A lesson in basic narrative structure, courtesy of “Stairway to Heaven”

Last week I revisited James Cameron’s “Aliens” for the umpteenth time and marveled at its slow burn structure.  Like its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” it takes a whole hour for the titular critters to show up.  But this storytelling model has fallen by the wayside.  We rarely see it employed, and it’s rewarded even less.  Instead we shovel money at Michael Bay and his Transformer movies…upwards of a billion dollars domestically to a franchise with more explosions than stakes, tension, or story.

I don’t mean to sound like an angry old man shaking his cane, but how do you determine the end of a story if not by the climax?  A climax is something you have to build toward, so if your film is nothing but climaxes, then your ending is going to feel as meek and tepid as limp chestburster.

chestburster

But let’s consider this strategy from a different angle, from a smaller and more easily digestible approach: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

It’s pretty much unanimously regarded as one of the great rock songs and maybe the greatest rock guitar solo.  And for good reason, but I would argue a critical element to the song’s power is its construction.  It builds to that solo.  Were the whole thing wallpapered with Jimmy Page’s virtuosic playing, we would be desensitized to it.  I don’t think we’d be as enamored with that version of the song.

”Stairway” clocks in at 8:03.  During the first 2:13, we get Robert Plant’s vocals, an acoustic guitar and some recorders.  Led Zeppelin is laying the groundwork.

In the first 20 minutes of “Aliens,” a salvage crew finds Ripley floating in deep space.  She makes a report to the Powers That Be, during which, she learns that while she was in hyper sleep, a colony was established on the alien world.  We also witness Ripley’s nightmares of an alien exploding from her chest like a grotesque jack-in-the-box.

At 2:14 into “Stairway,” we get a little electric guitar.  Now the song is taking shape, rooting itself more firmly.  This is rock ‘n’ roll after all!

Ripley learns from Company Man, Burke, that communications with the colony have been cut.  A team of marines is sent in.  Hoping to silence her fears, Ripley agrees to tag along.  When they arrive, they find the colony in shambles — the only survivor is a young girl named Newt.

ripley and newt

Now, we’re 4:19 into this roughly 8 minute song, and here come the drums.  This is what we signed up for!

Likewise, halfway through “Aliens,” we get our first look at the creatures.  Having stumbled into a hive in the basement of a power planet, the marines are ambushed by dozens of xenomorphs.  They regroup, only to discover that during the fire fight, the plant was damaged and is ready to explode…like a 40-megaton thermonuclear weapon.  Complications arise.  It’s revealed that Burke is trying to sabotage the mission by bringing creatures back to his company’s bio-weapons division.  The aliens launch an attack on the marines, resulting in Newt’s capture.

And at 5:56, we arrive at the famous guitar solo!

Ripley goes on a one-woman mission to recover Newt from the aliens’ nest.  She rescues her, and the two come face to face with the Alien Queen.  Ripley torches her eggs.  They take off, escaping an immense explosion, but then discover that the Queen has boarded their ship.  Ripley drives the creature into an airlock and finds herself in its clutches.

alien queen

“And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than a soul…”

She opens the airlock, which sucks the Queen out into space.

At 7:46, the solo draws to a close, and we come back to where we started with Robert Plant’s eerie vocals.

Ripley returns to hyper sleep with Newt.

“Can I dream,” the young girl asks.

“Yes, honey.  I think we both can.”

This model isn’t just meant for creature features.  “Die Hard” isn’t plastered with wall-to-wall action.  Indeed, it’s also a slow burn.  A fair amount of time passes before the first shots are fired.

And obviously, this template isn’t going to apply to every film.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” opens with a bang.  Though it’s a film that’s generally thought of as unrelenting, things quiet down after that initial set piece.  I also think there’s something to be said for dynamic range.  Yes, the opening of “Raiders” is exciting, but the ending is literally — as far as our characters are concerned — face melting.

But back to “Aliens”…You’d be hard pressed not to find a pantheon-level monster movie that doesn’t follow this structure — from “Alien” to “Aliens,” from “Jaws” to “Jurassic Park,” from the original “King Kong” to the original “Godzilla.”

If you’re firing at 10 nonstop, eventually 10 loses its luster.

Agree or disagree?  Comment below!

An Odyssey of the Mind

Apologies for the dearth of blog entries, everyone!  In addition to helping some friends shoot their first feature, I’ve been giving a lot of my time to a program called Odyssey of the Mind.  I’ve been involved with it for roughly 20 years.  I competed from elementary school through college, and since then, I’ve volunteered as an official.

I hate describing the program, because it’s easy to over-explain or under-explain, and, either way, it often leaves people scratching their heads.  In a nutshell, it’s a creative problem-solving competition.  Teams of five to seven students work for several months on their Long Term solution.  There are five types of LT problems to choose from: one is centered around a vehicle created by the team, another is centered around a performance based on classic art or literature, another involves a balsa wood structure and how much weight it holds.

Odyssey skit_smaller

The team does everything.  They design their vehicle or structure, they research classic art and literature.  They write a script and build their props and sets.  Everything.  In addition to performing their Long Term solution, teams are given a Spontaneous problem on the day of competition.  In the months leading up to the tournament, teams solve practice problems, but they have no idea what they’ll face in the Spontaneous Room.  Problems can be hands-on, requiring them to build a structure out of toothpicks and mailing labels and then receive points for the amount of weight it holds.  Or they can be verbal, which might involve each student contributing a line to a team-created story that receives points based on creativity and the number of responses in a set period of time.

The program offers many takeaways, like budgeting and time management, but there are three real pillars.  The first is independence.  Did I mention the students do everything?  The second is creativity.  The program demonstrates that often there’s more than one right way to solve a problem.  And finally, the program teaches the value of teamwork.  As an only child, this was the most valuable lesson I learned.  During my early years with Odyssey, I was shocked (SHOCKED!) when my teammates didn’t immediately accept my ideas.

But my ego sustained a few blows, and I turned out all right in the end — certainly better than I might have without Odyssey.  It’s given me a lot to be thankful for.  I’ve made so many wonderful friendships through the program, even my wife and my best friend.

Lyss, Ben & I - States_smaller