The Heroes in Jurassic Park
By John Jarvis.
To see precisely how the Jarvis Method applies to modern screenplays, let’s take a look at a fairly recent motion picture, Jurassic Park. As you’ll see, although the writers of Jurassic Park did not use StoryCraft or the Jarvis Method generally to create the story, much of Jurassic Park follows closely the patterns prescribed by the Method. And as you’ll also see, the parts that do not follow the Method exhibit significant faults in both the premise and structure of the story.
The labels I give to each step below are, for the most part, unique to StoryCraft and to the Jarvis Method.
I. THE STORY CATEGORY
Jurassic Park is an Action-Category story; that is, one in which the primary focus is on the plot of the story and in which the hero does not learn a lesson except in the most superficial way. Most “summer movies” are Action- Category films.
There has been much discussion about whether a writer should be a starving artist with principles, or whether he/she should sell out and write commercial, “action- packed” films that may be contributing to the violence and decay of society. This is not the place to preach, though; so I only say: if you want material success, write in the Action Category. And even if I were bent on making writers starving artists instead of good wealthy craftspersons, I should not damn Action Category films in all cases. Indeed, Jurassic Park is a shining (though fairly rare) example of a “family-friendly” Action-Category movie. It is also an excellent example of a story that requires the Action Category.
(Note: Owners of the StoryCraft 95 software will find an additional step: the Story Concept. This is simply a chance for the writer to place his or her concept for the story into a one-line sentence. Owners of older editions of the software will find it helpful to write out the Story Concept and keep it before them at all times; StoryCraft 95 (and later) does this for you automatically.)
II. THE STORY TYPE
Jurassic Park falls naturally into the “Locale Adventure” Story Type.
Those two steps — Category and Story Type — form the foundation, the basic premise, of the story. Next, the story’s various elements — the extended premise — can be formulated.
III. EXTENDED PREMISE
1. The Ordinary World
Jurassic Park is the world of the archaeologists. It is important that this world be interesting, for it appears at the beginning of the story and, as such, is the “hook.” However, if we remained in this world we would soon begin feeling that the story was letting us down. (This is one of the key problems of beginners’ scripts, in which writers often don’t quickly move the story onto a more exciting plane of existence — certainly not a fault in Jurassic Park!)
2. The Extraordinary World
The bulk of any story concerns the Extraordinary World, the world of the hero’s antagonist. In Jurassic Park, the island and its exotic inhabitants are the Extraordinary World. Note how with great care every facet of this world has been thought out. The elements of this world can be clearly defined: 1) the island itself; 2) the dinosaurs, by species and type; 3) the creation of the dinosaurs; 4) the details of the park; and, finally, 5) the ways in which all these elements can go wrong.
3. The Main Character, or Hero
Here is the element that illustrates the primary difference between Action and Theme. A Theme character makes many mistakes and stumbles his way to salvation — to the “Transformation” — in what is called a character arc. An Action character, on the other hand, does not have a character arc and is superhuman.
In Jurassic Park, the Hero (the archaeologist) uses cunning and ideas that delight us by seemingly transcending normality. The Action-Category hero, though, must also be believable to the audience. The greatest fault of most Action-Category heroes is that they are not believable. That is not a fault in Jurassic Park.
Now I know that there are many writers who criticize this story. And because those critics apparently do not use the Jarvis Method, they tend to blame the problem on “not developing the character enough.” But the Jarvis Method identifies Jurassic Park as an Action-Category story. And one of the defining characteristics of the Action Category is that it has no character development.
(I can almost hear the cries from those who have been taught other methods, which in effect mix Theme- and Action-attributes into a confusing mess. “Where,” they ask, “is the character development? The backstory? The character arc?” The answer is simply that they don’t exist in the Action Category. And the attributes of Action-Category Heroes and Theme-Category Heroes cannot be mixed if you want to right a good story!)
And so the greatest merit of Jurassic Park, beyond attention to the Extraordinary World, is that the writers didn’t try to twist the story into the Theme Category.
The fact is that the weaknesses of Jurrasic Park lie not with the character but with the structure — the “construction” phase — of the story. The flaw in Jurassic Park is, in other words, related, not to the character of the Hero, but to what happens to the Hero. More on this shortly.
4. The Hero’s Helpers
In Jurassic Park the Hero’s Helpers are the man and the woman (Ellie Sattler) introduced at the beginning of the story. (Later — and this is a major structural flaw — the archaeologist, who starts out as the Hero, is relegated to a Hero’s Helper too.)
5. The Antagonist
In Action-Category pictures, the Antagonist is an evil (usually a person) that must be overcome. Jurassic Park has a non-human Antagonist: the flesh-eating dinosaurs, especially the T. Rex.
6. The Antagonist’s Helpers
The Antagonist often has many helpers, human and nonhuman. The Antagonist’s Helpers may even be the obstacles that the Hero encounters.
