Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life.
Story of Your Life is a 1998 Nebula-winning science fiction novella, later adapted as the film Arrival. Written by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life takes a less than exciting idea – variational principles in physics – and transforms it into a moving story about a linguist encountering aliens, intimately woven around her own relationship with her daughter.
It also addresses linguistics and the question of what we would do if we could see the future.
Would we still make the same choices?
Would we still have free will?
What does it mean to remember the future?
Structurally, the story plays out as a loop, beginning and ending in the same place. The main plot is a chronological sequence interspersed with future events deliberately shown out of order.
As a result, the story’s structure represents the language of the aliens, whose perception of time is different from humans.
WARNING: While this post deals primarily with technique, narrative devices and how they’re used to explore the themes of the story, SPOILERS may be present. I have not described the plot in detail, but read on at your own risk!
Author Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang is not a prolific author. And in spite of the success of his science fiction stories, he has never had a novel published, and each story takes a long time to write.
He’s not concerned with a large body of work. Rather, he dives deep into the subject matter of each story, researching, making notes, before he even begins to write.
In the case of Story of Your Life, he spent five years immersing himself in the field of linguistics before starting the novella.
Interestingly, Chiang told one interviewer that he doesn’t start writing a story until he knows how it ends. He writes the ending first.
Once he knows the final destination of the narrative, he can then build the rest.
The beginning of a story is usually the second thing he writes. In Story of Your Life this particularly makes sense because the ending and beginning are so intimately connected.
Chiang also writes key scenes and then fills in other scenes after that. In filling in, he might go back as well as forward in the narrative. It’s not a chronological form of story telling.
Again, this style is particularly evident in Story of Your Life.
The novella likely benefits from this approach because it fits with one of the central ideas of the story. The heptapod written language involves the aliens knowing the whole structure of their complicated sentences in advance. This connects to their perception of time, which is not linear or sequential.
Chiang adopted a similar technique for this and other stories. He has to know his destination before he starts writing.
A linguist is recruited to help the military and scientists communicate with aliens whose ships have appeared above Earth. The aliens are called heptapods. Communication takes place through the use of ‘looking glasses’ which allow the linguists and scientists to see the aliens.
The narrator Louise is matched to work with a physicist, Gary. Because for humans to hopefully learn about alien technology and their understanding of physics, they first of all have to establish communication.
Weaving through the story of learning the heptapod language are ideas about linguistics and how language affects human cognition.
Additionally, it becomes apparent that the heptapods don’t have a linear understanding of time. Through learning the heptapod language, the main character starts to see the future, including the daughter who is not yet born. This raises questions about free will.
The aliens in the novel are barrel-like with seven lidless eyes circling the body. They don’t need to turn round because with eyes on all sides, they have no front or back in the human sense.
They have two languages – spoken and written. Initially, Louise tries to deal with their spoken language (Heptapod A). But progress is difficult.
Realising they likely also have a written language (Heptapod B), she finds more success here, though it will take time to learn even the basics.
The novella raises the issue of how to communicate in a completely new language, with no common foundations.
But Heptapod B is also very different from human languages in the way it uses case markers and rotation to denote meaning.
As time goes on, Louise learns more of the written language, which begins to impact the way she sees the world. Specifically, the way she sees time.
And it becomes obvious that the heptapods themselves likely see time in a very different way from humans. As less sequential.
The story explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a person’s thinking and perception are affected by the grammatical and verbal structure of their language.
An obvious example would be the many Inuit words for different types of snow. Most people in other climates have a more simplified perception of snow, and an easier way to describe it. Either because they don’t encounter snow as often, or their survival doesn’t depend on being able to identify the different types.
In the story, by learning a non-sequential language, where the end point is already known, Louise starts to see her own life non-sequentially. Hence, she knows her daughter’s life from beginning to end, before she’s even born.
But because her daughter will die tragically young, this raises the question of whether Louise could or would change the future.
Does free will exist? Even though she knows the outcome, she is still compelled to move towards it.
The use of tense and point of view
The story is told in first-person voice, from the perspective of the central character, Louise. She starts from the point just before her daughter is conceived.
The novel also ends at this point, circling back to the beginning.
This present appears in present tense. From there her narrative looks back (past tense) to the arrival of both the aliens and those who recruit her to her new role communicating with the alien heptapods.
But she also remembers the future with her daughter who won’t even be born until after the aliens depart. When Louise remembers the future, she does so in future tense:
I remember one day during the summer when you’re sixteen...
Note how she’s also addressing her daughter. The passages remembering the future appear in second person/future tense.
It’s soon revealed however that she never gets the opportunity to tell her daughter the story of her life. Louise knows in advance that the right moment will never come.
We learn near the beginning of the story that her daughter dies in an accident.
The first thing to note about the novella’s structure is that the sections set around the heptapods and the language acquisition issues are told in chronological order, in contrast to the future memories which are jumbled up.
The main plot relating to communicating with the heptapods is somewhat heavy in ideas and theory.
It’s not always the case, but some of these scenes are drier than those looking to the future.
Scenes with the unnamed daughter bring light, emotion, and more humanity to the story.
Chiang has balanced these elements well, leading to a solid structure and pace.
The flash forward scenes weave in and out of the main narrative and while Louise tells us at the outset how this story ends, what packs the emotional punch at the end is seeing an entire life in fragments.
It’s already clear that this story begins and ends in the same place.
