time they launch into these explanations.
4) Writer, trust thy reader (or watcher)
This is kind of a common theme to the rest of the points I'm… pointing out, but this is one that I think is pretty challenging for a lot of writers. It can be really tempting to try to spell out every little detail and explain the world and the characters' motivations, actions, and reactions until there can be no doubt that everyone in the audience has to get it because it's been forcefully spoon-fed to them.
The upside? If you actually explain the crap out of everything (and do it well), the audience will probably “get” your story.
The downside? Most audiences are going to enjoy a story more if they get to participate in some way. We're proud little things. We like to feel like we solved the puzzle, like we earned the cookie. I mean, look at me, valuing my own little insights (which are clearly super special) so much that I'm sitting here writing them down for you.
Point is, most of us like to feel clever, which in turn means that we tend to be drawn to stories that give us the chance to do so.
My favorite example of this from ARQ was the appearance of the crack in the translucent whiteboard (so… not a whiteboard at all) when Hannah cocks off and throws something in a fit of rage. They briefly draw attention to it (I think Ren makes one comment about the board being cracked in the mysterious video recording they see, and then Hannah points out that the crack is different). Later, though, when the board ends up taking another bullet, neither one of them goes, “Oh baloney, it's just like the crack we saw in the video now… THE VIDEO WAS FROM THE FUTURE-PAST-CONFUSING-SPACE-TIME-THING!!” They just share a tense look and then go back to their business.
If the audience is engaged as I was, they'll make the connection. If they're not engaged enough to do that, chances are spelling it out isn't going to have them suddenly falling in love with the brilliance of the story.
This can be a tough line to walk for writers. After all, if they've left crucial pieces of information off of the table completely, their audience will likely feel cheated when it comes to a great, game-changing plot twist. But once all the pieces to the puzzle have been sufficiently laid out, the audience is probably going to appreciate the chance to put that bad boy together themselves. Trust thy reader, and let ‘ em.
This leads me to my fifth and final point.
5) You can plant the seeds, or you can whack ‘ em in the face with a big stick (or other things that may or may not rhyme with ‘stick')
I came away from ARQ thinking a lot of the way most of live our lives, repeating nearly the same sequence of events day in and day out. I thought about the resistance we can face when we try to break away from our own little cycles and go after the things we want, even if they're beyond our reach for now. I thought about how, even if those things turn out to be truly beyond our reach, we rarely if ever truly lose the ability to make the choice to keep reaching anyway. I thought about the stubbornness of mankind to cling on and keep on keepin' even when all seems lost.
I thought about a lot of stuff and things, and the point is that I didn't feel at any point in the movie like I was being told to think them. We've all probably seen plenty of movies and read plenty of books that become thinly (or not-so-thinly) veiled soap boxes for storytellers to deliver their opinions and worldviews. I'm not going to say that this is intrinsically a “bad” thing, but I will say this: if you want someone to really appreciate an idea and think it through to its conclusions, you're probably best off getting them to arrive to the thought themselves. In other words, as the old chestnut goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't get a reader (or viewer) to appreciate your sweet opinions if you wave them through the air like wobbly bits and repeatedly smack him/her in the face with them. Turns out people get defensive when that happens.
So if you have something important to say, you might be better off saying it without actually saying it at all (says the guy who's totally saying it).
The wrap up
While there's plenty more I could have discussed about this movie, those were the five points that most strongly stood out to me (or maybe just the five I actually remembered) as I reflected on ARQ. Thank you all (all three of you) for coming along on my little analysis!
Now I want to know: what did you guys think about the movie? What stood out to you that I might have glossed over? Let me know in the Facebook discussion!
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But I'll let you be the judge of that last part…