How to Create Your Own Jurassic Park: Part I

a writer’s guide to expanding Michael Crichton’s iconic story


Twenty years have passed since the late Michael Crichton launched the billion dollar Jurassic Park franchise, comprising two full length novels, three feature films, and merchandise that ranged from Kenner toys to gummy dinosaurs.

Since the release of the original novel, Jurassic Park has dominated our conception of dinosaurs and it may well do so for decades to come. But re-imagining Jurassic Park is not as easy as it may seem. Hundreds of fan fiction authors have tried and the world’s top entertainers have produced efforts that have already been forgotten. In Part I, I look at lessons from Crichton’s original novel to help you design the next Jurassic Park story. In Part II, I offer lessons from Steven Spielberg’s award-winning 1993 film. (Read Part II here.)

Lessons from the Novel

Lesson 1. Learn How to Write

Whatever medium you employ—prose, film, or video games—you will need to write well to engage your audience.

Michael Crichton had already established himself as a successful author before he even used his real name. Paying his way through Harvard Medical School, he spent weekends writing mystery novels under pen names and won an Edgar Award in 1969 for a novel about an abortion clinic. His medical training, aptitude, and passion for writing led him to quit medicine and dedicate himself to writing full time. He would soon author successful suspense novels across a wide variety of subjects, from elaborate Victorian heists (The Great Train Robbery, 1975) to deep sea exploration (Sphere, 1987).

Crichton became a master of pacey, captivating tales. “I assume that people are tired,” he explained of his technique, “and that they have other things to do… I had really better try and grab them and make them turn the page.” [1]

In the late 1980s, Crichton found himself collecting stuffed dinosaurs for his first child, until he realized that there was something more to the obsession. He decided it was time to revisit an abandoned screenplay he had written years earlier about a genetically engineered dinosaur. The result was the novel Jurassic Park, a story that Hollywood anticipated to be so lucrative that Steven Spielberg bought the film rights before the book had even been published in 1990. (More on this in Part II.)

Lesson 2. Develop a plausible plot.

The plot of the novel, while steeped in technology and jargon, is actually straightforward and plausible.

The book opens with several short vignettes about mysterious lizards biting children on the coast of Costa Rica. Scientists around the world try to identify the lizard, surmising that it could be a new species of basilisk that walks on its hind legs—or something else entirely.

Crichton slowly introduces the main characters as the scientists investigate: Alan Grant, a straight-talking paleontologist; Ellie Sattler, Grant’s long-legged graduate student and paleobotanist; Donald Gennaro, an aggressive bull of an attorney; and then John Hammond, a wealthy philanthropist and the owner of the corporate behemoth InGen.

Hammond invites the experts to Isla Nublar, an island 100 miles off Costa Rica, to determine if his new theme park—whatever it is—is safe enough to be opened to the public. On the way there, the team picks up rock star mathematician Ian Malcolm. Hammond’s two grandchildren join them shortly after their arrival, completing the motley crew.

The team lands on the mist-shrouded Isla Nublar to discover that Hammond, in his eccentricity and audaciousness, has recreated hundreds of dinosaurs by using advanced bioengineering techniques. They are at first gobsmacked by the technological marvel of the dinosaurs, but soon begin to examine the park with a more critical eye.

The visit goes passably well—a few dinosaurs are sick, others are missing—until lead computer engineer Dennis Nedry disables the security systems in order to smuggle out several highly lucrative embryos to a competing biogenetics company. The theft goes horribly awry, and not only does Nedry fail to reach the hand-off point, he meets his own grisly end.

The inspection team (and the two pesky grandchildren) spend the rest of the novel trying to flee the rampaging beasts. Only a few team members remain at the end of the book when the dinosaurs are decimated in a blaze of napalm.

Lesson 3. Introduce the dinosaurs carefully.

In the novel, the build up to the arrival of the team on Isla Nublar happens gradually (not until page 79 of the hardcover edition). The omniscient narrator puts you in possession of facts that the main characters themselves do not know. According to Crichton scholar Elizabeth Trembley, you suspect the dinosaurs are coming, but you are not sure when, further heightening the tension in the story. [2]

Crichton waits until the pivotal moment to gracefully reveal the animals in their majesty:

To the south, rising above the palm trees, Grant saw a single trunk with no leaves at all, just a big curving stump. Then the stump moved, and twisted around to face the new arrivals. Grant realized that he was not seeing a tree at all. He was looking at the graceful, curving neck of an enormous creature, rising fifty feet into the air. He was looking at a dinosaur.

He unveils each new creature with the flare of a ringmaster, and each is richly imagined. The dilophosaurs spit a foul smelling venom; the triceratops fall sick from eating tainted gizzard stones; the procompsognathids, chicken-sized scavengers, inject a numbing agent that lulls the victim into passivity as they chew away. Here is the first image of the mighty T-rex:

The tyrannosaur sprang silently forward, fully revealing her enormous body. In four bounding steps she covered the distance to the goat, bent down, and bit it through the neck. The bleating stopped.

Lesson 4. Remember that the dinosaurs are the main characters.

There is so much to admire in the novel: the pacing, the effortlessness with which Crichton shifts between perspectives and settings; the mystery and power of the island; the ease with which the book instructs with factoids (sometimes in the middle of action); and then the gory, yet restrained, portrayal of the dinosaur attacks.

Critics have lambasted Crichton for the characters in his fiction, which tend to be walking stereotypes that do not convincingly change during the course of the narrative. Even as a kid I found the characters in Jurassic Park to be hollow, but I enjoyed the novel anyway (except for the five-year-old Lex, who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever).

