I’ve spent a good chunk of the last couple of weeks dissecting the plot of the movie Aliens by seeing whether the three-character, three-act Hollywood Formula holds true within it. We’ve seen an Opening Act that introduces our Protagonist but also a character who could be either her Antagonist or her Relationship Character, then has her make her Fateful Decision some ten minutes early. Next was a pre-Mid-Point-Twist Second Act that gave us an extra candidate for each of the other two core characters, then made us doubt one of them whilst making us think better of the original.
After the Twist, we finally figure out who the Antagonist is, only to see the villain kill him before the Protagonist can have her final confrontation with him. While the Second Act seems to end on a Low Point right on time, we get treated to what looks like two more Low Points in the Third Act before the Protagonist finally resolves her issue with the Relationship Character and confronts an Antagonist we’ve only just met – but who’s been there all along.
Aside from curiosity, there’s a reason behind this endeavour that relates back to writing. In the recent past I’ve been trying a couple of different ways to create an outline before I get stuck into creating a draft. My last two attempts at creating a draft of Slamdance have petered out when I got to a point where I wasn’t sure what should happen next.
Now, I’m sure the writers among you may well say, “Who cares? Just write something! Pull a Chandler! Send a man with a gun in! You can make it make sense when you start revising!” I get that way too; after all, I was able to crank out The Second War of the Worlds for last year’s NaNo with only a week’s worth of notes. Yet my gut keeps telling me that I need a little more backbone for Slamdance; 2WotW had a clear concept and some pretty hefty themes behind it that I think I’d internalised so well that it pretty much wrote itself, while SD is more of a straight-up action adventure novel with stuff going on that I haven’t really got as good a grip on yet (yes, even after ten years). You’d think that ought to make it easier to write, but instead I’m finding it to be the opposite.
That’s why I’m going back to one of my inspirations, possibly the best SF action adventure film ever, and trying to figure out how it did what it did so that I can come up with a solid structure for Slamdance and… the other side-project I’m working on right now.
In that vein, I want to start this analysis by going over what we identified of the Hollywood Formula in the last five posts with en eye toward identifying who does what when.
Protagonist: Ripley. Her want is to conquer her fear of the aliens by going back to LV426 and making sure they can’t threaten the human race any more. Not to study, not to bring back, but to wipe them out.
Antagonist: In this movie, there are two. Both of them have the same specific aim – make more aliens – but for different reasons.
- Carter Burke is the antagonist we become most directly familiar with. He wants to come out of this a hero and be set up for life by selling the aliens to the Company’s bioweapons division.
- The Queen is the antagonist who’s there all along, though we never see her before the final act. She wants… well, she’s an alien, so she’s not going to out-and-out tell us, but it’s safe to say she wants to spread her progeny as far as she can.
Relationship Character: Bishop. He’s a barometer for Ripley’s emotional state; she’s almost as afraid of him as she is the aliens thanks to Ash trying to choke her with a rolled up magazine fifty-seven years ago. He doesn’t have a goal so much as an honest desire to serve, and it’s Ripley’s recognition of that that signals that she’s ready for the final act confrontation with the Antagonist.
Now that we know who’s who, I reckon it’ll be helpful to try and identify just who does what when.
This act appears to belong to Ripley as she attempts to warn humanity of the threat of the alien. When you think about it our antagonists are both fairly busy from the hearing on, if not before. Burke is probably the busiest, sending the order out to the colony on LV426 telling them to check the coordinates of the derelict alien vessel out. After that – well, let’s assume that he did have a hand in getting the in-theory pliable Lt. Gorman assigned to the Marine team aboard the Sulaco and that he was keen on getting Ripley on the team so that he could dispose of the one person who’d likely stand in between him and his big fat bonus.
It’s Burke’s actions that enable the Queen (assuming she was born in the colony) to do what she does; set up a hive and birth more children, then send them out to procure more hosts. That leads to the loss of contact with the colony, which leads back to Burke, who offers Ripley the advisory spot on the Sulaco, and Ripley’s Fateful Decision.
Act 2, Pre-Mid-Point
Of our key characters, this act belongs to Ripley and the Queen. While Bishop and Ripley’s emotional connection to him are introduced, he’s largely absent, and Burke, having done his lot of dirty work off-screen during Act 1, gets a couple of instances of misdirection – possibly born out of a dawning respect for Ripley, whom he realises has not only been right all along but can also read a tactical situation better than Gorman. Ripley also winds up being the only person to do anything truly effective before the big fight scene; she brings Newt out of her catatonia and identifies a threat to the whole expedition’s lives that its technical leader didn’t spot.
