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Thread: Why movies?

  1. #1
    empty-nester! shadowwalker's Avatar
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    Why movies?

    Don't know if this should go here or the research area, but...

    I have a question that's been bugging me for some time now. I've seen this on several forums, in various discussions and comments, and it's something I really don't understand.

    Why do people ask for or recommend movies to show how to write something (genre or subject matter)?

    Movies are not novels. We don't read them; we watch them. So how does that tell us how to write something? Watching movies (and by extension, television) doesn't even tell us how to write a script - they only show us what the director's final decisions were for a medium that is wholly different from the written word.

    Added to this puzzle is the oft-times made suggestion that we should watch this or that movie for factual information. Now, unless that movie is an actual documentary (and not one of those docu-drama horrors), why should we take as fact anything that's in them? Do we accept "CSI" as a factual reference for forensic science? I hope to heavens not!

    I'm just curious why so many people think that movies and/or television shows are good learning sources for writers.
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  2. #2
    Arranger Of Disorder WriteKnight's Avatar
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    Why do people give advice that might only apply in certain circumstances? Why do people give advice that might not be complete?

    That seems to be what you're asking - as far as I can tell. Watching a movie, as an example of HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL - is not particularly good advice. I don't know that I've ever heard anyone give that particular piece of advice - but I suppose it's possible.

    "Film is the literature of our generation" - S. Spielberg (allegedly). People probably spend more time watching film and television than the do reading fiction. For better or for worse. Before the written word, there was oral tradition. Someone TOLD stories. People sat and listened to them. They probably even acted them out. Watch anyone tell a good anecdote, and they'll be 'animated' to a certain extent while telling it. Move beyond that, and you're into more than one person, 'acting out' a story. And that includes dance in it's many forms.

    The point I am trying to make, is that WRITING and ACTING and FILM are all forms of 'story telling'. So there are going to be elements that are vital to them all, that cross over. Things like pacing, plotting, characterizations. There are of course, elements that are also UNIQUE to each form. Writing a novel is NOT the same as writing a screenplay. Writing a short story is not the same as writing a novel.

    I've sometimes seen advice about watching a film for the 'reality' of some example. "Watch 'The Player' - it really captures the angst and bullshit of the movie business" for instance. And I think it does. But you know - it's a FILM. It has a structure that is limited by the constraints of the medium. It can capture snapshots of reality, but it's up to the viewer to understand that life doesn't unfold like that in 120 minutes.

    As far as specific advice on 'how to plot' or 'avodiing cliche's' or 'how to discipline yourself' or even 'how to treat your craft as a business' - there are plenty of books out there that give good - and sometimes CONFLICTING advice on how best to approach the craft.

    In terms of a film being 'wholly different from the written word' - that's not strictly true. Film IS a collaborative vision. What makes it onto the screen is never 'wholly different' from the written word. Recently, at the Academy Awards for screenwriting - they've been showing the written page on screen - as the scene plays out. You get to SEE how it is the same. Good fun. But saying it is 'wholly different' is like saying the building is 'wholly different' from the blueprint that was given the contractor. Sure, he might swap some things around. Make some changes. The buyer might ask for a different facade than the original plans call for. But a smart builder knows what walls are load bearing - what elements are needed to make the structure strong - and he doesn't alter them. As a screenwriter, I always find it good advice to 'watch a movie' - and read the script - to see where the changes have been made. That's why the advent of DVD with commentary and BTS footage has been such a boon. So yeah - it's REALLY important to watch movies, if you're writing them.


    Films - are stories. Good films tell good stories. It's bad advice to say "WATCH MOVIES TO BECOME A NOVELIST". It's good advice to say "Watch good movies to see examples of how a good story unfolds - where the plot is strong - where a character is interesting, etc. etc." It's bad advice to say "Watch Rebecca, INSTEAD of reading it - to learn how to write a Novel." It's good advice to say 'Read this novel, and then watch what they've done to condense it into a two hour experience. - Especially if you're a screenwriter who is interested in doing adaptations.

    So perhaps your question is what can one learn ABOUT story-telling, from watching a movie... that might apply to novel writing in particular?

