In a masterpiece of a film, one scene really stands out for doing everything right.
I'll say it up top—Jaws is a perfect movie. It's one you can watch over and over and learn something new from every time. Many call it one of Spielberg's best. It's a monster movie grounded in humanity and relationships. It looks beautiful. That practical shark still holds up—yep, still terrifying.
I could go on and on. On a recent rewatch, I really was struck by one scene in particular and how it demonstrated so many basic things that the movie as a whole does well, particularly in the writing and in the performances. I want to dive deep into that scene (safe within our anti-shark cage) and take away a few key lessons.
At this point in the film, there have been two attacks, including the one on the beach with the famous dolly zoom to Brody. A bounty has been placed on the shark, causing an influx of eager fishermen to Amity. Oceanographer Matt Hooper has arrived and, after examining the remains of the first victim, determined they're dealing with a giant man-eater. Suddenly, they learn a team has caught a tiger shark they believe is the big one.
Let's jump into the middle of this scene here with the arrival of Brody and the mayor, then I'll get into all the reasons it's so amazing.
One thing that I love about Jaws is its energy. You have all these frenetic scenes with characters moving around, talking over each other, under extreme pressure. It's amazing and really keeps the tension at eleven.
I'm not saying you have to do the exact same thing in your own scripts, but if you're finding that your scenes lack zest, try something simple like just giving your characters some movement. Do they have to be sitting for seven pages in a stagnant conversation? Or could they perhaps be moving between locations?
Aaron Sorkin has infamously perfected this method for delivering exposition in what are called "walk and talks." But he uses it because it works every time.
In this scene, you have characters all over the place. Brody pulls Hooper away from a conversation to meet the mayor. The mayor is so distracted he immediately moves to look at the shark. Hooper steps aside with Brody to tell him bad news. The mayor comes back, overhearing them. Meanwhile, background actors are constantly shifting around the men.
Even Brody pacing briefly away from Hooper is a great beat. Roy Scheider didn't have to do that. But it's a wonderful moment of deliberation and further visual proof of the pressure the character is under. He would love to turn his back on this whole situation and be done, but he won't.
Will all of this movement cost more and be more difficult to shoot? Yes, definitely, especially if you switch locations. But will it be more electric? Yes, absolutely.
Become an expert on blocking. Encourage your actors to suggest where they would move organically in a space, and shoot coverage accordingly if it's possible. As a result, you'll have scenes that are more exciting to watch.
If you're a writer, you should love conflict! Conflict is the fuel that keeps the motor of your story running. Without conflict, your characters will not be spurred to action or change. Without conflict, they won't have any obstacles on their journey, and the plot will fall flat.
Plus, conflict is straight-up fun to watch.
And it's fun in this scene!
The audience knows, just like Hooper knows, that this is not the shark we're looking for. But it's great to watch him try to explain this to the locals, who don't understand anything about "bite radius." All they see is a big shark. Hooper is about two seconds away from getting punched in the face here.
We see conflict again when Hooper tells Brody the same thing. He's initially sure they have the right shark. We have dueling opinions and overlapping dialogue.
As a writer, remember—if you resolve one conflict, throw another one at the characters in its place. Once the characters arrive at the realization that, hey, maybe there's more than one shark around, what's next? Hooper wants to autopsy the shark to be sure. The mayor refuses to allow it, not wanting a grotesque display of human remains.
There are also layers of conflict in this scene because all the characters have varying motivations. The mayor wants it to be the right shark so everything can go back to normal on the island. Brody wants the same thing, but because he would like everyone to be safe. Hooper is at odds with both of them because he believes something different, has specialized knowledge, and needs to be certain before reaching a conclusion.
These conflicting motivations inform the actors' performance, too. You can hear it in Murray Hamilton's hissed lines as the mayor. He doesn't want a scene. He cares about how it would look to have human remains on the dock.
Mmm. Layers of conflict. I eat it up like a tasty lasagna.
This conflict is cut short and replaced with a more subdued form of conflict when a bereaved mother arrives to confront Brody.
Give your scenes three-act structure, too
Lots of beginning writers struggle with the basic building block of a movie, the scene. How do you write a scene? How do you make sure your scenes matter?
Conflict, as mentioned, is going to be integral. This doesn't mean your characters have to be fighting. This can be internal conflict as the character wrestles with a decision or new way of thinking. This can be an obstacle, physical or mental, in your character's way. Whatever it is, make sure your character is struggling against something.
But to get really granular, you can also think about the structure of a scene sharing the same three-act structure as your whole movie. Take your character on a mini-journey, just within a few pages. You can make sure your scene ends in a different place (physically, emotionally, mentally) than it begins. If you do this, you'll ensure that your story is actually moving forward.
What does the character learn in the scene? What changes in their world? What are they going to do now?
This Jaws scene is a great example of three acts in miniature. Brody enters the scene elated, basically skipping with the mayor just behind—they've caught the shark! Everything will be fine now! Act one.
Until Hooper pulls him aside. This isn't actually the shark. We have to keep looking. Reversal. Act two.
Then Mrs. Kintner arrives. She slaps Brody, upset that he knew about the shark but did nothing about it, resulting in the death of her son. Confrontation. Act three. (Should she have slapped the mayor? Probably.) Brody must face the human consequences of all the town's poor decisions.
I'll also note that this beat changes the tone and energy of the scene drastically. Everyone goes still. It becomes quiet. After the movement of the previous minutes, we're given a new type of conflict here. The scene becomes much smaller and more focused.
It's not really a break in the tension as much as it is shifting gears, but it's still important to point out you should vary your levels in your own writing. If you have a lot of big, fast, loud moments, make sure you give your audience those moments of quiet, relief, and calm, too.
The scene resolves on that note, with a much quieter and somber tone. All the characters end the scene in a different emotional place, with much less certainty about what will happen next. The crowd dissipates.
What's next? Continue learning from Jaws
We aren't even touching on things like editing and cinematography, which also have an important influence on this scene. But most of all, this is a story about people and how they interact, clash, and come together. Remember to build your own stories on a similar foundation.
But like I said, I could talk about Jaws for hours, so I'll leave you with some more lessons from this work of art.
It can teach you about creating suspense. You can also learn from its heartbreaking table scenes. And here are lessons from the cinematography of Jaws.
Seen Jaws recently? What are some lessons you took from it? Let us know in the comments.
Check-Out: Cine Lenses – Most popular Lens Deals this week
With any & every B&H purchase You will automatically be entered into the Monthly Gift Card Raffle.