I know, I know. It’s been awhile. I’m a bad planner, and that’s probably why I have yet to finish any of my seven half-written novels collecting dust in my hard drive. But you know what I have been doing?
Netflix. Lots of it.
Most of us are guilty of the occasional binge (though for many of us, it seems to be a more… frequent thing). I love watching movies. I could do it all day long, forever and ever. In fact, I’m guilty of liking them more than books. Oops. Isn’t that a cardinal sin of writing?
I hear a lot that the best way to be a better writer (besides writing) is to read. And that’s true. I will not refute that you can learn bountiful things from reading other writing. However, I think a lot of people overlook the things you can learn from watching films.
Movies are assembled a lot like novels. They have all the essential elements, just in different ways. You set the scenes, develop the characters, you make them think, speak, and act. But you paint the picture just a little more clearly for the reader. Sure, it takes away the “imagination” of it, but movies can transport us to different worlds just the same as novels. They also illustrate a couple things much more clearly than novels do.
- Story Structure
In the world of writing, story structure is the all-important roadmap that takes you from the beginning of the journey to the end. Without it, you’re nowhere. You’re lost. Your readers are lost. You can’t plot without structure.
Remember that triangle diagram every English teacher uses to teach this stuff?
Yeah, that one. There is no better way to see this spelled out than on a giant, movie theater screen. While a lot films follow this three-act structures, movies can also show you how to play with structure. Why limit yourself? Try something nonlinear and dreamy a la David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Try something that jumps back and forth like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
They also show you what not to do. For example, the James Bond films are often terribly structured and predictable, but we stay for the action sequences.
Look at movies to learn how to stop meandering in your stories. The moment your story seems aimless, readers will get bored. Speaking of meandering…
- Cut to the Chase
If you really want to stop meandering, take a page out of a screenwriter’s book. In the screenwriting world, one page of writing equals one minute of screen time. Most movies range from 90 to 120 minutes long, and screenwriters are limited to just that many pages.
Of course, this isn’t exactly the same for novels. You’ll need more description in a novel than a screenplay, so don’t take this exactly to heart. However, it is a good lesson to get you to trim down, at least for the wordy writers out there.
Readers and agents make decisions within mere pages if they want your story or not, just as that opening few minutes in a movie makes it or breaks it. In other words, don’t waste your words.
- Make Compelling Characters
You know why movies have such great characters? Because they have to. Nobody is going to waste an hour and a half in a theater watching a movie about a character they don’t care about. If there’s no emotional connection, the viewer is out of there. We tune out. The exact same applies for a novel.
Regardless of plot, characters will often be the driving force of your novel. You can have a great plot with twists and turns, but if I don’t care about your characters, it’s a safe bet I’m not going to waste what little free time I have reading about them. Characters are ultimately what keeps the page turning.
An easy example? Everyone in Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa. Everyone knows them. Why? Ask any writer (or even just Harrison Ford) and they’ll tell you what an awful writer George Lucas was. Why do people love Star Wars so much? The characters. We care about them. We want them to vanquish the sith and take back the galaxy. But logistically, the plots of Star Wars tend be downright awful.
- Keep Your Scenes Important
In the same vein as not wasting your words, you have to make sure every single scene in your story keeps the plot moving. We’ve all seen movies where nothing happens. Did you get bored watching Gravity with Sandra Bullock? I know I did.
That movie is a sterling example of how nothing can replace a good story. It doesn’t matter how much flash and bang you throw in there. It can be as pretty as you want it to be, but if the story sucks, I’m probably going to sit there and laugh.
Movies like that teach novelists how to keep the action flowing. Everything needs to have forward motion. The story needs to evolve, and actions need to incite change. We can’t just throw our character off in space and expect our readers to watch her have a bad time for two hours.
- Make the Reader See It
Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of being able to show instead of tell. They don’t have the space to describe things to the readers, to imply, or to foreshadow with description. Instead, they have to rely on nuanced dialogue and set designs.
Novelists have all the words in the world, but they, like screenwriters, also need to learn how to make their story more than just some dialogue uttered back and forth. They need to balance action and dialogue, just like screenwriters. They need to make their readers see what’s happening the way you can with a movie.
But at the end of the day, trust your audience. They’re smart. The viewers will pick up what you need them to. Don’t tell them the character is nervous. Instead, have the character stutter when they speak. See my previous post for more ways to show instead of tell.
Get out there, kids. You now have an excuse to watch three seasons of the Walking Dead this weekend.