  3. #3
    empty-nester! shadowwalker's Avatar
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    You make some good points - but I'm still not buying it.

    Taking your building analogy - if one were to look at the building, from the outside, could one say they could figure out how to draw a blueprint? Or is the most they could say be that they would know how to draw a picture of the outside edifice?

    If you're writing scripts, I agree you need to watch movies - but as you included, you also need to read the script. That script in hand is what shows you what to do in written form to end up with [close to] the screen form. Just watching the movie is not going to do that. Watching a movie may show you that the plot moved from here to there - but it doesn't show you how to write it doing so. In fact, it may make you think that you can write it happening just as quickly and abruptly as it occurs on the screen.

    Last - you mention "The Player" as a good example of what Hollywood is like. (I haven't seen it.) What makes you say that? If you already have personal knowledge, then a movie will either reenforce or contradict your knowledge. If you have no personal knowledge, how can you accept any movie as being accurate? I've seen people suggest movies to show how this thing or that thing can be portrayed - and I know from personal, first-hand experience that those movies are dead wrong. So why were they recommended? Because the person saying it believed them. That's all.

    I guess what I'm saying is that watching movies or TV is only seeing the finished product, in a medium which we are not working in, and which is the result of Someone's imagination which may be just as wild or unreferenced as our own.

    I do agree - they are all story-telling - including dance, as you mentioned. So should we watch ballet to learn writing?
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  4. #4
    Claims the loan was a gift Meerkat's Avatar
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    This might seem crazy, but I think the two realms are actually becoming inseparably blurred. I read a novel imagining the movie, and I watch a movie "describing" to myself the settings and personalities.

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  5. #5
    practical experience, FTW flapperphilosopher's Avatar
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    I agree with WriteKnight. Movies can't teach you about the actual writing, but they can teach you a lot about storytelling. Creating scenes, revealing character, focusing on telling details, beginnings and endings... there's all kinds of things that are common between the way a good movie tells a story and the way a good novel does.
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  6. #6
    Rewriting My Destiny Cyia's Avatar
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    Movies can teach you plenty about writing - if you find the write one.

    Dialogue, pacing, staging, POV, etc. aren't just useful in film; they're essential to novel writing, too.



  7. #7
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    Well, I'm working on writing a novel, but movies are also stories, and I really like movies. I'd like to be able to write screenplays as well, so I also study movies and how they are made. But I think that movies (in general) do something similar to a novel in that they follow a characters transformation after some event forces change on the character. I think many movies are great sources for those who want to get a better understanding of how to make up a good story.
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  8. #8
    empty-nester! shadowwalker's Avatar
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    I will concede that if you're looking at basic storytelling, then movies may be worth looking at. However - how do you learn to transform 90 minutes of "show" (including music and sound effects and special effects) into a 400 page novel?
    Je suis Charlie

    "It seems rather like wanting to be ... a writer, rather than wanting to write. It should be a by-product, not a thing in itself. Otherwise, it's just an ego trip." - Roger Zelazny

    Passion is easy; commitment is hard.

  9. #9
    I fight like a dairy farmer Corussa's Avatar
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    Two things I often think about when watching films are:
    • how much I care about the characters in it, and why
    • whether I am convinced by the plot, and if not, why not.

    I do this in the hopes that it will help me to improve on creating sympathetic characters and a convincing plot. This is only a very minor part of my efforts to improve my writing though.

    I don't know if doing the above actually benefits my characterisation or plotting when I'm writing my novel, but it feels useful to me

  10. #10
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shadowwalker View Post
    I will concede that if you're looking at basic storytelling, then movies may be worth looking at. However - how do you learn to transform 90 minutes of "show" (including music and sound effects and special effects) into a 400 page novel?

