How watching films critically can help you write better.

I had my first Introduction to Film class yesterday, and despite the four-hours-in-one-really-old-theater-seat syndrome, I'm pretty excited for it. As I'm sure you can guess, we view a film once per class, book-ended by an hour lecture and discussion afterward. This gives the instructor a chance to teach us about a particular concept, allow us to watch for it, then discuss and identify the film-maker's usage of that concept.

As most of you know (at least, I hope so), movies begin with a screenplay. Which is writing, btw. Instead of writing a five-hundred page novel, a screenwriter writes something like one-hundred twenty pages (about 90 minutes of movie). Both novels and screenplays share a lot in common, from the basic structure (generally three-act, though there are always exceptions), to the need for natural, but informative dialogue. As always, characters and plot require hard work and probably tears of frustration in all forms of writing.

The interesting thing about watching a movie with critical eyes (as far as the writing portion goes), is that its format is perfect for catching all the ways the film makers handle the story elements. Such a condensed version of a story makes it east to identify character conflicts, quirks, and flaws. It's readily apparent what character's hold which place in the plot, and who does what.

We watched Little Miss Sunshine, a pseudo-indie film made back in 2006 or 2007 (maybe). We were instructed to watch for motifs (repeated themes), character parallels (and foils), and metaphors. During the discussion we talked about what we had found, and it struck me how easy it looked on screen. Of course the VW bus breaking down was a metaphor for the family's steady deterioration. Of course the beauty pageant at the end symbolized all of the character's misplaced dreams. Why can't it be so simple while writing a book? Well, maybe it is.

Next time you watch a movie, try to look at it with a screen writer's eyes, instead of a movie-goer's. Try to identify the techniques the film maker uses to draw you in, to define character, to advance plot, etc. See if any of those things might benefit your own writing. Hopefully I'll find some good stuff of my own.


  1. That's one of the reasons I adore watching Citizen Kane. It's just put together so well that it leaves the gears in my brain churning in happiness.

  2. I love multi-tasking and calling TV research! It makes me an annoying movie partner though ;) Thankful I'm married to someone who listens and make his own comments on films (which are generally deeper than mine!) Great post!