Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Rip-Snorting Return of the Narrative Breakdown Podcast!

Hey guys, the Narrative Breakdown podcast is back with a run of new episodes, and they were nice enough to ask me to drop by again.

Today, James Monahan and I discuss irony and our conversation pushes my thoughts on the subject into areas that I’ve never covered here on the blog, so you might want to give it a listen!

Check it out on the web here or subscribe on iTunes here!

And here are some of my previous posts on the topic:
Seven Types of Storytelling Irony.
All Good Stories Are Ironic.
Successes and Failures Should Be Ironic.
Misunderstandings Must Be Ironic (featuring The Apartment)
Lincoln vs. Amistad.
And my write-up of Margin Call.

Point of interest: Here on the blog, we were discussing motivation earlier this week and whether or not TV characters can have more complex motivations than movie characters.  I mentioned that I hated movies where detectives are supposedly motivated by the fact that the victim reminds them of someone they failed to save long ago...
...but in the podcast, I praise the long-running storyline on “Homicide” where precisely that dynamic comes to fuel the character of Det. Bayliss.  Again, the difference is time.  On the show, we see the orignal case fall apart, we recognize the picture of the girl in Baliss’s cubicle year after year, we share his frustration, we feel the resonance when he gets similar cases, years later.

When movies attempt this sort of long-distance motivation, it feels cheap and unearned, because they’re referring to an event that means nothing to us.  On TV, if they’re committed to the long haul, they can pull it off beautifully.

(Also, it’s worth noting that whenever a case reminded Bayliss of the unsolved Adena Watson case, that usually meant he was about to screw up. Complex motivations are more likely to lead to failure  than success!)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Storyteller’s Rulebook #185: Heroes Should Ascend, Not Descend

Yesterday, I implored you to simplify motivation rather than multiply it, but then I found myself advising you to make the kind of movies I hate.  Yes, your job will be the easiest if your the heroes are always motivated by personal pain and gut instinct, but that’s precisely the reason that I so many modern American movies are so bad.

The original heroes of “Star Trek” were motivated by ideas and ideals.  In the J. J. Abrams remake, it was just, “He killed my dad!”  “He killed my mom!”  “Let's team up and kill him!”  I was bitterly disappointed.

Or compare Argo to Zero Dark Thirty.  According to yesterday’s advice, Argo would be bad (he was just doing his job, didn’t have strong feeling about his Iranian opponents, and had some vague sense that helping the hostages would allow him to re-approach his wife) while ZDT would be great.  But for me, the opposite was true: Argo seemed thoughtful and complex, whereas ZDT, even if I’d been willing to ignore its politically-motivated factual inaccuracies, would still just be a brain-dead macho revenge flick.

And there have always been too many movies (For Your Eyes Only, Batman Returns) in which hero condemns another character for seeking revenge, only to then take violent revenge against his own enemies, because that's the only type of movie that Hollywood knows how to make.

This brings us right back to The Great Hypocrisy.  How can the hero defeat the villain without sinking to his level?  How does a movie stay true to its ideals and yet still deliver a viscerally satisfying climax?  Most importantly, how do you escalate your hero’s motivation without debasing it?

Let’s go back to one of our backdoor storytelling gurus, Abraham Maslow.  I think that one reason I find all of these revenge movies so deflating is that they turn Maslow’s pyramid on its head.  In retrospect, I see that it can work to add additional motivation as the story progresses, but only if you’re climbing up Maslow’s pyramid, not descending downward.

It’s far more powerful if your hero starts out seeking revenge for himself, then realizes that no, it’s better to get justice for others.  If the hero goes the other way, it feels like a moral defeat, even if it ends in personal victory. 

The heroes of the Lethal Weapon movies start out seeking justice and end up seeking revenge.  The result is a temporary visceral thrill that leaves us ashamed of ourselves an hour after we’ve left the theater.  The heroes of Star Wars and How to Train Your Dragon begin by seeking revenge and end up seeking justice, which leaves the audience feeling ennobled and deeply satisfied.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

How to Re-Write, Addendum: Motivation Too Weak? Don’t Multiply It—Simplify It!

