Creative Writing Tips: How to Watch Movies to Improve Your Storytelling

Sometimes, you just want to watch a movie for the fun of it. Sometimes, you want to watch a movie and learn from it. Specifically, if you want to spend some time enhancing your own creative writing skills by watching movies, I think there are a few ways that can be done.

Now of course, movies aren’t the same as books, but neither are TV shows, podcasts, or games. But they all have similarities, and although they employ different types of storytelling techniques, you will widen your own storytelling techniques by familiarizing (or at least, exposing) yourself to storytelling in different media. If you write creative fiction or nonfiction, here’s how you can watch movies in the same genre and critically analyze it to improve your writing.

(BTW: I also already wrote a blog on how to read fiction to improve your own writing.)

Take Notes!

I know, I’m spoiling the fun even more. But my suggestion is to take notes when you’re watching a movie that you want to learn from. It will help you write your best creative writing.

In your notes, it can be helpful to write down the timestamp of the moment in the movie you want to reference. For example, if there’s an example of really great dialogue, pause the movie and find out at what minute and second (for example, 12 minutes and 22 seconds into the movie would be 12:22, or 1 hour, 12 minutes and 22 seconds into the movie is 1:12:22) the scene takes place so you can easily go back to it. 

If you’re watching the film on DVD, you might be able to return to the “chapter” or “scene” using the menu options, so if you have that option and find that easier, use that method instead. 

Watch It Alone

This notetaking process of occasionally pausing the movie to take notes when your creativity or interest is sparked (or sometimes, even, to briefly interrupt watching for a creative writing spurt) will probably annoy other people if you’re attempting to watch the movie with a companion (or several). Opt for times when you can watch the movie alone and without judgment. 

Unless you find someone really supercool and awesome who is unbothered by this way of watching a movie. In that case, pop your popcorn for two. 

Creative Writing Tip 1: The Beginning and End

Of course you may have heard this advice in creative writing classes over the years, but it’s worth saying again.

The first line means something and the last line means something.

So when it comes to movies, there are two aspects of each end of the movie to consider: the visuals and the first line of narration or dialogue.

When it comes to a book, you can start anywhere—inside a character’s head, describing the setting, or giving expository information are only three of many potential methods.

However, movies must do two things at once: they must start with visuals that immediately begin the process of world-building, and they, at some point, include voiceover narration or character dialogue that begins to lay out information relevant to the plot.

Now those are two of the practical functions served by the earliest moments in the movie, but there are several other important establishing elements: time period, mood, intensity, pacing, etc.

Then, at the end of the movie, the concluding scene must do all of the same but in reverse: wrapping up the interactions and plot, character insight, history of the events in the story, mood resolutions, etc.

As you’re watching a beloved (or brand-new-to-you!) movie in the near future consider the following:

  • Who are the first characters seen on-screen? The last characters? Were they significant to the story and why?
  • What emotions did you experience in the opening scene? What about the end?
  • What color schemes were used and how did they set (or resolve) a mood? What built on that mood?
  • How would you have handled it differently if you’d been the lead creative writer?

Then as the movie reaches its conclusion, take note of the last line of the movie. As much as book writers love to obsess over the first and last lines in a movie, good film writers do too.

Even if the line is bad (cheesy etc.) consider if the writer was true to the character and did them justice in the end.

Creative Writing Tip 2: Expressions and Body Language

Acting is very physical. The best actors can (arguably) portray a range of emotions and embody realistic physical movements of a range of characters.

It can be easy to tell rather than show in your writing, but silent acting is pure showing. Watching movies can help you recognize moments where the actors are giving a genuine physical performance, showing their emotions in their facial expressions or their experiences through the movements of their body.

When you come across a scene with particularly great physicality, give yourself the writing exercise to pause the film and see how much you can describe based on purely what you see, without context.

For example, in the movie Red Dragon, I think there is particularly excellent physical acting from Ralph Fiennes. Of course, he’s excellent throughout the movie, but particularly, in the climactic scene where he (as the antgaonist) is facing off against the protagonist, played by Edward Norton. 

The scene begins with Fiennes’s character threatening the life of the teenage son of Norton’s character. At a distinct moment in the scene, without saying a word, Fiennes goes from being threatening toward the boy to being protective of him. And you can see it—in the way Fiennes tightens his arm around the boy, cradling the teenager to his chest; in the way his nostrils flare and eyes widen; in the way he starts to move his body in front of the boy’s, to shield him from harm—when he had been threatening to kill him not a moment before.

It’s a dramatic turn and incredibly well-executed by an actor who shows you what his character is feeling without having him speak a word.  

(Okay, in general, Ralph Fiennes is a fantastic physical actor. I know, I know, he’s Voldemort and all but…well, nobody’s perfect.)

Creative Writing Tip 3: Accents, Sounds, & Speech Patterns

Some stories, especially those set in a particular place and time, have a distinct soundscape. While this most obviously is important for your characters in terms of accents and voices it’s also important in terms of the sounds of the world you’re building.

When you’re setting a scene, it can be easy as a creative writer to focus on the characters themselves, or give a brief description of what a room or setting looks like. But, there is much more to a reader’s true depiction of a place, and one of the key elements is sound. 

Pay attention to how movies utilize sound to build tension, bring a setting to life, and affect mood. If there are animals in the scene, can you also hear them? If there are children, what sounds to they make and how do they contribute to the film? 

How are sound effects used? How can you pace your own writing like music? How can you interject comedy or dramatic delivery through use of sound in your settings? 

Here, I can give you one example of what not to do: in the TV show Gotham, which largely takes place in a police station, there was too much silence. I would notice how, in multiple episodes, entire scenes would take place at the police station, which would have no ringing phones in the background, no slamming doors, no shouting, no squeaking chairs. It would simply be a close-up of the characters, against a dramatically lit and silent background. Like a comic panel, not a TV show, and it ultimately became distracting for me as a viewer, who was used to seeing other cop TV shows where the stations were full of a lot of noise. 

If I’d been a writer on that show, I might have made that suggestion at some point. Perhaps one did, and their idea was rejected. Who knows? But I know that as a viewer, it was too quiet; and if I read a book with the same kind of “silence scenery,” I find it too quiet. 

Be Kind. Rewind.

Watching movies can be a lot of fun and inspiring to writers looking to enhance their creative writing. Some of the movies you find are excellent examples of your genre, you may need to re-watch multiple times and extract the elements you find most useful to you and your process.

But whatever you do, don’t get caught up in being a movie-viewer rather than a writer. Keep writing. 

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