Lessons on writing from Jurassic Park

I like dinosaurs, and as a result I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park 3D in the cinema and even more recently went to the library and checked out the book by Michael Crichton. Crichton came up with some amazing premises for stories in his life (Jurassic Park being a prime example), but comparing the two formats makes a great illustration for a couple of ways to make your story-telling as tight as possible.

 

1) WITHOLDING ANSWERS FROM THE AUDIENCE THAT THE CHARACTERS ALREADY KNOW

You may think it adds suspense, but it doesn’t. It removes the peril (because we know the good guy has the answer) but doesn’t solve the problem. What you’re left with isn’t suspense, it’s irritation.

I’ll illustrate this with the difference between the book and the film versions of Jurassic Park. Each new line in run through below is the basic plot point relating to this being covered in a separate chapter / part of the movie.

BOOK

WU: The dinosaurs can’t breed, they are all female

MALCOLM: Worried about them breeding

MALCOLM: Suspect there may be more dinosaurs now than before – Systems check to confirm numbers – more animals in park

GRANT: Do they have frog DNA?

WU: Search for frog DNA

WU: Yes they have frog DNA – Must ask him why he knew frog DNA

GRANT: Look there’s a male raptor. Let’s keep him in my jeep.

GRANT: Some frogs have been known to change genders in single sex environments

GRANT: Let’s go look for eggs again.

 

FILM

WU: The dinosaurs can’t breed, they are all female

GRANT / MALCOLM: See eggs – it’s the amphibian DNA – Some frogs known to change genders in single sex environment – life will find a way

 

Everything from Grant asking if they had frog DNA in the book is redundant; a needless stretching of a minor detail which, let’s face it, isn’t even a material plot point in the story. Spielberg mentions it as a curiosity. Crichton spreads it throughout the entire manuscript, even bothering to revisit it after the main story ends.

GRANT: Great we’re all safe. Anyone want to go back and look at some more eggs?

OTHER CHARACTERS AND THE READER: No. We get it, thanks.

 

2) FAILING TO ADD A HUMAN DIMENSION

Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d have cared about this either, but the stark difference in characters between the book and movie of Jurassic Park really do highlight Spielberg’s understanding of how this can transform a story.*

FILM:

Grant hates kids. Over the course of the film he is thrown into the role of protector for little Tim and Lex, which he initially dislikes, then feels is his duty, then comes to want to do. At the end of the film he has changed as a person. He’s been through a lot, yes, but all of that has made him rethink what is important in life. Could kids (METAPHOR FOR THE FUTURE!) be more important than dinosaurs (METAPHOR FOR THE PAST!)?**

BOOK:

Grant likes kids! Kids like dinosaurs, he likes dinosaurs. It’s all good!

P’ah! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book (it has dinosaurs in it!), but the changes that Steven and his team made in the movie version seem to highlight a much greater appreciation for making people connect with your story.

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* – For more on WHY this is important to us as readers, check out “Wired For Story” by Lisa Cron which contains fascinating theories on why we read (evolutionarily speaking) and therefore what a story needs to contain in order to really connect with readers. I don’t agree with all of extrapolations the author makes when turning the evolutionary aspects into writing advice, and as such the This-Stuff-Is-Science-So-If-You-Disagree-You-Are-Stoopid style of writing Lisa uses can be a bit annoying. But, if you assume the book is describing what a story needs to be a “classic” rather than just a “bestseller” then it holds up much better.

** – No, in real life kids are not as important as dinosaurs.

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