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The Shape of Water (directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) won the Oscar for Best Picture, but not Best Screenplay. What went on there, then?! In story theory terms, let’s look at what it did well, and then see what might have been improved. Firstly, then the main story dynamics that make the story work.
WARNING! In order to analyse this story, there are spoilers. You have been warned!
The Shape of Water is set in Baltimore in 1962. The story follows Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins); a mute cleaner at a high-security government laboratory who falls in love with a captured human-like amphibian. As their relationship develops, she realises he is being maltreated and will shortly be killed in the name of research. She sets about rescuing the creature.
- The story is solidly framed with a good old, traditional key question dynamic. It works like this: an inciting incident (the government order to kill the amphibian in order to carry out research) raises a key question in the mind of the audience: will the government succeed in their ambition to kill the amphibian, or can Elisa save him? This key question is at the heart of the conflict between Elisa and the government bullies through the body of the story, and the question is answered at climax (no, the government will not manage to kill the amphibian, because yes, Elisa manages to save him).
This is a classic, traditional story framing. It’s simple and orthodox, but there’s nothing wrong with that!
2. A story world. We love our stories to take us somewhere we don’t go in our normal lives. Harry Potter takes us to Hogwarts Castle and a world of magic. Breaking Bad to the violent and cash-rich world of the drug dealer. Star Wars takes us to a galaxy far, far away. The Shape of Water takes us to the paranoid, anti-communist USA in the 1950s, and to the world of a mute misfit, who finds a soulmate in the discovery of new species – a human-like amphibian (who is also a mute misfit).
The story world is much, much more important than it is generally given credit for. When we talk about how cinema brings escapism, the story world is basically what brings the escapism, and we love it. The beautiful and intriguing world to which The Shape of Water takes us, the slightly funky characters and the way it is all presented and shot, is a major contributor to its ‘best picture’ success.
- The main characters are strongly drawn, each with very clear aims, motivation and agendas. The motivation of the protagonist, Elisa, is through the connection she feels with the fish-man. They are becoming friends, and she wants to look after his interests as he cannot look after himself. His helplessness connects emotionally with the audience, as does the fact that they are both alone and mute in a world that treads them down. We empathise with their difficult situation and we want them to make it through and find happiness together. The main antagonist Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is also strongly motivated. He will lose his job if he doesn’t vivisect the fish-man. He also appears to hate the fish-man (although I am not sure why) and brutalises him without conscience or particularly good reason. He’s just a bad guy being bad. All the characters tend to have strong, very clear, aims and motivation. In general, this is a good thing, but… More on this shortly.
2. Character growth. The story has Elisa develop along a clear path of personal growth. She begins her life as an orphaned child, found abandoned in a river. She is alone and is mute. In her adult life, she leads a simple, humble life and works as a cleaner. As the story progresses, she finds a connection with the fish-man; feeding him, then teaching him to sign so they can communicate and connect. Their relationship grows as she rescues him from certain death at the hands of the government. She hides him in her apartment where they even consummate their growing love with sex in the bath. However, the government is on their tail, and their love will meet an abrupt end if she cannot get him safe. They go on the run, but the government get to them just before she can set her fish-man free in the ocean, and they both end up getting shot.
However, the amphibian has shown he has fishy healing powers, and he uses them to save himself. He escapes into the water, but not before grabbing Elisa, taking her with him into the depths where he saves her too, and the wounds on her neck, that have been part of her from the start, become gills. We realise that she was originally found in the river because she was like him. They have each found their soulmate and have grown through the course of the story from lost and lonely misfits at the beginning to partnered and in love by the end. Both were fish out of water; now they have each other and are in their element.
A change in ‘life values’ across the course of a narration is character growth, and is most powerful when that growth is achieved through the proactive actions of the protagonist. The change in life values is usually positive, bringing the protagonist a better life than they started out with, but it can equally be negative. A tragic story is still powerful character growth, depicting negative change. What we need to see is a change. As long as there is change, there is powerful story. The Shape of Water‘s main power is the positive character growth in Elisa’s life (and the fish-man’s life) through the difficult decisions she makes (bank that for later) and the actions she takes.
3. Character Plans. As the story builds its way into act ll it becomes driven by Elisa’s plan to rescue the fish-man from the laboratory, keep him hidden until the next high tide and then release him back to the sea. A stated character plan is an excellent device to provide audience orientation, explain character intent, add an increase in pace and intensity and a build up towards the climax, and put the audience on the edge of their seat as they compare actual events as they unfold against the way the plan was supposed to go. All of the characters are involved in the plan (whether they know it or not), so it is central to the rising action of the second half of the story. Excellent.