Two of my very first Rulebook posts were on the topic of over-motivation (1,2), which has always been a big pet peeve for me.  Unfortunately, as a result, I’ve always been afraid to maximize the motivation for my heroes and they often wind up under-motivated, which is far worse.  In fact, in a later post, I talked about the need to have a huge motivation, and I never really resolved the contradiction.

So how on earth do you provide a huge motivation without over-motivating?  The answer lies in a comment on one of those original posts: “Infallible rule: Whenever someone gives you a lot of reasons, none of them is the real reason.”

In retrospect, in all of those over-motivated movies (Batman, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, Training Day, etc), the problem isn’t the quality of motivation, it’s the quantity. In each movie, the original motivation fell short halfway through, so the second half piled on a new motivation to see the hero through.

I now realize that I shouldn’t be afraid to strengthen my motivation all the way to the stratosphere.  If my hero gets to page 70 and says “Ugh, I’m done, this problem isn’t worth dealing with anymore”, I should definitely listen to that…but I shouldn’t have a new motivation walk in the door at that late date, as all of the above movies do…I should go back and strengthen the original motivation. 

Those movies did it exactly wrong: they multiplied the motivation when they should have simplified it.  As that commenter pointed out, giving too many reasons invalidates them all.  It feels desperate and unfocussed, and it makes the hero seem weak and vacillating, jerked this way and that by outside events.

Give your hero a strong simple reason that he or she has to solve the problem right now.

There’s nothing I hate more than those movies where a cop takes a special interest in a disappearance case because the victim reminds him of another kid he failed to save years ago.  Ugh.  No.  Don’t do that. That’s not how the human mind works. 

And whatever you do, don’t say, “You see, John Carter’s fighting to protect the princess of Mars because he wants redemption for failing to protect his own family on Earth ten years ago!”  We will punch you in the face if you tell us that.

But it’s tricky.  It’s tempting to simply advise: “We’re animals.  We only want what we want.  We act out of self-interest.  Start with a simple, profound motivation: self-preservation, love, sex, family, revenge, etc... or if it’s merely justice, make it a quest to make right a specific injustice of which the hero (and the audience) has felt the pain, either through personal experience or through intense empathy.”  And that’s certainly the simplest safest recommendation for selling a screenplay to Hollywood... but as a viewer I get really sick of the results: these days, every movie is a revenge movie.

So it looks like I’ve backed myself into another corner: how do you simplify the motivation without lowering everything to the level of revenge?  Looks like this is going to spill over to tomorrow...

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Storyteller’s Rulebook #184: Pair Your Flaws With Strengths

Here’s another rule that I’ve circled around but never given its own piece, but I’ve become increasingly aware of how important it is: The hero’s greatest flaw should be the flipside of his or her greatest strength.  Why should flaws be the flip side of strengths?  Here are five big reasons:
  • Because that’s how life is.
  • Because it’s naturally ironic.
  • Because it will make overcoming those flaws something that’s not just hard to do, but hard to want to do.
  • We’ll be less likely to get exasperated by the flaw, because we see the good side…
  • …And it will makes us worry more about the hero, because we see that even his or her strength is a potential problem.
This is what’s wrong with alcoholism as a flaw: There’s no upside.  The same is true for vanity, racism, and ignorance.  This is also why mental illness doesn’t actually work very well, (unless seeing the world in a different way is their strength, as with Carrie on “Homeland”).  The story is only going to have dramatic tension if the hero is reluctant to overcome the flaw, and the audience must empathize with that reluctance.  We have to see the potential downside of abandoning that flaw.

Let’s start with this excellent list of eleven great flaws (and accompanying examples) that was created by Carson Reeves a few months ago, and look at potential flip-side strengths of those flaws.  Note that two characters with the same basic flaw can have very different flip-side strengths.  A refusal to grow up, for instance, can be either paired with being fun-loving (Knocked Up), or with being sweetly innocent (The 40 Year Old Virgin), but not both.

