Good Storytelling

Honestly, it’s been a bit of a relief to not be writing anything beyond work and blogs. I’ve spent that time reading and watching a lot of movies, instead. (Along with the usual job/yardwork/etc.)

Last week we went to see Jaws on the big screen as part of the Turner Classic Movies thing. In the introductory bit, Ben Mankiewicz referred to it as a movie that has had people “jumping out of their seats” for 40 years. I murmured to my husband that I’d seen it countless times and not jumped once.

This is the difference between seeing a movie on TV and on the big screen. I jumped at least twice.

But honestly, I was more impressed by how different that movie feels when you watch it in a theater. With no distractions, in a dark theater, it’s a very different experience, and one of the few movies I’ve really felt that difference. The pacing feels like a slower buildup, and it’s more of a treat to watch how the different pieces fit together.

I haven’t read the book. I should, I know. It generally goes against my philosophy to see a movie before (much less without ever) reading the book. But this movie came out when I was five, so I wasn’t about to read the book then. And although I didn’t get around to seeing it until 20 years after that, it’s always been “that movie” more than “that movie adaptation.” I’m not sure I knew there was a novel until about the same time I saw the movie for the first time.

It’s also, really, a masterfully crafted story. There’s the shark, of course, and the money shot at the end that sold all the tickets when the movie first came out. But what’s really amazing is the structure of the story and the characters. Brody serves as the audience proxy, bringing us along as he gathers information and explanations. Hooper is the voice of reason, the smart guy who can offer those explanations. And there’s Quint, who’s deliciously crazy and creepy and impatient and keeps things interesting.

The big monologue in the movie is Quint’s, of course, talking about the USS Indianapolis. But to me, the best scene is where Brody is at the dinner table with his son and the kid is mimicking his moves. It’s humanizing and sweet and touching, in a way that invests you in the character.

Admittedly, this is pretty much a Spielberg trademark. Many of his best scenes are the “make you care” small moments, set around a family table. Think pizza in E.T.,  breakfast in Poltergeist. Maybe it’s hokey as all get out. Maybe it’s a cheap manipulative trick. Don’t care. It works, and well. And it’s those small moments that make the big horrors seem That Much Bigger when they come along.

And not for nothing? Humanizing moments are hard, y’all. I know they’re hard to write, and I bet they’re hard to act. It requires utter sincerity and a willingness to show total vulnerability. I think it’s safe to say that most of us care more about our families than anything else and at the same time are at our most exposed with them. It’s hard enough to do that in real life, when it’s a real thing and the emotions are real. Trying to conjure up that feeling when you are creating a scene about someone else, and do it in such a way that will affect a reader or viewer, even further removed from the scene—it almost borders on arrogance. But when it’s done well? Wow.

It’ll be interesting for me to watch Jaws again next time it’s on TV and see if I have the same reaction to the storytelling. I bet I don’t jump out of my seat, though.

About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
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