4. Dialogue. It is also of interest that the main two characters, Elisa and the fish-man, never say a word. Dialogue is of secondary interest in a film, and a story that resists talking too much is often rated more highly.
Storification is the work we do in our own mind in producing the story for ourselves. Every reception of a story is a unique production in mind. We draw on our own cultural knowledge and experience and build the story for ourselves through delivering the subtext. These are the most important components of a story; it is the work we do that bring greatness.
- A Moral Argument. The morality inherent to The Shape of Water is very clear, although somewhat simplistic. The moral argument is concerned with whether governments should be killing new species in the name of research. The government ambition to ‘vivisect’ the amphibian causes a clear divide between those who think that is a good thing to do and those who do not. More on this shortly.
2. Cultural Allusion. In amongst this moral argument, we find the story resonates with cultural aspects of how a bullying government is perceived in relation to ‘the little guy’. I am in no way making a political point here, just highlighting how good stories often resonate with the morality in play in contemporary society. Seeing the disadvantaged and downtrodden manage to find a way to defeat a brutal, uncaring government will ring a bell with many people. We like stories in which there is a metaphoric/allegorical link between the events in the film and the culture of our time.
3. Anagnorisis/Peripeteia (Realisation/twist). The story exhibits fine Aristotle principles. The audience experiences a powerful ‘realisation’ (anagnorisis) when both Elisa and her amphibian love are killed at climax. As experienced film-goers, this is a shocking moment which surely ends the story with tragic consequences. However, the unexpected reversal (peripeteia) twists things back to the positive. The amphibian has shown in previous sequences he has fishy-powers to heal serious wounds. This extends to saving himself from a fatal bullet, and subsequently saving Elisa as well.
4. Surpassing Aim. Whilst the audience will strongly relate to Elisa’s fundamental motivation – to save a helpless creature from brutal death at the hands of the insensitive government officials – they will also feel a strong sense of the character growth arc, which sneaks in behind the basic life/death plotline to deliver more than just the answer to the key question. Her plan was to set the fish-man free. However, in doing so she is implicitly waving goodbye to her chances of love and partnership. But the peripeteia also unexpectedly twists this subplot thread to the positive. Yes, she saves the fish-man, but he doesn’t escape and swim away forever. He then saves her, and the two of them thereby keep each other and become soul mates. Most people relate to the search for a soul mate, and when the protagonist is a slightly strange and mute social misfit, her character growth journey to finding a soul mate is all the more unlikely, and therefore rewarding for the audience. Her aim to save the fish-man is surpassed by the even finer values involved in finding love and partnership.
So why did it win Best Film and not Best Screenplay? For me, it is clearly the over-simplistic ‘good guy/bad guy’ characters. However, the cause of this problem lies in the moral argument. As a writer, it is worth noting that not only do the finest stories generally have a clear moral argument, but that morality basically informs everything; from the character definitions through every action they take to the life lessons that the audience takes away with them into their own lives. When people talk about a story’s theme, this is not ‘friendship’ or ‘high school’ or ‘time travel’ or whatever the topic might be. It is the morality under discussion threaded into every character, every dilemma, every event and the whole story itself (I will write a separate blog post to explain this in more depth).
In The Shape of Water the moral argument is concerned with whether governments should be killing new species in the name of research. This is a terrific starting point, but IMHO they don’t quite get it right from there, because they polarise the argument too much and end up with an extreme moral ‘right’ that the audience adopts without any doubts. In a fine story, we in the audience should ‘get’ both sides of the argument, but the way this is set up means we cannot empathise with the government’s position. This is both why the main antagonist (Strickland) is so unsubtly ‘evil’ but it also works the other way: his committed badness defines the obvious, polarised morality of the government, and that is why we see it as rather simplistic when a little more nuance could have helped a great deal.