In Jurassic Park the Antagonist’s Helpers include (1) those who created the park and (2) the less fearsome dinosaurs. But there are more abstract “helpers” also: the park itself is a helper; so too is the storm.
And that brings us to the man who tries to get the dinosaur eggs for himself. Is he the Antagonist’s Helper? Or the Hero’s Helper? Or what? Frankly it is unclear why the eggs are really wanted, beyond the obvious reasons. The movie clearly would have been much better without the egg-stealer scenes.
IV. THE STRUCTURE STEPS
We now come to the construction of the story itself. Ironically, most teachers begin at this point.
In my Method, there are twelve basic Structure Steps. For Jurassic Park the Structure Steps can be described roughly as follows (each header represents the basic idea for the step; the content is taken from the pre- structure, or Premise, steps already outlined):
STRUCTURE STEP #1: All happy except Hero.
The Hero, though in an interesting vocation, is shown dependent on grants for a living.
STRUCTURE STEP #2: Hero, called to an adventure (doubts, then change of mind).
The Hero is asked to join an expedition by the man who underwrites him (an Antagonist’s Helper — and a Shape Changer). The Hero doesn’t agree until the man says that if the Hero goes, his grant will be extended.
STRUCTURE STEP #3: Hero meeting Ally.
The Hero meets a mathematician who, though quite macho, proves himself to be a good person. (He has met one of the Allies earlier — a slight structural problem in the story, but not a major flaw.)
STRUCTURE STEP #4: Hero, on the strange place’s edge.
The Hero and the others see how Jurassic Park’s inhabitants were created. The Hero also meets two more Allies (the children), who will gradually become the story’s new Heroes.
Note: We have now come to the major structural flaw in the story. For the problem of the Ally (or the Antagonist) taking over a story (i.e., becoming the Hero) shows an organizational weakness that would not have been made had the writers been using the Jarvis Method. For this reason Jurassic Park, for all its millions of dollars and millions of viewers, will not become a classic, such as less ephemeral Action-Category fantasies like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. We go to this film simply for fun and excitement.
Very Important: Because of this structural flaw, from here on “Hero” becomes “Heroes,” which now means “the children.” And our former Hero, will be referred to as an Ally.
STRUCTURE STEP #5: Heroes’ beginning of adventure.
The Heroes begin the adventure in a special small car that will take them through the gates to the Park. They go through several exhibitions without incident. Indeed, the animals they are supposed to see do not even appear. (Here is very good writing. Had the film instead shown one exciting event after another, we would simply be worn down.)
STRUCTURE STEP #6: Trials caused by Antagonist’s Helpers, but the Heroes are winning.
The Park’s inhabitants — especially the most fearsome, the T. Rex — finally begin to appear. The Heroes are separated from the rest. And unaware that their flashlight is letting the T. Rex know where they are, they are attacked by the T. Rex. Remarkably, they are able to get away, helped by the Allies.
Note: Other flaws in the story now reveal themselves. For one thing, the T. Rex confronts the Heroes too soon, not allowing for a buildup of suspense; in fact, the major battle with the Antagonist should not have occurred at all at this point. (Obviously, battles with the Antagonist go on throughout the story; the final confrontation, though, must be saved for the latter part of the story.)
STRUCTURE STEP #7: Trial by Antagonist. Heroes winning.
Meanwhile, back in the compound where the Antagonist is, one of the Antagonist’s Helpers gains most of the samples of the dinosaur’s eggs. This Helper attempts to leave the island with the eggs, but doesn’t succeed. Though the Heroes do not confront the Antagonist directly, the Heroes may be said to have won this trial.
STRUCTURE STEP #8: Failure of Heroes. The Heroes are near death.
The children appear to be dead. One is over a cliff; the other is trapped in a vehicle that was thrown up a tree.
STRUCTURE STEP #9: Escape of Heroes.
The children are rescued by an Ally (the former Hero). They spend the night in the Park. Back at the compound, the electricity that had been shut off is restored.
STRUCTURE STEP #10: Heroes pursued by Antagonist.
The children reach the compound, but not to safety….
STRUCTURE STEP #11: Defeat of Antagonist by the Heroes.
There now follows a long conflict between the children and the (new!) Antagonist (two dinosaurs).
Note: Here is another major flaw in the story. The Heroes’ conflict should have been with the major Antagonist, the T. Rex. Furthermore, the children simply run from the dinosaurs and are saved, not even by the Allies, but by a deus ex machina. For at the end the writers can think of nothing better than to have the T. Rex come in and scare away the other dinosaurs.
STRUCTURE STEP #12: Heroes’ triumphal return home.
The children return home. But Jurassic Park has not been destroyed; there will most likely be a sequel.
This is about the best nutshell example I can give of the Jarvis Method. I hope to help more of you via StoryCraftNet and StoryCraft Software. Meanwhile, don’t forget that if you have any questions, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
— John Jarvis