Dunkirk, a rifle shot of a movie, takes a list of things it would like to show, feelings it wants to impart, and then slams them at you with unrelenting efficiency. There is very little fat on these bones.
While I enjoyed the film, especially in the all-consuming IMAX theater where I saw it (and I’d recommend a similar environment – in traditional Christopher Nolan fashion, there’s enough playing with time and sequence that you’re liable to get confused if you glance at your phone or computer every few minutes), Dunkirk is almost more fascinating as an exercise in story construction. And, really, in how to keep the focus on the central conflict to your tale. Below are a few, spoiler-free, observations that I plan to take into my own writing that I picked up from Dunkirk:
- Every character ought to have a purpose – This is one that I’ve fallen afoul of before. Namely, creating characters that come into a story and either fall off the page later or achieve no specific objective. In Dunkirk, if someone is a focus of screen time for any length, they have a reason for being there that affects the story or the other protagonists to some degree. I’m not talking extras here, I’m talking named characters. They should make an impact. If you’re naming the shopkeeper, for example, then that shopkeeper better do more than just give the main character their change and be done with it. If something needs to happen that isn’t being done by the villain or the heroes, and you’re thinking a named character has to be involved, then make them meaningful. Give them something to be. Or a death worth dying for.
- Don’t let the central conflict disappear – Sideplots, particularly in longer works like novels, will happen. They’re a great way to flesh out characters and keep readers from being exhausted by an ever-escalating set of main story stakes. However, the central issue in your story, the thing that’s driving your characters deep down, shouldn’t vanish for too long. Think about it this way – you’re not watching Sharknado for the love interests. It’s all well and good if sparks fly, but we’re watching the movie for the tornado full of sharks, if we’re watching it at all (which, let’s hope not). Dunkirk, by virtue of its setting, has its central conflict in view at all times. It overshadows all of the characters for every minute of the film, and we never forget the stakes.
- Coincidence is good, until it’s bad – Dunkirk, along with many other movies and books, does occasionally use coincidence to get characters into trouble. Which is fine! Grand! Your hero should bet on the one horse that’s sick to win the race. A car should run a red light and hit your hero as they’re riding their bike. However, in every coincidence, Dunkirk‘s heroes respond with action. They save themselves, or at least make such an effort of it that we don’t mind the nudging of the gods in their favor. Your heroes should always make their own luck to get out of a problem, and lose it to get into another one.
- If you have a device, use it consistently – Dunkirk, and this may be more Christopher Nolan’s directing and the script’s writing, uses small amounts of dialogue. It relies on the actors and their faces, along with the surrounding sounds, to give the audience an idea of the tense terror that is being under constant attack. The movie rarely deviates from this setup. It’s not as though the first half finishes and everyone suddenly becomes blabbermouths. Dunkirk‘s style is consistent throughout. If you’re using a narrative device, like consistent switching of P.O.V.s or large amounts of dialogue to move scenes forward, be consistent with it. Don’t veer in and out of different styles in the same story, or your audience will notice. And if they notice your work, then they’re not paying attention to your writing.
- If it doesn’t need showing, don’t show it – For a movie about one army shoving another off a beach, you’d expect to see a little of both. Instead, Dunkirk barely shows anything of the Nazis. Some airplanes, but otherwise the German army is a largely invisible menace. Rather than reduce apprehension, the fact that you’re never quite sure where the enemy is, where they might show up, is a huge source of tension in the film. Just like the soldiers trapped on the beach, you don’t know where the next attack is coming from. In your story, consider whether characters or events need to be shown, or can be relegated to an ominous background. You could write a series of scenes showing tanks chewing through towns, or you could have your characters notice the quiet coming over their home. The increasingly panicked newspaper headlines. The rising cost of simple goods, and perhaps some unexplained disappearances. Compare which set is more effective at setting the tone you’re trying to achieve.
Anyway, after all that, I’d say that Dunkirk is a fun ride. Similar to, in my opinion, Gravity in that it’s an experience worth having once but not one I’ll be seeking out for repeat viewings. If you get a chance to see it in theaters, particularly IMAX, take it.