Want to Be a Better Writer? Watch More Movies.

SAMSUNGShould writers even bother with movies? Shouldn’t they devote themselves to the written word?

Well, yes.

But the written word falls a little flat without any human element to back it up.


Think about reading an electrical engineering textbook. It’s precise, detailed and descriptive. It fits each piece into the next, in exact order with the most effective explanation. But the human element is missing. No tension or anxiety, no emotion at all.

And this is why electrical engineering textbooks aren’t exactly riveting page-turners.

The best books are bursting with the human element—that sloppy, messy, problematic stuff we call emotion. To see human emotion in action, there is no better place to go than to the movies.

Here are a few valuable things you can take from the cinema and incorporate into your writing:

Facial Expressions
Telling the reader that your characters are angry, or sad, or elated isn’t the most compelling way to present their stories. You can take a lesson from the movies and share what you see playing out across the actors’ faces on screen. For instance, a character in a homicidal rage might roll his eyes around like Jack Nicholson in The Shining—describe those little physical details. Or your character might be cool and confident like Luke Skywalker facing down Jabba the Hutt—describe that slight dangerous smile playing around the corners of Luke’s mouth. Use intuitive character development to gather the images, and then transfer them to paper in your own words.

Pay attention to on-screen arguments and unexpected news. How long does it take for information to sink in and how does the immediate reaction play out? Also pay attention to plot points. How quickly are characters, events, and back story presented within the narrative? For maximum readability, it’s helpful to aim for a story structure that keeps things fresh and exciting for the reader, while maintaining clarity. The best movies make this look easy, study them and learn.

This is the “suspense” factor in an amazing thriller, and the “delicious anticipation” found in a really good romance. Between heroes and villains, and smoking hot lovers, there’s always that magic chemistry that makes readers root for them to be together, or blow each other up. The magic can be found in the way they rub each other the wrong way. Something about that wrong way—to the audience—just feels so right. Carefully watch how the greatest duos interact (Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, for instance) and take notes on what you see.

Setting and Scenery
This one works well as a writing prompt too. Pick a visually striking movie with awesome background scenery (think: Blade Runner or Barry Lyndon) and exercise your creative muscle by describing it on paper. Write about it at length, even if you feel like you’re repeating yourself. Exploring in-depth description of physical place will enhance your command of adjectives, and your ability to transport the reader to a world of your own making.

You can check out the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time to get ideas or make your own list. You can even revisit all the movies that are already your favorites. The key is to watch each movie when you can do so uninterrupted, and maybe even by yourself so that you can pause and/or rewind when you want to reexamine a scene or an actor’s expression. Make some popcorn, get in your comfy chair and remind yourself that this is hard work you’re about to do. After all, it’s essential to your craft to get lost in as many fantasy worlds as you possibly can.

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