5 Ways Novelists Can Benefit from Watching Movies and TV Shows

Aside from the immediate benefit of getting yourself away from the computer screen and the blackhole of the Internet, studying movies and TV shows is a great way to enhance your storytelling skills. No, writing a script is not the same as writing a novel. But if you look beyond the differences in written format you’ll find some amazing similarities.

Because a story is a story is a story.

1. Structure

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Any novelist will pinpoint one of those three things as their personal weakness. For me, it’s not just the middle, but more specifically, the second half of the middle. This is where a lot of novels, even published ones, start to drag or lose focus. Define your personal trouble area and see how it is handled in a movie you already love.

Watching movies that tell similar stories to your novels is not only fun, but also a quick and effective way to troubleshoot. It might take you a week to read a novel and break down its structure, then study it. You can do the same thing with a movie in a single afternoon. I’m not saying you shouldn’t study novels at all (because you most definitely should), but if you’re extra busy that month or you just feel like doing something different, try a movie instead.

Before you can do this, however, you need to have an understanding of story structure. I highly recommend reading the following two books, cover to cover, multiple times, and even compare them. One was written by a screenwriter and one was written by a novelist. They use different terminology, but they describe the same thing–basic story structure.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

2. Character

We all have film characters we love, hate, or even love to hate. Have you ever stopped to think of why? Is it their viewpoint? Dialogue? Mannerisms? Something you never really noticed until asked this question? The most accurate answer is “all of the above.” Character = the sum of its traits.

If you’re having trouble making your characters individually unique, or the main players don’t seem to have that It Factor, select one of your favorite film characters and study everything he does in the story. What makes him stand out? How does he react and interact with the other characters? What does he do when faced with a tough decision? How do you know what that character is feeling without being “inside his head”?

To sharpen your character viewpoint skills, try this exercise:

Watch one scene of a movie (that you’re familiar with) that involves two or more characters. Now write that scene from each of the different characters’ eyes, as you would in a novel–include setting description, thoughts, sensory details, emotion, whatever is relevant. Different characters have different views of the same situation. This should show in your writing.

And if you want to get geeky about the science behind facial expressions and what they mean, I recommend watching the TV series Lie to Me.

3. Mood Music

One of the greatest things about movies and TV is that they can employ the use of music and sound effects to enhance the story experience. They need this enhancement because of their purely audio/visual nature. As novelists, we create the same effect with words.

Playing specific soundtracks while you write can help you get in the right mindset for the desired mood of a particular scene. For example, I often turn to Inception when working on the final showdown of Act Three. Whenever I hear that music, I get the urge to conquer something (even if it’s just a sink full of dirty dishes). If I’m writing something adventurous, I might listen to Pirates of the Caribbean or Sherlock Holmes–both are adventurous but with different tones. Going for fun and quirky? Try Juno.

(I could do this all day.)

Make note of which soundtracks you especially enjoyed while viewing different movies, and how they affected your mood–anticipation, sorrow, dread, humor, romance. It’s all there in some movie, somewhere, waiting to inspire you.

4. Descriptive Focus

There are two main reasons you describe anything in a story–to ground the reader and to highlight relevance. If you describe everything, you’ll lose the reader. If you don’t describe enough, you’ll lose the reader.  Descriptive focus guides the reader in the direction you want them to go.

In any given scene of a  film there is foreground and background. Take note of what the director chose to give importance to by enhancing its focus. If something is in the foreground, it’s more noticeable. But items in the background can be noticeable as well. It’s all about camera angles and zoom-in/zoom-out. In a novel this equates to point of view.

In a steamy romance scene, most of the shots are close-ups. Nothing really matters except what’s happening between the two lovebirds, in the heat of the moment. In a humor scene, two characters might be having a mundane conversation in the foreground while the real focus is centered on a comedy of errors happening in the distant background, to someone else.

This can also be applied to what you want the reader to notice in a particular setting. If you’re a fan of the Once Upon the Time series, you’ve probably noticed there are several scenes that open with a close-up on a specific item in Mr. Gold’s shop. This is an important clue to whatever this week’s episode is going to be about in the fairy tale world. Hints about something that might not be clarified for a few more episodes will be more subtle, usually in the background of a seemingly unrelated scene, or a brief passing bit of dialogue. Those with a keen eye will make note of it. The rest of us won’t see it for what it is until we look back, after the fact. Either way, it’s effective, and can be just as effective in a novel.

