How Revision Changed JAWS (1975)

Jaws is the property of Universal Pictures.

Well, I finally watched Jaws.

(It was never on TV or streaming when I could watch it!)

Like all the big films I’ve been watching this semester—two other finally-watched 70s classics were The Godfather and Chinatown—I was taking notes while watching it, which includes having the screenplay up on one half of my screen while I take notes on the other half.

I pretty quickly realized that the script I had up was not the final one. Scenes were different, dialogue was different.

Quint was very different.

If you’ve read my guest post on The Better Novel Project, you know that I really geek out over dialogue. And if you’ve read other posts on my blog before, you know that I am very passionate about voice.

So of course Quint’s language in the film struck a chord with me like a hammer on piano wire.

And I want to share his first monologue with you. But before I do, I want to share what the original script had him say, because comparing the two is such a great lesson in rewriting to strengthen voice.

I’m going to number the sentences for easier comparison.

Quint’s First Monologue in the Original Screenplay

  1. You all know me.
  2. You know what I do for a living.
  3. I’ll go out and get this bird for you.
  4. He’s a bad one and it’s not like goin’ down the pond chasing blue-gills and tommy-cods.
  5. This is a fish that can swallow a man whole.
  6. A little shakin’, a little tenderizing and down ya’ go.
  7. You gotta get this fellow and get him quick.
  8. If you do, it’ll bring a lot of tourist business just to see him and you’ve got your business back on a paying basis.
  9. A shark of that size is no pleasure and I value my neck at a hell of a lot more’n 3,000 bucks.
  10. I’ll find him for three.
  11. But I’ll kill him for ten.
  12. The bastard is costing you more’n that every day.
  13. Do you wanna stay alive and annee up the ten or play it cheap and be on welfare next winter.
  14. I’m gonna kill this thing… just a matter of whether I do it now — or at the end of summer.

Not bad, right? But not explosive, either. And Spielberg likes explosive.

Here’s the revised version:

Quint’s First Monologue in the Finished Film

  1. Y’all know me.
  2. Know how I earn a livin’.
  3. I’ll catch this bird for ya, but it ain’t gonna be easy…
  4. Bad fish.
  5. It’s not like going down to pond chasin’ blue gills or tommy cots.
  6. This shark—swallow ya hole.
  7. Li’l shakin’, li’l tenderizin’, down ya go.
  8. Now we gotta do it quick, that’ll bring back the tourists, that’ll put all your businesses on a payin’ basis.
  9. But it’s not gonna be pleasant!
  10. I value my neck a lot more than 3000 bucks, chief!
  11. I’ll find him for three, but I’ll catch him… and kill him… for ten!
  12. Now you gotta make up your minds.
  13. Gonna stay alive and ante up?
  14. Or ya wanna play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter?
  15. I don’t want no volunteers; I don’t want no mates.
  16. There’s too many captains on this island.
  17. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself.
  18. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.

Doesn’t this read differently? Same content for the most part, but edited and refined. THIS is explosive diction. THIS is what makes nerdy writers blog even when they should be writing essays for grad school … (oops.)

Go ahead and look between the two and compare sentences.

Then, since we are already getting our nerd on, making sentence graphs and everything, why don’t we count the breath units? (Those are the number of syllables between breaths or punctuation points.) It’s OK if you want to skip ahead to the video. No judgment.

Intense Geekery: Breath Unit Comparison

Here they are in the original version: 4, 9, 9, 20, 11, 16, 11, 3, 37, 26, 5, 6, 13, 25, 6, 11, 7
(Average breath unit: 12.8 syllables)

And since I’m a visual person and numbers start to lose meaning after, like, four of them, here’s a visual:


And in the final film: 3, 7, 6, 8, 2, 16, 2, 4, 4, 6, 4, 7, 7, 14, 8, 14, 5, 4, 3, 2, 8, 9, 7, 8, 8, 5, 10, 10, 6, 2, 4
(Average breath unit: 6.5 syllables)


While the first graph looks more like a roller coaster, which emotionally or intuitively might feel better for a writer to come up with, the second graph is tighter and shows a more natural and consistent flow in a character’s speech.

Why the breath units again?

If you can’t explain why something doesn’t sound right, check out the breath units.

