Near the end of the film, “Apocalypto,” young Jaguar Paw runs for his life from Mayan mercenaries who stole people from his village to sacrifice at their temples or enslave in their corrupt society.
These same mercenaries killed his father and his friends, and burned down his home in the jungle. Jaguar Paw is also running out of time because his pregnant wife and son are in a deep hole and it has started to rain.
Although wounded, he has cleverly killed most of the mercenaries by relying on what he has learned in the jungle. Two men, however, are on his heels. He has no more tricks left and runs onto a beach. But in his eyes, we see something extraordinary has occurred. The camera pans around. Spanish ships float on the water, and groups of Conquistadors and a priest rowing ashore.
My breath stopped.
I think about that moment a lot when I write. That’s because Mel Gibson, who directed and wrote the script with Farhad Safinia, surprised and awed me in the scene. They succeeded in taking my breath away.
How many times have you seen movies or read books and have failed to be surprised or awed? The answer is lots for me. Those times when I can spot an outcome from 20 miles away or walk away uninspired, and unimpressed. I may have well as been ironing as reading or watching a movie.
Unfortunately, this lack of surprise and awe has shown up in some of my own past writing. This occurs when I relied too much on making the story move along instead making it exhale with life. When I have inhabited the piece with stock characters and settings and situations, instead of creating people who are full of surprises and emotions, and scenes of great tension.
Here are some other examples of surprise and awe:
In William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” Sophie reveals her terrible choice. Throughout the book, Styron has masterfully revealed the many layers of Sophie’s heart and heartbreak.
“The Conversation” Gene Hackman’s discovery of how he misinterpreted what he heard during surveillance of a young couple.
Jane Eyre’s learning the identity of the woman in the attack.
In Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” Fergus sees that Dil is not just a beautiful woman. It is a shocking, poignant, sad and funny moment all at the same time.
So why try to achieve such moments? Why can’t we just make a buck writing crap. (Wait give me a moment to answer that.)
Because creating such moments connects us with our audience — be they in a theatre or reading a book in bed. What a miracle to be touched emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and all other means, by words and images. It truly is. Otherwise, we are just filling pages with words.
I want surprise and awe.