Flaw: Puts work in front of family and friends  (Zero Dark Thirty, Moneyball).
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Hyper-competent, Indefatigable, Loyal to clients, patients, bosses, partners, etc.

Flaw: Won’t let others in (Good Will Hunting, Drive, Up In The Air.)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Tough, Honest, Self-deprecating

Flaw: Doesn’t believe in one’s self (Rocky, Luke in Star Wars, Neo in The Matrix, King George VI in The King’s Speech).
Possible Flip Side Strengths:  Humble, Open-hearted, Careful

Flaw: Doesn’t stand up for one’s self – (Ed Helms’ in The Hangover. Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Marty’s dad in Back To The Future.)
Possible Flip Side Strengths:  Nice, Sweet, Giving, Loyal

Flaw: Too selfish (Liar Liar Han in Star Wars, Murray in Groundhog Day, Zuckerberg in The Social Network)
Possible Flip Side Strengths:  Zealous, Hyper-competent, Sarcastic, Funny

Flaw: Won’t grow up (Knocked Up. The 40 Year Old Virgin, Jason Bateman in Juno, the girls of Girls)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Fun-loving. Innocent

Flaw: Too uptight, too careful, too anal (Carrey in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Garner in Juno).
Possible Flip Side Strengths:  Careful, Hyper-competent

Flaw: Too Reckless  (Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, or Kirk on Star Trek.)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Brilliant, Independent thinker, Aggressive, Effective risk-taker

Flaw: Lost faith (Father Karras in The Exorcist Mel Gibson in Signs)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Self-aware, Rational)

Flaw: Pessimism/cynicism (Giammati in Sideways, James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, Edward Norton in Fight Club)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Funny, Bitingly honest

Flaw: Can’t move on (Carl in Up, Jon Favreau in Swingers.)
Possible Flip Side Strengths: Loyal, Sentimental

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Straying From the Party Line # 4: Alien

This movie somehow manages to be both an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter and a quiet, almost meditative tone-poem.  How does it pull that off?
Deviations: Our heroine is not volatile, not physically active, not misunderstood, and her dialogue isn’t bouncy.

The Potential Problem: Most viewers of this movie don’t even realize that super-still, whisper-quiet Ripley is the hero until halfway through when the male captain dies, leaving her in charge, where she finally shows some badassery.  One consequence is that the viewer doesn’t identify with Ripley until very late.  We’re not experiencing the first half of the movie from her point-of-view…or anyone’s.  Instead of identifying with any one character, we’re floating in space, where no character can hear us scream. (This totally violates Monday’s rule: “All Events must be Character Events”) 

Does the Movie Get Away With It?  Yes.  The chilliness of the movie’s point-of-view plays into the tone and theme. What makes it work is that we do eventually identify with Ripley because, on a subtle lever, she does have a full arc, it’s just very muted: she’s the one who’s the most loyal to the company and to protocol—She defends the company against the complaints of Brett and Lambert, she alone tries to maintain quarantine, etc.  She’s also the most adaptable: only she is equally at home in the bowels of the ship and on deck.  When she realizes that the company, as represented by the cyborg Ash, is willing to sacrifice them all, she’s the one who has to do something that’s hard to want to do: ignore protocol, blow up the ship she’s in charge of, and shoot the company’s prized specimen into space.  (As for violating the “character events” rule, I think Alien gets away with that, barely, because it’s a movie, not TV, so it can be more event-focused, rather than character-focused.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Alien

