Interlude of Silence

As the summer of 1975 approached, the world waited for Jaws.

jaws

 

Of course today, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece–based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley–is widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time.  The suspense, characters, and drama of Jaws definitely place it in cinema’s upper echelon.  The build-up to the premiere was intense, more than anything the world had seen before.  In many ways, with its advertising blitz and lead-up, Jaws set in motion the Hollywood phenomenon of the mega summer blockbuster that we still see today.  And it delivered in a big way, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time up until that point.  But what made it so popular?  What aspect of Jaws riveted audiences worldwide?  What, in short, propelled it into an instant classic?

Clearly, there are many strengths to the film, not just one.  But one of the reasons  it works so well is, oddly enough, the absence of the shark during the first two-thirds of the movie.  There are attacks, of course.  Swimmers are torn apart more than once.  But we don’t actually see the shark until the climactic hunt. when Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper head out and try to find it and kill it.  One explanation for this is purely practical–Spielberg and his crew struggled mightily with the mechanical shark they employed to play the part of the Great White.  It malfunctioned on a daily basis.  Therefore–the less screen time for the problematic shark, the better.  But it was more than that . . .

In the opening sequence of the film, one of the most famous scenes in movie history, a young woman, Chrissie Watkins, decides to take a swim in the ocean, shedding her clothes as she runs along the beach, a young drunk guy trying, and failing, to keep up with her.  When she plunges into the water, she is alone.  Her friend has all but passed out on the beach.

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At first, everything is tranquil, idyllic, even.  Chrissie Watkins swims out a few hundred feet, enjoying the water, the freedom, the lack of crowds.  It is late in the day, the sun sinking low in the sky, partially hidden behind thick, billowy clouds.  A beautiful evening for a swim . . .

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That’s when the camera submerges, and we see her legs kicking beneath the surface of the water.  And that’s when John Williams’ famous Jaws theme begins to play . . .

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As an audience, we know something is coming.  We even know it’s probably the shark.  But questions abound.  Is it the shark?  Or another one?  If it is Jaws, how large is the shark?  What does it look like, exactly?  When will it strike?

Years later, reflecting on the scene, Steven Spielberg said he deliberately withheld the shark from the audience here.  While he acknowledges showing the shark could have made for a great scene, he points out that by doing so, the opening sequence would have been relegated to just another monster attack.  And we have all witnessed monster scenes at the movies.  Spielberg wanted something different, more primal.  By not showing the Great White, the audience is left imagining it–or blocking it out entirely.  The absence of the “monster,” in effect, creates a much more terrifying, memorable, and powerful scene.

It’s hard for me not to relate this principle to The Eye-Dancers, in particular, and writing in general.   When I finished the first draft of The Eye-Dancers, the word count was a whopping 119,000.  After doing a round of edits, that dropped to 105,000.  But it still wasn’t completed.  More rounds of snipping and pruning followed, and the word count now stands at a shade over 95,000.  Still a good-sized novel, but nowhere near as long as it had been initially.

It’s true, there are fewer jokes told by Ryan Swinton in the final draft than there were in the initial one.  There might not be quite as many examples of Mitchell Brant‘s tall tales now than there were originally.  Maybe one or two of Marc Kuslanski‘s theories didn’t survive the editorial process, and maybe Joe Marma throws one less punch in the final draft.  But hopefully these deletions enhance what remains, and help to create a richer, better-told story.

So often, what’s not included on the printed (or digital, as the case may be!) page is just as essential, and sometimes more so, than what is actually there.  It is the empty gaps between words, the white space between scenes, the lines and paragraphs unspoken that add meaning, nuance, and texture to a story.  The silences speak volumes.

This is something Steven Spielberg knows very well.  Let us return to that opening scene of Jaws . . .

The musical score stops, abruptly, and we see Chrissie Watkins still enjoying her swim.  Then, she suddenly jerks, shutters, as something unseen grabs onto her from the murkiness below.  Her head disappears under the water.  When it appears again, she is gasping, screaming, her shrieks cutting through the darkening twilight as she is flung about by the force of whatever lurks beneath the surface.

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“It hurts,” she screams.  “It hurts!”  Temporarily she finds refuge at a buoy, holding on, hoping the attack is over.

