The Exception That Proves the Rule (Or, That Is One Spellbinding Shark Tale . . .)

The mega-summer blockbuster has become a trademark in Hollywood.  Each year, as the summer season approaches, there are a select few movies that receive tremendous amounts of hype and fanfare.  It’s been this way for nearly forty years now–and the film that perhaps started it all was Jaws.  Based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, Jaws was hyped as no movie before it ever had been, and it didn’t disappoint.  From the time of its release, early in the summer of 1975, to this day, Steven Spielberg’s shark thriller remains one of the all-time classics–and one of my favorite movies.

jaws

 

But what makes Jaws great?  When you think of the movie, what stands out?  Perhaps it’s the opening sequence, where a young woman dives into the ocean, and as twilight descends, becomes the first victim of the Great White that is roaming the waters off of Amity Island.  Maybe it’s the unforgettable musical score by John Williams, which has a life, and energy, all its own.  Maybe it’s the interplay between the three protagonists–Brody, the beleaguered chief of police; Matt Hooper, the marine biologist flown in to help investigate the attacks; and Quint, the hardened seaman who has an Ahab-like quest to kill the shark.

brody

 

hooper

 

quint

 

It could be any of these, or more, that stand out, and with good reason.  There are many strengths to this film.

But the one moment, the defining scene in the movie, for me, has always been the long speech that Quint delivers while he, Brody, and Hooper are aboard the Orca, Quint’s vessel, hunting for the Great White.

To back up–to this point in the movie, we have witnessed several shark attacks, the local community is in a state of disbelief and panic, and the friction that has developed between Quint and Brody, and especially Quint and Hooper, is palpable.  But the scene in which Quint delivers his monologue begins with a dose of male bonding.

malebonding

 

Quint and Hooper, temporarily setting aside their differences, compare “war wounds”–cuts and bruises acquired over the years, as Brody looks on, amused.

warwounds2

 

warwounds

 

This is the backdrop for one of the Silver Screen’s most memorable speeches.

***************

When I took a Fiction Workshop as a graduate student, the professor who taught the class had several literary pet peeves.  One of them was lengthy, drawn-out monologues.

“People simply don’t talk that way,” he said.  “Listen to conversations.  Rarely does one person ramble on endlessly, apart from a lecture or a formal speech.  With very few exceptions, there is nearly always a give-and-take.”

Certainly, in The Eye-Dancers, Marc Kuslanski would love to monopolize his share of conversations and expostulate on the theories of the universe.  And over the course of the novel, he certainly does offer a few lengthy explanations of the predicament in which he, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton find themselves.  But these are limited in number, and often interrupted by another character’s comments or observations.  Nowhere in The Eye-Dancers does Marc ramble on and on for paragraphs on end.

Generally, having a character monopolize a conversation to that extent will backfire.  It slows down the story, dulls the dialogue with the other characters, and very often provides much more information than we need.

boringspeech2

 

But every now and then . . . when the stars align just so and a story calls for it . . . there is indeed a time and a place.

Once such time, and one such place, occurs in the cabin of the Orca, as evening sets in over the Atlantic . . .

***************

Quint, serious, somber, begins to tell his story . . .

He tells Brody and Hooper that he was on a secret mission on the USS Indianapolis, near the end of The Second World War, when disaster struck.

“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief,” he says. . . . “Eleven hundred men went into the water.  Vessel went down in twelve minutes.”  Here, the shark hunter pauses, gathering his thoughts.  Already we as the audience can see his mind is miles away, in the Pacific, three decades ago . . .

quinttelling

 

“Didn’t see the first shark for about half an hour,” he resumes.  “Tiger–thirteen footer.  You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief?  You tell by lookin’ at the dorsal to the tail.”  Another pause, as the camera zooms in on Quint’s face.  His expression is calm, deliberate, but there is something in his eyes, as he remembers . . .

He explains the mission he was on was so secret, no distress signal went out.  He and the one-thousand-plus sailors with him were stranded, in the middle of the ocean.  They weren’t even listed as overdue for an entire week.  The camera pans to Brody, and then back to Quint, who takes a drink.

“Very first light, Chief,” he says, “the sharks come cruisin’.  So we formed ourselves into tight groups. . . . And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man, and he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, and sometimes the shark would go away.  Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya, right into your eyes.  You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes . . .  When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’.  Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white, and then . . . and then ya hear that terrible, high-pitched screamin’.  The ocean turns red and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and rip you to pieces.”

