Ok, so I went to see the digitally restored rerelease of Jaws this week, and it is still a fantastic movie, holding up against modern movies remarkably well despite its age and that rubbery shark.
And that got me thinking, specifically about the conflict within the film. Conflict is the driving force in stories, the jet fuel that propels plot along, and I don’t think there are many better examples of conflict driven narrative than Jaws. I’m going to give you some examples here, and I am going to try and stay away from the obvious conflict of man versus shark. There’s a lot more going on in this film.
Take this scene from early in the film, when we are first meeting Martin Brody and his family. His eldest son has come in the kitchen holding up a bleeding hand.
Martin: You guys were playing on those swings. Weren’t -[Phone rings] Stay off them, I haven’t fixed them yet!
Ellen: I think you’re gonna live.
In this short sequence we see Brody telling off his son, the ringing telephone interrupts him, and then, faced with the choice of two telephones on the wall, he picks up the wrong one. See how much conflict Spielberg packed into that one tiny sequence, lasting much less than a minute? And we see Michael holding up his hand, with the blood dripping from it, in the background. A reminder that we are going to be seeing plenty of blood later.
Next, at the beach searching for the first victim, we see Brody stumble as he walks through the soft sand, and then at his office in conflict with his secretary – Polly, if this new filing system is going to work, you’ve got to keep this outdated stuff off my desk.
Even doing the basic task of buying paint and brushes for the ‘Beaches Closed’ signs, Brody gets stopped on the way to the hardware store by an old man complaining about the karate class kicking down his fence, he almost gets run over by a teenager on a bicycle, there’s an argument happening in the background as he picks up the paint in the shop, and he spills the pot of paint brushes all over the floor.
Conflict is everywhere in Jaws, the filmmakers doing everything in their power to throw obstacles in Martin’s way, and humanise him, and his environment.
Why? Because, when he finally faces up to his fears, and destroys the shark in the rousing climax, we have identified with him so much by that point, and we are rooting for him so strongly, that we can’t help but cheer with him as the shark sinks beneath the waves.
So, what about you and the story you are writing? How can you add more conflict into your story, not just in the big set pieces, but the tiny little details too? Throw obstacles in your protagonist’s way, make that journey he is on an absolute nightmare. No one wants to read a story where the hero easily defeats his enemies. We want to see them struggle and fight, and come perilously close to failure.
Put your protagonist through absolute hell. Don’t let him off easily. Don’t give your reader an excuse to stop reading and put the book down. Putting conflict in your story is one way of keeping your readers up until past midnight, telling themselves, ‘Just one more chapter…’