How’s this for an appealing story? It’s about a young woman whose body will be a vessel that will save untold numbers of lives. Unfortunately, a powerful company wants to take her out if they can’t control her, so they assign someone to do the former. Fortunately, a dark and handsome man is ready, able, and willing to protect the young woman, no matter the cost.
What story am I talking about?
The Terminator, of course.
Why do I bring up James Cameron’s 1984 classic? Because Body Parts operates in a manner that is similar and dissimilar in interesting ways. (And if you haven’t seen The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day, do yourself a favor and go see them now, whether or not you like action movies. They are marvelous examples of storytelling.)
Body Parts, a novel by Jessica Kapp, tells the story of Tabitha, a young woman who begins the novel as the ward of a seemingly perfect orphanage. Everyone in the Center is extremely healthy and well cared-for. Tabitha herself, with her long, red hair, is perfect…aside from a slight issue that affects her heart. The Act One 15 Minutes In Turning Point of the novel occurs when Ms. Preen takes Tabitha for a ride to meet her new foster parents. Yay! Everything is fantastic! Until Ms. Preen gives her a knockout drug. When Tabitha wakes up, she discovers that there never was a foster family. The Center, you see, carves up these incredibly healthy young people to get their…body parts. (I liked the book a lot! Purchase it from your local indie store! Or Kobo. Or Barnes & Noble. Or Amazon.)
Don’t worry; divulging that much of the plot doesn’t ruin anything. After all, here’s some of the description from the book jacket:
Raised in an elite foster center off the California coast, sixteen-year-old Tabitha has been protected from the outside world. Her trainers at the center have told her she’ll need to be in top physical condition to be matched with a loving family. So she swims laps and shaves seconds off her mile time, dreaming of the day when she’ll meet her adoptive parents.
But when Tabitha’s told she’s been paired, instead of being taken to her new home, she wakes up immobile on a hospital bed. Moments before she’s sliced open, a group of renegade teenagers rescues her, and she learns the real reason she’s been kept in shape: PharmPerfect, a local pharmaceutical giant, is using her foster program as a replacement factory for their pill-addicted clients’ failing organs.
So, unless a friend blindfolded you and put the book in your hands and forced you to start at the first page, you knew the basic thrust of the first several chapters of the story. You knew the big reveal that changes Tabitha’s life forever.
Same thing with The Terminator or Terminator 2. Unfortunately, the surprises from the films are no longer surprises. Everyone is fully aware that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the bad-guy Terminator who wants to terminate the nice waitress woman named Sarah Connor. Everyone knows he’s a cyborg. In 1984, you may have been lucky enough to see the film without knowing a single detail other than the title. Every twist and turn would be a revelation! In Terminator 2, James Cameron took great pains to conceal the fact that Arnold was the good guy. Alas, in Body Parts and in The Terminator, the audience knows much more about the protagonist’s life than she does for quite some time. (Think about it; Body Parts is “that book about the teens who are sold for parts, but one of them escapes, etc.” The Terminator is “that movie about that woman who will give birth to the guy who will save humanity, so robot Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to kill her, etc.”)
I thought it would be interesting to discuss these two works in conjunction with each other because they approach their conceits so differently. In The Terminator, you’ll recall, Arnold uses the phone book to track down all of the Sarah Connors in L.A. The important one, of course, has a fortunate middle name that makes her last on the list. Sarah sees this creepy-looking dude scoping her, so she ducks into Tech-Noir, a cheekily named disco. Shootout. Then it turns out that the creepy, sweaty guy was actually protecting her. Now, Sarah is no fool. She (and the audience) need some exposition. What the heck is going on? Kyle Reese hotwires a car and tells her about the Future War, that her son will one day be the savior of all mankind.
Then more car chases and action interspersed with some romantic scenes and powerfully drawn characters.
Chapter 5 of Body Parts is the equivalent to the above exposition-in-the-car scene. Tabitha has woken from her pharmaceutical slumber and meets Gavin and the other members of the team dedicated to liberating young people from the grip of the Center. Gavin lays it all out in some healthy paragraphs set in the group’s “headquarters” and Tabitha accepts her new reality. “Parts,” she says. “I was being raised for parts.”
As I read the novel, I was wondering why Tabitha believed so easily and quickly. Now, to some extent, I am perfectly happy to just go with it. It’s a book. Sarah Connor believes Kyle Reese’s insane time travel/all-powerful computers narrative because she just had a giant Austrian man shooting at her. Ms. Kapp does something smart that forces Tabitha to deliberate more. After Gavin’s explanation, Tabitha (on her own) meets Mary, a much younger girl who was rescued–but not before the bad guys took her cornea and kidney. Writers must give the audience a reason to believe, just as much as characters must convince each other what is really happening to them.
The narrative of Body Parts is far looser than those of the Terminator films, which is both good and bad. On one hand, those movies are awesome. On the other hand, Body Parts doesn’t want to be a non-stop, pulse-pounding action story…and that’s okay. Instead, Ms. Kapp has other freedom and responsibilities. The looser story just means that she’s not as high on the scale with respect to plot. That’s perfectly fine, so long as she kicks up some other elements of her book. Here’s another way to think of it. This is a chart I made for Lee Martin’s wonderful Late One Night. That book is not at all a plot-heavy Tom Clancy book. Instead, Mr. Martin focused more time and attention on character and style than plot. It’s okay to go easy on some elements of our work so long as we compensate in another way.
Body Parts is an entertaining near-future science fiction novel that will entertain its YA audience, but will also appeal to those who are not very Y. Tabitha is a compelling character, and Ms. Kapp ensures there is a lot going on around her. Tabitha experiences her first love triangle! Her first…love feelings! Her first escape from people who want to cut her up and sell her organs! Ms. Kapp juggles her plot and its subplots in a felicitous manner and wraps things up in a way that I’ll just say that I wasn’t expecting.
James Cameron, Jessica Kapp, Lee Martin, Terminator, Young Adult
Title of Work and its Form: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, feature film
Author: Written by James Cameron and William Wisher, Jr. Directed by James Cameron
Date of Work: 1991
Where the Work Can Be Found: The work is on DVD and is likely in your collection. As of this writing, the film is streaming on Netflix.
Bonuses: Whoa, cool. Here‘s the Stan Winston Studios recap of some of the effects they created for the film. Here‘s what the great Roger Ebert thought of the film. Oh, this is cool. Here‘s what a real psychiatrist-type person thinks of the representation of psychiatric treatment in the film.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience Preparation
Do I love Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde? Of course. I’m also quite proud of my affection for the work of James Cameron. His movies feature plots that tick along with flawless logic and immense energy. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is certainly no exception. It’s several years after the events depicted in The Terminator. Sarah Connor is in a mental institution because she tried to blow up the company responsible for creating Skynet in the future. John Connor, the future leader of the human rebels, is living with a progression of foster parents. (His father, if you’ll recall, is both from the future and dead.) Well, Skynet sent back another Terminator to kill John Connor before he can become the great leader in the post-apocalyptic future. The big secret? The T-1000 liquid metal Terminator is the bad guy, even though he is played by Robert Patrick and looks nice. The T-800 (Arnold) is the good guy, even though he was the antagonist in the previous movie. Picture a Commodore 64 fighting your current PC. Not an easy task. John gets his mother out of the psychiatric center and the three become a strange family as they 1) kill the T-1000 and 2) destroy Cyberdyne, the company that will create Skynet.
The big difference between a James Cameron film and an action movie from a lesser director is very clear: Cameron has a reason for each of the zillions of choices he makes. There are certainly surprises in his films, but the viewer is prepared for each of them in such a way that they’re not really a surprise when viewed in retrospect. Think of it this way. You may be shocked when your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you. But if you were paying attention to the important details of your life, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
Let’s begin by examining what happens around 26:00 minutes into the film. (The beginning of Act Two?) It’s been established that the two Terminators (Arnold and Patrick) are looking for John Connor. In a reference to the first film, Arnold has stolen clothing. The music even tells us that he’s “bad to the bone.” Patrick visits John’s foster parents…I hope he’s going to help the young man. Sure, it seems as though he stole the policeman’s uniform, but it’s okay so long as he’s helping humans in the future. (Kyle Reese stole, too. He was justified, right?)
Both Terminators realize that John is at the mall, where he’s spending stolen money in the arcade. Budnick from Salute Your Shorts gives John a heads-up that the police officer is looking for him. As John slides into the bowels of the mall, the following “beats” happen, followed by what the audience learns:
- Cameron establishes that both Terminators are in the corridors. They must be looking for John.
- John sees the T-800 as he cocks the shotgun that was hidden in the box of flowers. This is the mythological creature that his mother has warned him about his whole life. He’s scared.
- John tries to find an open door, but can’t. There’s a janitor standing in the hallway, yelling at John.
- The T-800 points his gun right at John’s head. It’s lights out for Johnny boy, right?
- The T-1000 approaches from the other side of the hallway. John is trapped as the T-1000 pulls a gun and points it at John.
- The T-800 tells him to “get down.” (He doesn’t mean that John should start dancing.)
- No longer in slow motion, the T-800 fires the shotgun. Whoa, did Arnold just shoot a policeman?
- The T-800 shields John from the shots fired by the T-1000, who has a weird metallic wound on his arm. The poor janitor gets shot, giving us the clue that the T-1000 is not the good guy.
- As the T-1000 is reloading, the T-800 tosses John into one of the rooms whose doors John couldn’t previously open.
- Firefight between Terminators. The T-1000 is down for an eight count. John peers around the corner just in time to see that…
- The T-1000 is morphing itself back to health. What?!?!?
- Hand-to-hand Terminator combat starting with a distinct image. The T-800 was established as superhuman in the previous film, but now the much smaller T-1000 is matching his strength. Arnold looks confused.
- Both crash each other into the walls. The audience starts to understand the power of the T-1000.
- The T-1000 throws the T-800 into a clothing store and out the window. The T-1000 deliberately takes a look at a mannequin that looks like a liquid metal robot. Is this a coincidence?
