Right now, diversity is the name of the game in storytelling, so it’s no accident a movie like THE SHAPE OF WATER won ‘Best Picture’ at The Oscars last week. (Whilst Jordan Peele’s GET OUT was technically more ‘deserving’ of the so-called diverse tag, it is still a genre movie … Whereas historically, The Oscars have always been more appreciative of drama movies, even ones with sci fi elements like TSOW).
I won’t pretend THE SHAPE OF WATER was my favourite movie of the year because it wasn’t, but there’s still plenty for writers to learn here. Let’s go:
1) Outsiders have the most interesting stories right now
Writers are often outsiders, hence their fascination with characters who are outsiders as well (and probably characters who are writers, too). That said, up until now, outsider characters in movies have been frequently side-lined to secondary role functions. This has been for the mythical ‘broader appeal’ to the ‘most’ people in the audience. That’s a BIG change in the last year or so.
So, regardless of how you feel about THE SHAPE OF WATER (and it’s certainly a ‘Marmite’ movie in that people to seem to love OR hate it), as a writer it’s quite the thrill to see to see such a an unusual female lead in Elisa. She’s a reminder that a successful story does NOT have to have a ‘typical’ female protagonist at the heart of the story: she is no hardcore hottie, nor is she comedic. She is a holistic character, with thoughts, feelings and problems all her own.
KEY QUESTION/S: Why is your character an outsider? What is his/her role function? Why is s/he in this story? What does s/he DO that’s different to the ‘norm’? MORE: Stop Saying ‘Diversity’. Start Writing VARIETY!
2) The status quo, ‘norm’ or ‘ideal’ can act as great antagonists
The antagonist is Richard Strickland, who is charge the shadowy government facility Elisa cleans at. Whilst it’s clear he’s evil from the start, we’re invited into his worldview too: he NEEDS to be in charge, he needs to be admired. But he also wants to be feared, just like he fears humiliation.
He also craves perfection. He has the so-called ‘perfect’ life: the lovely house, the wife, the kids. But crucially, it’s never enough. He doesn’t want a wife, he wants a doll (hence his fascination with the supposedly ‘silent’ Elisa, whom he wrongly believes would be even more obedient). He’s not interested in his kids, nor does he care about his house. He loves his car, because it’s something people see first. It’s all just about status to him.
In other words then, toxic masculinity is the key antagonist of this film. The juxtaposition of his rotting fingers then hints at how damaging this worldview is. His car gets smashed up. At the end of the film, his last words are even, ‘I always deliver!!’ But he is reduced, defeated, a loser.
KEY QUESTION/S: What does your antagonist’s POV symbolise in your story? What does s/he do? How does this relate to your protagonist’s journey? Why? MORE: How To Create A Memorable Antagonist
3) Disability does not have to define a character
Elisa is mute, but she can hear. There is some confusion at first about this on Strickland’s part (a stand-in for anyone in the audience who may feel they ‘deserve’ an explanation for someone else’s disability, illness or chronic condition).
This also provides the opportunity for some backstory about why she is this way, but ultimately the HOW is not that important*. Whilst Elisa’s mutism is a part of her and the way she relates to the other characters and the storyworld, crucially it does not define her. When so many characters’ stories are about their disability, this is refreshing.
Backstory is important for all protagonists, but just because you have picked a ‘diverse’ character as your lead DOES NOT mean you should define them by that diversity.
(*Or maybe the HOW is important … It depends how you see it. THIS ARTICLE in Forbes makes a compelling case for Elisa’s backstory and how it relates to the rest of the plot, which is really interesting. I can’t say I saw it this way whilst watching, but that doesn’t matter. The writing is good enough to support this interpretation, which is great. Plus either way, Elisa is still not defined by her disability, which in real terms may not be a disability at all! Check it out).
KEY QUESTION/S: What is different about my character? Why? How does this relate to what s/he does in the story or the other characters around him/her? MORE: 4 Easy Tips On Writing An Awesome Disabled Character
4) It’s all about ‘the same … but DIFFERENT’
Much has been made on social media about how TSOW is ‘really’ just SPLASH, plus imho it’s also a version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (only with a fish-man). For some, this means TSOW is derivative and thus supposedly ‘unworthy’ of Best Picture.
