We're living in a golden age of TV and movies, with more channels and more quality stories than we can ever watch, many of them based on adaptations of books – both fiction and non-fiction.
In fact, watching TV and movies can HELP your writing career as you learn how to construct a narrative arc that keeps readers hooked. In today's article, Diana Wink explains how.
The boom of movies and TV Shows due to Netflix and Amazon can be both curse and blessing for creatives. It depends on the way you use it.
Like nuclear energy, everything powerful can be mistreated or used to our advantage. You can waste hours on TV shows, cursing their addictive effect while you plan on binge watching the next season of Game of Thrones. You can go to the cinema to be entertained as part of the audience, regretting that you ate so much popcorn yet again.
Or, you can develop an eye for movie elements, styles of certain directors and screenwriters, take mental notes, avoid mistakes and transfer great ideas into your writing to make it richer.
As a filmmaker and author, I never consume a movie for entertainment only. Instead, I got into the habit of always wearing my metaphorical “creator glasses” that allow me to get the most out of movies and TV shows.
When watching, filter your emotions through the “creator lens”.
Ask yourself: How did they achieve this? Why did something work, and why did it not?
Always make mental notes. If something impressed you, come home and write it down.
I even sit down to rewatch and analyze certain movies or scenes. This prevents me from binge watching amazing TV shows – because I want to learn something from them, I need time to process and transfer.
According to James Patterson, we have to write “with a movie projector in our heads”. The better you become in understanding movie language and thinking visually, the better your inner “movie projector” works.
Let me give you 7 elements to look out for when you watch movies and TV shows as a creative, and how you can apply them to your writing.
Once you understand those, your “creative eye” will never be the same. But watch out: You can never go back to being a regular consumer anymore!
Both in film and in fiction, location can make or break your scene. Location can enhance the experience, make the plot richer if it's fueled with meaning, or provide a space for interaction with the character.
Pay close attention to where a particular scene in the movie is located. And ask yourself: Why did the director choose it?
Incorporate real locations or let yourself be inspired by them, but don't be afraid to invent fictitious places, like Christopher Nolan did in “The Dark Knight Rises”. The underground prison called “The Pit” is a location that has been built from scratch with a powerful purpose. It plays a central role in Bruce Wayne overcoming his demons.
Have a look at the last scene of “Starwars: Episode 7”. Watch out for the place in was shot in, which makes this scene unique and epic.
The visuality of the location plays a central part. How does it look like, how does it smell, how does it feel? This leads us to element two, which is tightly intertwined with the location.
2. The light
In film, light is everything. It plays a central role in conveying a mood, a feeling, and evoking emotion. A location can look completely different once the light is changed.
Press the “pause” button and carefully study the light in a scene you like.
- What time of day is it?
- How many lights can you see, and where do they come from?
- How do they make the scene feel?
You need to develop an eye for light to understand how scenes are lit, and what atmosphere the light conveys. “A picture is worth a thousand words”, they say, but do you need a thousand words? Learn how to describe atmosphere with precise, on-point, extraordinary ways that will paint an instant picture through light.
Here are some examples from my short films.
Notice how here, nighttime is central for the scenes, and single light sources create the mood: a red signal light serving as a backdrop for hectic shapes in a fight scene, fires burning around a couple that runs into each other’s arms.
In the last picture, the deep sun and the location set the atmosphere. This scene would have looked so different if it was set on a rainy afternoon.
3. Camera work
The camera is the eye of the film, and regardless of all technical details like lenses, aperture, shutter speed, it serves to lead the audience's attention. What the camera shows is as important as what it doesn't.
Consider camera as the POV of writing, and let's see what we can learn from it.
In the beginning of episode one of BBC's Sherlock, we see a detailed shot of a small bottle opened and a pill taken out. A man looks scared, close-up on his eyes staring in horror, his mouth swallowing the pill. The next shot pulls back, we see the man collapse at a window from the outside, mere observers.
What the camera does not show now is that the man is not alone in the room and that there is another bottle of pills. We are misled into thinking that this is a suicide, for now.
Transferring it into writing, this could look something like this:
- The victim's POV, describing the situation while leaving out the bits that reveal the presence of someone else in the room, being ambiguous about his motives, centering on the terror and fear before this dreadful moment of death.
- Switch to the POV of an outsider, maybe the police officer or newscaster, describing the situation from a more objective point of view, stating the facts of the incident.
The takeaway here is: pay attention to what the camera does in the movies. What does it show? How close to we get? Is there movement, and if so, why?
Another example: the scene in 12 Years a Slave, where we see Solomon hanging from a tree, tiptoeing to avoid the pain and keep himself alive.
The director could have chosen close-ups: the skin on his neck tied by the rope, the sweat on his forehead, his struggle to breathe. But this would have a completely different effect. Instead, for 1.5 minutes, we just observe the terrible scene from far away.
