I’m back! What has given me the encouragement to pull myself out of an unintentional blogging hiatus, you ask? A little movie that my wife and I decided to rent on Redbox one Friday night. It’s called A Quiet Place. You may have heard of it. Up until this point, my Writer’s Reviews have explored storytelling only in novels and their series, but some aspects of A Quiet Place stuck out to me enough that I had to discuss them.
For those who haven’t read any of my Writer’s Reviews, I’m not here to necessarily evaluate the quality of whatever I’m reviewing, but rather to explore storytelling aspects that worked well in a certain narrative, and that we as writers could apply in our own work.
You don’t need me to tell you that A Quiet Place is a great movie (just look at its criticism), so instead I’m going to focus on a few of the storytelling components of the movie that contributed to its greatness. Let’s get started.
*As always, spoilers ahead.*
Image via Lone Peak Cinema
It’s clear from the film’s outset that we’re being introduced to a world that has suffered some kind of apocalypse. That kind of setting immediately raises questions within the audience: where is everyone? What caused the apocalypse? How are these people surviving? Those questions are good; they raise an interest in the audience that keeps them watching.
In order to answer questions like these, we use exposition. Exposition can be difficult because it can quickly stray from helpful context and into dry description. A Quiet Place puts itself in a tricky situation since its main characters can’t speak and reveal the story’s context through dialogue, which often happens.
The film, rather than hitting you over the head with information, reveals it in subtle shots that you may miss if you’re not paying attention. For example, John Krasinski’s character, Lee, has a wall covered in newspaper clippings with headlines discussing a meteor striking New Mexico and “Dark Angels” that are indestructible and attracted to sound. Boom. Exposition. That shot may not answer all our questions, but it gives us enough to be satisfied.
It’s worth noting, however, that this kind of exposition was only possible thanks to the film medium. You couldn’t reveal information in the exact same way in a novel. You could, though, lace the exposition within a description with something like this:
“What had once been a wall was now a collage of newspaper headlines that Lee had collected in the year since they had been in hiding. One paper displayed an image, captured by a satellite, of that meteor spraying fire into the atmosphere as it struck New Mexico. Beside it was a clipping reading only ‘It’s Sound!’ Another headline, in bold print, read ‘The Dark Angels Are Indestructible!’ Lee saw the latter headline as a challenge.”
While you could certainly say something like “The Dark Angels came to Earth on a meteor that hit New Mexico. They had an armor that made them indestructible and they kill anything that makes a sound.” Sure, it delivers the same information, if not a little more, but you sacrifice the tone and emotion of a more subtle exposition. Plus, one advantage of print storytelling is that we can reveal aspects of characters through description.
Exposition that feels natural and well-integrated, which I’m calling “organic exposition,” improves the immersion of an audience, whether they be viewers or readers. The subtlety allows us to answer questions on our own, or at least feel like we have. In A Quiet Place, organic exposition gave us the information we wanted without sacrificing the tone, feeling, and pace of the movie. I thought it was very well-done.
Stakes Established Early
Stakes are important to any story, but they’re especially important to a thriller like A Quiet Place. The film does a great job of establishing the stakes, the consequences of failure and the general danger of the situation, early in the story. By doing so, the audience immediately understands the hazards of the world and feels a tension similar to what the character feels whenever something makes a sound.
The Abbott family has gone into the abandoned town for supplies. The youngest of the family, Beau, finds a toy that he wants to bring home. Lee tells (well, signs) Beau that he can’t have the toy since it’s too loud, but Regan grabs the toy for her brother once the parents are gone. Cut to the family walking along their sand path back home. An electronic sound tears through the silence and they stop, turning to Beau, whose little toy ship is lighting up. Something immediately comes crashing through the brush and Lee starts running to save his son, but he’s not nearly fast enough. The blur of a monster flashes by and sweeps up Beau.
This, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to establish stakes. The film could have easily shown us another random person getting killed for making a sound, and it would have established the same stakes, but the film’s writers took the emotional route. By having Beau be the first victim we see, establishing the stakes also creates emotional tension that carries through the rest of the film and that deeply affects the characters.
Solutions Revealed Before The Problem
It sometimes drives my wife nuts, but when I’m watching a movie, I can’t help but try to predict what’s going to happen next or how a character is going to get out of a problem. I’m often wrong and always annoying, but I think good stories invite us to participate in the story in such a way.
Long before they happen, A Quiet Place integrates solutions to problems that occur later in the film. In what also functions as an effective character-developing scene, Lee teaches his son, Marcus, that it’s okay to make quieter sounds when around a louder sound (which, in this case, was a river). Lee even encourages Marcus to scream behind the roar of a waterfall (which, admittedly, still made me cringe). Later, Emily Blunt’s Evelyn would use a kitchen timer to distract one of the monsters as she ran up the stairs; she would also hide behind a small waterfall to subdue the sound of her baby.
The film also reveals the solution to the final climax of the story long before we see it. When Regan is almost attacked by one of the creatures, her hearing aid creates a feedback loop that sends the monster away shrieking. At the end of the movie, when one of the ‘Dark Angels’ is about to dispatch the rest of the family, Regan slaps the hearing aid against a microphone and sends the monster into a series of convulsions that opens its armor enough that Evelyn can blast it in the head.
By establishing these solutions earlier in the story, the audience is able to participate in the problem solving that the characters experience. That further draws the audience into the story and satisfies expectations in a way that doesn’t feel too contrived.
A Quiet Place hooked me early on and kept me entertained through the entire film, not only thanks to pure adrenaline, but also thanks to sympathetic characters and an engaging plot with strong storytelling elements. It’s not a perfect movie (I still find it hard to believe that Regan was the first to discover that a feedback loop could hurt these aliens), but it contains plenty of gems of which we writers should take note.
Were there any other strong storytelling elements that you noticed in A Quiet Place? Have any thoughts on the principles I’ve discussed? Then leave a comment below!
Thanks for reading!