When I walked into a showing of the film A Quiet Place earlier this week I expected thrills, chills, and awkward popcorn munching in an otherwise silent theatre. I didn’t know that I was heading into not only an entertaining and intriguing movie but also a display of excellent storytelling.
I came out of the theatre energized by the commitment to quality storytelling (something which is sadly rare) as well as inspired to reinvigorate my own work with the basic yet powerful techniques that the film displayed. And, of course, I had to share with my Write 100 friends.
Whether you’ve seen the the film for yourself or not, it’s worth digging into three important lessons for all writers.
If you’re not familiar with the movie, here’s what you need to know. (Don’t worry. I’m going to keep this as spoiler free as possible!)
A Quiet Place is the story of a family forced to live in silence as they struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic(ish) world. Monsters that hunt by sound have destroyed most of the population, reduced human society to a ghost town, and forced a few cunning survivors into hiding with no end in sight.
But what is it about the film that’s caused such a stir? The movie is almost entirely silent.
Lesson One: It’s all about the details.
Attention to detail will take you (and your reader/audience) a long way. This doesn’t mean you spend pages and pages describing every excruciating detail of a scene or setting. It does mean that selecting strategic detail to include in your descriptions and scenes gives your story the texture and reality that will orient and engage your audience. The technique will support your plot, your setting, and your characters while heightening tension.
A Quiet Place demonstrates the power of details in striking fashion.
The filmmakers had to ask themselves, “What would life be like in a world without sound?” To raise the stakes even more, “What would life be like if your survival depended on keeping absolutely silent?”
While filmmakers could have spent significant time explain the situation and background, they chose a far more effective and compelling technique: sprinkle key details and features in early (and all) scenes to draw the reader into the plot and setting.
One example appears in the opening scene when the Abbott family combs through a looted grocery store for vital supplies. Just watching what’s been left on the shelves (e.g. crinkly bags of chips) immediately immerses the audience into the high stakes setting and alerts them to key plot points. Filmmakers thoroughly imagine how one family would survive in silence, and their audience is ushered into an unfamiliar world suddenly made very real.
Lesson Two: Characters drive story.
The most intriguing plot premise in the world is nothing without character.
Consider two different one-line summaries of the film’s premise:
- Mysterious monsters that hunt by sound ravage Earth and force human survivors into hiding.
- A young family forges a life for themselves in a silent world where vicious monsters hunt anyone who makes a sound, all while navigating the dynamics of a growing family.
The first summary emphasizes the situation. The second brings character to the forefront. The first could easily turn into another action/adventure alien-invasion flick, but director John Krasinski (and producer and writer and star…) chose the second angle. The film focuses the story on complex, round characters placed in difficult circumstances, making for a memorable, moving, and mesmerizing story. What’s more, the well-developed characters enhance the plot.
The film isn’t just about monsters. It’s about a family. It’s about love and life in the midst of trauma and uncertainty. It’s about growing up both as children and as parents. It’s about asking yourself what you would do. It’s also really fascinating.
What keeps readers reading and theatre-goers watching? We want to know what happens next. That anticipation isn’t just because we are following an unusual sequence of events. It’s because we care about what happens to the people we’ve met in the pages of a book or on the silver screen. Compelling characters give the story weight. When the characters are real to us, the story will become real. When the characters matter to us, their stories matter too.
Lesson Three: Make your medium work for you.
The story of A Quiet Place is uniquely suited to the medium of film. Film allowed Krasinski to manipulate the experience of sound–and the lack of it. He thwarts our expectations. He makes us pay attention to it in a way that makes us think while involving us in the story.
There are only a handful of spoken lines in the film’s 90-minute run time. Otherwise the only sounds are environmental–wind in the grass, running water, the faint pad of bare footsteps. The experience is engrossing in the silent environment of a movie theatre.
Krasinski establishes empathy between the audience and the characters not only through the efforts of a talented cast and a compelling storyline but also by the physical and sensory elements of the moviegoing experience.
Film–and the theatre environment–allows the audience to live like the Abbotts for an hour and a half. While we are sitting in our cushy theatre chairs the quiet of our environment, engineered by the theatre as well as the film’s design, makes us conscious of the sounds we make as well as those in the film.
Film did what no other medium could accomplish. This particular story, told this way, would not be possible in novel form. The written word wouldn’t provide the same experience of sound as film enables. Just as words on a page can tell a story and engage the imagination in ways that film cannot.
What does this teach us? It reminds us to embrace both the strengths and weaknesses of our chosen medium or genre. Whether you write screenplays or poems, historical fiction or science fiction, think outside the box and make the form work for you. Utilize the form itself to enhance your story. Transform the boundaries into possibilities.
There’s another side to this lesson. Remember: not every story or idea is suited to any given form. Many short stories should not be novels. Some essays are actually the germ of a poem. The initial form may not be the right one, so allow the change to happen. If an idea just isn’t working, consider experimenting with alternative forms.
Stories are everywhere. That means you not only have the opportunities to discover new ideas every day, you also have the chance to hone your craft in the midst of daily activities. I forgot to think like a writer when I first went into the movie, but as the film unfolded I realized how much I could learn. This week, find opportunities to learn good storytelling in the unexpected places of daily life.
Train your instincts to watch for good stories. When you find one, ask yourself what made the storytelling effective. Then return to your own work with fresh eyes and practice, practice, practice.