The Terminator: Film & Story Structure
Looking at key story elements from the 1984 film The Terminator
The Terminator (1984) is the film that kicked off the Terminator franchise. It was directed by James Cameron and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, proving to be one of Arnold’s most memorable roles.
Los Angeles, 2029. Post-nuclear war. A battle is raging between humans and robots.
This first scene sets the table for the rest of the story as we’re then immediately thrown into 1984 (present day). It tells us that an apocalyptic event is on the horizon.
A cyborg called a ‘Terminator’ and a man named Kyle Reese are sent back in time to Los Angeles in 1984. Later in the film, we learn their missions conflict with each other’s. The Terminator was sent back in time to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor and Reese was sent to save her.
(You could also argue that the inciting incident is actually when John Connor successfully leads a resistance group of humans against Skynet. This event, though taking place in the future, sets the story in motion and draws the main character, Sarah, into the storyline. But it is only represented in the film through dialogue near the midpoint. The scene where the Terminator and Kyle Reese suddenly appear in 1984 LA does more to visually set the story in motion and grab the attention of the audience. Therefore, it does more to carry the film forward.)
Act One Plot Point
Act one’s climax is when Sarah realizes someone is hunting her and that she’s in danger. Kyle Reese saves her from being killed by the Terminator.
Now that both the Terminator and Kyle have found Sarah, we are moved into the film’s second act.
This major plot point is also when the main character’s dramatic need is introduced: Sarah Connor’s need to survive. It’s this question (“will Sarah survive?”) that keeps the audience engaged through to the end of the story, when the question is answered.
At the midpoint of the film, Kyle explains the situation Sarah is in. He tells her that her unborn son will one day lead a group of resistance fighters against Skynet. To prevent that from happening, the Terminator was sent to the past to kill Sarah.
With that information, our view of the story changes and the stakes have been raised for the rest of the film.
Act Two Plot Point
The climax of the second act is really a plot point from the B story (the relationship between Sarah and Kyle). While hiding from the Terminator in a motel room, Sarah asks Kyle what 2029 is like. She’s bothered by how awful it sounds and she begins to understand him better. Kyle tells Sarah how, from the future, he has always loved her.
This pulls us into the third act, where the action of the Terminator’s hunt increases and Kyle and Sarah work as a team to defeat the cyborg.
Climax & Resolution
Sarah destroys the Terminator, but Kyle is killed in the final battle. In the final scene, Sarah is on her own, pregnant with John Connor, preparing for the coming war. We find out that Kyle is John Connor’s father, which resolves the B story.
The Terminator is a film about doing more than you think you can. Initially, Sarah doesn’t believe that she is the key to the future survival of humans. “Do I look like the mother of the future?”, she asks Kyle in act two. As the story moves into the third act, we see Sarah’s confidence increase with each obstacle she faces. In the final scene, Sarah is on her own, prepared for the coming fight.
The relationship between Sarah and Kyle is the film’s B story. It helps carry the theme of “doing more than you think you can” through the film.
At the beginning, Sarah doesn’t believe what Kyle says about the Terminator and that he’s from the future (that is a lot to take in at one time). In terms of achieving her dramatic need (to survive), she is a passive character in most of act two, meaning things are happening to her. In the third act, she begins to trust Kyle and grows into an active character, meaning her initiative drives her to succeed in surviving (achieving the dramatic need).
With a lot of back story needing to be told in a film like The Terminator, one of the greatest challenges is getting this information across to the audience without losing their interest or slowing the story too much.
Near the midpoint, a lot of exposition is used to paint the dramatic situation: what happened after the nuclear holocaust and why the Terminator is after Sarah. Kyle explains this to Sarah while they’re in a car, hiding from police and the Terminator. By creating a scene that pauses the action but remains tense, the writers were able to add the necessary exposition through Kyle’s dialogue without losing the audience’s attention.
Thanks for reading.
The Story Department is where I write about the story structure of films. I focus on identifying key story elements that serve to carry dramatic action forward so we can see how these films work.
“Hollywood… Not a place on the map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream, wonder, and imagine.” -Michael Eisner at the dedication of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This idea serves as my catalyst for writing about film and story structure.
Hollywood, as a creative state of mind.
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