In a post in March of this year, I focused on tips for writing realistic dialogue in YA fiction . One of the key points I mentioned was to turn on film subtitles (or closed captions) to improve your writing skills through reading and listening to movie conversation exchanges. This trick has helped me countless times when I’ve been in a dialogue rut, but the silver screen has much more to offer struggling writers. Whether it is your first scene or nailing down a character description, watching a movie can be the boost you need to unravel that fictional knot. You just need to know what you’re looking for.
Below are some of the elements of fiction that most of us struggle with, and where movies can offer assistance in unblocking your inspirational flow:
1. Setting: Set designers spend a bundle on staging scenes. Even though we don’t typically notice the background of a scene, the setting tells you a lot about the person you’re watching. When writing, you might be tempted to put everything into your character’s surroundings, such as the wall color to the flooring to the thread count of their bed sheets. However, with set design, the key is to mute everything except the items that reveal clues about the character. If I see a lot of band posters, I know the protagonist likes music. If everything is neat and orderly, I know they care about cleanliness and may have a controlling personality. If there are a lot of personal photographs, they probably have a lot of friends. The next time you watch a movie, see how set designers have pulled this off, and apply the same strategy to your writing—limit your setting description and highlight the key things that you want readers to know about your character.
2. Plot and Structure: Most movies are arranged into a three act structure, and if you know the ins and outs of plotting, then you can probably rattle off the important moments across the three acts. But here’s a handy cheat sheet: the inciting incident, the complication, the turning point, crisis question, climax, and resolution. These points are generally the same, but names vary depending on your resource. As all writing projects tend to do, there are times when your plot gets sticky and you aren’t sure where you’re heading. This is where a movie with a similar conflict as your novel can help—with a 90 to 120-minute running time, every scene has to have a purpose. By defining the plot points in a movie, you can often figure out where you’re at in your own work and see what needs to happen next. This exercise works best with a movie you’ve seen multiple times.
3. Characters: Movies are a great option for learning about characters because we see a lot of information about them as soon as they enter the story—their appearance, mannerisms, speech patterns, emotional state. At first glance, we’re forced to make a snap judgment about them. This reaction has been planned by talented screenwriters, whose job it is to tug us (the viewer) toward specific ideas about the character. For writers, the concept is the same. As a writing exercise, pop in a movie you’ve never seen before and begin taking notes as soon as the main character arrives on screen. In one column, write down their physical characteristics, such as what they’re wearing, where they are, and their emotional state, as well as a paraphrase of their dialogue. In the second column, define what each of these things tells you about this character. As the movie progresses, what other clues appear? How has your view of their personality changed? With a complete study, you can look at your own characters again and see if what you’re showing readers truly reflects what you want them to know about your character.
4. Opening Scene: While your opening scene isn’t an element of fiction, it’s probably the most difficult section of any story to write. This moment does most of the heavy lifting as far as introducing your characters and the conflict they are about to enter. If you do it well, readers will keep turning pages. Movies have the same burden—we must be engaged pretty quickly in order to care about the character, understand what they want, and have a need to know what’s going to happen next. With all that in mind, break down some opening scenes of your favorite movies by jotting down the details, which I like to think of as breadcrumbs. What do the breadcrumbs lead you to know about the protagonist in the first five minutes of the film? How is the conflict introduced? And most importantly, why do you want to know what happens next?
5. Backstory: Lastly, backstory is another one of those tricky fictional items that give writers a lot of trouble. How much to put in, where to put it, and is it really necessary to understand the story. Backstory is often more difficult to tease out of a movie unless there is neatly sliced-out flashback scene with a somber gray overtone slapped on it. A more nuanced approach is to weave it into the narrative, and good movies will do just that. As you’re watching your favorite film, pause at the places where the past is brought up. Most often, this will be through dialogue, but it might also be the camera freezing on an object, like a framed photo or other memento that teases something that happened. Be on high alert, because backstory can pop up anywhere. In your notes, ask yourself if the placement was effective. Did you need that information to gain a better understanding of the protagonist and their conflict? Now look to your own work with a fresh and critical eye.
Whatever your writing struggle, consider taking the time to sit down and strategically watch a movie. Seeing things through visual elements can be the kickstart to understanding your own work. It may not feel like “writing,” but any time you spend furthering your skills is time well spent.
What movies have inspired your writing and why? Have you ever been surprised by how a film has impacted your writing?