Updated to Checklist v4!
Part 1: Is this a strong concept for a story?
Is this a unique, simple twist on a classic type of story? (“high concept”)
Yes, the haunted house movie done on a space freighter.
Does the concept contain a fundamental ironic contradiction?
Sort of: answer a distress signal, almost all of them get killed as a result.
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
There’s not a lot of plot, but not a lot of character either.  Both are sacrificed in favor of tone.
Is this an extreme situation based on a common emotional dilemma (rather than injecting extreme emotions into common situations)?
Yes, fear of corporate peonage, fear of rape, fear of childbirth
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Yes, it’s the ultimate unsafe workplace. 
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a story before?
Yes, bickering working-class space crew.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Not until very late, when we finally settle on Ripley once she takes over.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, rather than the hero’s life in general?
Are the plot and the character arcs married to each other (The plot is the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to hero’s question)?
Ironic answer: “Whatever happened to standard procedure?”
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the plot? 
Only slightly.  She’s the most loyal to protocol and the company, until she realizes that Ash isn’t worth being loyal to.
Is this challenge something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Somewhat.  Again, she’s the most loyal, so she’s the most reluctant to admit that the company wants them dead and blow up the ship.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Yes, Ash.  (Well, sort of human)
Does this story show us an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Oh hell yes: eggs, face huggers, the alien, etc…
Is there a “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
Oh hell yes: the chest-bursting scene (and also later when the “hero” dies)
Does the story contain a twist that is not obvious from the beginning?
Yes, Ash is a robot.
Is the story marketable without revealing the twist?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the twist?
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
Yes, only she tries to keep the ship quarantined, only she figures out what’s going with Ash, only she survives.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes, everyone else is dead.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
Yes, she obliterates it.
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
Yes, she is unapologetic about blowing up their ship and their alien.
Part 2: Is this a compelling hero?
Does the hero have a great strength?
We don’t notice at first, but we gradually realize that she has certain key strengths: from the beginning, only she is equally at home on the bridge and in the hold and only she tries to maintain quarantine.  She’s the canny one.
Is that strength the flip side of a great flaw?
Yes, the same good instinct that led her to try to maintain quarantine causes her to be blind to Ash’s treachery until it’s almost too late.
Is the hero defined by current actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Does the hero have a goal already in the first scene (which is usually a false goal)?
Yes, defend the company, follow protocol.
Does the hero start out with a false philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
Yes, “Whatever happened to standard procedure”
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Yes, the no-nonsense one.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Not really.
Does the hero have a social anxiety?
Yes, fear of breaking the rules.
Does the hero have a private fear?
Yes, an implied universal fear of childbirth.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Stick to procedure, do it myself, I deserve respect.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Yes, by-the-book.
No matter how much the hero changes, does he or she have a default personality trait?
Yes.  All-business.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Yes, cites the rules
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality? 
Yes, no one else respects quarantine.  Everyone else loses it at some point.
Does the hero have decision-making authority?
She gets it after Ash dies, which is when she becomes our hero.
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
Just slightly, in both cases.  Cracks in her tough fa├žade show through at the end.
Is the hero curious?
Yes, but not overly-so: only she is unwilling to bring it on board.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Yes, she does some clever things.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Yes, she’s the only one who knows her way around the whole ship: comfortable below decks and on the bridge.  She knows the rules better than anyone else too.
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
No, not at all.  She doesn’t really stand out until she refuses to let them back on the ship.  We don’t realize that she’s the hero until the end.
Is the hero’s primary motivation strong, simple, not-selfless, and revealed early on?
Yes: company loyalty, then self-preservation.
Does the hero engage in physical exertion early on?
No, she’s very still.
Does the hero engage in reversible behavior (so that we will instantly see that he or she has changed when we see a contrasting behavior later on)? 
Yes, to show she’s no longer all-business, she literally saves the cat!  She also gives a unrepentant statement about blowing up the ship.
Part 3: Does the structure portray problem-solving in a way that rings true? 
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
Slightly.  She clearly feels she doesn’t get enough respect, but she’s not going to say anything about it.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
Yes, she tries to keep the ship quarantined, but no one else lets her.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
Yes, when things start going wrong, her status improves.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Yes, she doesn’t assert any authority as the problem grows.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
Only slightly, she gingerly starts to assert herself, but waits until after the midpoint disaster to assert herself.