- As the T-800 gets back up, a bystander takes several photos of him. These will be used later, obviously.
- John is still running away as both Terminators are in pursuit. He starts his dirt bike just in time. The cop who was shot about a zillion times is now running after him like Usain Bolt. Boy, that T-1000 doesn’t seem to get tired or to sweat!
- John almost wipes out and nearly gets run over by a giant black big rig. The driver swears at the darn kid in his way. Geez…that giant square machine looks awfully imposing!
- The driver is pulled out of his rig by the T-1000 and crumples to the pavement. How did the T-1000 catch up and why doesn’t he care about human life?
- Oooh, Arnold pulls out on his hog. Looks like both Terminators are determined to catch up with John.
- There’s a lull as John descends into the L.A. River basin. Phew. That feels better. I needed a break and a chance to catch my breath.
- Oh, snap. The big rig just crashed into the pavement and is pursuing John. He’s not messing around. Those old, rickety non-liquid metal machines are quite fragile, aren’t they?
- John speeds away as the T-800 spots him. He can’t get over quite yet. Which one will catch up to John first?
- The T-800 makes his way into the actual basin. A fight between a big rig and a motorcycle doesn’t seem fair, just like a fight between a new Terminator and an old one!
- The T-800 shoots at the T-1000 in the truck’s cab. Well, the T-1000 knows he has competition.
- Oh, shoot. The top of the rig is sheared off by the overpass. Hopefully the T-1000 was ki—oh, never mind, he shoots up easily.
- The rig taps John’s bike. He’s caught up. Luckily, the T-800 has slid past him.
- The T-800 easily lifts John and puts him on the chopper. The dirt bike is crushed under the tires of the big rig. OMG…that’s what would have happened to John Connor! We’re seeing the effect of the T-1000’s desired action!
- The T-800 shoots out one of the rig’s tires…the rig crashes into a bridge support and immediately catches fire.
- A tire rolls out of the flaming wreckage. The T-800 is crazy suspicious of it…but holsters the shotgun. They speed away. Phew! Everything is okay for now.
- Hey, why are we still at the wreckage? Why didn’t we go off with John and the T-800? Whoa…the metal guy is walking out of the wreckage. And he looks just like that mannequin in the clothing store! He’s not even hurt and he’s already trying to figure out where John will go! I guess that terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until John Connor is dead.
Imagine it’s 1991. Vanilla Ice is ruling the charts with “Ice Ice Baby.” Teenagers have to speak to each other on phones that either have cords or that must remain within a small radius of the base. Not a single Kardashian was famous and Bruce Jenner was famous for being an athlete instead of…I’ll let you finish the joke.
If you were interested in seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, you had likely seen the first film, or at least knew about it. You knew a lot about the “world” of The Terminator. John Connor was destined to be a hero in the humans’ war against the robots. Sarah Connor is the only person in the world who understands the threat. The Arnold Schwarzenegger character is the bad guy and he’s really tough to kill. The original Terminator survives a massive police station shoot-‘em-up and a fuel truck fire. The T-1000 can do all of that and more, making him a worthy adversary.
The first time I saw Terminator 2, I’m sure the joy was in seeing the cool action setpieces and in the humor the actors bring to the tight script. Upon reflection, however, it’s clear why the film is so great (to my mind, at least). Mr. Cameron makes everything add up in the film’s ledger.
- He establishes the doors in the hall are heavy and locked, making it more impressive when the T-800 busts them open.
- He makes sure a looky-loo takes pictures of the T-800 in the mall; these are used moments later during Sarah’s interrogation scene.
- At point, no audience had ever seen a morphing liquid metal robot. Seeing the silver mannequin prepared you to accept this wrinkle in the rules of the Terminator saga, as did…
- The splashy squib wounds on the T-1000 add believability later on when you learn the extent of his abilities.
- The primitive machine versus advanced machine is reinforced by the conflict between the three vehicles.
Every beat has a direct purpose! And Mr. Cameron is a master at laying out the geography of his settings to make the events believable. There are lots of wide establishing shots in order to inform you, for example, where the T-800 is in relation to the T-1000. At the end of the film, it’s not a surprise that the foundry has a giant pit of liquid metal (how appropriate) because Mr. Cameron showed you before the pit came into play in the action.
Above all, Mr. Cameron labors intensely before, during and after his films are in principal photography. Some folks assert that he’s a little prickly on set, but only because he is completely dedicated to making the best film he can. Shouldn’t you feel the same way about your own work?
What Should We Steal?
- Play with your audience’s expectations and subvert them when necessary. Once you’ve clearly laid out the rules of the world in which your story works, feel free to change up the formula
- Prepare your audience for what will happen and make all of your surprises natural in retrospect. Just like in the real world, all of your surprises must have a perfectly reasonable explanation.
- Give your pieces the attention they deserve. In a way, you are the parent of your stories and poems; prepare them for the world with the same dedication you would give a child.
1991, Audience Preparation, James Cameron, Skynet, William Wisher Jr.