5. Pacing

Select five movies you’ve never seen before. Watch each movie and note whether you were engaged from beginning to end. If you weren’t, note what point you lost interest. If a movie isn’t doing it for me, that point is often within the first 20 minutes. Then ask yourself, Did I lose interest because my expectation for that movie wasn’t met? Or, Did I lose interest because, no matter what my expectation, the movie was just plain boring?

Bad pacing bores the audience.  But a good pace doesn’t necessarily mean fast and action-packed. Good pacing means constant forward momentum of the story. This is why good literary fiction can be thrilling, and bad science fiction can put you to sleep.

Anything that doesn’t move the story forward must be cut. Analyze individual scenes in movies. They begin in media res, and end as soon as the point of the scene has been made. The same should be said of your novels. No room for boring fluff, no matter how beautiful the prose. We live in a busy world. Even prolific readers don’t have time to read everything. More often than not, they will choose the book that feels like it’s moving toward something over one that feels like it’s going nowhere.

Can you think of any other ways that a film addiction can improve your novel-writing?

_____

image via Stuart Miles @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About Lydia Sharp

Lydia Sharp (@lydia_sharp) is a YA novelist and an Assistant Editor with Entangled Publishing. She has been a contributor to Writer Unboxed since 2010. For all the places you can connect with Lydia, and find her books, please visit her website.

Comments

  1. Stacey says

    A very nice article, well put and can be quite accurate if use correctly. I must say that I have used my favorite movies and TV shows for some of those very reasons.

    One other thing that I might suggest is simply inspiration. I don’t mean being a copy cat! Don’t rewrite what you just saw and heard. However I have found that sometimes getting away from my writing and watching someone else ideas can bring on new ideas for my characters. Sometimes it is simply validation that my ideas are not as far out to left field that I may thought they were, or simply helps me visualize my characters and story in my head a little better.

    Stacey

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  2. says

    Great article. The obvious way an addiction to film or TV could be useful is learning about dialogue.

    I think you need to be choosy here because dialogue in TV soaps in the UK is dreadfu (in my opinion). It is full of cliche conversations that are timefillers and meaningless (unless you have studied transactional analysis).

    But I think good drama and films are different. Dialogue in these must mean something to the story otherwise it would be cut out. A suggestion would be to watch your favourite film and pause after every scene (when the setting changes) and ask yourself what was the point of the dialogue in the last scene? Could that point have been made differently/better? That might sound too much like a lesson for some but in my defence I used to be a teacher… :)

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  3. says

    Great tips and good points, Lydia. A while back I shared with Kristan Hoffman that I got sucked into the Disney movie Tangled while my nieces watched it, analyzing the story structure elements (which were strong). I’ll never watch a movie the same way again. And I’m with you on setting the mood for writing a scene with music. And yours are some great choices. Christopher’s comment on dialog is spot on as well.

    Well done. I’m off to watch a movie! (It is Sunday, after all :-) ).

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  4. Carmel says

    I just did this with one of my favorite movies, The Magic of Ordinary Days, taking notes, and then typing them up to compare to my own WIP. I’ve watched the movie multiple times, but this time I caught valuable insights I’d missed before. Like how Ray corrected his own grammar, and it made him all the more likable. And, at the very beginning, the look Livy gives the soldiers on the train which gives a clue to her problem. Because of the ongoing conflict and the wonderful dialogue, I actually get the same emotions from reading my notes as I do when I watch the movie!

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  5. says

    I love this post, and I wholeheartedly agree. Movies have helped me so much to understand pacing — and especially as you say how to cut out anything but the essentials to move the story forward. As I was editing my last WIP, I actually found myself watching more movies than I was reading books — they were very inspirational. As for the music, I had two specific songs I associated with the novel I’m now querying — one with the beginning of the book and one with the middle when the tide started to turn for my MC. It really helped me get in the mood to edit just to listen to those songs. Thanks for some other great ideas about what I can get out of movies to help my writing!

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  6. says

    Also interesting is the Deleted Scenes on a DVD, esp. when the director tells why. Of course, it’s always easier to see what should be deleted in someone else’s work than our own. Thanks for a great post.

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    • says

      I agree with Diane. Deleted scenes are gold! They often provide a working example of content that was cut because it was either redundant or tangential. Occasionally I disagree with the choice and wish something had been left in.

      Great post, Lydia. Thanks!