If you look at this movie as Ripley Vs. Queen, then you could consider the pre-mid-point of Act 2 as Ripley’s agents (inasmuch as the Marines, while not under her control, are still aligned with her goal to wipe the aliens out) pitted against the Queen’s. Of course, it’s the Queen who comes out on top this time, although she does draw Ripley into risking her safety by rescuing the Marines, and it’s the Queen who brings on the Mid-Point Twist.
Act 2, Mid-Point to Low Point
Everyone gets in on the act, if you’ll pardon the pun. Ripley fills the Marines’ vacant leadership role and directs the survivors’ defence; Bishop puts himself in harm’s way to give everyone an avenue of escape; Burke tries to secure his path to riches by asking Bishop to bring the facehuggers back with them then, after Ripley surprises him by promising to hold him accountable for the aliens killing the colonists, endeavouring to get Ripley and Newt impregnated; the Queen brings on the Low Point by launching an attack on the survivors and abducting Newt.
With the atmosphere processor overloading, Ripley doesn’t have to anything more in order to ensure her goal of wiping the aliens out is met; she does, hovever, need to march straight back into hell in order to rescue Newt. She meets the Queen, who decides that Ripley is a personal threat who needs to be eliminated, even if Ripley’s running away. Bishop’s own bit of misdirection is just his way of ensuring he can pick Ripley and Newt up, and then he and Ripley get to resolve their issue – just as the Queen turns up as if to say, “You’re over your fear? Prove it.” And Ripley does by going woman-on-woman with the Queen and dumping her nemesis into an airlock.
If you’re introducing your Protagonist, Antagonist and Relationship Character in Act 1 and making it clear which is whom, you’ve probably got the kind of plot that wears its heart on its sleeve, a plot where the audience knows who to trust. One thing’s for certain: Aliens isn’t one of those films. If David Giler, Walter Hill, James Cameron and anyone else who worked on the various iterations of the script of Aliens were aware of the Hollywood Formula, they certainly trusted that their skills at storycraft would enable them to make an entertaining movie whilst stepping beyond its bounds. I know they succeeded, and I think a sizeable chunk of moviegoers would agree with me. But just how did they do that voodoo that they do- er, did so well, and how can we apply it?
Maintain a tone of distrust
Right from the start of the movie, we’re shown that its future isn’t kind. Everyone Ripley meets is out for themselves in one way or another, and even the exceptions – the Marines – are crude, superior and insular. Establishing two characters beyond the antagonist who are trustworthy (even an antagonist is trustworthy – you know that no matter what, that character is going to spend the movie getting in the protagonist’s business) undermines that sense of isolation that the movie develops about Ripley.
So how do you make sure you don’t know who to trust?
Create strong, rounded characters
I think I’ve mentioned before that James Cameron is good at creating action movies with characters who, though maybe not complex, are strong and believable. Admittedly, he had a great start in the Ripley that Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver and the writers of Alien created between them, but Cameron manages to make her just as rich in her film by demonstrating both the sharpness of her mind and the disadvantage it puts her at among those who aren’t as quick as well as the righteousness of her impatient anger and the terror behind it.
Then there’s Burke, who is the personification of all that’s bad about the future, mostly because it’s so hard to nail his motivations down until the end. The main reason he’s a candidate for Relationship Character at the beginning of the film is because he seems so keen to get Ripley “back on the horse.” His dawning respect for, and aiding of, Ripley in the second act’s first half make his candidacy even stronger. Of course, by the mid-point of the film we’ve discovered that not only does he not want to be carrying the can for the destruction of the colony, but his interest in the alien isn’t conservative, it’s purely in what he can earn from it. It’s easy to say he wanted to set her up for a fall at the beginning, but really it’s hard to tell – was his disappointment when Ripley promised to hold him to account for the colony just a mask, or did he really see her intelligence as the sign of a potential ally?
Keep to your time limits
When building your rounded characters, you have to remember that you need the time to show the audience that they’re rounded. While the writers have Ripley make her Fateful Decision ten minutes early, they still make sure that they bring her Antagonist and Relationship Character on prior to the half-hour mark. This is because we as an audience need the time to get to know them as characters, so that when they act according to their role in the plot those acts seems to arise organically from their natures instead of from the requirements of the story.Burke’s double betrayal won’t have any sting if he hadn’t shown signs of concern for Ripley’s well being when he offered her the advisor spot with the Marines and then helped her with Gorman, neither of which would have quite worked if we hadn’t got to know him in the meantime.