    I think it could help for some aspects of pacing, and also ways of showing character, but I think that movies are irrelevant for a good percentage of kind of thing you are talking about. I submit, Shadowwalker, that you have a very good command of story (you are able to write your story as you go) and that is probably why you are mystified about movies as learning tool for aspiring novelists. But if a writer is struggling with how to make up a cohesive story showing and all that is irrelevant. So I guess that those who study movies are really studying for a better understanding of stories and it ends there. Once such writers have a better sense of what is needed to construct a functional story, they would go on to a close study of novels to see how to accomplish the next step, the showing.
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  11. #11
    Don't let your deal go down, Dave Hardy's Avatar
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    I think you have a good point, movies might have limited utility in terms of narrative structure in a novel. If anything, I think the movie format is closer to novellas or short stories.

    Where movies have universal application is in terms of story ideas, themes, characters, approach to genre conventions, that sort of thing. I wouldn't say you can write a novel and it's just like a movie, but you could explore an idea or theme that is derived from a movie. Same could apply to comics, or oral recitations, or pretty much any medium.
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  12. #12
    Arranger Of Disorder WriteKnight's Avatar
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    You seem to be conflating several points into one question. "How can watching a movie help in writing novels?" - Okay - most of us are saying that you can learn SOMETHING about plotting, characterizations, perhaps even dialogue - all elements of good strong story telling.

    But then you argue that you can't really learn how to WRITE A NOVEL by watching a movie. Well - no, you can't. You can't learn how to write a novel by going to class and taking lessons in novel writing. You learn by doing. You get other peoples personal experience ... ANECDOTAL experience on what works, or doesn't work for them. I have a great book 'writers on writing' - and it's amazing how often these great writers give what appears to be conflicting advice. Because everyone is different. "Outline EVERYTHING" - or "Write stream of consciousness" - whatever.

    So you say - " I will concede that if you're looking at basic storytelling, then movies may be worth looking at. However - how do you learn to transform 90 minutes of "show" (including music and sound effects and special effects) into a 400 page novel?" -

    To which I ask, "Are you trying to adapt a screenplay into a novel?" Because that's another question. And in fact, something I have just recently done with one of my scripts. It's an interesting process - but it's a very specific process. It's different from starting a novel from scratch. Just like adapting a novel into a screenplay is different from writing a screenplay from scratch.

    But all of these processes - require an understanding of things like plot, character, dialogue, pacing - what works and doesn't work.

    Watching movies helps me learn about storytelling.
    So does dance.
    So does mime.
    So does attending live theatre.
    So does reading short stories.
    So does reading poetry.

  13. #13
    is watching you via her avatar jjdebenedictis's Avatar
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    Being able to assemble lovely sentences and cue the reader's imagination is a completely different skill than being able to assemble a plot that holds together logically and is satisfying to the reader.

    A writer who creates strong prose may still need help with plotting. Studying movies can help with that.

    A writer who creates decent plots may still need help with the mechanics of writing. Studying books can help with that.

    Studying books will also help with improving one's plotting skills, but books aren't the only form of storytelling that can do that. Why not use all the tools available?
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  14. #14
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by WriteKnight View Post
    Watching movies helps me learn about storytelling.
    So does dance.
    So does mime.
    So does attending live theatre.
    So does reading short stories.
    So does reading poetry.
    I'd like to add songs to the list.
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  15. #15
    New kid...seven years ago! DancingMaenid's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jjdebenedictis View Post
    Being able to assemble lovely sentences and cue the reader's imagination is a completely different skill than being able to assemble a plot that holds together logically and is satisfying to the reader.
    Yep. To me, that's the main distinction.

    It depends on what type of advice someone is looking for. If someone is looking for advice on the mechanics of writing a novel (or short story), then I wouldn't be too quick to recommend a movie for reference. There are some cases where it could still be helpful, but it depends.

    But if someone asks a question like, "Is it possible to have a killer as your protagonist and have them be sympathetic?" I would be just as quick to recommend movies that fit that description as I would be novels or short stories. The person isn't asking how to write a sympathetic killer in their specific case. They want to know if a character like that can work, and want general ideas. It's a story question, not a question of mechanics or medium. And chances are, the same techniques that might make a character like that work in film will also work in novels/stories. The techniques are just going to be used differently.

    When people ask story/character questions like that, I tend to assume that they'll be able to figure out how to do it once they get some basic ideas.

