Monday, September 21, 2009

(Almost) everything I need to know about writing, I learned from watching movies

By Pamela

That’s a pretty bold statement. And obviously, I learned grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary—the nuts and bolts of writing—very early in my life. I owe a lot to great English teachers.

But when it comes to crafting story, developing characters, building suspense, defining plot and creating a story arc, much can be learned from watching movies.

Since every great movie begins with a screenplay, it makes sense that movies can tell us a lot about how to formulate a story. Unlike a novel that might take days to read, a movie can usually be watched in two hours or less. Gone is the text that describes the scene, sets up the back-story or tells us what a character is thinking. A movie must show us, not tell us—an important element to keep in mind when writing a novel.

I’ve attended two writers’ conferences where NY Times best-selling author Bob Mayer gave lectures on fiction. In one class, he showed movie clips to help illustrate certain elements of great story telling such as symbolism and foreshadowing. “Whenever you finish watching a movie,” Bob said, “go back and watch the first scene again.” He said we’d be surprised at how much the opening scene ties into the final one. Now, I do this nearly every time I rent a movie.

My son recently developed an interest in writing screenplays, so I figured reading one might help him. Since he loved the movie Juno, written by Diablo Cody, I bought the screenplay for him. I was surprised at how much I learned by reading it as well.

Elements I didn’t initially catch while watching the movie became clear when I read the script. I enjoyed the movie mainly for the snappy dialog and quirky characters, but what remained below my radar were brilliant uses of symbolism and foreshadowing. “It started with a chair,” Juno (Ellen Page) narrated. And in one of the final scenes—spoiler alert!—Vanessa (played by Jennifer Garner) was shown in a rocking chair with the baby as Juno intoned: “It ended with a chair.”

Two separate basements were used for scenes that provided life-changing moments for Juno. Fingernails were used as a repeating element. (Juno is reminded outside an abortion clinic that her unborn baby already has fingernails, and Juno’s step-mom is a nail technician.) When I went back to writing my work-in-progress, I discovered the potential for a similar technique was right under my nose. I just had to change one minor detail.

So now when I watch a movie, not only am I enjoying the moment of escaping into someone else’s story, I’m paying attention. Whether I’m watching Disney’s latest installment with my six-year-old, a bro-mance or comedy with the boys, or something just for me, I learn something. Whether it’s clever dialog (“This is one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet.”) or a well-placed symbol (a chair) or a repeated component (the basements), there’s craft.

And you don’t have to leave home to find it.

Movie Lessons 101:

1. Use the scene selection option on the DVD. Think of each scene as a chapter. Watch one scene at a time and note how it starts and ends. Is there a hook to keep you watching?

2. Watch the first scene and then the last one. How have the characters changed from the beginning of the movie? (character arc) The main character must have experienced some sort of growth (or decline), maturity or gained some sense of awareness over the past two hours.

3. Notice how much time has elapsed. Is it an epic story that covers a lifetime (Ray, Walk the Line) or one that encompasses a much shorter period of time (Sliding Doors, 27 Dresses)? Your story should have a definite beginning, middle and end.

4. Pay attention to dialog. Great dialog is hard to nail. Ever think of a great response to someone—but it came to you hours or even days later? When you write a story, you have the luxury of time. If a line you’re writing isn’t working for you, let it sit a day or so until you have the brilliant revelation. In movie dialogue, chances are the words have been altered until they really fit. One of my favorite lines from Juno: Nah, I'm already pregnant, so what other kind of shenanigans could I get into? isn’t in the screenplay. I’m assuming Ellen Page threw that one in herself; maybe after a few takes, Diablo “heard” it.

5. What did you gain from watching the movie? Watch the trailer of the movie and that’s the elevator pitch. The movie’s plot? (for Juno: Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, an offbeat young woman makes an unusual decision regarding her unborn child.) That’s an example of a logline, one you should be able to rattle off at the drop of a hat when someone asks, What’s your story about? The back of the DVD case paralels what you might read on the back cover or inside flap of a novel. It’s the story (plot) but not the whole story—just enough to pique your interest.

6. Watch the movie with the commentary option. You’ll learn as much as you might if you’d read the screenplay. Directors, actors and writers love to talk about their movies. I’ve watched several this way, including Walk the Line, and learned so much about why certain scenes were added/cut/adapted. Great advice when you have to ‘kill your darlings’ in your own story.


  1. You really nailed this one, Pam. You clearly show how writers can improve their craft through watching movies, which happens to be one of my favorite pastimes. Kim and I recently watched the film version of Fugitive Pieces. Loving that book so....much, I was prepared to be disappointed in the movie. Turned out to be among the best I've ever seen. The depth, the strength of the story, characters and acting, and the beauty of the cinematography reminds me of the English Patient(among my top five films). Just thinking about the transformation of the lead character of Fugitive Pieces from the first heart gripping scene to the last brings on tears. Now that's a sure sign of great storytelling.

  2. Thanks, Deborah. I'll do just about anything for the sake of my craft. Watching movies ranks up there as one of my favs. I'll admit I'm not much fun company. I tend to talk (not in the theater) about what's coming up next. Predictable endings really bother me. And I'm just as likely to quit watching a movie that bores me as I am to put down a book that doesn't pull me in.

  3. It's so true that you can learn so much from a movie or a screenplay. I find plotting and dialogue so easy because I got a screenwriting degree ten years ago, and now I can draw on these skills. It's extremely helpful to envision the scene and use only what you can see to not fall into telling rather than showing.
    When I write, I first write very much in skeleton style as if I was writing a screenplay, only later do I flesh out more and add a lot more of the characters' internal thoughts.

  4. Tina, that's a great idea about writing the skeleton first--almost a form of outlining. Then I'm sure you are less likely to add back in details that really add little to the story. I've never written a screenplay but taking a class on how-to might be a great idea. Thanks!


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