Is counting syllables tedious? Sure. Eventually you’ll train your brain and your ear to hear a more natural rhythm.

Do all of your sentences have to be short? No. But if you look at the differences between the rhythm of the first graph and the second graph, you can see that the more natural-sounding speech doesn’t go from three syllables to 37, just like that. And if you try to say 37 syllables in a row without breathing, your lungs will feel how unnatural lengthy breath units are, simply because humans need to breathe. Twenty-five syllables or more might not look impossible on the page—and sometimes, when we are nervous or anxious, we can spit out a lot of syllables breathlessly—but readers and actors will pick up on dialogue that is unspeakable.

Rewriting Jaws

We know that Robert Shaw, the actor who played Quint, rewrote his major monologue near the climax of the film:

In addition to being an Oscar-nominated actor, Shaw was an award-winning writer of novels, plays and screenplays, and when he took a crack at polishing up the monologue, he made it into something unforgettable. Spielberg asserts that the monologue was a joint effort between two screenwriters and Shaw, while others say that Shaw did the heavy lifting to make the monologue so perfect.

—Linnea Crowther, “Robert Shaw as Jaws‘ Quint: 8 Facts

I assume that Shaw is responsible for this monologue’s rewrite as well.

Written out, the monologue might seem unrealistic, even silly: “Bad fish.” But in the hands of a master actor, it feels natural.

How did Shaw rewrite it? It wasn’t just that he was an award-winning writer. It’s because he spent so much time listening to a real local fisherman, Craig Kingsbury, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard. After listening so intently to a real-live person, Shaw was able to bring that authenticity to his work.

And here it is:

For more tips on writing realistic dialogue, read my guest post at The Better Novel Project.

Do you have a favorite voice in fiction or film? Share in the comments or tweet me @LaraEdits.

Voice: Talk Like a Pirate

The best way to learn how to write well is to read, read, read. Read the good stuff and pick them apart to find out why they work. Read the crap to figure out why it’s terrible.

The problem is, many of us just don’t have time to read as much as we’d like. So I could give you list of novels that do things well, but I don’t expect you’d read them. But you know what you DO have time to read? Picture books.

The time commitment is only one reason why children’s literature is so freaking awesome. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, once said there are four “basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.” What exemplifies these better than a picture book?

My son and I have increased our time at the library of late. Whenever I come across a good picture book that demonstrates a key literary premise, I’ll share it with you. Today’s book concerns VOICE.

Voice: Talk Like a Pirate

Voice is the way a character sounds when talking. Each of your characters needs to have his or her own distinct voice. An uppity Manhattan banker isn’t going to parrot a plumber from Hooverville. You, the writer, need to have your own voice, too.

The best way to see if your writing has some legitimate voice to it is to read it aloud. And that’s exactly what you need to do with this book:


(Click the link to be taken to an Amazon page. If you order from the Amazon page using this link, I’ll receive about $0.000001 from Amazon. Rolling in the dough over here, don’t you know.)

Pirate Pete’s Talk Like a Pirate is a tale about a pirate trying to gather for himself a crew of scallywags. The condition for the job, however, is that each candidate needs to talk like a pirate:

“Ye gots to be stubborn and mighty cranky,
Ye gots to be dirty and awfully stanky!
Ye gots to load a cannon and know how to fire it,
But most of all, ye gots to talk like a pirate!”

Read this book aloud, and you’ll see the difference between Pirate Pete’s voice and that of each of the potential crew. I read the first candidate aloud with a mamby-pamby French accent, because that’s what it sounded like in my head.

I’m tagging this under “Writing Resources.” Give me some time to be creative, and I’ll come up with “Writing Exercises” for you to practice on. Until then, start talking like a pirate.

Cheating your way to 50,000 words

Now, I value integrity more than the average human being, but sometimes I think taking a few short cuts is completely fine. Don’t think hard, think smart.

Here are my top 3 cheats to boost your word count, in order of least desperate to most desperate. 

3. Get all that clunky writing out of your system

Don’t forget that NaNoWriMo serves as an outlet to get down your first draft. If you think that what comes out of NaNoWriMo is even close to publishing standards, either you are kidding yourself or you have a sad, sad idea of what is publishable these days.

First drafts are excrement. Remember that. Just get it all out of your system, and leave the clean-up for the revision stage.