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Yes. She decides to kill it but Ash wants to keep it alive.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, at first they try to keep the creature alive.
Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?
Yes, the villain reveals his full evil and thrills the audience.
Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
Yes, they think they can trap it and kill it with fire in the tunnels.
Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
Yes, the captain dies.
Does the hero lose a safe space and/or sheltering relationship at this point?
Yes, she realizes that the company is not her friend, Ash is evil, and the whole ship is not safe.
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Yes, they try to kill it.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
No, there are still plot complications.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Yes, realizes that Ash is bad, Parker was right not to trust the company.
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates
Yes, they realize they have to blow up the ship.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Yes, she almost gets killed by Ash.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Somewhat.  Decides to save the cat, showing that she’s now more empathetic.
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
“We’ll blow it the fuck out into space. We have to stick together.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Yes, blowing up the ship.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Yes, she’s standing up to everybody and trying to blow up the ship.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Yes, the alien attacks, ruining the plan.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation? 
Everyone and everything left alive, yes.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
Pretty much.  She has no time to process her decision to break from the company until after she kills the thing.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the hero’s original problem is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)?
Yes, she gives a matter-of-fact unapologetic account of blowing up the ship, then goes to sleep with the cat.
Part 4: Is this powerful dialogue?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes, everybody is treated humanely, and gets to hold their own.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Yes, it takes her a while to catch on.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
Very much so.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)? 
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Do the characters listen poorly?
Yes, that all keep ignoring each other’s concerns.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes, it’s very slight and muttered.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
No.  There’s very little personality in this movie.
Does the dialogue mirror the syntax of real talk, but not the dialect?
Just a little bit with Parker.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the setting?
Yes, lots of navigation and regulation talk.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Yes, lots of talk about shares, quarantine procedure, etc.
Does each character have a distinct voice? (Can you always tell who is speaking without looking at the names?)
Only slightly.  They’re pretty interchangeable for the first half. 
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
No, the voices are all fairly similar and bland, which contributes the atmosphere of
Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
Ash: bland faux-deference, Parker: fiery, etc.
Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
Dallas: let’s you talk, then tells you his previous decision.  Ash: creates flimsy lies, Parker: artless segues into his complaints.
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with yes, no, well, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Yes, only Ash the robot uses dependent clauses.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it? 
Yes.  We never get the basic details of the situation: who these guys are, what they’re doing, who they work for, what industry they’re in, what the alien is, where it came from, what was the deal on that planet, etc., and we don’t mind at all. 
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, literally, with Ripley and Ash.
Are there more rejecting-bad-advice scenes than taking-good-advice scenes?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Yes.  Ripley and Ash are both head, Kane and Dallas are both (slightly) heart, Parker and Brett are gut.
Part 5: Does the story manage its tone to create and fulfill audience expectations?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to buy and recommend this type of story?
Yes, lots of big scares and gory kills
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
It consistently and successfully combines sci-fi and horror.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Yes: the horror of childbirth, the evil of corporations, the dangers of mining, the dangers of cross-cultural exchange, etc.
Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
Yes, the creature feature, the haunted house movie and the “ten little Indians” thriller.
Separate from the genre, does the story have a consistent mood?
Yes, chilly, airless, distanced, cold, cool, creepy, etc.
Is there a moment early on that establishes the mood (and type of jeopardy)?
Yes, we begin with empty helmets talking to each other: this is a dehumanized world in every sense.
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, or pose ongoing questions?
In-story onscreen type describes the situation in an intentionally unclear, cold, formal, corporate-speak way.
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story? 
Yes, when will they kill the alien.
Are there other open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
Yes, nobody talks about making it home, or being rescued, or communicating with the creature, or trying to figure out where it came from, etc.  The question is always “do we kill it or take it home?”
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Very much so.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
Yes, we get shots that subtly set-up how the alien might have made it on the ship.
Does the story follow the general structure of its genre?

