On this episode, we are discussing the horror film, A Quiet Place. And then we’ll end with a critique of one lucky author’s query.
Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! A Quiet Place is set in a near-future dystopia where the world has been overrun by some kind of creatures that almost look like giant spiders and have such an incredible sense of hearing that people can’t even speak without risk of being attacked. The movie shows a family trying to survive this situation with young children. It actually just shows three days in the lives of this family, one early in this world and then about a year and a half later, when the mother is pregnant again. A lot of the scenes are set up, showing how the family has survived all this time, how they keep some sense of normalcy, and how they are preparing for the birth of their next child. But it’s all infused with this incredible tension over the fact that they can’t make any sound. The big climax occurs when the mom goes into labor and the family has to fight off the creatures who come during her labor. They have to keep themselves safe, as well as protect the newborn baby.
Carly: So, what did you think of the movie?
Jeni: I loved it. I mean, I had a few problems with it, as those who read our live-tweet threads may have seen. But I think a lot of that comes down to that thing with horror movies--if the characters always did what we want them to, it wouldn’t be much of a movie. But I was surprised, honestly, that it wasn’t as scary as I expected, but there was so much tension from the very beginning. The pacing was quick, and they managed to make each scene have conflict. I mean, can you imagine how hard it would be to be silent all the time? Not even taking talking into account--just freaking typing makes a lot of noise. My family is always like, what are you typing so furiously over there? And I’m just like, oh, was I? I didn’t realize. Anyway, everyone involved did such an amazing job with creating this incredible tension, down to the music. I remember in a college film class learning about how the score heightens tension, and not having any music for most of the movie was so bizarre that it did a great job of that. What about you?
Carly: Agreed. I actually liked it way more than I was expecting. And I know I was super quiet and under wraps about this, but I really hate scary movies. I was very worried about this movie, if you couldn’t tell. But I don’t know if it was that we were live-tweeting and watching together, or it just wasn’t what scares me… but I was fine! I do think I’m more scared by spooky ghosts for some reason, aliens don’t really bother me. Anyway, I very much enjoyed this movie. There were definitely times where I got frustrated. I think we ended up focusing a lot on how the dad doesn’t trust his daughter. I couldn’t decide if it was sexism, ableism, or the fact that he never forgave her for the rocket toy that she gave her younger brother that got him killed. I personally found that distracting. Not that the dad couldn’t have complex feelings about his daughter, but why were the women wearing dresses in an apocalyptic future? It seemed so weird to me in an otherwise very smart movie. Okay, moving on from my one criticism… the cinematography was gorgeous. There were so many shots that I wanted to freeze frame and stare at for a while. The acting was amazing, especially the daughter. I had so many feels for her. I want her to be in every movie ever. Anyway, I can go one and on about what I liked and didn’t, but we should maybe focus on the point of this podcast. What did it do well that writers can use in their writing?
Jeni: Show not tell, because of the incredibly small amount of dialogue, telling simply isn’t an option. I mean, this is an extreme case, for a movie or a book. But it meant the director and writers had to find interesting ways to show the necessary information. What’s key here for novelists is that the viewer is able to learn about the characters through their actions and what the camera focuses on. Just in the first scene, we see a lot. The store they’re in has nearly empty shelves, and there’s stuff all over the floor. It seems right away that this could be a post-apocalyptic setting. They are still a pretty happy family, despite whatever has happened--we don’t know yet at that point. But we see something about each character through their actions. The mom is searching for medication for their son, who’s sick. It tells us that she’s a caring mother and also hints at a possible background in medicine. The kids’ interactions with each other tell us that they are managing some sense of normalcy, even with the drastic changes in their environment. We see that they are hoarding supplies. All these little details build the world and show us something about the characters--without a single word of exposition. For authors, this is important because it speaks to how you can show worldbuilding AND show characterization as the character moves through their world, as opposed to big info dumps explaining everything. This is a problem I see a lot in my editing: authors explaining things--whether that’s character backstory, explaining the world, too much description, etc--that need to be shown instead through character interactions. Remember that your narrator (who’s usually the main character) is the vehicle for your reader to see the world. Which details you choose to place in front the “camera,” or the focus of the narration, tells the reader a lot about what you want them to know. So make sure you’re picking details that have the most impact.
Carly: Yes. So much this. One of my biggest pet peeves is a long description of the setting up front, before we even get to the scene. We need to learn about the environment through interactions with it. Have your characters move through the space to show us what is important, what is interesting, what builds the world and sets the scene. Teach us about your characters and the world by what is important enough to interact with. The youngest son is most interested in a toy rocket. Of course he is, he is a child that just wants to find some fun in this life. And the daughter handing it to him, after the father takes it away, shows that she is trying to be there for her brother. She is trying to be a caretaker, in a world where you need to care for each other to survive. It’s not only the parents that take on that role. We get to see how this apocalyptic environment has shaped the different characters. We get to see how they each respond to this unusual world. Like Jeni said, we see how they each interact with the store. But we also see their interplay in how they interact with each other. We see the tension sound makes. We see who they look to first and what those looks mean. The parents glance at each other to signal what to do next. They look around to check on each kid. They scan the woods to see if anything is coming. All of these actions seem obvious, but they tell us so much about the characters and the world. If you can take anything out of dialogue or inner thoughts and put it into movements or actions, it will speak volumes. Show us how they are feeling, what is important to them, what interests them by how they interact with the world. It is way more interesting to put pieces of a character together that way, instead of having an author tell the reader those things. Show us that the kid is sick by having the mom pick up a bottle of medicine instead of telling us “poor Johnny has been sick for weeks.”
Jeni: One scene that really stood out to me is the exchange with the dad and the daughter where he tries to give her the hearing aid and she refuses it. It seems like there’s a lot of history here, and we get a lot of information about these two characters through their interaction. My first reaction was that the daughter is very much a teenager, wanting to do things on her own and frustrated that her father won’t allow her to. But also, I got the sense that she’s sort of given up hope, whereas the dad seems to have a more optimistic view. It really spoke to me about how kids and parents often take different views of the same aspects of their personalities. I think both of these characters are “fixers”--people who want to take a proactive approach to problems--and their conflict comes in not being able to “fix” everything for other people. I got all of this out of a scene that was like a minute long, with no dialogue, just from how the characters interact with each other. And it’s because of their reactions. Showing character reactions is so important, and the more important the character, the more reaction we need to see from them. It’s kind of like that thing people say about how you should believe people’s actions more than their words because it’s easy to lie but hard to change behavior. People--characters--show who they are in the way they react to things. And this is what helps readers connect with characters the most. When we see characters reacting in ways that feel true to our own experiences, it fleshes the character out more and makes them feel real. This is how you show not only a character’s emotions but also their growth and change over the course of the story. It’s all in their reactions. To that end, I highly recommend you buy a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus. It’s the best tool out there that I’ve seen for showing character reactions in their thoughts, emotions, and visceral response/body language.
Carly: Oh my god, I love The Emotion Thesaurus. I think it is the book I most recommend to authors. And I couldn’t agree more about reacting. I find a lot of characters move through a world in an isolated way. They barrel through without acknowledgment or reaction to the world or characters around them. But real three-dimensional characters spend the entire book reacting. They should react to the world, the plot, the action, the obstacle, the people. And that reaction should be on a macro and a micro level. All of life is about reactions, and that’s what your book should be too. Showing us these reactions through small facial expressions, nervous fidgeting, heart thumping, etc. is a really powerful way to make a reader connect with a character. Just reading the words “their heart pounded” makes me aware of my own heartbeat, and can make it pound along with the moment. Words are powerful if you use them in the right way. Pull your readers along on your journey by showing them the story with your words, not by reading them a play. And by focusing more on showing details through interactions and reactions, you’ll make your dialogue more powerful. If everything is put into dialogue, you’ll find that big moments get lost and lose their power. Make the dialogue more powerful by making it more intentional. I read somewhere that the actress that played the daughter came up with a very important dialogue change. When her father is sacrificing himself, the line that he signed was supposed to be “I love you” but she suggested he change it to “I have always loved you.” Something so small like that can mean so much more because we’ve seen and felt the struggle that she has had with her dad. She’s become convinced that he doesn’t believe in her and that he doesn’t forgive her or care about her. And with this one line he proves otherwise. (why he didn’t say it earlier pisses me off, but whatever, tension). This story is so bereft of dialogue, that when it is used, it shows how powerful it can be. We connect so much with the characters because we’ve been showed them, we’ve learned and connected with them through actions and reactions, that when they do speak, we can be blown away. Basically: take as much out of dialogue as you can. Show us through interactions and reactions. We can learn so much more about the world and the characters that way. Partially because we as readers will fill in the blanks with our own experiences, and that connection is harder to forge when we are being told everything. Showing lets us feel along with the characters and immerses us in the world. Whereas telling is like listening to a fairy tale. But just a side note: you do need to tell sometimes. Your book can’t be all showing, it would be very dense and boring. Sometimes, telling is important.
Carly: Okay, this week we have a query from a YA fantasy about a girl that must face down monsters while battling her PTSD. It is chock full of internal and external tension right from the get-go. What did you think?
Jeni: Can definitely see the comp to A Quiet Place, since this seems to be a similar world and with monsters that hunt people. I’m not clear what the plot really is. There’s a lot of set up and worldbuilding, and it feels like there are a lot of details that may not need to be in the query. I suggest focusing more on the conflict and stakes. In terms of the details, ask yourself what the reader really needs to know in order to understand the main character, the conflict, and the stakes.
Carly: I definitely agree with you, but I view it slightly differently. I think the author very much focused on conflict and stakes, but they focused on the internal conflict and stakes. We learn about the MC’s PTSD and the struggle she feels with it in a world that dismisses it. However, there are teases of the bigger picture and the plot that aren’t here. We need to see the external forces at play and why they are important. I loved the first paragraph because it gripped me in with great words like ravenous, petrify, hounding. And it hints at bigger stuff. But then the rest of the query doesn’t get into the bigger stuff. I want to know what happened with her father and how the PTSD gets in the way of the bigger plot. Not just how it affects her internally. Other than that, it is definitely on the right track!