What does it do to us? Our hands are tied while we watch the other slaves ignore Solomon's pain out of fear. We want to scream at them, want to jump from our seats and free him from the rope. Instead, we are forced to watch the cruel scene unfold for three minutes, powerless.
This is such a strong effect that prompts to think about POV and challenges to make choices that are not obvious but rather provoking and have the strongest impact.
4. Costume & Casting
Paying close attention to the actors chosen for each role and their costumes can fuel writers with endless character ideas.
Pause and look at the characters in a movie as a whole. Notice how their hair and makeup is done, with how many details the costume is created. Look at tattoos, hair decoration, and even scars.
Costume change usually goes along with character transformation. Try to pay attention to how what the character wears changes over the course of the movie. It can also serve to contrast the character to his surrounding, underline the time period or sci-fi elements.
Here’s a great look at how costume attributes to world-building in film.
Aren't you already fueled with ideas? We often overlook the costumes, the makeup and hair, and the little details that contribute to what makes the characters who they are.
5. Dialogue & Acting
Over decades, screenwriters have been perfecting their dialogue writing skills. There is as much bad dialogue in movies as there is excellent, and we can learn from both.
Let's have a look at a great example from “Vikings”.
This is one of my favorite dialogues in movie history. There is one main underlying theme to it, which is ‘life after death', and it flows organically and emotionally to a climax – Ragnar's death sentence. The words are so plain yet so subtle.
Notice also the setting, the movements, the pauses in the dialogue, even the light. How the two of them are divided by their beliefs, yet united by their doubts and love to Athelstan, a great friend who was better than both of them.
They constantly challenge each other, and the words are fueled by rivalry, conflict, and friendship. This is such a great scene!
Sometimes, dialogue and words are unnecessary. There is a moment in Braveheart that is outstanding, yet no word is spoken.
This is extraordinary acting. No words needed.
The screenwriter could have included dialogue: ‘How could you have done this? Why did you betray me? I believed in you!'
But words would have weakened this moment. Instead, everything is written on William Wallace’s face.
As writers, we can use this lesson to not always write those words out, be it dialogue or even interior monologue.
Instead, learn to show rather than tell. Try to describe the expression in metaphors, strong comparisons, and action.
While music is a powerful tool for movies, it seems fairly useless to writing at first glance.
But do not be mislead. It can serve you in two ways: inspiration and your scene's atmosphere.
I love movies soundtracks, and I instantly make a mental notice if the music stuck with me. Soundtracks continue to inspire me to new plot twists, emotional scenes, themes, characters.
There is great power in music, and I was made aware of it when tears ran down my face during a Hans Zimmer concert. No words were needed. Just pure notes. When I left the concert, I felt like writing and creating, like my writing could move mountains.
On the other hand, try to play music in the background when writing and editing a scene to determine the feel or the atmosphere of it. This can help you determine your atmosphere. It also works vice versa, when you want your scene to feel like a certain way, but do not seem to find the mark – soundtrack can help you.
Editing is all about pace, and we can learn a lot from it if we start to carefully pay attention.
Have a look at this scene from “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”.
Now that's a way to tell the backstory in 1:14 minutes!
There is also a scene in this movie, edited in a similar way, where they make a plan, and while they do, the execution is shown quickly edited bits. This speeds up the story and makes it compelling.
In writing, we can use this technique to jump right into the story and flash back and forth between past and present to explain the situation, thus avoiding big backstory chunks.
We can also condense backstory moments into very short bits.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” won the Oscar for Editing. The famous trick here is a very fast cutting between pictures while the eye is carefully directed in order not to loose focus, mostly keeping the main object of the frame right in the center.
While this is very editing-specific, it teaches us that in fast-paced scenes where a lot of action is involved, we need to write with a tight focus. We need to direct the reader’s attention carefully from one point to the other and make it easy to follow suit.
There is no need to become a film-guru and study filmmaking in depth to profit from watching movies.
But once you adapt several techniques and start looking out for lessons to learn as an author, you will have massive fun analyzing the films for your writing's benefit!
The little small voice inside of you that accused you of having yet again wasted your time on movies will finally be silenced, and replaced by a childlike excitement to watch the newest film and adapt the innovative techniques.
Of course, this cannot be your ultimate excuse to watch movies all the time. As long as the techniques are not put into practice in writing, they stay useless.
Make it your aim to develop your “inner movie projector” by always wearing your metaphorical creator glasses when you watch movies. You'll see how this will change your approach as a moviegoer and make your writing much more powerful and visual.
How have TV and movies helped your writing life? Please join the conversation by adding a comment below.
Diana Wink is an author & film director, gym freak & creative entrepreneur, currently based in Germany. She loves stories with all her heart because they have the power to transform and touch the very core of our being. Her passion is to empower people to live a fulfilling life by becoming a creative storyteller on the Story Artist website & blog. Diana is currently writing the “Prometheus-Rising” novel series. As a freelancer in filmmaking, she created a YouTube series about creatives and worked for big-name brands. Download 7 exercises to train your “inner movie projector”.