The Shape of Water

For Writers + Pop Culture

What Writers Can Learn from The Shape of Water

Spoilers for The Shape of Water ahead!

The Shape of Water is out in cinemas and I’ve never been more creatively in love with Guillermo del Toro. This isn’t a surprise, honestly. Del Toro’s previous movies are some of my absolute favourites and I have a long-standing obsession with all things fairytale, both as a reader and a writer. So I entered the cinema with high hopes and left with actual, literal tears of happiness on my face.

But while I could spend 1000 words waxing poetic about The Shape of Water in general, I instead want to spend 1000 words waxing poetic about what The Shape of Water can teach writers. Because, my dudes, this movie is a finely-crafted masterclass of storytelling.

Here, in no particular order, are the main writing lessons I took away from The Shape of Water.

Give Each Character a Story of Their Own

As the saying goes: every villain is the hero of their own story. But this doesn’t just apply to villains. Characters are individuals. Just as each of us travels through the world with our own internal thoughts, feelings, and motivations, so do the characters on your page.

The Shape of Water is a fabulous example of every character onscreen having their own narrative within the overall story arc.

Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is trying to navigate the civil rights era as a black woman. She’s also suffering an unfulfilling marriage, which she treats with a sense of wry humour right up until she doesn’t. She learns, over the course of the story, that keeping one’s head down isn’t always the best (or most satisfying) way to navigate a structurally unequal world.

Zelda in The Shape of Water
Hey you earned those cheeky cigarettes, love

Giles (played by Richard Jenkins) is dealing with his failing career, his impending old age, and the harsh realities of being a gay man in the 1960s. Over the course of the story, he learns he’s not alone as long as he has friends, and that he must be proactive in maintaining those friendships.

Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Russian spy and a scientist and a man trying to reconcile his identity as both.

Even Strickland (Michael Shannon) gets his own twisted arc as a man who thrives on control slowly losing all of it, piece by piece.

Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland in The Shape of Water
…finger by finger

Treating all your characters as individuals by giving each of them their own story arc is one of the best ways to flesh out your cast. The more fleshed out they are, the more their actions will seem motivated by their own decisions, rather than the requirements of the plot.

Foreshadowing Can Make or Break an Ending

I’m not gonna lie, if the story had just straight up gone “magic kiss gave her gills” I would have eaten that up like the best kind of chocolate cake. I was there for a fairytale and, genre goggles firmly in place, I would have bought just about any “happily ever after” ass-pull that was required of me.

But del Toro and his co-writer, Vanessa Taylor, are professionals in their field, and so Elisa’s reveal as an amphibian creature is given masterful, purposeful foreshadowing.

Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor - Photos by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP
You clever bastards

There’s no magic number of beats to good foreshadowing. Too much and you run the risk of tipping your cards. Too little and your reveal will feel unearned.

The Shape of Water foreshadows Elisa’s transformation three times that I was able to count on my first viewing:

  1. The scars on her neck made apparent in the opening scenes of her in the bathroom.
  2. Another reference to her scars by Strickland. This reference is paired with blink-and-you-miss-it information that she’s an orphan and was found on a river bank as a baby.
  3. After her first sexual encounter with the Amphibian Man, Elisa’s shown tracing patterns in the rainwater on a bus window. Her finger doesn’t follow the droplets however, the droplets follow her finger as if pulled.
Elisa tracing raindrops on a bus window in The Shape of Water

An argument could also be made that Elisa’s being mute is, in itself, a clue to her heritage.

Elisa’s reveal as an amphibian creature is a masterwork of foreshadowed storytelling. It’s also a reveal in harmony with the genre and expression of the film itself.

Which leads us to:

Don’t Be Afraid to Lean into a Happy Ending

The Shape of Water isn’t a bleak movie. Del Toro himself has described it as, “almost like an antidote to a lot of the cynicism and disconnect that we experience day to day”. He’s right of course. The world is a bit of a dumpster fire right now. But I’d argue that The Shape of Water is also an antidote to the dark-n-gritty storytelling that’s become the mainstream of late.

Somewhere between Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, audience’s have started to lose their respect for happy endings. Real life so rarely delivers a happy-ever-after, after all. Obviously, the most realistic storytelling must reflect this dour trend.

And I think that’s where people have a disconnect. Storytelling doesn’t have to be realistic to be good. Good storytelling has the power to make you believe, fully and powerfully, in the unrealistic.

The Shape of Water is a fairytale and it embraces that fact with the sort of sincerity that’s fallen into disuse of late. That sincerity is honestly what makes del Toro one of my favourite storytellers. No matter the project he tackles, he does it with an absolute, and unafraid genuineness. His belief in his own story shines through onscreen, bolstering my own belief in it as well.

Happy endings aren’t a cop-out. Nor are they lazy writing. Done well, a happy ending can be more meaningful and affecting than any dark, “realistic” option.

The Shape of Water is a prime example of a powerful, earned, happy ending. If anyone comes at me with “dark and gritty” arguments from now on I’m going to shove this screenplay down their throat.

What Did You Think of The Shape of Water?

As the Oscar nominations pour in, The Shape of Water is likely to get more than its fair share of think pieces and I honestly can’t wait. In the meantime, what did you think of it? Did you love it as a viewer or a writer or both?

Let me know in the comments or feel free to attack me on twitter.

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