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

Interlude of Silence

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

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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

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