So what about the rest of the structure? If we were to adopt the structural breakdown that KM Weiland talks about in her book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, the structural points might be broken down as below.
The resolution of the novel circles back to the opening hook. We learn on the second page of the story that spaceships have arrived. That’s definitely part of the opening hook. On the second last page of the story those ships depart and the final scene returns to the present, just before the daughter’s conception. Exactly where the story started.
If we look to the inciting event being about 12.5% into the narrative, that would fit with Louise’s first sighting of the heptapods through the ‘looking glass’ devices. She has already been recruited to communicate with them near the beginning/opening hook. This is also where she starts working with Gary, and their working relationship will heavily impact her future.
The first plot point (25%) introduces the logograms and the beginning of the writing system that will change the perception of any human who learns it.
The first pinch point (37.5) reveals the nature of Heptapod B, a language with a grammar in two dimensions. A full fledged graphical language. Louise has made a breakthrough with the written language.
Meanwhile the midpoint introduces Fermat’s Principle of Least Time where a ray of light takes the fastest route through water. After trying and failing to engage with the heptapods on physics, this is the first breakthrough. This is a variational principle. Gary is the one who explains it.
The next structural point has the two of them discuss this principle and how it means the light ray has to know ahead of time where it will end up before it can choose the direction it will take.
This strikes a chord with Louise who has already seen the heptapods write in real time. They too need to know in advance the direction the strokes in their complex logograms will take.
Around the second plot point or 75% mark there is a question of whether it’s possible to know the future.
The existence of free will seems to suggest otherwise.
Yet Louise sees an object in front of her that will cause her daughter a minor injury in the future. Louise still feels compelled to reach for it and buy it. It feels right and instinctual.
The 88% mark introduces subject of gift giving between humans and heptapods. By this time, thanks to learning a non-sequential language, Louise knows what will happen, just like the heptapods. She is merely playing her part and saying her lines as the story moves towards its conclusion.
The military and government have their hopes that some new technology will be handed over. For them this would be their ultimate goal, the climax of the interaction which runs up to the resolution.
For Louise, the gift is the knowledge of the future, not to mention her daughter who is an indirect consequence of the alien visitation. She will also start a relationship during this period.
And so the story moves to its conclusion, circling back to the beginning.
If this all sounds very dry, it’s because I’ve left out the more personal subplots that also tie in. In case you want to read the story yourself. Plus the thematic elements and linguistic breakthroughs are what actually happens at these percentage points.
While you don’t have to hit these points, they are useful in analysing a story’s structure. Most of all, they are a good reminder that something needs to happen/change every so often.
You cannot have long scenes and chapters where nothing happens.
And when things do happen, they should be building on one another, as they do in Story of Your Life.
Chiang’s structure and language/physics plot develops nicely to its conclusion, weaving together with the more emotional and personal story of Louise and her future daughter.
Finally it all comes together in the resolution.
The question of free will
Since I didn’t write this post as a general review of the novella, I don’t want to get too much into themes. However, I did want to address the issue of whether free will is possible when you know the future already.
One reason for addressing this is the very structure and narrative choices the author has made illustrates why Louise does not attempt to change the future, even though she knows the outcome.
Normally, the idea of knowing the future so you can change it deals with something simple – you have an intuition/dream not to get on a plane because it will crash. If you believe this intuition, your choice doesn’t just extend to whether you save your own life, but whether you try to stop the plane from taking off.
The problem is you don’t have the whole story of why the plane is in danger. You have an end prediction, with little to no context.
In the case of Story of Your Life, sometime after she begins learning Heptapod B, Louise starts to see flashes of the future with her daughter. Even before her daughter is conceived, she has seen the whole of her daughter’s life.
She has also felt the love and maternal bond she will have for this daughter, and she can see that in spite of knowing how her daughter’s life ends, it’s all still worth it.
She is compelled to live out her fate. Just like the heptapods who enthusiastically interact with the linguists even though the aliens know everything the humans will say and do in advance. Knowing the future doesn’t seem to dampen the heptapod’s interest. In fact, going through with the action formalises it. Which relates to something else that comes up in the story – speech-act theory.
Ted Chiang’s use of future tense scenes, interwoven with the main plot, makes Louise’s future with her daughter the most vibrant part of the novella.
It also perfectly illustrates why Louise, having considered the question of free will when you know the future, still carries on the path that will lead to her losing her child.
Because, as the novella shows clearly, Louise already knows and loves the child before she’s even conceived.
No wonder she feels compelled to act out this future, with all the joys and sorrows she knows lie ahead.
Like Fermat’s Principle of Least Time and the beam of light passing through water, Louise already knows her destination.
What lessons can we learn from this novella?
While point of view and tense are things all fiction writers deal with, they are usually not used to reinforce a theme or display an idea – certainly not the way Chiang used both in Story of Your Life.
It’s certainly true that both can be approached in a more utilitarian way.
In which case your safest bet would be third-person POV/past tense. This is a largely invisible combination that does not draw attention to itself and which is less likely to annoy readers.
Alternatively, you can use first-person POV and past tense – another safe combination.
You can certainly change tenses and points of view within a narrative, but there needs to be a good narrative reason.
In Story of Your Life there are very good reasons.
Likewise, Chiang’s particular method of putting together a story – starting with the end, then the beginning, then filling in the rest, will work for some people, but not everyone!
In conclusion, it’s always worth looking at how a classic story has been constructed and why the author has chosen certain narrative devices. Especially an award-winning adapted novella that still impresses after a quarter of a century.
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