What is the thing people remember most about Jurassic Park? The raptors? The message of how we shouldn't play god? Shirtless Jeff Goldblum?
The T-Rex. It's big, it's powerful, and it's memorable. But why? What makes it one of the main attractions in a star-studded cast of other dinosaurs and characters? In this blog post I'm going to detail the things that I believe make Tyrannosaurus the most interesting part of Jurassic Park and how I hope to apply that in my own story with a monster that I have created.
Force of Nature
Can you predict how a T-Rex would act if it were alive in today's day and age? Probably not. We only guess how it acted based on a bunch of bones that we found in the ground. This is why general consensus on dinosaurs changes so often. For example, back when Jurassic Park the movie was released in 1993, people thought dinos were scaly and similar in appearance to reptiles. Now it's believed that many were closer to birds and had feathers.
My point is that in Jurassic Park, the Tyrannosaurus is unpredictable and that fact is helped by how little we truly know about it. We instead imagine the most terrifying thing possible based on its sheer size and look.
It's driven by a need for food and displays a strength that no animal alive today has anything close to. Did you know that in the book, the T-Rex lifts one of the jeeps with its jaw and throws it into a tree? The movie actually tones that strength down quite a bit. But Michael Crichton (Author of the book) let his imagination run wild because even after all the research in the world, he could only begin to imagine what such a beast was capable of.
Not only is it powerful, but its nature is unpredictable. Again, this comes from us never existing in the same timeline. We can only guess. In Jurassic Park, the T-Rex may be driven by food, but it's also a very inquisitive creature. When its prey isn't moving (Book and movie only), it can't see them. So it sniffs around or pushes its face into objects in an attempt to investigate. It's very much like what a shark does to see if something is food during an encounter. A Great White for instance would bump into or even take a small bite out of something to investigate whether it's food or not. The point is, having a big, powerful beast become inquisitive and unsure of something is a great way to build tension. Think of the movie when the T-Rex blows Dr. Grant's hat off with its nose as it sniffs him and the girl out. They are seconds from being eaten, but they have to stay still or their death is assured.
In the final scene of the movie, the Tyrannosaurus saves the main characters from the raptors. It's not because it had a change of heart and decided to play good guy. It's because T-Rex is an unpredictable force of nature that decided the bigger raptors would make a better meal than the humans.
We cannot fully comprehend the power and motives of the T-Rex, and that makes it a very compelling antagonist, even if it inadvertently helps our protagonist(s) sometimes.
In Gold Fever, there is also a powerful force of nature that stalks and kills the workers as they try to navigate the mines. By making the creature act different form most animals they're used to, and having it be a nearly invincible foe for them, I hope to create similarly tense and exciting parts of the story for people to read.
Not to spoil anything, but this is a monster that comes nowhere close to what any other animal in the world looks like; it has a little bit of everything: tentacles, razor sharp teeth, claws, a hunched over yet large physique, and an oddly shaped face with many eyes similar to a spider. It's meant to be a nightmare creature of sorts, like how Lovecraft would describe things that we could never fully comprehend if we saw it in-person.
The T-Rex, as you may remember, has an warning that precedes it. The rumble noise and ripple effect in water. It starts with the water in Ian Malcom's cup. It starts to ripple and the music lowers so all can hear the shaking noise - the sound of a very large footstep. This is just before we see the Tyrannosaurus for the first time.
It happens a second time when Dr. Ellie Sadler is looking around for Dr. Grant in the wreckage of the first T-Rex attack. There is a large footprint of the beast filled with water from when it rained before. We get the same ripple effect and the music drops so we can all hear the stomping noises off in the distance once more. This leads to an exciting chase sequence in a jeep, which I think is one of the most memorable parts of the movie.
The third time we see T-Rex in the movie is completely by surprise and without the buildup of prior scenes, but that may actually have been a good thing. If the audience knows that the T-Rex is coming ahead of time in that scene where the Raptors corner our heroes, they'll have time to consider the possibility that it'll save them.
A monster in your story which has buildup can lead to a lot of tension. The big bad monster in Gold Fever lets out an otherworldly cry before it attacks, and its sharp claws can be heard scratching the rock floor as it charges its victims. The thing is, sometimes these signs come too late; in one scene the otherworldly cry comes as its attacking someone already, while there are other times where it serves as a warning, and our heroes run away ahead of time.
I have to say that "the warning" is also a great way to move plot forward. I mean, is it not realistic to have a bunch of miners stop and take a break every once in a while? Well, when I realistically want that to happen, but need the plot to move forward, I just sick my monster on them, so they have no choice but to continue on!
The Main Event
How many times do we actually see Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park? In the movie? three times. In the book it's a little more, but not much more. When it comes to pacing, you don't want your greatest threat to be in the spotlight 100% of the time, because it'll expose them in some way:
1. It's too powerful of an entity, so if the main characters aren't killed, readers/watchers etc. will take the work of fiction less serious because the idea that they can keep surviving such a built up threat over a long period of time with no consequence will come off as ridiculous.
2. The characters find a weakness of some kind, but the problem is this can make the big bad monster seem less intimidating. The best way to do this is how it worked with the T-Rex. Yes, it can't see unmoving prey, but the humans are prone to error and it remains suspicious the entire time it searches around for them. Our characters still almost die despite exploiting the weakness.
Because of this, using the big threat sparingly is a more impactful way of creating tension. It'll get people wondering when the monster will show up next and it will be satisfying when they finally do. A good friend of mine who has been reading through my draft said he'd like to see the monster show up more. He's only a little past the half-way point of the story, so to me it wasn't criticism; it was interest. If he says that by the end of the story though, maybe it's a point worth considering criticism. For now, my strategy has been to make the monster's appearance a memorable event that doesn't happen too often.
If I could use another comparison, consider professional wrestling. Even if you aren't a fan, I have no doubt you've heard the biggest names of the industry: Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena. At one point or another, these guys were the main attractions of the show. They weren't displayed all the time and were almost always saved for the main event of the night. Sometimes there would be promos done in the middle of the show to hype fans up for them. This is the ultimate example: You want to use your greatest assets (In this case, threats) sparingly, so the stakes will be higher and people will be more interested.
I'm not saying you should follow the T-Rex effect for everything and in the exact same way, but what I am saying is that it's a very useful tool for generating tension, interest, and even moving the plot along at times. Not all stories are going to have a force of nature type monster that the T-Rex effect applies to, but if you happen to have a deadly creature in your story like I do...