A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Watching a Movie Like a Writer

Story is born in that place where the subjective and objective realms touch. – Robert McKee in Story

As much as I try to educate writers about writing through my writing, I have to acknowledge that we live in a visual world. I found this quite true not too long ago when I had to replace a lawn sprinkler. The instructions for adjusting the direction and strength of the spray had zero words—just a pictograph of tools and controls and arrows—which I found so confusing that after ten minutes I was shouting, Just give me the words!

But opinions about the average American’s reading comprehension aside, the visual space is where most sighted people live now. Even many writers understand writing better through images than words. There’s a wonderful book that all writers should read, titled Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, which instructs writers on how to parse the techniques behind effective prose. But I’d also say writers can benefit from the visual aspects of the craft.

Visual media have a power to make us better writers, because our brains interpret it in a different way from writing. It’s more organic, and doesn’t rely on our ability to translate words into ideas. The visual often has a direct link to the emotional state of the viewer; whether the image is real or artificial doesn’t matter, it’s the impact it makes on the viewer that counts. Words link to us through a system of logic (sometimes called language) that requires an exact understanding of the meaning of words and how they are used. Writers need to know both ways of communicating.

Which is the basis behind why I believe writers should watch movies to become better writers—not watch them as fans, but as students and critics.

The first book about writing that I read was not really a book about writing. Instead it was a book about screenwriting: Story by Robert McKee. Both the book and the author are regarded among the best in teaching the craft of screenwriting. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the techniques described in the book work just as well for writers of fiction.

McKee deals primarily with how a movie script can create images that engage the viewers’ emotions. It discusses the momentum of a story and character building, aspects of writing that serve both genre and literary writers. He describes, for example, how tension is created and maintained through inciting incidents and turning points, how it is heightened by creating gaps between the expectations and results of actions.

Learning these techniques, and reinforcing them while watching movies, can help a lot of writers break bad habits in their work. Notice for example, how a good movie soon presents a scene that contains some tension requiring a character choice (inciting incident). Take The Hunger Games for example (which of course was based on a book). It jumps right into the inciting incident, when Katniss must choose whether to let her little sister be drafted into the combat (where she’ll surely die), or volunteer to take her place. It doesn’t start with a leisurely description of the dystopian world in which they live (as so much writing would). It allows the viewer to become part of that world by simply being in it.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a movie at home and I view a scene that works particularly well, I’ll stop and rewind a bit, to understand how the screenwriter and director set it up. Usually they’ve planted elements earlier in the plot that establish motivation or provide a critical clue to what comes later, even though those things aren’t apparent at first. Watch enough of them, and you’ll start to notice them when they first appear, especially in the bad movies. Then, like me, you can watch Hunger Games 3: The Mockingjay, and scream at the screen and demand your money back when the evil new president stands directly behind and above the old president so that when Katniss aims her bow to execute the old one, all she has to do is raise it a few degrees to kill the new one instead. (It would have been more poetic justice if they’d had the screenwriter or director stand up there.)

Anyway, read Story. Watch movies. Don’t forget the red vines.

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Categorised in: Craft of Writing, Fiction, Nonfiction