Is the mood maintained throughout?
Yes, the ending is as hushed as the beginning.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
Yes, it fulfills all except the male leader dies and a subordinate woman survives and becomes the sole survivor.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Yes, the alien is killed at the very end.
Part 6: Does the story have a meaningful theme?
Can the theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Yes, loyalty vs. self-preservation.
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Yes, break quarantine to save Kane or not, for instance.
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Yes. It takes the reality of extremely unsafe workplaces (such as actual non-unionized mines) and amplifies it.
Is the story based more on observations than ideas?
Yes, it’s a very believable freighter crew with real-world concerns.
Is an open thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half?
Yes, discussion about whether or not they can re-negotiate their contracts.
Does the story create its own sense of right and wrong?
Does the story focus more on the ethical breaches than moral breaches?
Does the story have something authentic to say about this setting?
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Yes, it’s quite prescient about the rise of corporate sovereignty in the ‘80s.
Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Are many small details throughout tied into the theme?
Yes, every little decision on the ship speaks to the larger dilemma.  The metal-organic design of the ship on the planet and the alien itself speak to the melding of human and industrial consciousness.  Eggs are a recurring theme.  They try to call “Antarctica traffic control”: it’s a cold future.
Are there characters whose situations foreshadow various fates that might await the hero?
Yes, she’s afraid of getting killed like the others, afraid of becoming Ash. 
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Yes. She isn’t able to kill the alien without blowing up the ship.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy?
Very much so.  We know very little at the end about what was really going on.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes, the most loyal one blows up the ship. 
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
No, this movie resolves its moral dilemma far more definitively than most movies: corporations are completely evil, quarantine is totally sacrosanct, self-preservation is entirely better than protecting new life-forms.  This is fine: horror movies are less ambiguous than most. 
If the heroes triumph, do they triumph by morally ascending, not descending? 
Yes.  Rather than becoming less humane in order to kill the creature, she finds herself becoming more humane as she learns to stand up for herself.  This new humanity does endanger her (she almost dies saving the cat), but in this one case, the movie does have it both ways: she’s able to keep her new humanity (she saves the cat) and still kill the creature.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Yes.  She doesn’t say anything about the evils of corporate sovereignty in her final recording.
Part 7: Is each scene the best it can be? 
Is this scene a character event, not just a plot event?
It’s more of a plot event, but character issues are bubbling up.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may shift)?
Yes, for the first time, we know that Ripley is clearly our hero.
Were tense and/or hopeful expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
Yes, we saw briefly how devastated they were by Dallas’s death…except for Ash. It also contrasts with two earlier scenes where they met to decide what to do.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Somewhat: it’s a meeting table, which doesn’t usually intimidate people or keep them active, but it’s also now a war-room and it’s the first visit to the captain’s domain since he died.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Only in that we know the alien is hunting them.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or even the middle)? 
Yes, it starts late, in the heat of the conversation.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Yes, they come to realize that Ash has a different agenda.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Yes, Ash and Ripley don’t directly confront each other.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Yes: “how do we kill it?” suppressed: “why are you protecting it, Ash?”
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext?
No, it’s brought up directly. 
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
They’re mostly in direct confrontation mode, but Ripley is still trying to get the truth out of Ash indirectly.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Is there re-blocking?
Yes. Parker tries to leave, Ripley stops him with her voice.  Then Parker leaves, then Ash leaves.
Is there literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Yes, there’s one touch, when Parker puts a hand on Ash to keep him from coming with him.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Parker slams down Dallas’s flamethower to show that he’s dead.  Later he goes to refill it, to show his decision.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
It’s a small scene.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Yes.  Who’s in charge now?  Can they get away on the shuttle?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Why is Ash dragging his heels?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began? 
Lambert is convinced to join the plan, Parker is convinced to hear Ripley out.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Slightly early, on her line “I’ve got access to mother now and I’ll get my own answers, thank you.”
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Not really.

Tomorrow: How it broke the rules...