Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Jaws and Bob Ross and My Book

by Robison Wells

In his Great Movies column series, Roger Ebert said the following about the shark in Jaws:

In keeping the Great White offscreen, Spielberg was employing a strategy used by Alfred Hitchcock throughout his career. "A bomb is under the table, and it explodes: That is surprise," said Hitchcock. "The bomb is under the table but it does not explode: That is suspense." Spielberg leaves the shark under the table for most of the movie. And many of its manifestations in the later part of the film are at second hand: We don't see the shark but the results of his actions. The payoff is one of the most effective thrillers ever made.

A critic with The New York Times wrote:

It speaks well of this director's gifts that some of the most frightening sequences in Jaws are those where we don't even see the shark.

I've heard about the hidden shark a thousand times: in film classes, in writing workshops, in critique groups. Heck, I think I remember my high school English teacher talking about it. The fact that you couldn't see the shark made it all the more frightening; you're not just afraid of a really big fish, you're afraid of the unknown.

But here's the the crazy part: contrary to popular thought--even Ebert quotes it wrong in his review--Steven Spielberg really really wanted to show the shark. A lot.

I watched a documentary last night (Jaws: The Inside Story), and an interview with Spielberg (and much of the rest of the crew) reveals how the shark was supposed to be in the very first scene. The shark was supposed to be everywhere. They made five of them, each with different motorized capabilities--the movie was going to be Sharks On Parade.

And then the motorized sharks broke. They broke every single day, several times a day. And, with the myriad challenges of filming at sea, an hour waiting to fix a malfunctioning shark often meant the entire day was a waste. The movie was getting increasingly over-budget and past its deadlines. So this is when Spielberg turned to other options. According to his interview, it was mid-shoot, with his job on the line and Hollywood rumor mills talking about how he'd never make another movie ever again, that Spielberg thought: "What would Hitchcock do?"

The answer, of course, was to hide the shark. If you rarely saw it, then you rarely needed the animatronics to work properly. In other words, the directorial genius of Spielberg was the result of an accident. It wasn't what he planned, but he was able to take the accident and turn it into something amazing.

It made me think about my upcoming novel, Variant. I use both outlining and discovery writing when I draft a new novel: I outline the major events, usually with a sentence per chapter, and then freewrite the chapter. And, about one third of the way through the book one of my characters--a minor character--did something fascinating. It wasn't much, just a couple sentences, but it changed the nature of the character.

When my brother read the draft for the first time, he declared this character to be "by far the most interesting person in the story", but the character was still minor.

When my book was rejected over and over, two editors mentioned that character specifically. One said, as he rejected the manuscript, that my plot-driven finale "just couldn't compete with the likes of [this character]." In other words, I had a really fascinating character in the book--the most fascinating character--who I was completely ignoring in favor of less interesting stuff.

So, after the second round of rejections, I rewrote the second half of the book, and I gave this character their due. They became one of the very biggest characters in the entire book, and, in my opinion, one of the best. And the book is infinitely stronger because of it. (And it ultimately sold because of that revision.)

The great Bob Ross (who I hope to one day look like) referred to errors as Happy Little Accidents, and insisted that they just made his paintings better. I think that's definitely true of writing, too. While there definitely is a point where we have to restrain ourselves and finalize the story and the characters, great things can happen when we follow unplanned "accidents".

What about you? Have you ever had something unexpected happen in your writing and it turned out for the better?


At 7/06/2010 8:46 PM, Blogger Jolene said...

I sat down to write a short story, couldn't stop writing and it turned into a novel. It was my first one. You just never know what's going to happen when you sit at your computer.

At 7/06/2010 8:47 PM, Blogger Jolene said...

OH - Love Bob Ross ;)

At 7/06/2010 9:18 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

GREAT post, Mr. Wells. I had a mental snapshot of a redhead named Sandy and the whole book I wrote (and sold) ended up being about her best friend. When you're a Shark, you're a Shark all the way until you find out you're a Jet. Then you have a story, right?

At 7/07/2010 1:33 AM, Blogger Nancy Campbell Allen said...

I saw that Jaws show last night, too! Loved it. And by the end, I was amazed that they stuck it out. Absolutely incredible story.

Also love Bob Ross. He was the best. :-)

I have happy accidents a lot- most turn out to be characters that get their own series. My writing approach is similar to yours- outline and discovery. It's a good balance to strike.

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At 7/08/2010 3:59 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Something unexpected: Rob stated his desire to look like Bob Ross. I was definitely not expecting that.

At 7/09/2010 2:32 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

yes, happened a couple of times where a minor character took over as a major character.


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