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  7. says

    Great article Lydia. Movies and TV have inspired some of my characters, but not in a copycat way (as you stated). There will be something about an actor’s performance, some nuance of that character, or even their physical appearance and mannerisms, that plants the seed of another character in my head. LOST did that for me once. During one of the latter seasons of the show, one of the main characters transformed into an 18th century frontiersman during some scene or another. I went off story-spinning from there and wrote a novel set not on an island, but in the mountains of western NC. Can you guess which character it was? :)

    Listening to music that puts you into whatever story world you’re trying to build is important for me, too. For my 18th century stories my best soundtrack is that of Ken Burns’ Lewis & Clark. The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack is perfect for when I’m writing wilderness chase or battle scenes, since that movie is one big chase scene set in the 18th century. Celtic music sets the mood for me sometimes too, since many of my characters are Scots.

    I’ve read Bell’s book, but you remind it’s time for a reread. And I clicked over to my library and reserved Save the Cat!

    Thanks for all these great suggestions.

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    • Sarah E.A. Fusaro says

      Lori! We’re watching LOST right now and my husband will beg me to watch it with him, saying, “You can use it for research for your novel!” And he’s right – that show, with all the different character developments, certainly does provide fodder for inspiration. :) (And I must not have gotten to that season yet…)

      I have always love watching movies and TV shows for inspiration. Sometimes it’s simply an idea, or a concept, or a single scene that sparks an entire novel idea swirling in my brain. :)

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        • Sarah E.A. Fusaro says

          Haha! I was going to say… I knew the plot is tripping crazy, but I had no idea they put time travel in there!

          Which character?

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  8. says

    I completely agree! I love movies and television, because they are like one or two hour master classes on the elements you described above. Dialogue, too.

    The only risk, of course, is spending too much time in movies and television and not enough on writing. :P

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  9. says

    Great post. I do this all the time when I watch TV shows and movies. I like to view “in layers.” First, there’s the overall enjoyment factor (or not, depending on what I’m watching). Then I’ll watch certain characters to see how they’re both written and portrayed by the various actors. Then there’s the layer of story structure, as Vaughn said above, and all the mechanics about how the show/movie is put together and overall, how effective I found it. I like to see HOW something is told/portrayed and think about whether a certain approach would be effective for my writing.

    One of the things I really enjoy watching with regard to film is the cinematography, and how different camera angles give a different perspective to the story. I recently watched the film “The Warrior’s Way” (trailer here, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7SCyiliB38). NOTE TO PARENTS: it’s quite violent (blood, dying), in an elegant, martial arts/swords kind of way; like “Kill Bill,” maybe. I would not recommend this film for kids or pre-teens because there is a lot of blood and bunches of limbs flying around and big battle scenes with all of that increased exponentially. So be aware of that.

    Anyway, the story follows an ultra-awesome swordsman who defied his clan and refused to kill the last living member of an enemy clan. That survivor was a baby, and rather than kill her, he “adopted” her and then went to America to try to escape the vengeance his own clan sought. He ended up in a western town of outcasts (it reminded me of the town from “Rango”–removed from everything; dusty, dry, run-down).

    If you’ve seen the latest Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey, Jr. (or The Matrix flicks), you’ll be familiar with the slow-motion incidents in the action sequences, which lend the pacing in “Warrior’s Way” a really beautiful athleticism and overall elegance amidst horrific brutality. There’s also an edgy layer of fantasy to this flick (perhaps paying homage to Chinese martial arts movies), which I think provides a buffer for the violence because it’s conducted in a speculative fiction kind of arena. It’s sort of a Grimm’s fairy tale (which could be really violent and dark) set to action movie, with a soundtrack that goes from rock to quiet and introspective. The camera work, I thought, was phenomenal, and the colors and filters used to help portray mood and tension really enhanced the “flavor” of this film. The settings were characters, as well, and blended seamlessly with the structure of the narrative.

    The film was also about choices and how we interact and relate to one another, and what holds the past continue to have, set within this totally random group of people who generally would not ever in a million years interact in real life.

    Point being, I saw this film over a week ago and I’m still thinking about it, and about how all the parts fit together. Sometimes in ways that were jarring, but I thought that in this instance, even the jarring aspects ended up working in terms of plot arc, where every once in a while something rubs together in a way that is chafing but you “get it” because the film is a series of moving parts. Think about how you’re at a stop light, maybe, with your turn signal on and the guy in front of you has his turn signal on and for a few seconds, your signals synchronize almost exactly but then they’re off-beat for a bit but eventually come back to synchronize. That’s how the jarring parts of this film worked with the other parts. Off-beat for a bit, but eventually back in synch until they were off-beat again, and so on.

    I think about writing in those terms. How a story’s moving parts come together and draw apart to create an overall narrative. I tend to think about writing visually, so films and TV shows are a medium that helps me, at least, conceptualize stories.

    Thanks again for posting this, and thanks for the comments, everyone!

