6 Cross-Genre Story Lessons from A QUIET PLACE
This article originally appeared on Medium. It is reprinted here with permission.
by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Fair warning: there are spoilers ahead.
I never go see horror movies. Never. I wait until they’re available to buy or stream, and then — only if I’m incredibly intrigued by the concept — will I watch a horror movie in the middle of the afternoon clutching my husband’s hand. This is how I saw Get Out, The Shining, and Rosemary’s Baby. (I have never watched and will never watch The Exorcist, The Ring, or any of the Sawmovies. I just can’t do it.)
But this weekend, I made my first ever exception to see A Quiet Place in theaters. And clearly I wasn’t alone. A Quiet Place grossed an estimated $50 million this weekend, far exceeding expectations.
So the big question is, why? What is it about this movie? What makes it so special? And as writers, how can we emulate the awesome success of this story in our own writing?
Let’s start by establishing that A Quiet Place is not a perfect movie. There were a few points while watching that I cringed at the character’s choices. (What are you doing mourning your toddler when your living kids are alone and in serious danger??) And when I started picking at it after leaving the theater, holes and missed opportunities quickly became evident. (Why did none of the characters ever sneeze or cough? Why did the gun shot draw all the aliens but not the fireworks? Why weren’t they using more sound traps to divert the aliens away or even kill them? Why didn’t they live at the waterfall??)
But despite such minor missteps, the movie is incredibly affecting, and it boasts overwhelmingly positive reviews. Here are six story-based reasons why A Quiet Place works so well — and why the script got made in the first place:
1. The concept is simple and unique
This is huge. I have personally reviewed well over a thousand loglines, and most suffer from one of two problems. Either the story is bland — something we have seen a thousand times before — or the story is trying so hard to be unique that it becomes far too complicated. To write a story that stands out, it should be both simple and unique, and ideas like that are incredibly hard to come by.
A Quiet Place is a monster movie about a not particularly innovative monster trying to kill a pretty ordinary family on an ordinary farm. It’s simple, and if those were the only details, it would be bland. But the original writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods found one simple thing that they could twist to create a unique world — these monsters hunt by sound alone. That incredibly straight-forward device allowed this entire story world to take on a unique life.
As Carson Reeves of ScriptShadow put it,
We’re all looking for that singular idea that’s so great, so complex, so unlike anything anybody’s seen before. When, usually, the cool hip idea that comes out of nowhere is the one that’s painfully simple. A world where if you speak, you die. I always say that the key to avoiding cliche is to come up with a unique concept, as it will, in turn, lead to unique scenarios. And that’s exactly what happened here. Every scene felt different from the stuff I usually read.
(Carson reviewed a draft of the script before John Krasinski did his pass. If you’re interested in the changes that Krasinski brought to the table, definitely take a look at Carson’s review.)
2. The writers were mean to their characters
Yes, it’s a horror, so the writers kind of have to be mean to the characters. But this should be true in every genre. And even in this case, lesser writers would have gone easier on this family. The toddler didn’t need to die in the beginning of the story. The wife didn’t need to go into labor early. The son didn’t need to fall into the silo. But throughout the story, the writers asked, “What would make this situation even worse?”
And, just as importantly, they didn’t give their characters easy outs. No coincidences or lucky thunder strikes here. Instead, the characters had to work their way out of every puzzle, make choices, and, ultimately, sacrifice.
3. The external problem mirrors the internal problem
A horror film that’s campy and gory can be thoroughly entertaining. (Zombeavers, anyone?) The best horror movies, though, always elevate the story by having a second level, an internal story that adds depth, subtext, meaning, metaphor — whatever you want to call it — to the horror scenario.
Get Out is a perfect example of this. Jordan Peele didn’t win the Oscar because Get Out was exceptionally scary. He won it because the horror scenario — deranged white people set on stealing the protagonist’s body — mirrored the deeper problem that the character faced — his blackness meant that he would never be safe.
In A Quiet Place, the external problem is how to stay silent, and the internal problem is how to communicate unspoken thoughts and feelings. At the same time, the film is a metaphor for the need we have as parents to keep our children safe, despite the knowledge that, no matter what we do, we can’t always protect them.
In an interview with the Tracking Board, Scott and Bryan explained:
Scott: First and foremost, in terms of theme, the nascent idea came from being able to protect your children, or the idea of inability to, and I think that was something I personally was confronting during the writing process, because I was thinking about becoming a dad… Bryan: Another thing we talked a lot about thematically was how, yeah, it’s interesting that these characters can’t talk… but we also thought it would be a little more universal if the reason this family can’t talk is because of a tragedy that they’ve suffered amongst themselves. In other words, if this event wasn’t happening, and there weren’t monsters out there that were killing people who were making sounds, this family still wouldn’t be communicating with each other because they have unresolved problems. And once we connected that idea to the idea of, well what happens if the whole movie builds up to the father speaking to his family and telling him what they’ve most craved to hear, then we thought maybe that would be powerful. Maybe that would be special. So that’s what we were going for.
4. It starts and ends in the middle of things
It’s common storytelling advice to begin a story or a scene in medias res — in the middle of things. But few stories do it as effectively as A Quiet Place. The story begins right when it needs to — no wasted time setting up what these monsters are, how they got here, and how everything fell apart. We learn that we’re eighty-some days into something, and that’s all we need to enter this world.
And the story cuts off just as effectively. We’ve gotten our emotional and primal satisfaction from the characters learning what it takes to bring these monsters down and working together to do so. Now do we really need to see them face off with thirty of them at once? No. It’s much more interesting to leave things on a triumphant “bring it on” moment than to draw out the action simply for the sake of having a bigger ending.
5. The characters have both strengths and weaknesses suited to the world
In this world, being able to speak sign language is a huge benefit, and being deaf is a huge disadvantage. Having the smarts and resources to set up amazing safety systems, cameras, and an intense radio configuration are all advantages. Having a baby? That’s a really, really big disadvantage.
The key here isn’t so much what the strengths and weaknesses are, but the fact that both are present, and both are customized by the writers to suit the particular world.
There are a lot of other reasons that A Quiet Place works so well and got greenlit — it’s contained, it has unique characters, a small cast, plenty of great trailer moments, and juicy opportunities for actors to show what they can do without using their voices — but the last factor that I’d like to focus on is heart.
This story has a strong emotional through line, and coupled with this unique concept, I think that’s the main reason why so many people — myself included — went out to see it this weekend. We care about these characters. These characters care about each other. We feel their pain. We feel their guilt. We feel their terror, their relief, their isolated moments of shout-into-the-waterfall joy.
Heart is why the rather similar Don’t Breathe from a few years back (three robbers invade the home of a blind veteran and become his prey) was quickly forgotten and A Quiet Place has already claimed a seat in the zeitgeist.
I’ll admit that it irked me when the father took a moment to tell his daughter that he loved her when his son was at immediate risk of getting eaten (Just scream! She’ll figure out the meaning later!) but that moment is the centerpiece of this movie.
It is the climax, both structurally and emotionally. And it epitomizes the emotional core of A Quiet Place, a core that elevates this film from a monster movie to a modern horror classic.
Angela Bourassa is the editor in chief of LA Screenwriter.