Again, Quint pauses, as the camera pans to Brody and then Hooper, staring at the old seaman, wide-eyed, rapt.  Quint says in that first dawn, they had already lost a hundred men to the sharks.

quintspeechhooperlookson

 

“On Thursday mornin’, Chief,” he goes on, “I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. . . . I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake ‘im up.  Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top.  Up-ended.  Well–he’d been bitten in half below the waist.”

Another pause as the words, the images, sink in, the pace measured.  And again we see Brody and Hooper looking on.

quinteyes

 

Quint then explains that at noon on the fifth day, adrift at sea, a passing aircraft happened to see the survivors.  Finally, rescue–for the sailors who had survived.

“Eleven hundred men went into the water,” he says.  “Three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest . . .”

When Quint finishes his speech, Brody and Hooper mesmerized by the story they’ve just heard, there comes the haunting, lonely call of a whale.  It is the perfect summation of the scene, a final exclamation point for the mood Quint’s monologue has created.

Within minutes, literally, all hell breaks loose, as the shark and its pursuers engage in an all-out war.

allhell

 

huntin

 

But for me, it is this scene, this speech (masterfully delivered by actor Robert Shaw, who plays Quint and wrote the speech himself) that defines the greatness of Jaws.

***********

If, in the story you are writing, one of your characters is yearning to deliver a Quint-like tour de force, it is probably best to show restraint.  The speech that brings goose bumps and causes readers (or viewers) to inch forward, to the edge of their seat, is rare–like a precious jewel buried beneath a mound of dirt.  There are many more misses than hits.

hiddenjewel

 

But as with nearly every other “rule” of good storytelling, there are exceptions.

It is our job as writers to recognize these exceptions when they occur and use them to maximum effect.

A good shark tale should not go untold . . .

shark!

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

38 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jjspina
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 19:40:17

    You had me from the word ‘shark.’ Love that movie, ‘Jaws.’ That part of the movie is the best part because you know that something is going to happen right after he finishes his monologue. Three great actors in that movie but only one is still living.

    Thank you for phrasing it all so eloquently. Do you also have a gift for gab? You are very talented, Mike.

    Reply

  2. Sean Smithson
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 19:55:06

    Brilliant stuff. And do you know, even though I’ve seen that movie countless times, I couldn’t instantly pick out that that was the scene you were going to refer to even though it is one of the most poignant.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 24, 2014 @ 18:31:39

      Glad you enjoyed this . . . and it goes to show that “Jaws” has so many great aspects to it. You can literally choose a dozen or more parts of the film that make it so memorable . . .

      Reply

  3. Lyn
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 21:36:40

    You had me on the edge of my seat just reading about Quint’s monologue. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Jaws – probably about thirty years. It scared the heck out of me then and it probably would again. That music is unmistakable and the only time I laugh when I hear it is in Shark Tales – or if my granddaughter not-so-quietly sneaks up on me going, “do-doot, do-doot, do-doot” (brat!). Another great review Mike, thank you.

    Reply

  4. teagan geneviene
    Feb 21, 2014 @ 21:39:26

    Unmatched eloquence yet again, Mike. Chilling but beautiful post.

    Reply

  5. Dilip
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 15:27:35

    Gripping and beautifully scripted. Thank you 🙂

    Reply

  6. Lola Rugula
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 17:07:45

    One of my favorite movies, Mike, and also a fantastic book! I read it again, just about 8 years ago, and was just as enraptured then as I was the first time.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 24, 2014 @ 18:34:23

      Thanks, Lesley! And I agree–the book is great, too, but . . . I actually think this is one of those very rare cases where the movie might just be better than the book . . .!

      Reply

  7. mcwoman
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 20:24:49

    Mike — As usual, your blog was a good read. I get goose bumps when I recall this scene from the movie that kept so many people out of the water in 1975. It’s the pauses in the long dialogue that really build the suspense. The pacing is so important with something like this. You’re right. It is a jewel.

    Reply

  8. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 22:39:05

    One of my favorite movies. Also a favorite of our 7 year old granddaughter! Good read Mike.

    Reply

  9. Antionette Blake
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 02:35:33

    Jaws was and will always be the best summer movie ever!

