It’s one of those things they tell you when you say you want to be a writer: read widely and read often. It’s sound advice. How are you supposed to write a thing if you don’t know how written things are supposed to look? You wouldn’t tell a surgeon to just go on ahead and take out that spleen even though he’s never actually seen one, would you?
Of course not. You’re no psychopath (at least by the legal definition, which is how we operate here on the Dark Side).
But one thing most writers don’t realize is that it’s just as important to watch movies (all of them, dammit), especially if you’re in the business of genre writing.
Think about the last movie you watched. For me, it was In The Heart of the Sea, starring Thor and some other dudes. How long do you think each scene went without some kind of conflict? Not long, right? Because movies (like books!) thrive on conflict. In a movie, the screenwriter can’t wax poetic on the particular shade of an autumn sunset as it backdrops the onset of winter as represented by a floating grocery bag. The audience would be in a coma by the end of the sequence. MOAR EXPLOSIONS! MOAR CRAZY WHITE WHALES!
Maybe you’re not writing something with a ton of outward suspense. Maybe you’re thinking, “White whales don’t exactly fit in with the whole boy meets girl thing I’m trying to get across.”
I’d tell you you’re wrong (and you are) but you wouldn’t listen, so we’ll move on.
Back before I had a pair of monsters clinging to my legs and begging for that twenty-third GoGurt, I spent a lot of time at the airport. I never went anywhere (I’m not that cool), but I sat in one of the busiest concourses and took notes. People are at their worst and best at the airport. But they’re also at their worst and best in movies. They ought to be; they were written that way. If, like me, you’re trapped inside a shell of domestic bliss, watching movies in the romantic comedy, comedy, and drama genres will give you particular insight into interpersonal relationships. Yes, there are a TON of books out there that draw startling (and often hilarious) relationships and their interactions. But with a novel, the reader has the advantage (most times) of being in the character’s head. We already know what she’s thinking, so when her actions play out, we aren’t surprised.
Watching a movie, however, we don’t have that advantage. We must rely on the actor’s expressions, movements, and interactions with others to discern their true feelings, and not just what is relayed in the dialogue. As a writer, showing feeling is my biggest weakness, but watching movies with complicated character relationships has helped me strengthen my skills when it comes to showing what my characters are thinking, rather than relying on an introspection dump.
And it’s not just the big stuff like conflict and character development that can be taken from an afternoon of binge-watching. Pay attention to the visuals. How many awards are devoted to lighting and costume and the overall impact image has on the success of the movie? Lots. Sure, with books it’s different—you can’t cast an eerie green glow over the scene, but you can describe one. A ton of set-dressing in a novel is tedious, but the right images can create an entire world in the reader’s head, making them relive the story over and over again. If ever there was a cinematic novel, THE NIGHT CIRCUS is it. The repetition of black, white, and red and her descriptions of whimsical exhibitions are so precise that it paints a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. I haven’t read the novel in close to a year, but I could still tell you exactly what the circus looked like because it’s so ingrained in the narrative and my mind.
To get you started, I’ve compiled a short list of movies I demand you watch (if you haven’t already) and what you’ll get out of it. You can thank me by putting my name in big, bold type in the acknowledgements page of your novel. I also take checks.
Anything by director Kevin Smith – dialogue, dialogue, dialogue!
Carol (starring Noomi Rapace and Cate Blanchett) – subtle tension and huge internal conflict
Inception (starring Leonardo DiCaprio) – snowballing suspense and reader trickery
Mystic River (starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon) – intense interpersonal relationships and the resulting conflict
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (Starring Christina Ricci) – arguably a terrible television show, but Ricci plays one of the most terrifying women I’ve ever seen on screen. This character is a master class in how to portray a villain.
Keep reading. I would never expect you to choose a movie over a novel (the horror!), but there is much to be learned about story-telling, kiddos, and the movies are a great place to start.
Katrina Monroe and the Dark Side of Fiction
Read All The Books
(But Watch All The Movies Too)
Katrina Monroe is an author, mother, and professional haterologist. Her favorite things to hate include socks that fall down, grape-flavored anything, and the color 'salmon.' Grab her books here.