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Thursday, March 07, 2013

Five Lessons Writers Can Learn From Jaws

It must have been my weekend for movies. In addition to watching 13 Going On 30, I also saw a show on the Biography Channel about the making of the movie Jaws. There were a lot of interesting things shared about the movie and some of them made me think of what they mean for writing books.

1. The shark was supposed to appear a lot more than it did in the movie. Steven Spielberg had it all storyboarded out, but the mechanical shark didn't cooperate. It was constantly broken. Because of that, he was forced to imply the shark was there. It made the movie much scarier because the audience was supplying the visual with their imaginations.

Writing Lesson: Your readers will bring their imaginations to what you write. It's a collaborative effort, so help them engage and then get out of their way. No one needs 10 paragraphs of description.

2. The original soliloquy where Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) talks about his navy ship going down and how 1200 men went in and only 300 came out was 8 pages long. It was Shaw who cut it down to 4 pages, which made it something that could be added to the movie. It was also an extremely powerful scene.

Writing Lesson: Edit, Cut, Revise, and Repeat. Your work will be stronger for it, especially in emotional scenes.

3. Originally Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) was supposed to die in the movie, but the team filming live sharks in Australia got an absolutely incredible shot of a Great White attacking an empty shark cage. It was too spectacular not to use in the movie, so Spielberg changed things. He had Hooper escape and hide on the bottom so that it made sense to show the shark attacking the empty cage.

Writing Lesson: When the muse or serendipity or your subconscious gives you a gift, something that makes your story more awesome, don't discard it because it doesn't fit what you plan to do. Change your plans.

4. The script wasn't completely ready to go when filming began, and because of shark malfunctions, the scriptwriter was writing the next day's pages the night before shooting. The actors all offered ideas on how their characters should be portrayed. One of the people interviewed for the show (sorry, I can't remember who it was) said he'd never seen so much actor collaboration on their characters before this.

Writing Lesson: Your characters are going to assert their personalities as you write. Don't fight them. I'm a character driven writer and I know a lot about my people before I ever sit down to write, but they still surprise me and do things I never would have guessed they'd do. I used to tell them they couldn't do that--I always lost the argument. Now I go with them and let them expand who they are on the page.

5. The woman who edited the film and put it together was a genius at finding small clips from the shoot and using them to enhance transitions and other scenes throughout the movie. Her input strengthened the story and the impact it had on moviegoers.

Writing Lesson: A good editor can help you make your work stronger than when you finished. He or she will point out what can be fleshed out more, what doesn't make sense, and point out things that distract from the story--among many other things. Any writer who thinks a good edit won't benefit them better do an ego check. If Steven Spielberg realizes a talented editor can improve his work, you should realize the same thing about your writing.

There you have it, five lessons on writing from watching the Jaws documentary.