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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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 . . .

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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 . . .

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

When It’s Okay to Break the Rules

Do you like grammar?  Or do you approach the subject with a frown, a sideways glance, and maybe even a loud, expletive-laced groan?

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I admit, I’m one of those odd ducks who genuinely enjoys English grammar.  My fascination with dangling participles, comma splices, and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses began in the eighth grade.  My English teacher that year was a stickler for details, and did not tolerate clumsy grammar.

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I can still remember the way she used to pound it in our heads, day after day, not to use a subject as an object in a prepositional phrase.  This was her number-one grammatical pet peeve.  “It’s not correct to say ‘for you and I,'” she would shout.  “Take out the ‘you.’  Would you then say, ‘for I’?”  Many of her students would bury their head in their hands, a glazed, get-me-out-of-this-class look in their eyes.  But I enjoyed these lessons.

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So it is certainly my hope that The Eye-Dancers is free of grammatical errors.  Then again, when going strictly by the letter of the traditional law, The Eye-Dancers is littered with grammar issues.  And so is just about every book published today.

A case in point:

“As soon as he [Mitchell Brant] opened the door, a bell jangled, announcing his presence. Faces turned to look at him. Grizzled old faces, coated with stubble. Fresh, young faces, questioning, sizing him up. Middle-aged faces, embedded with deep smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes. The attention made him uncomfortable, and he glanced behind him, through the window. He saw the girl walking away.

Whew.”

This excerpt is from chapter eight of The Eye-Dancers.  And–technically speaking, we have issues here.  Notice the number of sentence fragments.  Three alone in the first paragraph.  And in the second paragraph, another one.  Not to mention it represents a one-word paragraph.  A by-the-book grammarian might tell me to get rid of the fragments.  Turn them into grammatically complete sentences.  And, for heaven’s sake, don’t ever write a one-word paragraph!

My response?  True.  I have broken a few of the rules here–but deliberately so.  Sentence fragments, when used judiciously and appropriately, can add punch to a narrative.  They are short, staccato nuggets that help to move a story along.  It’s important not to go overboard, of course, and if they appear in every paragraph, they become tiresome and repetitious.  But when used in the right places, they can add rhythm and flow to your writing.

As for a one-word, or one-line paragraph–I believe, when used in the right places, this can add emphasis to the narrative.  The “whew” above is a good example.  If it were tacked on at the end of the first paragraph, it would be an afterthought.  Setting it apart, as a one-word paragraph, adds to the feel of it.  This way, you can almost see Mitchell breathing a sigh of relief.  “Whew.”  It gives it extra weight.

Another hard-line rule is never to end a sentence with a preposition.  But we do it all the time–in our speech and our writing.  If we tried to adhere to this rule, our writing would sound overly formal and stuffy.  Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, once responded to a critic who pointed out that he’d ended some of his sentences with prepositions by saying, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

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Point taken.

This of course does not apply to egregious grammatical errors.  Imagine trying to read a sentence like this:  “She, went to, the store to buy a, loaf, of bread.”  It’s understandable, but the misuse of commas makes this an awkward, difficult reading experience.  Errors like this can ruin a piece regardless of how effective the content might be.

In dialogue, of course, the standards are different–less stringent than in narrative text.  If your character speaks in slang, and altogether butchers proper English grammar, more power to her!  Even English professors commit all manner of grammatical faux pas when they speak.

For example, I picture an English prof, on a Friday night, after a hard day of teaching the rules of proper usage and airtight grammar, hitting the town with her friends.  It’s time to relax, have fun, throw caution to the wind.  If I were writing her as a character in a story, I might have her speak in occasional double negatives, say “that” when she should say “which,” and introduce herself and her friends as, “Me and. . . .”  I might even have her wear her “split infinitives” T-shirt, for good measure!

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But then, the following day, she would have a stack of papers to grade, and she would once again put on her English professor’s cap.  Because she would realize . . .

In order to know when it’s okay to break the rules of English grammar, you first need to understand and acknowledge the rules you’re breaking.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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