Positive & Negative Charges In The Shallows

The Shallows (2016)

In Story, Robert McKee argues that:

Progressions build by moving dynamically between the positive and negative charges of the values at stake in the story…You have to build a bridge of story from the opening to the ending, a progression of events that spans from Premise to Controlling Idea. These events echo the contradictory voices of one theme. Sequence by sequence, often scene by scene, the positive Idea and its negative Counter-Idea argue, so to speak, back and forth, creating a dramatized dialectical debate. At climax, one of these two wins and becomes the story’s Controlling Idea.

For McKee, the Controlling Idea is “the purest form of a story’s meaning, the how and why of change, the vision of life the audience members carry away into their lives”. An effective example of McKee’s theory in-action, and a demonstration of the “dialectical debate” between Counter and Controlling Idea, is Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows.

The Shallows was a better-than-expected success in the Summer of 2016. With an estimated budget of $17,000,000, the film eventually grossed $119.1 million worldwide. Sony’s Marketing & Distribution President Josh Greenstein attributed the box office success of the film to the audience wanting to “watch a film with quality that was original in this summer landscape.”

The film tells the struggle of young surfer Nancy’s battle for survival when she is attacked by a great-white shark. For further dramatic context, through flashback, the audience learns that Nancy has recently lost her mother to cancer. As a result of her trauma, Nancy has quit medical school and, rather than stay home with her family and face the realities of her mother’s death, she has chosen to retreat to a surfing holiday, on the very same beach her mother visited while she was pregnant with Nancy. What we have here then are two clear journeys for the character. There is the “outer” journey of Nancy’s life-or-death battle with the shark. Also, there is the “inner” journey where she psychologically has to confront her unresolved trauma over her mother’s death.

On a thematic level, Nancy is faced with death yet again. But, this time, in order to survive, she has to deal with it. The shark is both a threat to her survival, as well as an existential manifestation of her fear of death. In physically overcoming the shark, Nancy must also resolve her internal conflicts. Her ‘running away’ from medical school and the reality of her mother’s death. Only then can she defeat the shark. Only then can she survive, make peace and move forward in her life.

“Progressions build by moving dynamically between the positive and negative charges of the values at stake in the story”.

What follows is a structural breakdown of the individual sequences in The Shallows to demonstrate the movement of the story’s progressions between these positive and negative charges. If Nancy’s outer struggle in The Shallows is a life-or-death battle with a shark, then we are inevitably (if it’s a good script anyway!) going to be exposed to a series of positively and negatively charged events in the story. (Needless to say, please be aware of MAJOR SPOILERS!)

Act One

1st Sequence

(+) Nancy is on holiday, travelling to the beach. She’s safe, travelling with a friendly driver. She takes time to admire the beauty of nature around her. When she arrives at the beach, she is overjoyed and overwhelmed. She’s in Paradise.

(-) Her friend is not with her. There is a language barrier with the driver so she can’t get the name of the beach. (These are minor at this stage but important in the long-term)

2nd Sequence

(+) Nancy gets ready for surfing — everything seems safe, no danger, precautions taken.

(+) Nancy begins surfing. She is in her element. (Slow-motion shots and music changing is a signal that something is going to change. Her going through the waves symbolises her crossing the threshold)

(+) Nancy meets two other surfers. They have fun. (Dramatic irony for the audience. We know, from the opening scene, that these guys will get attacked).

3rd Sequence

(+) Nancy is back on shore, eating her lunch. Watches guys surf.

(+) Looks at Mum’s photo. Happy memories.

(-) Sees picture of Mum ill in hospital (audience learn here that Mum is dead)

(+) Call from younger sister. She asks why didn’t Nancy take her with her.

(-) Dad comes on phone, conversation turns a little more negative. He pleads with her to come back home, to stop travelling and finish her studies at Med School.

DAD: She was a fighter

NANCY: She fought too hard…and for what?

So, the thematic conflict is established. Nancy is running away from her responsibilities. Being with her family, finishing her studies. Most significantly, she is running away from the reality of her mother’s death. Instead, she is losing herself in an escapist world. Subconsciously, Nancy doesn’t want this. She will now have to come face to face with her demon.

(+/-) Nancy goes back to surf. But…she’s walking into danger and also doesn’t see the message from her friend that she is going out and won’t be back till very late.

4th Sequence

(+/-) Nancy sees guys again. They decide to head back but she stays to catch one last wave. (Representative of how she is not going home. She is still “running away”)

(-) At this point, she’s uncertain. She keeps looking back at the shore and the men. She’s at a crossroads / dillemia as she waits for the wave. Hears noise. Is she in danger? (Nancy now lacks earlier confidence — entering a new stage).

(+) Dolphins jump out. It’s safe. She swims on.