Weak characters don’t ruin the novel but rather enable your focus to remain on the dinosaurs themselves. The adaption of the dinosaurs to 20th century Earth—and the inspection team’s understanding of that process—is arguably the centerpiece of the story. The dinosaurs are the protagonists.

Lesson 5. Don’t make the dinosaurs human.

The dinosaurs may be the main characters, but they’re not human. If I could find a point in the narrative when the novel loses its quality, it would be after the following scene. The T-rex has just finished killing a hadrosaur after the predator was able to escape from its paddock:

The tyrannosaur was right there. It was sitting upright in the shade of a tree, its hind legs stretched out in front. Its eyes were open but it was not moving, except for its head, which lifted and fell gently with each snorting sound. The buzzing came from the clouds of flies that surrounded it, crawling over its face and slack jaws, its bloody fangs, and the red haunch of a killed hadrosaur that lay on its side behind the tyrannosaur. (264)

The rich detail of the bloody fangs and the buzzing flies call to mind a lion basking lazily in the sun after killing in the savannah. The T-rex has engorged itself and sits blissfully immobilized. This oddly serene pose enables Dr. Grant and the kids to sneak by, despite being less than twenty feet away. The sleeping T-rex evokes a feeling of harmony on the island, that even dinosaurs could establish an equilibrium that would, for a moment, tolerate humans.

From this page on, the tyrannosaur and the velociraptors become anthropomorphized murderers. The T-rex wakes from his slumber and pursues Grant and the kids down a river, going so far as to search for them behind a waterfall with its retractable tongue, which itself has the strength of a boa constrictor. The T-Rex hunts them despite the fact that it has eaten, by my count, at least one hadrosaur (a few tons) and a goat (75 pounds) in less than 12 hours.

The velociraptors, too, become a pack of psychotic killers. The six-foot-tall predators exhibit pack behavior and outwit their quarry to kill again and again. Yet even after feasting on technicians, they still want to kill, and chase the characters through buildings, open doors and chew through thick iron bars in order to taste their succulent flesh.

You only need to examine sharks to determine how unlikely a scenario this is. Modern sharks also originated in the Jurassic era (roughly 200-150 million years ago). They certainly attack and kill humans from time to time, but there are more tasty things in the sea for them to eat, and they do not attack nearly as often as they could (a shark swims within three feet of a human every 10 minutes).

It’s possible that InGen’s cloning process instilled an unusually aggressive tendency in certain dinosaur species, but there is no evidence for this in the text.

Regardless, the personification of these beasts is not a fatal flaw in the book. It is an artistic choice made by Crichton to enliven the story. Crichton was drawing upon gothic and science fiction traditions in which monsters created by science turn on their masters; in that sense the prescient velociraptors evolved from the literary nucleotides of Frankenstein. But proceed down this route with caution. It’s a slippery slope to a trashy tale.

Lesson 6. Do enough background research. But just enough.

Jurassic Park introduced the world to biogenetics, chaos theory, and the latest theories of dinosaur evolution—all before the internet as we know it.

In the novel, the dinosaurs have been created by advanced biotechnology that uses supercomputers to reassemble DNA extracted from fossilized mosquitoes. The mosquitoes, presumably, sucked on dinosaurs millions of years before and contain their blood. This enables the InGen scientists to recreate 15 species of dinosaurs and over 200 separate animals.

Crichton depicts the dinosaurs as powerful and intelligent, relying upon the latest theories that they resembled birds rather than modern day lizards.

At the same time, the park fails because of science. The mathematician Ian Malcolm predicts that the system will collapse based on his own advances in chaos theory.

We do not conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as built into the very fabric of existence. Yet it is. And chaos theory teaches us… that straight linearity, which we have come to take for granted in everything from physics to fiction, simply does not exist. Linearity is an artificial way of viewing the world.

Today we know that Crichton didn’t get the science entirely correct. He was aware of the challenges of recreating dinosaurs from ancient DNA and sought to overcome them in the story with Cray computers and millions of dollars of lab equipment. But he underestimated the difficulty of cloning animals. According to developmental biologist Sandy Becker, the 238 cloned dinosaurs would have required 164,696 eggs with transplanted nuclei. To clone something in the early 21st century, you need the entire nucleus of a cell, not just the naked DNA contained in mosquito tummies. And dinosaur blood cells most likely did not contain nuclei. So the scientists at InGen would have been unable to clone the dinosaurs even with their fancy supercomputers. [3]

Similarly, Becker observes that Ian Malcolm’s “Malcolm Effect”, which anticipates a slight recovery of a system before it collapses, is a false statement of chaos theory and she argues that the problems that beset Jurassic Park are merely human error and bad luck.

To the average reader these niggling details don’t matter—what matters is that the premise is plausible. Your installment of the story might need to update some of the science, but there is no need to become bogged down in the details.

Lesson 7. Set a timer.

Crichton grabs your attention in the novel through his manipulation of time. There is always something that needs to happen right away or something that needs to be prevented from happening: the velociraptors may escape from their paddock; a ship carrying dinosaurs might reach the mainland; a main character might die unless he receives medical attention. Crichton constricts the temporal space of the story so that the tourist destination becomes a series of countdowns to disaster. You can’t help but turn the page.

On that note, you’ll have to wait for me to fill you in on lessons from the film—an essential part of the Jurassic Park franchise—in Part II.

Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of Nigerians in Space, a thriller about a lunar geologist from Africa, out now from Unnamed Press.

Notes

[1] Elizabeth A. Trembley, Michael Crichton: A Critical Companion. Greenwich, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
[2] Id.
[3] Sandy Becker, “We Still Can’t Clone Dinosaurs”, The Science of Michael Crichton. Ed. Kevin R. Glazer. Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2008.

This piece first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction.