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.
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.
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.
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