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  10. says

    I think it’s helpful to watch different cuts of films to see why one works better than an other. A great example is in the film Alien. In the expanded edition there is a scene similar to those in the subsequent films where Ripley comes across a wall with crew members embedded in it. There’s nothing wrong with the scene and the actors work their butts off to pull it off but I can see why it was removed from the original cinematic release: it completely slows the action down. Now, in the sequel, this scene—or at least that film’s equivalent—comes at the very start of a long action sequence so we have time to appreciate it. Deleted scenes are good too but it’s better to see them in situ if one can.

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  11. says

    I LOVE this post, it just validates my reasons for having watched over 120 movies since January the 1st this year lol.

    I hope it’s helping to improve my writing, but what it definitely does is give me story ideas ;)

    xx

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  12. says

    Great post, Lydia. It’s also interesting to watch a movie based on a novel. I recently saw the movie, The Town (based on Chuck Hogan’s novel, The Prince of Thieves), for the third time and paid particular attention to things like camera angles, facial tics, and what they chose to leave in and what they chose not to use from the book. Except for changing the ending, the movie really captured the dynamics among the major characters and the tension. There are great lessons for writers in watching movies this way. Thanks for these insights, Lydia.

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  13. says

    I posted recently on how rewatching television shows and movies can really make me go further into the character’s heads. I’ve reacted to the stuff on the surface the first, say, three times I saw it, but on the fourth time I start analyzing. What is the character really feeling here? What are the more minor characters in the scene thinking? What is the writer and director doing with the scene to make me feel that? Which in turn gets reflected in my own work as I consider how my characters feel and how to show it.

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  14. Melanie Bernard says

    When I started writing seriously a few years ago, I knew NOTHING about story structure. I’ve been studying Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering for about six months though, and it’s really opened my eyes to the little flaws in pacing in my manuscript.

    He is just starting a series deconstructing The Hunger Games (book and movie) on his website right now, and it’s the first time I’ve deconstructed a novel for myself. What an education! One weekend analyzing a novel and I feel so much more ready to revise my own work.

    I can’t wait to put the same skills to use in deconstructing movies. Thanks for the post, Lydia!

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  15. says

    As a literature and media student, studying texts (both written and film) is part of my homework. It’s fun and definitely opens up a heap of doors and windows for people who might not have been so observant. I love drawing on the similarities, especially when I’m looking at novel to film adaptions. The Juno soundtrack is the best! It’s so fun and quirky and it makes me feel happy! Thanks for sharing these tips with us Lydia!

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  16. says

    Nice post. When asked how I write I’ve explained how I see the characters acting out as if I’m watching them on the television, then I write down what they say and their expressions. I’ve often thought it’s my love of film that has made me this way.

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  17. says

    Great post! Another excellent book on structure is Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge. He does a breakdown of Avatar that is not to be missed!

    I have learned so much about novel structure from thinking more like a screenwriter. Watching and analyzing movies is so helpful! :)

    Angela Ackerman

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  18. says

    I love thinking about movies when I’m writing scenes, for all of the above reasons you listed. They’re great when trying to figure out pacing, structure, and emphasis. They can also be very useful when trying to conjure emotion through physical movement. I still get stuck making characters glance and look and gaze a lot in my first drafts, but thinking about how characters react to different stimuli in films and TV shows helps me transform all those glances and looks and gazes into a richer and deeper variety of movement. Picturing the way an actor’s eyebrows move or what they do with their hands helps me create better physical responses in my own characters. Movies can also be very helpful in plotting out scenes with lots of action and/or fights for the same reason.

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  19. says

    Coming late, Lydia, but a great post.

    One tip I learned from Barbara O’Neal, and had reinforced by Alexandra Sokoloff, is the power of lists in identifying one’s thematic obsessions. If you write a list of top 10 movies and look at what they have in common, even if they genre-hop — as mine are wont to do — patterns emerge. I’ve found that helpful to clarify my goals and expectations for a piece.

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  20. says

    A game I play is to rewrite the stuff that really, really bugs me in a movie or TV show. I write the scenes they left out, the moments they blew, the way it should’ve ended…

    It’s fun, it’s usually fast writing (because I’m so steamed!) and some of those scenes lead to their own original stories.

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  21. says

    I am an avid movie fan and find they help immensely in my writing. I agree inspiration is one plus; but for me movies help with imagery, and in creating a believable world the reader can enjoy and find points of identification. My third MG adventure novel is set in Mexico ( a jungle!) and draws on Aztec and Mayan themes (ancient cities/artefacts etc). I watched Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto for a feel of how genuine tribes lived in the past, and how the cities were possibly built. I love movies!

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