Sometimes writers have snobbish attitude toward the writing we witness in movies and television shows. Snobby to the point of not watching. I think if we plan our television or movie time well and think of it as research, there’s a lot to learned from other kinds of media. What’s surprised me most as I’ve become an editor of writing, is how much editing of tv shows I do in my head as I’m watching.
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.
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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.
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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.