The Writing Life

Watch More Movies (For Real)

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!


8 Responses to Watch More Movies (For Real)

  1. Rachel May 15 2019 at 8:39 am #

    The first time I saw Silver Linings Playbook I realized I could learn so much from film-the impact of setting details (what this showed of character), the character growth, the dialog, and the rhythm of two people weaving a narrative together where often they conflicted. Since then I watch a films for entertainment, but also to study story. It’s often a nice deviation from reading about craft nexuses with films you can see it all unfold visually.

    • Aminah Mae May 15 2019 at 11:27 am #

      yes! it’s so helpful if you’re a visual person. I also find that good films really nail pacing in a way that you can translate to books without having to directly copy, if that makes sense. I also feel like dissecting a film is slightly less personal because so many people go into making a film that it’s watching how the photography and the direction and the acting and the writing and the editing and the lighting and the sound all work together to make stories come to life, which i LOVE

  2. Cari Galeziewski May 15 2019 at 9:52 am #

    I love dissecting movies and figuring out what does or doesn’t work. My husband used to get annoyed by this, until the day he benefited from it. He could never understand why he would fall asleep during battles scenes of movies (much to the consternation of our kids) until I explained to him the difference between a plot driven and a character driven story. It was a lightbulb moment for him. Now he knows that he prefers, and will stay awake during, character driven movies. LOL

    • Aminah Mae May 15 2019 at 11:30 am #

      omg I love this! and yes, understanding the intentional choices of character driven movies versus plot. Or voice driven movies (which is why people love Tarantino) or aesthetic driven movies (which is why i love Sophia Coppola Films). I often use films to get people to understand plot versus character versus tone versus aesthetics versus voice because they can literally see it. I think what a film is doing is so much clearer because it uses so many more senses to engage its audience, so you can see where it fails and where it succeeds in a much more detailed profile

  3. Chris May 15 2019 at 1:45 pm #

    Thank you for the permission! I read, I listen to audiobooks, I watch movies. And sometimes, when I can’t get the movie I want, I read the script. It’s instructive to study how the dialogue serves so many functions.

    • Aminah Mae May 15 2019 at 5:33 pm #

      yes! all of these are great ways to look at story! And show you a variety of ways that story can function 💜💜💜

  4. May 28 2019 at 3:36 pm #

    Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it
    was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.

    I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to
    the whole thing. Do you have any helpful hints for beginner
    blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

    • Aminah Mae May 29 2019 at 11:57 am #

      Hi! Thank you so much for reading! I honestly joined this blog later in the game, so I’m not sure I’m the one to ask on starting a blog— we’re a group of writers who blog about authordom and writing— but I think like most things you learn by trying things out and iterating on that process. Best of luck!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.