The shark is not working…

If I had to choose a single movie as my all-time favorite, one that I will happily watch again and again, it would have to be Jaws. In fact, I consider Jaws essential mid-winter viewing, keeping me from climbing the walls while the river is frozen and Annabel Lee remains tucked in the shed awaiting spring. I realize most people hear ‘Jaws’ and think ‘shark’, which is understandable. But there is so much more. The character interactions are fascinating to watch, the dialog is brilliant, Jaws has some of the best ‘on the water’ scenes and even in her gritty, tired condition the Orca is (in my opinion) a thing of beauty. For me, there’s much here to like.

And then there’s Bruce. Some of you may have heard of the Bruce, the mechanical shark (technically 3 sharks) from ‘Jaws,’ nicknamed in honor or perhaps dishonor of Spielberg’s lawyer. And yes, that’s why the shark in ‘Finding Nemo’ is named Bruce as well. But what makes Jaws truly outstanding, what elevated it beyond a mere ‘monster’ movie is how rarely you actually see Bruce. From the first minutes of the film you know there’s something out there. You’re shown a thrashing girl, a severed limb, a chewed up boat… but no shark. You know the shark will appear but you don’t know when. Then abruptly there it is, but only for a sudden glimpse as it slips beneath the surface, raising your anxiety even further.

The truth is this elevated suspense was never part of the original script. ‘Bruce’, the mechanical shark, was malfunctioning through much of the production. But schedules were tight and filming had to continue, so crews worked around the shark’s absence by alluding to its presence. Docks were destroyed, yellow barrels skimmed along the water and were towed under and later pop to the surface, and of course, there was that famously ominous music. But watch Jaws and see how often the shark actually appears on screen. It’s not much. Yet the end result was a far more terrifying movie that focused the plot around the small group of people as you watch them face to this unseen threat. Thanks to Bruce’s lack of cooperation, what would have been a gory and likely somewhat cheesy horror went on to become a masterpiece of suspense. I truly believe if Jaws had been made today it wouldn’t be half the movie it is; with modern CGI special effects it is too easy to show too much. The movie wouldn’t have run up against the obstacles it encountered, things would have gone more smoothly, on schedule and on budget… and so much would have been lost.

There are several lessons that can be learned from Jaws. When I first began Last Exit In New Jersey, and again now with No Wake Zone, I set out with a plan. I outlined the story from beginning to end, then began tackling each individual passage. As I proceeded certain characters developed more than I’d originally expected, leading into new plotlines and taking the story in new directions. But I didn’t let my original ‘script’ lock me in place and I didn’t try to force my characters to follow their lines. If they came up with better dialog and action, I went with the flow. And I left the mechanical shark off the screen, instead hinting to what threat might lurk just out of sight, letting the reader sense its presence through other means. I made it clear there was something bad out there, but like my characters, readers didn’t know its true nature, or when or where it might appear. I wanted readers to focus on the characters, to care about them, to know they were in danger, but not the extent of it or what will happen next. As with mechanical sharks, sometimes it’s what we can’t see that scares us the most, and the things that didn’t go as planned that come together just right.

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