3 Lessons Learned from Reading ARRIVAL

Arrival is a 2016 science-fiction film nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Eric Heisserer developed the screenplay based on a short story written by Ted Chiang.

The premise of Arrival is: “A linguist works with the military to communicate with alien lifeforms after twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world” (IMDB).

3 lessons learned from reading Arrival are:

  1. Our writing shows what we think about people.
  2. It is important to stick to your guns and know when to adapt.
  3. The words we use are important — why I, as a reader, felt slighted.

From the way the characters are written, it is clear that Heisserer views most people as inherently smart. This is essential to the success of the screenplay and brought up a point I have heard other writers discuss: Our point of view naturally bleeds into our work. From reading a book or screenplay, it’s pretty easy to tell which writers like people and which don’t. We see how they view the world around them.

In this part of the screenplay, Louise has just been in close quarters with the aliens and sees a mosaic of circular symbols they left behind as a “gift.”

Louise’s eyes snap open, and she takes in the sight of all the alien symbols once more.

She lets out a ragged breath, in awe of it.

I can read it…
Ian, I know what it is.

A new SIREN now begins to wail around the campsite. Louise and Ian look up, unsure what to do.

Colonel Weber enters and marches for them with Captain Marks behind him–

You two! We’re evacuating you right now. Come on.

What’s happening?

War, that’s what.

Weber grabs onto them both and wills them into motion.

Wait– I figured out the gift!

Does the writer view the world as a puzzle to be solved?
Does the writer view the world as an insurmountable problem?
Does the writer view the world as a beautiful place with limitless opportunities?
How do you see things? It will be apparent in your work.

Something else I noticed in the Arrival screenplay were the many omissions. “OMITTED” is written dozens of times in the script, likely as production ensued, notes were given, and collaboration changed the script. This is how the medium works and I have heard many writers and producers tell me not to get married to my material. To allow it to change and grow and adapt. Good advice, but I also believe it is important to know when to stick to your guns.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer revealed in an interview that he tried for years to get the film made. Studios were interested, but he kept receiving the same note: “Add more action.” The studios wanted explosions. Gun fights. Blockbuster fare for an alien film with a modest to large budget. I am curious what the omissions from the screenplay were, but if he stuck to his guns on the larger aspects of the film, then I trust Heisserer. He did a fantastic job focusing on the intelligence of the characters. On solutions.

For example, it was a brilliant decision to place memories of Louise’s daughter at the beginning of the film, then have them grow and expand as Louise meets Ian, the scientist, and spends more time with the aliens. It surprised me and worked so well because it wasn’t just a trick. The nonlinear structure fits the film like a glove.

There are many great things to say about the Arrival screenplay. It’s a seminal piece of work. However, I did have one gripe with the screenplay. *SPOILERS AHEAD* If you’ve seen the film, you understand that certain sequences are shown at the beginning and the audience assumes this was Louise’s past…but the sequences are flash forwards. Premonitions that become stronger as she spends more time studying the aliens’ nonlinear language. Each of these vignettes in the screenplay is labeled “FLASHBACK,” which is misleading. Untrue. “FLASH FORWARD” would be the correct term, but that would reveal the twist to the reader. In my opinion, the word “MEMORY” could have been used.

All in all, Arrival realistically portrays how people would react in a scenario where aliens come to Earth and communicate via strange ships all over the world. The government’s reaction and how fast they militarized. The military and their focus on defense and strategy. The news and their treatment of the situation. And at the center of all this swirling chaos, a few intelligent people doing what they can to solve the problem. To understand.

Thank you for reading!