Anybody who has seen Jaws will remember the terrifying story that Robert Shaw's Quint recounts one evening after dinner on his boat. He tells the story of a secret mission he undertook during the war, his ship sunk and he and his fellow marines left clinging to dear life as they are picked off one by one by sharks in the water. It's one of the most memorable scenes in the film and for me, it's easily the scariest scene - not because the scene is in itself scary, but because of the horrific images that the story conjures in the imagination. The scenario he describes is done so with such perfect storytelling technique that it elevates the threat of the shark to new heights at this critical juncture in the movie.
The scene plays a very important role. Remember that by this point in the movie, Quint, Brody and Hooper have been hunting the great white shark to no avail - but while they have made no real progress, neither has the shark. The shark has killed for sure, but it hasn't been a major threat to our heroes and there's only so much shark chasing that an audience can endure before they grow weary of the whole ordeal. Quint's story, which was reportedly re-written by Shaw himself prior to filming, provides a much needed injection of tone to a film which has, by that point, become a little too comfortable in its surroundings. Spielberg and his writers knows that it is time to bring this adventure film back to its core - to remind people why they shouldn't go into the water just yet.
The story also plays another role - it adds to the body count, but in a way that doesn't immunise the audience from the sight of gore and death. Not that many people get eaten by the shark in this film - just like in Jurassic Park. There isn't actually all that much visual terror and horror in these films, but Spielberg expertly allows our imagination to compensate. He uses the barrels to represent the shark, moving trees and foliage to represent the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. And he uses storytelling within the story of the film to fuel our imagination and continue to paint a picture of carnage and death.
It's hard to imagine Jaws without this scene at all. The funny thing though, is that the film could easily have gone ahead without this scene. This is something that screenwriters are often discouraged from doing in classroom settings and in handbooks and guides; the idea of writing long winded passages of dialogue that are expository. I'm sure a harsh screenwriting critic would argue Quint's story is unnecessary and doesn't do the film any favours. But these types of scenes serve a purpose and shouldn't be shied away from by filmmakers and screenwriters.
I'm a big supporter of these types of scenes, because that's precisely why we are here in the first place. We want to see and hear a story being told before our eyes and that includes characters literally telling us mini stories in the film as well. The trick is knowing when to use this technique. The timing of this story in Jaws is, like I said, not random. It has to happen here. When the characters are getting cocky or comfortable in their boat, Quint's story snaps them back to reality. But let's talk about why it works so well.
Remember that we can't get back story or character development for a shark. This antagonist is at a disadvantage compared to human antagonists. Instead, we are reliant on other sources to make us take this threat seriously. Spielberg has a tendency of using an academic argument to emphasise the threat of these creatures in his films. Remember when Grant educates the kid about the raptor's hunting patterns in Jurassic Park? Or when a literal academic, Hooper, shows up on Amity Island to help Brody catch the shark?
But not everyone gets to quote academic sources to get their point across, and let's face it, that gets boring fast. Sometimes a good horror story is needed. Quint does this perfectly in Jaws, and also, the game keeper Robert Muldoon in Jurassic Park does the same when he talks about the Raptors systematically testing the strength of the fences, killing each other off and, most terrifying of all, learning and remembering.
These pauses in the action, these campfire story moments are a great opportunity for screenwriters to reinforce the threats and obstacles in their screenplays. When used at appropriate places, like early in act 2 before the main adventure takes off, or the beginning of act 3 before the big climax of the film, it can convince every person in the cinema that the threat is very real or that the goal is worth pursuing.
It's strange that in a medium with such visual and audible potential, a person standing before the camera and telling a story can be so effective. But then, it isn't surprising - cinema and television has been called the communal campfire of the world, where we gather to hear stories like our ancestors would gather and hear stories from the elders. We as screenwriters work so hard to become experts at complex storytelling for the screen, yet, ironically, a story in its most simplistic form can be the most powerful.