Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Story Analysis 101 Pt. 1 - Getting Started

[This is an expansion of some lecture notes from a class on science fiction that I recently taught. I decided to introduce my students to some basic story analysis using the episode "Gnothi Seauton" from the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I chose this because the show has plenty of action and drama for the new viewer but the writing is very intelligent and contains plenty of nice, chewy content and subtext. The discussion begins immediately after my students have seen the episode.]

(If you don't watch the series, you can get a very entertaining recap of the previous episode, the series pilot, here. Long story short: Two years after the events of the second Terminator movie, John (Thomas Dekker) and Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) are once again on the run, chased by the terminator Cromartie (Owain Yeoman). Along the way they meet Cameron (Summer Glau), a young woman who turns out to be another terminator sent to protect John. Ultimately the three travel forward in time from 1999 to 2007 in order to escape to safety.

One of the first rules for story analysis is -- don't just re-tell the story. This is not your grade school book report. You need to identify the key elements of the story; plot, themes, archetypes, characters, viewpoints, conflict and references to other works, for example. It's all part of the storytelling toolkit that we humans have used for...well, ever since we started telling each other stories. These elements provide a context for us to gain a deeper understanding of the story and the authorial intent.
You can begin with any part of the story you want. A good start is to figure out the themes because they will help you put the other elements in context. Since this show is based on a series of films, I think we can safely assume that it carries on the same themes.
  • Destiny vs. Fate - Kind of like Climate vs. Weather, Destiny is what you expect, Fate is what you get. John Connor is destined to lead humanity in the fight against the machines. SkyNet is trying to keep him from getting there, to change his fate. In the first movie, Kyle Reese (the soldier sent to protect Sarah Connor who incidentally becomes John's father) tells her "The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves."
  • Decisions Have Consequences - SkyNet, the rogue AI that nukes mankind, began as a computer program to automate the national defense grid and eliminate human error. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. In a larger context, each side in this war is attempting to change the future time line to their advantage and each action they take in our present is a pebble tossed into a quiet pond, rippling outward and affecting everything else.
  • Fighting the Future - Time travel is used by both sides in this series as a tool to change history. SkyNet is trying to prevent the successful rise of the human resistance and the human resistance (along with the Connors) are trying to prevent the rise of SkyNet.
  • How do you defeat an idea? - This is related to the previous theme. In the first movie, SkyNet tries to kill John Connor, who inspires and leads the successful human resistance. In the second, Sarah tries to kill Miles Dyson, who is credited as the creator of the technology that leads to the creation of SkyNet. However, both of these efforts are doomed to failure. SkyNet arises from the effort of many individuals and conversely any resistance movement springs from multiple sources. To quote Alfred Whitney Griswold: "Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas."
  • What does it mean to be human? - In other words, if terminators kill and destroy to achieve their goals and the humans do the same, how exactly is one side more worth preserving than the other? Can the Connors defeat their enemies without becoming them? Conversely, terminators are infiltration units whose effectiveness increases the more closely they can emulate a human, both in appearance and behavior. Each side, in their repeated attempts to defeat the Other, becomes the Other.
These are the major themes, as I see them. Individual episodes in this series have additional, smaller themes that are also important and I'll point them out as we go. Now that we have a context within which to analyze the story, I can begin dissecting the specific story elements in part 2 of this essay.

No comments: