A few weeks ago, I blogged about a scene from Children of Men in which the scene was structured in 3 perfect acts. Certainly finding or creating a 3-Act structure within a 4-minute scene, while not necessarily easy, is often necessary and is usually clear to discern. But what about an entire sequence of scenes? Can you take a ten minute sequence of events and craft a 3-act structure around that? Well, I’m glad you asked, because there is such an example in Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws.
All by itself this particular sequence tells a complete, nearly self-contained story. We’ve been given a good set up through the first half of the film, and in Hero’s Journey terms, this scene serves as the story’s Supreme Ordeal, or that moment in the middle of Act II where the stakes are raised and the hero must face more difficult challenges to get what he wants. In this case, Police Chief Martin Brody must overcome his fear of the ocean and get in a boat to hunt and kill the shark that is terrorizing his community. This is the sequence that makes that confrontation unavoidable.
It starts on a closeup of a Killer Shark video game, and then the Ordinary World of the scene opens with Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), in his uniform, walking on to the beach, which is packed with people since it’s the Fourth of July, but no one is in the water. An aid tells Brody that some TV people are here, and he he tells him that he’ll get to them later. As Brody patrols the beach, he communicates through walkie-talkies with his team on the beach and in boats, including Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), who’s in one of the boats and tells him they haven’t seen anything yet. We then cut to a News Reporter (Peter Benchley, the author of the novel and the film’s screenwriter) on the beach, who speaks into the camera about how this peaceful beach town is under a cloud in the form of a killer shark. A helicopter flies over head and we cut to Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), looking concerned as no one is going in the water, and he’s afraid that his town’s summer and reputation are being destroyed. He provides the archetypal Call to Adventure when he approaches his friend who is sitting on the beach and asks him to get into the water. The friend initially Refuses the Call by trying to tell Vaughn that he just put suntan lotion on, but Vaughn persists and he reluctantly agrees.
The friend and his wife timidly take the hands of their grandchildren and enter the Special World of the water. Then, like a chain reaction, others follow their lead and soon the ocean is filled with bathers as Mayor Vaughn looks on smiling. Brody’s son Michael and a group of friends are carrying a small sailboat into the water and Brody asks Michael to take it into the pond. Michael complains that the pond is for old ladies, and Brody says he knows and asks him to do it for the Old Man. Reluctantly Michael agrees, and Chief Brody waves to his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary), who smiles at him approvingly and mouths to him that she has their other son, John. More and more people enter the water and splash around, and we get a lot of underwater shots, as though from the POV of the shark. As the shark spotters in the boats and helicopters scan the area, a fin can barely be seen in the background. Meanwhile, Mayor Vaughn is being interviewed by the newsman and tells him that a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers has been captured and killed, and it’s a beautiful day and the beaches are open and Amity means friendship.
The Supreme Ordeal happens right at the half-way point of the sequence when a woman first thinks she sees the shark. Then a man sees it and a total panic ensues as everyone rushes and tramples over each other to get out of the water. The shark spotters finally spot it, and the lifeguard blows his whistle while panic stricken people run for their lives from the water, all while Mayor Vaughn looks on despondently. The Reward of this Hero’s Journey turns up when the shark turns out to be nothing more than a couple of kids with a cardboard fin, who pulled possibly the worst prank ever with the younger one pointing to his older brother and telling the armed shark spotters that he made him do it. Hooper communicates to Brody that it’s just a hoax, and all seems to be normal. Until…
At roughly three quarters of the way through the sequence, at the 6-minute, 35-second mark, a young woman sees the real shark swimming into the pond and starts yelling for help. Brody seems skeptical at first until Ellen reminds him that Michael is in the pond. Brody starts running to the pond as the young woman continues to yell about the shark, which we watch swim into the pond and then see as the dorsal fin disappears under the surface of the water. Michael and his friends are struggling to tie knots aboard their sailboat, and a man passes by in a rowboat and offers assistance. We see the fin come up behind him and his boat is knocked over, as is the sailboat and everyone tumbles into the water. Frightened, the man tries to climb back onto his boat, but is pulled under and he screams as he’s devoured by the shark. We see his severed leg slowly sink to the bottom of the pond, and Michael treads water stunned, as the shark swims right by him and out of the pond as the stunned population of Amity looks on, unable to do anything. Michael’s friends help drag him to shore, and Brody wraps him in a blanket as he lies there in shock. Brody then looks out to the wide open sea, knowing that his adversary is out there somewhere.
The whole sequence is 9 minutes 15 seconds and it is told in three acts. In relation to the rest of the sequence, Act 1 is actually very short at 1:46 for a sequence that is over 9 minutes long, but it works in this case because the Ordinary World had been clearly established and we already know the stakes, and the tension of the sequence won’t really start until people start getting into the water. But there is a clear Act 1 where we are introduced to what’s happening in the scene. There is a clear point where the adventure of the sequence begins with people starting to enter the water. The story changes direction with the stakes being raised exactly halfway through the sequence with the hoax shark attack, and then the third act of the sequence, which starts roughly three quarters of the way through the sequence, is the real shark attack and ends with a new call to adventure for Chief Brody.
This is the type of story telling you should be striving for as a screenwriter. Not only should your movie have a clear beginning middle and end, but each scene and/or sequence should as well. Why is the scene important to the story? Answer that in the first act of the sequence. What is the purpose of the scene? That is the action that unfolds in the second act. How will it affect the rest of the story moving forward? That is the question that is answered in the third act of the scene. It’s also important because, like a shark, if a movie isn’t moving forward it dies. The same could be said about any scene. A scene is not merely a dialogue exchange or an action sequence. It is a segment of the story that picks up from the previous segment and feeds into the next segment. Like water flowing through a river, the story should flow through your scenes.
At Monument Script Services, we’re experts at breaking down screenplays and analyzing the structure of the overall story and the scenes as well. If you need someone to provide his type of analysis to your own script, click here for details on how we can help.