What Bruce and Steve taught me about storytelling

One story that’s taught me the most about storytelling involves Bruce and Steve.

The story starts with Bruce. He’s living in the New England area. Nobody really knows where he came from, nobody really knows how he got here, but Bruce is a killer. His first victim doesn’t even see him coming. It’s dark, hardly anybody’s around, and nobody could have stopped him. In fact, nobody even really saw what happened.

The local sheriff starts putting evidence together. He finds out Bruce isn’t like any killer he’s ever seen before. Nobody’s seen Bruce and lived to tell about it without complete horror on their face. Bruce is brutal, one that threatens to destroy an entire community, and it’s up to this one man, this sheriff to bring Bruce to justice.

There’s one detail to keep in mind though.

Bruce is the mechanical shark in Jaws. That’s the nickname that some of the set designers gave to the shark during production.

If you didn’t know that Bruce was a shark, would that change the story? Would Jaws have been a great movie without the shark? I think so.

Other shark attack movies have been made to try duplicating or even eclipsing Jaws, like Megaladon. They’re touted as “the next Jaws,” or “the most terrifying movie since 1975″… but they flop. They don’t have the same traction as Jaws. Why is that?

It’s because they miss the point.

Jaws isn’t about Bruce the shark. Sure, the shark adds to the terror of the story and makes it more memorable, but it’s not the backbone of the story.

The most important part of Jaws is Roy Scheider’s character, Captain Martin Brody. He’s literally the new sheriff in town and he faces unbelievable obstacles. Opposition, doubt, ridicule, fear, all of those are churning inside his life throughout the entire story.

So, who’s Steve? The director of Jaws was a very young Steven Spielberg. He was only 28 when Jaws was released and he captured the humanity and internal struggles that Brody faced. The most touching part of the movie is this scene between Brody and his son Sean.

At this point, the shark is just window-dressing. If you didn’t know that this scene was from Jaws, would it even matter?

Here’s the lesson I learned about storytelling from this scene: an internal struggle turned into triumph will always be greater than any external opposition in a story.

With CG and a massive budget, you could re-create a theatrically great rendition of Jaws today, but it needs a great character like Brody to make it last. It needs someone that the audience can picture themselves with at that same table, face in hands, feeling that same weight over their own struggles in life. Am I good enough for this job? Why doesn’t anybody believe in me? Am I crazy for what I’m doing? Is it really me against the world? And why would I ask for something as simple as a kiss? Because I need it, as silly as that may sound.

Overcoming the struggle inside will always trump whatever you face on the outside, including a giant killer shark. And that’s what makes Jaws a great story.

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