Build then subvert expectations
It’s tempting to look at the Marines as one big group character. We’re introduced to them as a group and given an impression by their cocksure demeanour and sleek equipment that the aliens have no idea what’s about to descend upon them from the skies. But then the plot drives a wedge into the team by revealing Gorman’s inexperience, and later his nerves. The Marines spend about fifteen minutes prowling around achieving nothing while Ripley makes the only real progress, with Newt. That prowling around also subverts our expectations that there’s going to be some action as soon as the Marines hit dirt.
Two sides of the same coin
When describing the Antagonist’s place in the Hollywood Formula, Lou Anders says that the Antagonist cannot be an inhuman threat, like a storm or a meteor. It must be a person, someone who actually wants something that’s diametrically opposed to what the protagonist wants and will act according to that want. He also says that person is not necessarily the story’s villain; he cites the example of Casablanca, where the person who stands in the way of Rick (Humphrey Bogart)’s getting Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) back is not the Nazi major, but the other contender for Ilsa’s heart, Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid).
In the second act, after some back and forth, we discover that Burke is Ripley’s Antagonist; she wants the aliens exterminated in order to keep humanity safe, he wants to keep them alive so that he can get rich from exploiting them. Problem is, Burke is… well, he’s not a wuss; a wuss wouldn’t sic a pair of facehuggers on someone, then call that person paranoid and pathetic. But this is an action movie, and it’s hard to imagine any kind of fight between Ripley and Burke that wouldn’t undermine the very credibility of character that the movie has built thus far – having Burke pull a piece of supertech out of somewhere that turns him into some kind of ninja would just turn the movie into a farce.
So in the end, it’s Burke’s own arrogance that brings him undone; he wrecks his relationship with the Marines who might’ve otherwise protected him, then flees from them, delivering himself straight to the aliens. Problem: No Antagonist, no final act conflict. How the hell do you introduce another one with only a third to a quarter of the movie to go?
As it turns out, the answer is simple: You take the villain you already have – the aliens – and you add a little depth to them. Even better, you do it with one quick conversational scene that contains two key sentences of foreshadowing:
“So who’s laying those eggs?”
“I don’t know. It must be something we haven’t seen yet.”
Then when Ripley meets the Queen, the audience says, “oh… right” even without the bit where Hudson talks about big, bad ass momma ants. Not only that, she ties very neatly into the subplot you’ve been building about saving the most vulnerable among us (Ripley has Newt, the Queen has her eggs) and drives the second act to its Mid-Point Twist and its Low Point. And though you’re risking taking some of the mystery out of the aliens by giving the Queen emotional reactions, it works when Ripley meets rage for rage in the Sualco’s hangar bay, letting you wrap the movie in a final confrontation that is, if you’ll forgive the pun, truly bitchin’.
So, if you’re going to introduce more than one character who is acting against the Protagonist’s goal, make sure they both have their own reasons (and methods) for doing so – and then decide which one of them is the one who’ll test the Protagonist’s newfound mettle in the end. Could both? Maybe, but their differing reasons are more likely a reason for one to turn on the other, as (sort of) happens in Aliens.
Keep the focus on the protagonist
One thing worth pointing out is that most of the activity by the Antagonists that sets Ripley’s journey up happens during the first act, but off screen. We don’t see Burke issue the order to the colony to check out the derelict’s coordinates, nor (unless you’re watching the Special Edition) what happens as a result. We don’t see the shenanigans (if any) Burke pulls with the US military to get Gorman assigned to the Sulaco. We don’t see the birth (or arrival, if she was aboard the derelict all along) of the Queen in the colony; the only time she makes her presence known before Act 3 is her scream deep within the hive when the Marines fry the newborn alien. Scenes that don’t involve Ripley somehow are very few and far between, mostly Bishop on his quest to bring Dropship 02 down.
Is What The Hollywood Formula Does Well What You Want To Do?
In the end, the Hollywood Formula is a set of rules like any other. It’s a great tool when you’re unsure of your writing chops – like me – but it can become restrictive once you want to try something more than a straight up, clearly-defined, heart-on-its-sleeve plot. Still, knowing how it works makes for a great way to determine just how you’re going to mess with your audience’s expectations – and how you’re going to ensure that your plot is still a satisfying one that brings everything together in the end.