I call shenanigans. ALL concepts in storytelling are ‘versions’ of something that has gone before. Some are obvious – like TSOW – others are less obvious. Fact is, there had not been a version of this particular story played out LIKE this one, before … Unless you count Abe Sapien’s romance with Princess Nuala in HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY (which guess what, was also by Guillermo Del Toro!).
KEY QUESTION/S: What is my story LIKE? How is mine DIFFERENT? MORE: 7 Steps To Road Test Your Concept
5) Secondary and peripheral characters HELP or HINDER the leads
Giles is the stand-out secondary in TSOW in my opinion. In movies, when a protagonist is silent, like Elisa, we need a character who is the ‘voice’ (much like Timothy Q. Mouse is in DUMBO). Giles then is not just a translator for Elisa, but a sounding board.
In a lesser writer’s hands, Giles would have come off flat and boring, but Giles is three-dimensional: he’s an older gay man, who like Elisa, is an outsider. He’s a little vain, a little cowardly, but he’s also a talented artist with dreams. Ultimately Giles has integrity and compassion. He is understanding when the creature kills his beloved cat and he will ultimately stand up for what is right.
Zelda, Elisa’s best friend and colleague at the cleaner’s, is another great secondary. She has built a persona for herself as someone who is loud and effervescent, to deal with the crap in her life. This centres not just around racism in 1960s America, but also her husband, Brewster. Zelda wants a quiet life, hence her reluctance to help Elisa, but ultimately she will come through for her. We know this, because she always keeps Elisa’s place for her in line at the clocking-in machine, from the very beginning of the movie.
Moving on from ‘helping’ to ‘hindering’ then, we have Dr Robert Hoffstetler, who is an intriguing mixture of both. The Doctor has his own problems, which spill into Elisa’s world. He’s told by BOTH his bosses – American and Russian – to kill the creature, so he helps Elisa for the sake of science, or what’s ‘right’. This of course means he is the weakest link in this story, which can be exploited by Strickland.
From there, we have General Hoyt. In charge, he doesn’t care HOW things get done, as long as it gets done. Refreshingly, he doesn’t have to resort to threats (at least at first): instead, he appeals to Strickland’s desire to get things done, both flattering him and hinting at what *could* happen if he doesn’t. Hoyt is Strickland’s own antagonist in effect, which then places the second man at loggerheads with Elisa and the creature.
KEY QUESTION/S: Who are my secondary characters? What are their role functions? Do they HELP or HINDER my protagonist? Why? MORE: 5 Male Secondary Characters Who Teach The Protagonist
6) Never give up
Elisa’s journey in THE SHAPE OF WATER connected with many people. Her desire to do what’s right made her a hero in many people’s eyes. Standing up for the underdog – even if it’s a weird fish-man – is something many audiences can relate to.
More importantly, Elisa’s devotion to the creature never wavers during the movie. No matter how weird the plot got, her love for it was never in question, nor did she betray it, or even attempt to walk away. She is pure of heart and in a world of flawed heroes, this feels new.
As a Del Toro fan, I can see certain parallels with his career as well. Every filmmaker must want an Oscar, not to mention the adulation of his/her peers. It’s taken Del Toro a long time to get to this point, with much blood, sweat and tears along the way. But he made it. He got Best Picture. Good for him!
KEY QUESTION/S: What is my character’s journey, literal and metaphorical, here? Plus why do I want to write this story? MORE: THIS Is The Difference Between Amateur And Pro Writers
Excellent analysis and food for thought with my own screenplay.
Thanks and good luck with your writing!
What a great review of or more of a treatise of all things TSOW. Oh how I loved that movie and Ms.Hay captures all the key points to why I do. As an amateur screenwriter, this movie demonstrates so well and better than any previous movie I’ve seen, the importance of sub-plot and secondary characters. If one reads classic novels, there are always sub-plots which not only provide a breather from being overwhelmed from the main plot, but actually enhance the main plot by so doing. I tell people that TSHOW is right up there with Citizen Kane and other classics. Orson Welles would have been very proud of Mr. del Toro’s marvelous accomplishment.