Today I’m handing over the reins of the CTG blog to crime writer V.M. Giambanco who’s talking about how she learnt storytelling from the masters …
Telling stories is a dizzying business. When an idea begins to find its legs and pulls the writer into unknown territory with a wink and a shove, it is always possible to see that energy on paper, the sheer joy that went into the construction of that story.
If someone is interested in writing – let alone crime fiction writing, which lives and dies in the layering of action, information and resolution – it is crucial to understand and relish how stories come together.
I have always been intrigued by storytelling and before I wrote ‘The Gift Of Darkness’, the first book in the Alice Madison series, I worked for many years in film editing and was involved in all kinds of projects, from romantic comedies to Mafia thrillers and Bollywood-style musicals, and I have always been keen to see how different elements fit together – or perhaps how they don’t fit together at all. Yes, I’ve been involved in some pretty awful pictures too.
These are some of my favourite examples of storytelling and any aspiring crime-writer could do a lot worse than look at these different films, take them apart and put them back together. They might not necessarily be crime-related but some particular elements make them relevant and significant.
‘Jaws’ and ‘Alien’are masterpieces in the building of suspense around an unseen enemy who takes innocent lives – a kind of serial killer, if you will, and that’s definitely a familiar type of device in crime fiction.
Both films have unusual heroes: the first, a cop who is afraid of water; the second, a woman pushed into leadership by extreme circumstances. The tone of the stories is very different: ‘Jaws’ has a lighter atmosphere with humour and moments of comedy while ‘Alien’ is relentlessly grim, and even in the early parts of the film – when all the characters are still alive – there is the constant, claustrophobic feeling that they are surrounded by an environment that is just waiting to kill them. Outer space after all is the ultimate psychopath: fascinating and lethal.
Two small gems in terms of building tension are the scene when Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is looking for the xenomorph in the air-ducts in ‘Alien’ and the scene when Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) reacts to viewing the remains of the first victim in ‘Jaws’.
By the way, we never see those remains: instead we are left with the impression of something so awful, so upsetting that even a capable scientist like Hooper is left choking and gasping for a glass of water. Both films are cunning in the art of withholding information and letting us imagine the worst – believe it or not, the Alien was on screen for less than four minutes in total; second for second it was better value than Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ who’s on screen for just under sixteen minutes.
Point in question, when Ridley Scott was casting the part of Brett he told Harry Dean Stanton that ‘Alien’ was ‘Ten Little Indians’ in space. Stanton took the part and was rewarded with an unforgettable scene.
It is a well-known fact that Steven Spielberg took ‘Jaws’, written by Peter Benchley, and re-worked it extensively: gone are the sub-plots about the affair between Hooper and Ellen Brody (the hero-cop’s wife) and about the Mayor involvement with the Mafia.
The story in the film is utterly streamlined but it manages to create fully shaded characters using quiet scenes in the middle of the inexorable hunt – moments like Brody at dinner with his son and Quint telling the story of the USS Indianapolis, a ship in WW2 which sank after delivering the nuclear bomb and whose crew was mostly killed by sharks in open water.
The skill of the writers (Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) and the director is that they give us unflagging pace and yet we have characters that feel real, not just a jumble of clichés waiting for the next set piece.
There are a number of devices in the ending of ‘Alien’ – like failing to abort the self-destruct sequence and the reappearance of the ‘villain’ when all seems safe – however Ridley Scott was at the top of his game and even those clichés miraculously work in a nerve-racking last few minutes.
After all these years I still love ‘Jaws’ and ‘Alien’ because they grab me by the lapels and keep me hooked, and that’s what great storytelling does, whatever the medium. Crime fiction should definitely grab you by the lapels and give you a good shake – the shark is optional.
Huge thanks to V.M. Giambanco for stopping by the CTG blog today and talking to us about how she has learnt from the masters.
The third book in her Alice Madison series – BLOOD AND BONE – is out now. Here’s the blurb: “After two years in the Seattle Police Department, Detective Alice Madison has finally found the kind of personal and professional peace she has never known before.
When a local burglary escalates into a horrific murder, Madison is put in charge of the investigation. She finds herself tracking a killer who may have haunted the city for years – and whose brutality is the stuff of myth in high security prisons.
As she delves deeper into the case, Madison learns that the widow of one of the victims is being stalked – is the killer poised to strike again? But then her own past comes under scrutiny from enemies close to home, and Madison’s position on the force – and the fate of the case itself – are suddenly thrown in jeopardy.”
To find out more about V.M. Giambanco and her books hop over to her website at www.vmgiambanco.com and follow her on Twitter @vm_giambanco
And you can buy BLOOD AND BONE from Amazon by following this link
2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Why I Love ‘Jaws’ and ‘Alien’ (Learning storytelling from the masters) by V.M. Giambanco”
Absolutely fabulous post. The points are spot on and very well made (rather like the films 😉 ) Sometimes showing or describing less is definitely more when it comes to building tension, allowing the mind to fill in the terrifying gaps. Great stuff, thanks for sharing!