  16. #16
    practical experience, FTW
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    Movies can be really good for showing the necessary scenes, characters and plots it takes to set up a story. Stories are told through various medias but all have the same goal - to entertain the viewer/reader with a story. At school we studied Shakespeare and his plays to see how he gave characters depth and how he arced a story. In fact I use the 7 step story structure outline from scriptwriting class because it has all the similar steps for outlining you get on writers sites to write novels.

    e.g. from here http://gideonsway.wordpress.com/2010...point-outline/ of my outline

    Line 1 Introduce protagonist and their world (first 10 pages)
    Line 2 Inciting Incident (around page 10)
    Line 3 First plot point, end of Act 1 (around page 25-30)
    Line 4 Mid point (around page 45-55)
    Line 5 Second turning point, end of Act 2 (around page 75-80)
    Line 6 Third turning point, end of Act 3 (around page 95-100)
    Line 7 Resolution (page 100-110)

    I think movies can be good for studying scenes because each scene in a movie contributes to the overall story and sets up the next scene. Like in my literature module we studied Metropolis this year and that's a movie but it has a complex story and characters, each scene is beneficial to telling the movie and has symbolism throughout it.

  17. #17
    Reinventing Myself Scribhneoir's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shadowwalker View Post
    I'm just curious why so many people think that movies and/or television shows are good learning sources for writers.
    In a word, structure.

    Screenplays follow a precise structure that provides a satisfying story experience. (I'm talking mainstream movies here, not experimental, artsy films, btw) This structure exists in books, too, but it's harder to see. So it makes sense to use movies as one tool to absorb and internalize successful story structure.

    When I was in college (film studies major), there was a girl in my first screenwriting class who was a creative writing major. She wasn't interested in filmmaking, but screenwriting was the only writing class offered that quarter that she hadn't already taken. Two weeks into it she told me that she had learned more about how to write a story in that two weeks than she had in two years of creative writing classes. Why? Because the screenwriting class actually taught story structure. The creative writing classes were conducted on the "write a story and the class will critique it" method, with no instruction given as to what makes a satisfying story or how to craft one.

    Watching movies and TV shows with an eye toward ferreting out the structure is one way to learn how to tell an effective story, regardless of your medium.

  18. #18
    New kid...seven years ago! DancingMaenid's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Scribhneoir View Post
    Watching movies and TV shows with an eye toward ferreting out the structure is one way to learn how to tell an effective story, regardless of your medium.
    I think this is a great point, too. I've found that a lot of times, it's easier for me to identify structure in movies and TV shows. It can be easier for me to spot a three-act structure, for example, and identify when the climax begins. Things like that apply to non-visual mediums, too.

  19. #19
    Toughen up. gothicangel's Avatar
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    It is a mistake to view one form as superior to another. I love film and I love literature.

    It's not just story-telling, its creating characters that the reader will love, plots that will grip them, and exposing ourselves to ideas we wouldn't have considered before.

    I try to expose myself to a new film every week, preferably out of comfort zone. I recently watched Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus it was amazing, as was The Conspirator. And watch bad movies, they can teach you a lot as well.
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  20. #20
    She blinded me--with magic! third person's Avatar
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    "TV/film’s lean mean 5-page scene doesn’t work in fiction—you need depth, fiction is what’s below the surface. As fiction writers we can’t use Hollywood shorthand."
    -valuable advice from the teachers at Clarion, who in this case most certainly can do and teach.

    I always cringe at someone wanting to see a movie in their WIP's genre for ideas/feasibility/etc instead of reading more in their genre. If they can't bother to read, this "writing thing" may not be the best thing for them.
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  21. #21
    ...should be writing. johemedel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by flapperphilosopher View Post
    Movies can't teach you about the actual writing, but they can teach you a lot about storytelling. Creating scenes, revealing character, focusing on telling details, beginnings and endings... there's all kinds of things that are common between the way a good movie tells a story and the way a good novel does.
    This. When you're watching a film that you particularly enjoy, ask yourself why you're enjoying it. That is, what evoked your positive reaction to it. Then ask yourself how they did it.