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It isn’t.  The unseen monster returns, pulls her away, and she screams again.  Perhaps she clings to a faint hope that her friend on the beach will overhear, and come to her rescue.  But he is oblivious.

She flails at the water, desperate, fighting to escape.

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But she can’t.  And as she is pulled under, she is still screaming . . .

The next moment, the echoes of her screams fall away, muted by the depths of the sea.  All is quiet now, all is still.  The brutality of the attack stands in horrific counterpoint to the serenity of the ocean at sunset.  The buoy’s bell tinkles softly, softly.  We hear the gentle murmur of the waves as their long, restless journey finally ceases along the sandy shore of the beach.  That is all.  Nothing else can be heard.

And yet–everything can be heard . . .

In the interlude of silence.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

38 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dmauldin53
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 13:56:02

    I loved this movie! Didn’t care to much for the sequels, but the original was fantastic. 🙂

    Reply

  2. Mouse
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 13:58:41

    I love this movie! My older sister, eh, not so much, especially because when she first saw this intro, it was because my dad pulled her into the living room, telling her she needed to watch it because “it’s educational!” (Ooh, post idea, but you saw it here first!) And I just love Quint’s speech later; Robert Shaw is so awesome.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 13, 2013 @ 16:00:56

      Couldn’t agree more about Quint’s speech! That was one of the best scenes in the movie.

      Reply

      • Mouse
        Mar 13, 2013 @ 20:21:45

        I know behind the scenes the writers were having problems with the speech and, if I remember correctly, Robert Shaw had a go at writing his own version, and his is the version that they used for the film. Which makes it even more awesome! (Sorry for this reply being so late.)

      • The Eye-Dancers
        Mar 14, 2013 @ 12:05:28

        You’re right–Robert Shaw did end up writing that speech! He obviously had a lot of insight with the character he played. Have you ever seen From Russia With Love?–one of the earliest, and best, of the Bond movies. Shaw plays a Bond villain in that one . . .

      • Mouse
        Mar 14, 2013 @ 12:17:24

        No, I haven’t seen that yet, but I’ve always meant to check that movie out, because of him. (Ehh, Bond in general just doesn’t interest me, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ever watch the films….)

      • The Eye-Dancers
        Mar 14, 2013 @ 14:12:11

        I would definitely recommend From Russia With Love! It’s a good place to start with Bond. It has the best Bond–Sean Connery. And, being a Shaw fan, you’ll be sure to like it. Shaw plays the villain and is really good (err, bad) in this movie! There is a fight between Shaw’s character and Bond near the end, on a train, that is one of the best hand-to-hand battles you’ll ever see in a movie. If you do see this film, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

      • Mouse
        Mar 14, 2013 @ 21:34:58

        Well, then I will find it and watch it, and let you know!

  3. honeydidyouseethat?
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 14:43:41

    Hey! Am about one third of the way through, The Eye Dancers. Interesting that you draw the parallel of introducing the shark and the baddy. (Don’t want to give it away.) Having fun reading.

    Reply

  4. Charron's Chatter
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 19:45:36

    less is absolutely more.

    Reply

  5. words4jp
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 19:56:31

    I remember Jaws – it left an indelible impression. Sometimes less is more – sometimes it is what is heard or the indirect action(s) that add the most suspense and anticipation! I am certain with writing it is similar.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 14, 2013 @ 12:07:41

      In a movie, often my favorite scenes occur when the actors don’t say a thing–just a glance, a certain expression . . . moments like that, acted well, are often very moving and say more than dialogue ever could.

      Reply

  6. 2embracethelight
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 20:36:04

    I saw all the Jaw’s movies. They were thrilling.
    YIsraela

    Reply

  7. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 23:55:29

    Jaws is top of my list of favorite movies. The scene where Robert Shaw relates the horror of the sinking of the Indianapolis is spine chilling.

