I was watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind for an upcoming piece and it’s a film I hadn’t seen in a long time. I remember loving the film, but I didn’t quite remember why it had left such a big impact on me. Maybe it was the age I was when I’d first seen it and the age I am now, approaching it with fresher (older) eyes, but it really stood out as a masterwork of storytelling. It’s straightforward, sure, but as a piece of character work, it’s stunning.
There’s one scene in particular that I want to talk to you about, and it’s something that happens in a lot of books and movies.
(Warning, the rest of this might contain spoilers for Close Encounters.)
The scene I want to talk about happens early on in Close Encounters and it will always happen early in the context of your story. It’s a scene that will march you through the entirety of the movie and explain everything that you’ll see, even if you don’t realize it. It’s like foreshadowing on steroids. Belle does this in her first song in Beauty and the Beast,giving you the whole plot of the film in just a few lyrics.
Almost every question Nick Frost asks Simon Pegg in their opening “getting to know each other” montage of scenes in Hot Fuzz gives you every move that’s going to be made in the climax of the film.
It happens in Of Mice and Men, with the death of Candy’s dog and the reasons for it, showing us exactly how George is going to kill Lennie. Or take Gandalf’s foreshadowing of the Balrog in in Fellowship of the Ring, saying, “There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”
Sometimes this foreshadowing can be a line or a hint, or sometimes the entire plot of the movie can be laid bare in a scene, the way it is in Close Encounters.
This scene sees Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) seated at a model train set with his son, who is trying to do homework. His wife is talking to him and he can barely pay attention. His younger son smashes a doll in the background. Through the course of the scene, not one of domestic bliss, the family talks about plans for later in the week. The kids want to go miniature golfing, but Roy wants to take them to see Pinnochio. They argue and come to no real consensus. Roy is going to go his way and they’re going to go theirs.
On the surface, that is essentially the plot of the rest of the film, played out in the scene. But digging deeper, the symbols are even more powerful and use pop culture references to the benefit of the rest of the film. Roy’s choice ofPinnochio is not an accident. Any Disney film could have worked and the scene would have, on the surface, the same meaning. And it’s no accident the kids want to play mini-golf.
For those who don’t know, Roy ends up going a little crazy after an encounter with an alien spaceship and goes on a quest to discover the truth of it and, ultimately, take a trip to the stars, leaving his family behind. After getting to the end of the story, what do those choices tell us?
Take the mini-golf, that one’s easy. What images does mini-golf conjure? Earth. Greens. Things of that nature. They make their intentions to stay known right there.
But what of Pinnochio? What are some of the most memorable elements of Disney’s Pinnochio? Could it be the song “When You Wish Upon a Star?” That certainly has a lot to do with the use of Pinnochio, and the song even finds its way in thematic moments of the score by John Williams. But if you know the story of Pinnochio, you know that the little wooden boy will wish upon the stars and leave his family on a quest to discover himself.
This is the entire story of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Everything we need to know about the theme and future trajectory of the story is hiding right here in this scene in plain sight. Roy Neary is essentially a little wooden boy looking to become real, and the stars hold the secret.
If you have to make a pop culture reference, do it this way, in a way that will add to your story, rather than be some hollow gesture that adds nothing. Like every reference on Big Bang Theory. George Lucas does this constantly, too. Some of my favorites are his references to 2001 in Revenge of the Sith.
If you include a reference to something, don’t do it because it’s just something you like. If you were going to reference your favorite Disney cartoon, which one would it be? If I were writing Close Encounters, would this scene be as powerful if the movie happened to be Alice in Wonderland? Or Robin Hood? No. They don’t add anything to the story.
But what if I was writing a story about a kid who finds some object and becomes a hero because of it… Maybe a Sword in the Stone reference would be perfect. Or maybe they call him Wart. Or maybe we could, in a more vague sense, get into the broader idea of Arthurian legend? There are ways to do it that are smart for your story, but just cramming random pop culture references isn’t going to help you foreshadow anything, or tell a better story.
Imagery is powerful. And so are stories. If you can tie other stories that are well known into yours, you can create a powerful, subtle bit of foreshadowing. It’s adding the two symbols together to get something greater than the sum of its parts.
More than anything, it’s just good storytelling.
This is one of the reasons that they tell you to consume stories constantly. If you’re going to be a storyteller you need to. And part of what you’re looking for is how other writers and storytellers do things like this. When it works well, try to decode why.
Look for moments and references in other stories and see if they help you better understand what is to come. Be aware of it.
And watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s just a great movie.
As far as work of mine that’s come out this week, I have a new piece up on StarWars.Com. It’s a new bi-weekly series that will give you a playlist of Star Wars to consume if you’re interested in a specific topic. This one aims to get you everything you need to know about the Balance of the Force.
This Thursday is also the third of the month, which means it’s time for Write Out Loud!, so please join me, if you’re in SLC, at the Downtown Library and listen to me and other writers read their work and join our discussion about writing afterward. Go here for more details.
As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.