Most people watch movies. I don’t watch movies; I ingest them, then my boss lady dissects them until there’s nothing left but a jumbled mess of arcs, themes, plot holes, and characters who should’ve been fleshed out more. It can be a little gruesome at times, but overall it’s an educating experience.
Our most recent dissection was Jurassic Park. Since I’m a dinosaur and my boss writes about dinosaurs, we studied the anatomy extra thoroughly so we could recreate the adventure the same way they recreated the dinosaurs. Aside from the gore, language, and evolutionary ramblings, Jurassic Park has many useful lessons for storytellers—like crafting interesting characters, world building, and story structure—but there’s one lesson that stands out more than all:
How to successfully give your audience heart attacks.
In just a few moments, I’ll show you how to push readers off their seats in the bumpiest ride of their life!
1. Inform Readers of the Threat
Readers will not care about getting a heart attack if they don’t know what a heart attack is. So let them know. More than that, let them know every single hazard, repercussion, and pain that could result from the attack. Better yet, get your audience thinking about it from the start. Jurassic Park let the audience know the velociraptors’ intelligence, tactics, and weapons at the outset with the opening escape scene and then a few moments later with Dr. Alan Grant’s discussion on their claws.
Also, it’s not enough for readers to simply know the thing is dangerous. Everyone knows volcanoes are hot. Be specific by telling them it maxes at 2,140 degrees. Jurassic Park purposely noted that the Dilophosaurus’s spit* would cause blindness, paralysis, and evolution into lunch.
However, you’re not a doctor, and your readers aren’t patients, so you shouldn’t tell them their symptoms. Remember, they’re your victims. You must tell them the facts without them being conscious of it. Dr. Grant could’ve spilled out a lecture about the velociraptors’ hunting techniques. Instead, that annoying baseball-hat kid prodded him into it and the audience might have thought that Grant’s response merely showed his disdain for tiny people. Cloak the facts of danger by putting them in a context where they don’t seem like a threat. The Dilophosaurus’s spit was noted in passing. The T. Rex’s speed was revealed when Dr. Grant saw the dinosaur herd and asked, “How fast are they?” Hammond simply replied, “The T. Rex clocks out at 35 mph.” and Grant exclaimed, “T. Rex? You have a T. Rex!” without the slightest inkling of danger in the dialogue.
Once you’ve told readers the danger, show them the threat in action to reinforce the fact. After all, it’s not as frightening to know about a heart attack as it is to actually watch someone have one. For instance, in the scene where Dr. Grant and the others walk up to the velociraptor exhibit, they watched the raptors tear apart a cow. Then the shredded feeding net came up—thus showing the audience the raptors’ ferociousness in action.
2. Build up to the Attack
Half the fun of causing heart attacks is watching readers tremble. The unexpected is a great weapon for writers—but not when it comes to life-threatening situations. You want readers to know it’s coming (to some degree). It’s like riding a roller coaster. The rider who doesn’t know a hundred foot drop is coming won’t be as tense (that is, until they start falling) as the rider who knows there’s a two hundred foot drop coming after the hundred foot one.
For example, the T. Rex didn’t suddenly burst forth and batter the Jeep. First, the jeeps stopped. A faint, steady thump was heard. The goat disappeared. Then, the guts flung on top of the vehicle and so on and so forth. Before showing readers the threat, give them hints of it. In the scene where Tim and Lex were stuffing their stomachs with green jello, the audience never once saw the raptors. First, Tim froze. Then Lex trembled, seeing her brother’s expression. A few seconds later, they saw the raptor’s shadow—it wasn’t until a few moments later that they actually showed the raptors.
One effective way to build up this intensity is by zeroing in on certain small elements that normally would be overlooked. A glass of water seems harmless, right? But it can seem quite ominous when it starts vibrating for no reason. When a character is in danger, every little detail needs emphasized. Take the side mirrors on the car—nothing particularly interesting about them. How about when you see a T. Rex reflected in one of them? That’s a lot more interesting, but what makes it the most exciting is that little sticker that reads “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Something no one notices or cares about—until now.
3. Make the Expected Unexpected
This may seem a little paradoxical, but you can surprise readers even when they know what’s coming. Everyone knew that the T. Rex was going to escape and attack one of the jeeps—but they didn’t know which one or how the characters would react.
Several unexpected things occurred after the T. Rex charged after Ian Malcolm. The film writers could’ve had the T. Rex merely return to the jeep and crush it some more. Rather, they had her spin the jeep, making it difficult for Dr. Grant and Lex to hide on the other side. After that, the T. Rex forced the jeep off the edge of the wall, barely missing them. Likewise, you must continually have different things happen and not merely keep intensifying the same thing (no one wants the raptors to keep getting closer and closer; they want them to rip the character’s shirt and slash at his arm).
Next, increase the danger as far as possible. Push it as far as you can, maybe even allowing one of the main characters to get injured or killed (that is a discussion for another day). Make it so that the characters are left in danger even after the initial threat is gone. Like after the T. Rex shoved the jeep over the wall, Tim was still trapped in the vehicle and the cool-guy-no-one-likes was unconscious.
However, it isn’t always the threat that should surprise readers. Let your characters respond to the danger in a way the audience isn’t expecting, then have the threat respond according to the actions of the characters. Who would have thought that the insurance agent would charge to the restroom at the sight of the T. Rex, or that Lex would have been stupid enough to switch on a light (stupidity is a good way to gather momentum for unexpected happenings)? Who would’ve predicted that Dr. Grant would jump out and rescue the children (especially since he didn’t like kids), or that Malcolm would make a failed attempt to mimic Grant’s heroic feat?
4. Give Characters a Rest
After all that heart thumping, your readers deserve a rest. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an act of mercy. It’s a ploy to give readers the fright of their life. When you keep the action coming, it numbs readers so that nothing phases them and short circuits their brain so that they can’t think.
Jurassic Park made sure most of the action was cushioned in between slower scenes. The best kind are the thoughtful scenes that melt readers’ hearts and lull them to sleep (that way you can jolt them awake in the next chapter). Like the scene where the kids snuggle with Dr. Grant in the tree, and he promises he’ll stay up all night to keep them safe. This gives characters (and readers) a sense of security so that they think everything is going to be okay (which of course it’s not).
The other kinds of cushioning are humorous scenes and dialogue. You could have one of the characters get sneezed on by a brachiosaurus or have the protagonist pretend he got electrocuted. It could even be something as simple as a lousy dinosaur joke.
5. Keep it Real
Even the best stories have flaws—including dinosaur movies. The good thing is that their flubs teach us what not to do and can help us just as much as their strong points.
One of the main errors of Jurassic Park and many other action-packed movies is sacrificing characters’ intelligence for the sake of dramatic affect. When Dr. Grant rescued Tim out of the tree, the jeep started sliding toward them. He could’ve easily just climbed around to the other side of the tree instead of trying to beat the vehicle to the bottom before it ran them over. This might have been plausible if it was Lex who was trying to save Tim rather than Grant. Lex was young and would not have been thinking clearly since she had just been through a traumatic experience. However, Dr. Grant was an experienced, intelligent scientist who could handle himself in intense situations. Another example is when Ellie went outside to switch the electricity on. It wouldn’t have taken much brainpower to grab a gun before heading out.
When you put characters into life-threatening situations, make sure there’s no way they can get around it. Jurassic Park could’ve easily remedied those scenes. They could’ve made the tree unclimbable on the other side so that Dr. Grant was forced to flee from the slipping vehicle. As for Ellie, the writers could’ve had her take a gun. Then later when she needed it, make it jam so that it wouldn’t shoot.
Another error was having the T. Rex save the day. Now, I personally don’t have anything against that species, but the whole “have another dinosaur come and eat the attacking dinosaur so the hero has time to flee” is cliche. It breaks one of Pixar’s twenty-two rules of storytelling, which says, “Coincidences to get characters into trouble is great; coincidences to get them out of it is cheating.” It would’ve been better if the screenwriters had Dr. Grant figure a way out of their predicament rather than having the T. Rex conveniently burst in at the exact right moment (though I must admit it was rather cool).
Now that you’ve successfully given readers a heart attack, prepare to give them another. Just keep making the dinosaurs bigger, smarter, and nastier (because that’s the only way to do it, of course).