I’m a big believer in listening and paying attention to all of the stories around you. To the people who talk about their days in a compelling way. To the family histories. To books, yes. To audiobooks. And to movies and TV shows.
And in that vein, I would like to take a minute to validate all of you in your Netflix habits because I’m about to tell you to watch more movies. Stop feeling guilty that you’re consuming media. Stop treating your love of other people’s stories like it’s some terrible habit that you’ve got to break in order to write your own.
Okay, there’s a catch.
You’ve got to watch more movies with your critical thinking brain on— the way you’ve learned to do while reading. Watch movies to see how characters are quickly introduced. Watch more movies to see the way that dialog pushes a scene forward. Watch more movies to understand how to quickly establish exposition without sounding deeply unnatural. Or, watch more movies to learn how not to do this, because there are some films out there with legendarily bad exposition and you can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes.
One of the things I was exposed to in college, having gone to a school with a whole bunch of film school kids, was the intentional construction of films as stories. The ways that editing, writing, and directing (to name the best known jobs) can play into the making of a film. Staying connected to story as you write isn’t just about reading every book. You can find that same critical sense while watching movies, too. Because staying connected to story is about learning to keep that critically engaged part of your brain on as you read, watch, and listen. It’s about staying curious and open.
There’s this idea that when you read you’re opening your mind and when you watch you’re closing your mind. But you can read for escapism as much as you can watch for escapism. I’ll give you that it’s easier to turn your brain off and watch something, rather than the participatory virtual reality that comes from reading.
But watching movies doesn’t have to be mindless consumption. Watching movies doesn’t have to be bingeing a kind of avoidance. Because movies have story arcs just like books do. Even cheesy movies that are made for entertainment can teach you about story and structure, about how to root for a character and how to buy into— from an emotional perspective— an entire cinematic franchise.
While there’s plenty that films can’t do— films are not great for interiority, on the whole. Films also don’t often get to pause and sit with a character (though, when they do this well, they can leave you sobbing on your couch next to your cat. Or maybe that’s just me).
A film can teach you about tight plot, editing, and structure— usually in a ninety minute framework. Film can teach you about characters, because characters are what sell a project to actors and directors. Characters are everything in film and if you ever struggle to figure out how to make your character more relatable to your readers— start watching the kind of movies that spawned multiple franchises and spin offs. I’m not kidding. And if you’re into old movies at all, films can teach you the way storytelling conventions shift over time, particularly with the advent of new technologies.
Watch enough, and you could even one day be like these guys.
And yes, if occasionally you want to turn off your critical thinking brain and watch The Bachelor, I won’t tell on you either. And if you want more film content, let me know in the comments below!