How do you write a blockbuster? If you’re Michael Crichton, you write Jurassic Park, the highest-grossing movie of all time. This deceptively simple film is very instructive for anyone trying to write the big hit in today’s Hollywood.
To see Crichton’s choices, let’s start by exploring the author’s predicament, that is, the structural problems the writer would have to solve to write this idea successfully (Crichton co-wrote the script with David Koepp, based on his novel).
The inherent problems of any story can be found most quickly by going to the genre (this is another reason I place so much emphasis on mastering your genre). Jurassic Park is fundamentally a horror story. Like the detective form, horror does some tricky and not too pleasant things to story structure.
First, it tends to give you a monotonous plot; the monster attacks relentlessly and the hero tries to escape. Second, the standard horror story is opponent driven; the hero is reacting to the intense desire line of the more powerful opponent. Third, since the main character is usually just trying to survive, he/she rarely has any character change. Fourth, horror stories tend to remain small, because the feeling of horror is best created by trapping characters in small spaces.
Crichton’s solutions to these problems begin with the story’s basic design. Success in film, like success in architecture, is based mostly on the initial design, and Crichton comes up with a once-in-a-lifetime premise. If anyone still needed proof, Jurassic Parkshows why Hollywood is so crazy for high-concept stories. By jamming together the two titans of evolution – man and dinosaur – in a tropical Disneyland, Crichton magnifies the power of the horror genre a hundred times.
By doing so, he not only reaps the benefits of the action-horror combination, he creates the first of what I refer to in the World Myth class as the Epic Horror story. This is one of the ten myth forms that I believe will dominate movie-making for the next ten to twenty years. The reason is simple: horror has a strong appeal that crosses cultural boundaries, and epic action magnifies the speed, power, scope and stakes of the story.
While adding action to the horror erases the problem of small size, it does not solve some of the other problems inherent to the form. These solutions can be found by looking at the structural nucleus of any story, the seven steps.
Problem/Need: The hero of the story is paleontologist Alan Grant. Normally we would begin the story with his problem, but this is an action-horror story. So the writers must begin by setting the dangerous context and suggesting the monster who will soon drive the story. The problem then is given to John Hammond, the visionary who has created Jurassic Park. Because one of the workers has been eaten while setting up the park, the financial backers require endorsements from noted scientists before they will allow the park to open. The problem for Grant results from the fact that he and his fellow scientist and girlfriend, Dr. Sattler, must leave their research to check out the park if they want to gain funding for their work.
Grant’s need is established right away when he terrifies a boy with details of the killing techniques of the velociraptor. Sattler wants kids, but Grant says they are noisy and smelly. Grant is an arrogant and cold man, very much in his head. His need is to learn to empathize and care, and specifically to become a true father.
This need seems a bit contrived and arbitrary, but it does give the audience some character change in a story form that usually lacks it. It also has some thematic justification, in that this story is about evolution and extinction on the largest scale. So teaching the hero how to create a family, and learn human love, is quite appropriate.
Desire: The early part of the story is driven by Hammond who wants to convince Grant, Sattler, and chaos theorist Ian Malcolm to endorse his park. But all this is just detailing of the context in which the horror battle will occur. This delays the real desire line of the hero quite a bit. But that is a good idea in this film, first because this highly fantastical story needs extensive detailing up front to be believable. And second because once an action-horror story gets moving, it’s a high-speed, straight-line run with very little plot.
The true desire line of the story kicks in when the park’s system fails and the dinosaurs attack. The hero’s desire is clear and intense: save as many as possible from the dinosaurs and get out.
Opponent: Just as the true desire line is delayed, so is the true opposition. Initially the opponent is Hammond. Though a friendly enough man, he is actually an opponent because he has created a world without the proper respect for the power of life. And he has brought Grant and the others into that world without adequate protection.
The terrible power of life finds its greatest manifestation in the dinosaurs. This, of course, is Crichton’s brilliant stroke. Through fantasy he has put man in a closed arena with the deadliest killers in history. By adding the action form to horror, he has multiplied the number of killers so that they are attacking with almost nonstop ferocity.
The two techniques to notice here are hierarchy and stacking. Stacking means shoving as many intense scenes as possible against each other so the audience is bombarded with action. Stacking can only be achieved when you have a number of opponents who can take turns assaulting your hero.
Hierarchy refers to levels of opposition. This allows your story to build dramatically. The hero’s most powerful, and main, opponent is the Tyrannosaurus Rex, followed closely by the smaller but craftier Velociraptors. Other opponents move down from there. Stacking and hierarchy of opposition are two of the main waysJurassic Park avoids the monotony of most horror plots.
Plan: Grant’s plan is to find both children and bring them back safely to the control room. The larger plan, provided by Hammond, is to restart the power so that the system returns to normal, then fly everyone out.
Battle: As in any action film, the battle in Jurassic Park is actually a series of battles throughout the second half. But appropriately, the intensity of the warfare reaches a peak near the end when the children escape the raptors in the kitchen. The battle continues as Grant and Sattler struggle to keep the raptor out of the control room, and culminates in the visitor’s center when the t-rex eats both raptors.
Self-Revelation: There is no one moment near the end when Grant learns to love and becomes a true father. Rather he gains his self- revelation throughout the second half of the story by taking responsibility to bring the children to safety. They rely on him and he comes to care deeply for them in return.
New Equilibrium: The story ends with the exhausted survivors flying off in a helicopter. Sattler smiles as the children sleep in Grant’s arms. Grant watches a flock of birds – the tamed, modern-day extension of the dinosaurs – flying alongside. Far behind, the eco- nightmare of the island still rages.
Jurassic Park is a textbook example of blockbuster craftsmanship. If you’re looking for subtle artistry in character and plot, you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you want to learn how to use story structure and genre to write a hit Hollywood film, this is the place to start.