Would it be blasphemous to admit that I don’t hold Jaws in the same high regard as the majority of the cinema-going public? That’s not to say I don’t like it. I actually enjoy the movie whenever I watch it. I just don’t think it’s AMAAAA-ZING. When you break it down, it’s actually a strange little screenplay. The goal here is to get rid of the shark. However, we have to wait for the final third of the film for the characters to physically go after that goal. I’m not sure we’d be able to wait that long in today’s market. As a result, a lot of the film takes place back in the town, where our police chief (Martin Brody) goes toe to toe with the Mayor on whether to close down the beach or not due to the attacks. While the characters ARE actively trying to solve the problem, they’re basically relegated to waiting for the next shark attack to happen. – The script itself has about as “Hollywood” a path as they come. Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel, was brought on to write the screenplay. Spielberg didn’t love his draft and hired numerous writers to punch it up, basically changing everything that comes before the final shark hunt. He also brought in comedy writers to make it funnier. Even Robert Shaw, who played Quint, rewrote a lot of dialogue. In the end, Carl Gottlieb got the “official” nod, punching up scenes daily on the set throughout the shoot. – The draft I’m reading is the “final” shooting draft, credited to Peter Benchley. Although much of it is what you see in the film, there are some differences here and there, which I may decide to include in the lessons.
1) Bonus points if your character’s fear is the opposite of his goal – Whatever your character’s goal is, make his fear the opposite of that. Here, Brody’s goal is to kill the shark. Therefore, his fear is that he’s afraid of water. It’s a simple yet effective way to create conflict within your hero’s pursuit.
2) I’ve never seen a perfect marriage in a movie – Marriages are wrought with issues. Something’s always pulling on them, creating a problem that needs to be resolved. These problems usually fester underneath the relationship, un-talked about, creating subtext throughout the characters’ conversations. Here, Brody’s wife wants to leave this town. She wants a better life for them in a nicer place. But he wants to stay. And that grinds on their marriage. Always try and add some sort of issue to your hero’s marriage.
3) Use suspense to drive your story – As you know, I prefer a character goal to drive a story. Get the hero out there and after an objective and he’ll take the story with him. While it means a slower story, you can use suspense to drive your story as well. One way to do this is to link together a series of looming disasters. That’s essentially what drives the first 2 acts of Jaws. True, our characters are trying to find the shark and stop it, but what we’re really waiting for is that next shark kill.
4) Conflict is good. Forced conflict is bad. – Conflict is good, WHEN IT’S NATURAL. Audiences can feel when you’re trying too hard though – when you’re pushing some artificial conflict in there to juice up the story. In the book, Benchley had Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) have an affair with Brody’s wife. Everyone felt that would be too much and nixed it for the screenplay. Good choice. It would have detracted from the story instead of added to it. Any conflict that you add should feel organic and natural. If it feels like you’re adding conflict just to add conflict, you probably shouldn’t do it.
5) URGENCY ALERT – It’s a SIN not to include urgency in a blockbuster (popcorn) film. So in Jaws, our ticking time bomb is the 4th of July weekend. That’s the biggest weekend of the year, the weekend all the tourists show up. And it’s coming soon! Therefore, the film’s urgency comes from Brody needing to find and kill the shark before that weekend (even though he eventually fails to do so).
6) Where’s your Quint? – The more scripts I read, the more I realize that the best scripts have one extremely memorable character. Someone who stands out because he acts different, talks different, does his own thing – a character who sort lives in his own world as opposed to the one you’ve created. A character like Quint, or Hannibal, or Han Solo, or Lloyd Dobler, or Clementine, or Rod Tidwell or Jack Sparrow or Alonzo Harris. This character is almost always a secondary character. Find him and put everything you have into making him as unique as possible.
7) Prevent your hero’s task (goal) from being easy – A common mistake new writers make is allowing their heroes to do what they want unimpeded. As a writer, your job is to do the opposite. Look for ways to make your hero’s job tougher. So here, Brody learns that there’s a shark attack. Okay, simple solution. Close down the beach. The bad writer allows this to happen. The good writer introduces the mayor character, who tells our hero, “You can’t do that. That beach is our income.” Now our hero’s job becomes tougher. He can’t just close down the beach. He has to find and kill a shark.
8) “DON’T GO IN THERE!” – Again, dramatic irony is when we know something the characters do not. Any time you can create a scenario where the audience wants to get up and scream, “No, don’t go there!” Or “Get out of there!” or “Don’t do that!” to warn the characters, you’ve essentially created a great dramatic irony situation. The reason Jaws is inherently dramatic is because it’s driven by dramatic irony. We know the shark is coming to kill these unsuspecting beachgoers, but they have no idea.
9) Always place your problem at the worst possible time it could be – These shark attacks aren’t happening at the tail end of summer with a few scraggly beach-goers getting a last-second tan. It’s happening at THE BUSIEST TIME OF THE YEAR, making it the worst time this problem could’ve happened.
10) If a character is going to tell a story, it better be one hell of a story – Movies are about characters DOING THINGS. They’re not about characters TALKING ABOUT DOING THINGS. Therefore, don’t have your characters tell stories. I see so many amateur writers have characters tell stories that are so boring I want to cut my eyes out. So if you dare to bring your screenplay to a grinding halt while a character tells a story, it better be the best f&*%ing story in the universe! Quint’s famous monologue here about sitting in shark infested waters for 110 hours while everyone around him was eaten by sharks worked because it was a damn good story. Please don’t bother having your character tell their own story unless it’s as good as this one.
These are 10 tips from the movie “Jaws.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!