What’s clunky writing? Wordiness. Adjectives and adverbs. Flowery description. Get it out now, and if you find an editor worth his or her salt (or if you know a thing about deadwood yourself), then try not to cry when 2/3rds of your manuscript seems to be crossed out in red ink after the editor gets her hands on it.

***Update: After reading my post, a friend of mine showed me this post on “The Best of NaNoWriMo”—a Tumblr page you can hope you don’t find yourself on. Please note that I recommend that yes, you get the wordiness out of your system—it comes naturally to writers. But I do NOT recommend making an effort to be overly wordy. You should never attempt to be a lousy writer. Practice makes perfect, so practice good writing, else you become a perfectly awful writer that no one wants to have lunch with.***

2. Commit the sins of dialogue tags.

“The truth is, if you have a dialogue tag,” Lara said, “It should serve two purposes.”

  1. It should be as invisible as possible, placed at the beginning or end of the sentence, or in the middle at a natural pause.
  2. It should tell the reader who is talking.

Here are the 3 sins of writing dialogue tags:

  1. Thinking your reader is stupid. If anybody with a brain can guess who is talking, leave the dialogue tag out.
  2. Thinking that zero dialogue tags = mysterious, artistic writing. It isn’t. It’s confusing and annoying. Establish who is talking as soon as the dialogue begins, and then only use dialogue tags when things get confusing or you introduce another character.
  3. Thinking that dialogues are a place to express your creativity and use vocabulary words. I have a huge amount of respect for educators. Yet I’d like to take a ruler to the knuckles of teachers who give their students worksheets like, “Other words to use instead of ‘said'” because they are instilling into those malleable minds that bad writing will give you better grades. (Hint: it often does)

Dialogue tags are punctuation. Some really wonderful writers forget that from time to time, including Ms. J.K. Rowling, who used extended dialogue tags in her earlier Harry Potter novels. You’ll notice, though, that the better her novels got, the more invisible her dialogue tags were.

“I like that hat you are wearing,” said John exuberantly.

“Thank you,” Cordelia squeaked with a blush, “for saying such nice things.”

Reading the above is pretty similar to reading something like this:



Unnecessary and loud. And while such boring dialogue shouldn’t appear in your novel anyway, if it must, make it more like this:

“I like that hat you are wearing,” said John.

“Thank you for saying such nice things,” said Cordelia. She covered her cheek with her hand to hide the blush.

Still awful, but better. If you want good examples of dialogue writing, I’ll see if I can get some time this weekend to illustrate how to do it well, using examples from authors other than myself.

But if you need more words, commit those sins! Get them out! (And then murder the tags as you rewrite.)

1. Include your notes and free-writing in there, too.

NaNoWriMo is sort of like a marathon of free-writing. The point is the word count, not the quality of what you are writing. One way to boost your word count and get the “creative juices” flowing is to start off each writing session doing a free-writing exercise. It will get you over staring at the dreadful white page and make your brain and hands get ready.

Then include this all in the same document as your manuscript.

My manuscript is a complete mess. It isn’t linear, I write different scenes from different parts of my novel at different times. I don’t have a lot of my notes included in the manuscript (yet), but I have some. (Most of my notes I typed on a typewriter and keep in a 3-ring binder.) I’ll write three versions of a scene because all of them are in my head at once. Keep it all, and count it all in your word count. When you get to the revising stage, then you can rearrange all the scenes into a logical order and decide which words to toss, recycle, or keep.

I’m hoping to get more writing done this week. I have a lot of new ideas for scenes, but they currently reside on sticky notes and hotel notepads that I have around the house. I’m not really trying to hit the magic 50,000 words this month—I’d rather go slowly building  a solid plan than a 70,000 word manuscript that doesn’t work—but once I hit 20,000 I’ll take a break to write a post on good dialogue.

Unless I hit a burn out before 20,000 words and need a break. But my breaks have mostly consisted of me trying to obtain work. Which reminds me—insert shameless plug—if you are interested in getting custom business cards designed for yourself, for writing conferences or whatever, I’ll give you a discount for being a fan on my Facebook page. Become a fan on there, and I’ll give more details this weekend.

Let me know how you are progressing, and if you’ve committed any of the sins or cheats yourself!