(-) Nancy comes upon dead whale. First sign of danger. Falls in water. (Shark is visible to audience)

(-) Heads back, catches wave but is intercepted by shark who begins to attack her.

(+) As the shark takes a break from its attack, Nancy’s survival instinct kicks in — she swims to the whale and gets on top of it. (This survival trait shows us she has the tenacity to pull through and survive).

(-) She is away from the shark but her leg is bleeding and she has a very bad cut. Calls out to the men but they don’t see / hear her.

(-) The shark moves the whale as it gets ready to pounce.

(+) Nancy escapes the shark’s second attack and swims to the safety of the rocks.

(+/-) Safe for now but has a very bad leg wound.

(+) Nancy uses her medical training to treat her wound and patch it up. (She has passed her first test)

Act Two

5th Sequence

(-) It’s now night. Nancy is very cold. A seagull hangs around (her ally)

(+) She takes off her bandage and warms it for warmth, making it into a jacket (again, showing her resourcefulness and survival skills)

(+) She goes back to treating herself with her medical skills.

(-) Wakes up to find crabs on her. She tries to eat one but can’t.

(+) Nancy spots her surfboard within reach. She goes into the water to retrieve it.

(-) Nancy sees the shark fin (it’s still around) and heads back to the rock.

(-) She hurts her leg again getting back on the rock.

(+) Nancy sees a man asleep on the beach. A chance for rescue.

(-) The man wakes, sees Nancy and tries to steal her things. He then enters water to get her surf-board.

(-) The main is attacked off-screen; we see his lower-body is no longer there as he crawls back to shore. (Dramatically reinforces the danger Nancy is in)

Mid-Point: The threat that Nancy is in very clear. She can’t just jump in the water and hope for the best. The same fate will happen to her. There’s no going back. Or, in this case, no going forward.

6th Sequence

(+) Day. Nancy has survived the night.

(+) The surfers are back.

(-) Nancy is weak and tired. Tries to alert the surfers to the danger but they don’t understand her concerns.

(-) The shark attacks and kills the men.

(+/-) We see the video footage from helmet (we know this gets found. Will this save her?)

7th Sequence

(-) The day goes on. It’s very hot. Nancy becomes dehydrated.

(+) Nancy treats the seagull; repairs his wing.

(+) She sees the camera floating.

8th Sequence

(+) Nancy times shark movements so that she can swim to and retrieve the camera.

(+) Nancy fends off shark and gets the camera — she’s happy, she’s “seized the sword” and won a victory.

9th Sequence

(+) Nancy watches back the video and sees that the shark is wounded.

10th Sequence

(+/-) Nancy films herself, leaves message explaining everything. She has to swim to the buoy as the tide will soon cover the rock. Says goodbye to family, now she realising how much she misses them.


(+) Throws camera in water. Her message is on its way. Gets ready to swim to buoy (prepartion for the final showdown).

Act Three

11th Sequence

(+) Nancy sends the seagull off to safety.

(-) Shark is shown circling. Re-establishes danger.

(-) Jellyfish surface between her and the buoy.

(+) Nancy realises that the shark won’t swim through the jellyfish field.

(+) She takes off swimming through jellyfish field. Undergoes pain but reaches buoy.

(+) Nancy sees a ship in the distance. More hope of rescue.

(+/-) She opens hatch, retrieves gun but flares fall in water.

(+) She gets the flares

(-) However, they’re not noticed by the ship. It’s not coming for her.

12th Sequence

Repeated Image — beginning of film; boy with ball, finding camera, running for help. We understand that this is now happening back on the shore. Nancy might survive! But, she still has to win her battle…

13th Sequence

(-) Shark attacks

(+) Nancy shoots at shark — “I’M GOING TO FIGHT JUST LIKE HOW SHE TAUGHT US”

(-) Shark brings down buoy.

(+) Nancy kills shark.

14th Sequence

(+) Driver (boy’s father) arrives. He gets Nancy out of the water.

(-) Nancy not responding. Is she dead?

(+) Nancy comes back to life — Ressurection moment. She sees seagull is safe too.

(+) Nancy sees vision of her mum.

Resolution (One Year Later)

(+) Nancy is back home at Texas by the sea. She checks wound, smiles.

(+) We see she is with her family on the beach — Nancy and her sister go surfing. (Nancy has accepted things and the family are together again).

A very clear contrast to The Shallows is Open Water. In that film, the two protagonists, through a fatal misunderstanding, are left devoid of any means of survival in shark-infested waters and are left to face their fate. The Controlling Idea? Death is inevitable. In The Shallows, Nancy resolves her conflicts, faces and death and wins. The Controlling Idea? Tragedy must be assimilated so that we can face pain, survive it and prosper.

The Screenwriter



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The Screenwriter

The Screenwriter

Screenwriting and storytelling enthusiast. Here to educate, entertain and enrich those curious about the world of story.