    Reply

  8. kingdom777
    Mar 14, 2013 @ 00:04:55

    I’ll never forget that scene. You describe it beautifully. No one went swimming at the beach that year 🙂

    Reply

  9. The Green Eyed Geisha
    Mar 14, 2013 @ 05:18:22

    I hated and loved this move all at once. 🙂 Thanks for bringing all the memories love and loathing back …ah, the 1970’s were awesome. 🙂

    Reply

  10. fortyoneteen
    Mar 14, 2013 @ 11:04:48

    Great post Mike, you have me thinking. It can be hard to lose sentences, paragraphs and even entire scenes. It takes so much to create, but is so easy to cut? I once had this sentence I adored but it had no home in the short story. I couldn’t make it work and I cut it, ouch! I’m sure I’ll find a home for it one day. The silence speaks volumes? Well said!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 14, 2013 @ 12:11:31

      Cutting is one of the hardest things to do, that’s for sure. So often, there is a sentence I like, or a scene I really want to keep, but it just doesn’t fit within the story. I know that happened several times in The Eye-Dancers! But you’re right. A lot of times those deletions can resurface, in one form or another, in another story later on . . .

      Reply

  11. maryamchahine
    Mar 14, 2013 @ 14:24:21

    Very good point about gaps in a story or movie adding a special element. I was just commenting on a writer’s spooky store on another blog and applauded the writer on leaving out many things as it created more suspense. When I’m reading a story, I don’t generally like being told every detail. I like to imagine some of the things on my own as my imagination works really well as does most people.

    There is a movie, I think it called The Limey, that uses the same effect as Jaws. A man goes into a building and shoots a lot of people, but the director only allows you to see the building and hear the shots, you don’t actually see what’s going on inside. It was a very memorable scene.

    Thanks for confirming this important aspect of a story. I’m currently working on my first novel, and I’m hoping to achieve some of the same things that scenes in Jaws achieves.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 14, 2013 @ 18:13:46

      Thanks so much for the great examples! I haven’t seen The Limey, but the scene you describe sounds riveting, and you’re right, of course–it’s made much more powerful due to what’s not shown. And good luck with your novel! Writing a novel is often quite an emotional roller coaster. You have good days and bad days with it.:)

      Reply

      • maryamchahine
        Mar 15, 2013 @ 13:54:30

        Yes, it’s been an up and down experience for sure. Some days the words just flow and other days, I have to pull the words out. Thanks for the well wishes on my novel.

  12. Dish With Clarissa
    Mar 14, 2013 @ 20:09:08

    My all time favorite movie. What turned me into a shark lover….lol

    Reply

  13. Fashion Mayann
    Mar 15, 2013 @ 11:59:02

    Thanks so much for reminding me how this movie frightened me ages ago (your writing is really intense !), and for following my blog. Greetings from France !

    Reply

  14. kelihasablog
    Mar 15, 2013 @ 20:36:32

    Oh I’ve always hated that movie…lol. I grew up on an island which naturally had a beach on the Atlantic side, but after that movie, I would never go in over my knees again… 😀

    Reply

  15. reocochran
    Mar 16, 2013 @ 04:43:48

    I like dramatic movies, that is one of them. I do feel it is nice when they have character development, too. The Bourne books and movies are good for that and action, too. I am not crazy about sharks, myself!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 18, 2013 @ 13:51:30

      I like the Bourne books and movies too, and I couldn’t agree more about character development. That’s what makes Jaws a great movie–the main characters are all very well drawn and compelling individuals.

      Reply

  16. Catherine Sherman
    Mar 27, 2013 @ 12:52:15

    My little brother saw “Jaws” before I did, and at first I wondered why he was behaving so strangely. He would walk around the house jerking and acting as if he were being pulled under.

    I don’t know whether “Jaws” had an influence on my dislike of going into the ocean, but I certainly avoid. Crocodiles kill more people every year than sharks do, but there’s something about the fact that most shark attacks seem to be while people are enjoying themselves on vacation which make sharks seem more terrifying. I was recently in Africa staying near a river full of crocodiles, and although we were warned not to go to the river (also full of dangerous hippos) there wasn’t the same sort of hysteria people feel about sharks. How much did “Jaws” have to do with that, I wonder.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 27, 2013 @ 17:22:11

      I think “Jaws” did have an effect. For a while there, it probably had a big effect! But at the same time, there is a certain mystique a shark has that no other predator does, not even, as you point out, crocodiles. Very interesting comments! Thanks for sharing.:)

      Reply

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