    Reply

  10. Emma Sarah Tennant
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 13:16:05

    Thanks for posting, I enjoyed reading about that.

    Reply

  11. Sam Han
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 17:41:15

    It is an interesting read. I did’t really understand the mood until now. Thanks for enlightening. I will remember your thoughts if I get to see Jaws again. It would be interesting now that I have a perspective to anchor on 😀

    Reply

  12. Sue Dreamwalker
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 20:33:18

    Wow… now I found that a interesting post… I remember being terrified when watching this film first time around,, upon the 5th time lol it had lost its terror.. Sharks are now an endangered species and without them in the ocean it would upset its own natural balance….
    Thank you for this entertaining read behind the scenes again.. 🙂 it brought it all back.. x Sue

    Reply

  13. evelyneholingue
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 21:41:09

    Dialogues, I agree, are best to convey the characters’ ideas and actions. They are one the hardest things to do well, since like you say, they must be true to life. And again, you have the exceptions that, once in a while, make the best books. I just finish The Goldfinch by Dona Tartt. Shorter books are supposed to be the best. Hers is loooong, but I read it in a few days. Impossible to put down, despite or because this book isn’t obeying the rules: show versus tell, short descriptions, etc etc. So you’re right, the best is balance for the unexperienced writers we still are, but the masters can leave us with breathtaking books and movies without following any specific rules. One day we will be there!!!! Keep up the good work.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 25, 2014 @ 14:33:26

      Thanks so much! I have been enjoying blogging about the “rules” of writing and no doubt will post a few more times on said rules! Always very much appreciate your comments and thoughts!:)

      Reply

  14. Shelley
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 23:27:06

    The movie that gave me nightmares! As for the dialogue, Quint was brilliant. The thing about real life is soooo many people grab the conch and don’t share regardless of the non-verbal and verbal messages. Sometimes it’s so awful, it’s funny.

    Reply

  15. laurie27wsmith
    Feb 25, 2014 @ 00:31:15

    Quite a movie, it left many afraid to even sit on the toilet without wondering what might leap out. 🙂 Sometimes you have to let the character speak other times, well… In my second novel I have a girl giving a lengthy statement to a detective in regards to her kidnap, abuse and escape. I found the easiest way after a few sentences was to then show the reader by going back to the event. It’s definitely flying by the seat of your pants stuff at times.
    Cheers
    Laurie.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 25, 2014 @ 14:36:27

      It definitely is–and you’re right, those are very challenging scenes, where a character has to give a recap of events or a description of a theory, etc. There are a few avenues writers can take to address these scenes–and like everything else in writing, no one “rule” fits all! .

      Reply

  16. Sherri
    Feb 25, 2014 @ 17:00:14

    What a great post Mike, as always, the way you draw out the very best of this all time classic film Jaws (one of my favourites too!) to a writing ‘exception to the rule’, or, as you say, sometimes no rules at all! After all, a good shark tale should definitely not go untold 😉

    Reply

  17. maryamchahine
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 17:24:12

    Yes, long monologues can be boring, but I think it depends on what the character is talking about and whether the character has an interesting manner of speech. I was talking about balance on another blog, and writing is about finding the right balance. It’s better to stick with what is safe, but sometimes it’s nice to take risks, especially if you have a character that can pull it off. Hope you are doing well, Mike!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 03, 2014 @ 17:59:33

      Great to hear from you! And you bring up a very good point about the character being able to pull off a long speech. Certainly, using Quint’s speech as an example, the scene wouldn’t have worked if his character wasn’t up for the challenge. Hope you’re doing well, too.:)

      Reply

  18. stormy1812
    Mar 10, 2014 @ 06:14:11

    I’m so sorry I’m so delayed in reading this one. First off, I’m quite sure “Jaws” is the reason that I’m petrified of sharks lol but also why I’m so fascinated by them (Shark Week has also helped the fear and increased the fascination). Second, Quint’s speech really was amazing and the stories I hear was that he was quite drunk that night lol but when it came down to really having to get the scene done, he nailed it. It was very powerful. Timing was everything for that to work and how he portrayed it. The story of the USS Indianapolis is harrowing for sure but Quint’s retelling…powerful (even if it’s from a fictional character). I’m not sure I’m cut out for fiction writing, but if I ever do it, I’ll certainly keep your keen advice in mind. 🙂 As always, great writing from you!

    Reply

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