BREAKING & ENTERING: Shark Secrets to Sharpen Your Writing

A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.

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Sharpen your writing with shark secrets!Question: Do sharks need to keep swimming to stay alive?

Answer: Some do. Some don’t.

Question: Do stories need to keep moving forward to stay alive?

Answer: Oh, yes. All of them.

It’s a common misconception that sharks must keep swimming or they will die. Truth is, a shark must keep swimming or it will sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Much like that great monster of the sea, a story must move forward, or it will languish and die. At a standstill, it will sink to the bottom of a stack of submissions; hit the lowest rung on the tracking board; disappear into the dark crevasse of unreplied-to queries; or be tossed overboard in the first cut of a competition.

It’s no wonder I’ve got sharks on my mind. We’re perched upon the precipice of an electrifying Shark Harmonic Convergence.

Forty years after its release in theatres, Jaws, the Steven Spielberg film that spawned “the summer blockbuster” as we now know it, is set for a limited re-release June 21 and 24.

Sharp Script Title

SyFi Channel

Next up is “Shark Week,” on the Discovery Channel, beginning July 5. Sink your teeth into shark cams, shark quizzes, and freaky shark facts. As the network likes to say, “It’s the most
wonderful week of the year.”

And if that’s not enough, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! is set to make landfall July 22 on the SyFi Channel. Was there ever a better sequel title? Hell no!

With all the scoop out there on sharks, you might think you know all about them – such as their keen sense of smell. But did you know that they can detect a single drop of blood in an Olympic-sized pool?

That sharks predate dinosaurs by 200 million years, with evidence of their existence dating back 420 million years? Maybe it’s time for a Jurassic Water Park…

That sharks have two penises? They literally, physically mate, unlike most egg laying fish. It’s complete with courtship and um, lovemaking. Males bite the females to show their interest. They swim parallel or curl around the female during intercourse, often biting to stay attached. Ouch!

While these are fun facts, some shark secrets can sharpen your writing.

Grab Us And Don’t Let Go            

Sharks have multiple rows of teeth – and when they lose a tooth, they grow a new one – with rows of teeth moving forward like a conveyor belt. Different species have teeth designed to target their favorite food, making them especially effective predators. Sharks that go after live prey, rather than dining on plankton, have teeth designed for gripping – with needle-like points, serrated edges, and triangular teeth for taking a big bite.

Your job as a screenwriter is to hook us from the outset of the movie – capture our interest in the very first scene – then keep your story gripping, so we’re in its clutches until we reach “Fade Out.”

The powerful opening of Jaws wasn’t filmed as it was written, with the skinny dipping young woman being devoured by the shark. With the well-known mechanical sharks’ constant malfunctions on set, Spielberg was forced to shoot the woman being dragged and yanked beneath the surface by a shark we couldn’t see. The constraints made for a better, scarier film throughout.

Problems on set often make for inventive solutions. Before you solidify your opening, pretend you’re operating under similar restraints. To sharpen your writing, force yourself to explore a variety of options to find the one that best sets the tone of your piece, in a unique way, distinctive to your story. Take a big bite.

Drag us in with the power of your hero. Rootable heroes – or even compelling anti-heroes – pull us into the story and the world. We want to follow them on their journey. Once we’re on board, we’re eager to find out what’s next.

Powerful twist -- shark pulls the boat.

This shark is such a powerful villain that it turns the tables and pulls the boat! Universal Pictures

Each scene should push to the next. Every scene should serve a purpose in the story, advancing the plot or revealing character. Better yet? Both.

Sharpen your writing so your story sinks its teeth into us and hangs on.

You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat                 

Sharks cruise at about 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour, but when attacking, they can reach speeds of up to 12 mph (19 kilometers). The fastest shark, the shortfin mako, is capable of speed bursts up to 31 mph (50 kilometers). Does your story have speed bursts?

While the iconic line, “You’re gonna to need a bigger boat,” was an ad-lib by actor Roy Scheider, it’s emblematic of great storytelling. It’s the first moment our hero sees the shark. It’s a major plot point because now the characters – and the audience – realize that the problem is even bigger than they thought. Much bigger.

You're gonna need a bigger boat.

Universal Pictures

As the story progresses, the stakes must get higher. Flat stories are failures.

In strong stories, the pace gets faster as the story progresses and the conflict increases relentlessly. Screenplay structure is like running hurdles on the track. In a script, the hurdles the hero encounters need to get both higher and closer together. Escalation is exhilarating.

There’s nothing more entertaining than the twist we didn’t see coming, that takes the conflict up a notch – or two or three notches.