For example, we might not agree with Walter White’s actions in Breaking Bad, but we fully understand his reasoning. He has cancer. He’s going to die and he wants his family to be cared for after he has gone. So he starts using his chemistry expertise to make drugs in order to leave money to his family before he goes. That is terrific story, because we are with him (at least for a while…) as he makes what could be considered logical, caring decisions. This means the story’s antagonism is complex, and we cannot easily pick sides. The characters take a stance in the moral argument and we in the audience have our own choices to make in how we evaluate those stances and who we are hoping wins out. Are we really cheering the bad guy on to his next murder?! Are we really rooting against the police?! THAT is how to make dimensionally wonderful bad guys, and powerfully compelling antagonism. In Toy Story, Woody isn’t ‘bad’. He’s jealous of Buzz, and desperately wants to remain Andy’s favourite toy. Understandable. In Mary Poppins, the antagonism comes from the father — Mr Banks. But he’s not ‘bad’. He is misguided; committing his life to the bank instead of to his children. Understandable. He’s the ‘bad guy’ in that he’s the source of antagonism, but we don’t hate him and hope he suffers. In Juno, there is no bad guy. There is a pregnant teenager. Her predicament is the source of the antagonism, but we don’t hate her. We want what’s best for her. And there’s the moral argument. How should society treat a pregnant teenager? Every character has a different moral stance in the argument over how society should deal with a teenage mother and her baby. The antagonism comes from the conflicts between these moral stances, each represented by a different character.
In The Shape of Water, the government are simplistically bad, barely even justifying themselves beyond ‘killing for research’. As a character, Elisa has no dilemma. When I said above ‘the difficult decisions she must make’ the problem is right there. Because they are not difficult decisions, they are simple, obvious decisions anyone would take, and that undermines the story and renders her character simplistic too. As an audience, we cannot relate to the government’s nastiness. They do not even have some warped justification they tell themselves. They are just out there, twirling their moustaches and doing evil things. So we take sides and there is no problem for us in hating them.
To fix this, the writers needed to introduce some level of empathy with the bad side in order to make things difficult for Elisa and make us squirm a little, like we do as we grapple with the morality surrounding Walter White or Juno. Let’s say that the government discovers that the knowledge they could gain from the vivisection of the fish-man could save millions of people. Now, we in the audience can at least understand and relate to the government’s decision. Killing one fish-man could save all these people. Now let’s make one of those people who could potentially be saved through this vivisection Elisa’s friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Aha! Now Elisa’s position is much more difficult. She must choose to save the fish-man and future soul-mate OR save the life of her best friend.
Ouch! Interesting! We tweaked the morality a little, so the story is now properly centred around the rights and wrongs of animal research. A terrific, divisive and morally provocative subject, with cultural resonance and reasonable, understandable arguments on many sides. Now the story becomes dimensionally more complex. So do the characters. The antagonism threads into the good, and the good threads into the bad. Nice. And this means the story must work harder to find a way out. Elisa is in a deliciously terrible situation. Now she DOES have difficult moral decisions to make, and the pressure is there, because she must choose. Either the fish-man dies (but her best friend Giles lives) or the fish-man lives and Giles dies (but Elisa gets the love and partnership she has never had). NOW we have the ingredients for a wonderful story. NOW we have complex characters with dilemma and pressure — enormous pressure on Elisa. What will she do? What CAN she do?! In the end, let’s say the twist is that Giles decides to take his own life, sacrificing himself because of his love for Elisa. More pressure and difficult decisions, this time on Giles. Even the government have difficult moral decisions to make, causing difficulties for these characters too. Right across the board, this improved focus on the delivered morality causes beautiful complexity and deeper characters. See how adjusting the story so it comprises a genuine argument, rather than a simple, obvious ‘right over wrong’ decision, elevates it into beautiful complexity, with dimensional characters, with difficult choices?
There is more that could be said, but if this blog post is not going to go on forever, I will leave you with that. The film won best picture because it is beautiful, and takes us to a glorious story world and yes, in a simplistic (or perhaps more generously, let’s call it a ‘classical’) way, it does the job very well, with excellent framing. Its ultimate power comes from that excellent character growth. It didn’t win best screenplay because the good and the bad are polarised around a simple, binary choice to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, not a fully-fledged moral argument, and the knock-on effect of this was the simplistic characters and somewhat obvious, largely predictable events.
In your own stories, I recommend you try to find the moral argument. Verbalise it and understand both sides. Then build your characters so they represent the different moral stances. Great characters – good or bad – are defined by their moral positions, so drive and motivate them with their morality and make them very passionate about the argument that stance causes.
Fine characters grow from their moral stance. The story’s conflicts come from the differences in the moral positions. The audience engagement comes from the dilemma for the protagonist in choosing between moral stances.