    If you're anything like me, you'll find movies with sub-par storytelling (and there's a boatload of them) to be nigh unbearable regardless of flashy effects. I'm extremely good nowadays at spotting plot holes and unbelievable jumps of logic. Read: I no longer suspend my disbelief as easily as the next guy. But sometimes a film is so good that I do forget that's it's make believe.

    I try to learn from those.

  22. #22
    practical experience, FTW Sunflowerrei's Avatar
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    I agree with the points brought up. I've read screenplays to study story structure. Studying a movie helps me to write tighter, because movies must adhere to a certain running time and there isn't room for the "fat." I think movies especially can help write dialogue.

    Also, I'm writing a novel set in 1800. I watched movies like the Madness of King George, Amazing Grace, and numerous Jane Austen adaptations. Doesn't mean I didn't search for print and Internet sources or look for documentaries on the time period, but watching the movies helped me see an interpretation of how events happened or how people acted. It's always helpful to see how other storytellers handle the material you're working with.
    Last edited by Sunflowerrei; 08-19-2012 at 10:41 PM.


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  23. #23
    Your Genial Uncle Absolute Sage James D. Macdonald's Avatar
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    Why use movies as examples for storytelling?

    It's more likely that a random person will have seen a particular movie than that they'll have read a particular novel.

    A flop movie has probably had more viewers than a hit book has had readers.

  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW
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    Go watch "Chinatown", carefully, paying full attention to how that story is structured and presented, scene-setting, dialogue and all the rest, and then tell me it doesn't provide some valuable insight into how to write an effective narrative story. I use it for precisely this reason in my English comp classes.

    It helps that virtually none of the younger people I teach have ever seen, or maybe even heard of the film, because its . . . old. They also invariably really like it, because few of them have ever watched a movie so well made, with no special effects.

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  25. #25
    DenturePunk writer bearilou's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Scribhneoir View Post
    Two weeks into it she told me that she had learned more about how to write a story in that two weeks than she had in two years of creative writing classes. Why? Because the screenwriting class actually taught story structure. The creative writing classes were conducted on the "write a story and the class will critique it" method, with no instruction given as to what makes a satisfying story or how to craft one.
    QFT

    I have several books on screenwriting for novelists and those books have gone so much further in helping me see what a story structure looks like than all the advice in the world of 'just do it (write)' and 'just read a novel to learn how to write'. There is something about the way the storytelling unfolds in a good movie/script that helped me to better grok how it all fits together.

    Quote Originally Posted by third person View Post
    I always cringe at someone wanting to see a movie in their WIP's genre for ideas/feasibility/etc instead of reading more in their genre. If they can't bother to read, this "writing thing" may not be the best thing for them.
    For some of us it's not about 'can't be bothered to read'. It's about seeing something in a different light so that it makes sense. Learning input from different sources is far more valuable, seems to me.

    Quote Originally Posted by johemedel View Post
    If you're anything like me, you'll find movies with sub-par storytelling (and there's a boatload of them) to be nigh unbearable regardless of flashy effects. I'm extremely good nowadays at spotting plot holes and unbelievable jumps of logic. Read: I no longer suspend my disbelief as easily as the next guy. But sometimes a film is so good that I do forget that's it's make believe.

    I try to learn from those.
    And because I've taken the time to learn more about story structure, about how to utilize characterization, about how to hang a plot together, my movie watching experience has changed as well as my novel reading experience. When I get my hands on a bad one, it's glaring and jarring and awkward. I still learn from them, yes, but the enjoyment aspect has changed dramatically.

    My mom says I'm no fun to watch movies with anymore.

    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    Go watch "Chinatown", carefully, paying full attention to how that story is structured and presented, scene-setting, dialogue and all the rest, and then tell me it doesn't provide some valuable insight into how to write an effective narrative story. I use it for precisely this reason in my English comp classes.
    There's not enough word in the world for this. In fact, Chinatown was the first movie I tore apart to learn from a screenwriting for novelists perspective and it was invaluable.
    Quote Originally Posted by Phaeal View Post
    The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you've laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you'll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.
    Quote Originally Posted by KTC View Post
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