In Jaws, the shark-hunting frenzy results in catching a large tiger shark. Problem solved. But Chief Brody and marine biologist Hooper aren’t convinced this is the killer. They sneak in to cut open the shark – but there are no human remains in its’ belly. The killer shark is still out there. Then they find a half sunken boat with a damn huge shark’s tooth embedded in the hull. Big shark out there! Only Hooper, shocked at spotting the fisherman’s severed head, drops the tooth, and it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Now they have no evidence to prove the major threat. Which means that the Mayor will keep the beaches open for the big Fourth of July holiday, with scores of potential victims at risk.

Problem. Solution. Minor twist. Bigger problem. Solution. Still bigger problem. Scare! Big twist! Biggest problem. Escalated stakes.

What a great sequence!

Combining increasing conflict with effective twists is extremely powerful because our brains adore the challenge of processing what we didn’t see coming. But, as an audience, it’s not easy to surprise us. Humans have been listening to and telling stories for tens of thousands of years. We start hearing stories from the time we’re babies. We’re pretty familiar with what’s going to happen next. It’s not that hard to predict. Therefore, we love to be surprised.

Our brains have learned to ignore words and phrases that used to make storytelling awesome, but have since been overused. Our brains stop responding to the overly familiar, the clichéd, the predictable. Sharpen your writing by targeting the minds of your audience to create a literally visceral experience .

Without getting into too much neuroscience geekiness, the area of your brain responsible for experiencing emotions is activated by what is unique and stimulating. It literally lights up with neural activity.

Sharp writing is a turn-on for our brains.What happens then? Dopamine, a chemical released in the brain that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, is increased. Dopamine is arousing and addictive. It’s such a turn-on that people take a variety of very bad drugs, such as cocaine, speed, and meth, because they amplify the effects of dopamine.

Watch here to see why twists are the ultimate turn-on for our brains.

Twists sharpen your writing because they are potent escalators for conflict, tension, and suspense. Make your twists truly effective. They can’t come completely out of left field, straining credulity, but there’s nothing more appealing than the cool twist that pushes the story to the next level.

Charge! One Final Shark Secret to Sharpen Your Writing                                 

Sharks can detect electricity, emitted in small amounts by every living animal. Sharks may be more sensitive to electric fields than any other animal. According to Cristen Conger in How Stuff Works, “Sharks are literally hardwired for hunting.” Their sixth sense of electroreception allows them to “hone in on prey with deadly accuracy.”

Sharp writing is electrifying!Electricity in a story is intoxicating. We are looking for stories that are exciting, thrilling, dramatic, dynamic, tense, stimulating, stirring, or moving.

How do you bring that element to your writing?

As a writer, your job is to hone in on your audience’s desires.

Anticipate your audience’s anticipations. Take their expectations and defy them, spin them, twist them, turn them on their ear. This is a big turn-on.

Are you working within the framework of a very specific and well-defined genre? If so, how do you surprise your audience with something new? The more you understand the conventions of the genre, the better you can sense the audience’s expectations and use them to your advantage to deliver on their desires. Add a spin that is unique to your story, and it feels both satisfying and fresh.

If the audience gets ahead of the story; if they can predict what will happen next, you’re not turning on their brains. Please don’t leave us waiting for the hero to catch up with the mystery we’ve already solved. It slows the pace of your story. And it makes your hero look – well – not too sharp.

A hint of foreshadowing can up tension and suspense. Too much will leave us twiddling our thumbs, until what we’ve figured out will happen next finally unfolds.

Finally, like the proverbial “high tide” that raises all ships: great execution elevates stories. That means complex, deftly drawn characters. Each character speaking with their own distinctive voice. Description that adds texture, shows not tells, and reveals subtext. A satisfying ending with a resonant message. To sharpen your writing, keep this goal in mind.

I can’t resist leaving you with one last little piece of shark wisdom:

A couple of screenwriters are enjoying a junket on ICM’s cabin cruiser, when their agent falls overboard. Before anything can be done, an enormous shark approaches to within six feet of the agent, but suddenly veers off in another direction. The young writer exclaims, “Did you see what just happened? That’s an act of God!” The older writer replies, “Nah, it was just professional courtesy.”

ari with 2 phones cropped tighter

Keep swimming!

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2 thoughts on “BREAKING & ENTERING: Shark Secrets to Sharpen Your Writing

  1. Barri EvinsBarri Evins Post author

    Yes Gordon, Jaws is timeless. I frequently use it as an example because it does what it does so well. It’s also very much in people’s film vocabulary.

    And I just noticed it’s streaming on Netflix so I’m planning to watch again!

  2. Gordon

    Great article again, Barri. Jaws is such a good example for so many aspects of film making – organically raising stakes, everything is cinematic and visceral, a huge problem for the protagonist to solve, subjective and objective perspectives on the problem, etc. One of the coolest things about the script is that Spielberg was rewriting it as he was shooting!

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