Thursday, 10 May 2012

Thursday Thought: Can Films Help You Write?

I love films. I recently signed up for Netflix because I want to have access to all those old films I love but don't own. I probably watch four or five films a week? Sometimes more. 

But, can watching films actually help you with writing novels?

Obviously if you're writing a script it's a good idea to watch films or TV shows that are similar to what you're trying to do, just like how it's good to read lots of books in the same age group and genre that you want to write a novel in or about. It's good to see what's popular and how other people do things. But what about films? What can they teach a wannabe author?


Films have a clear structure, they have to have a beginning, middle and end. Just like books. Obviously some films turn that on it's head, and some books do that too. But even if it's a total mind-screw of a film it will still have a structure, it just might not be all that clear at first. If you have issues with your novel structure then watching a film that is similar to the story you want to write can be a quick, easy way to trouble shoot problems. Of course it's a good idea to have an idea of what story structure actually is first, that way you can more easily identify where your issues might be cropping up and you can also more easily identify structure in other things, such as TV shows, film, novels and even comic books.


Films have to introduce characters and get you to like them or loathe them quickly, most films are around two hours long, which isn't really much time at all to fit everything in. So how do they do it? What makes you like the characters you do and dislike the others? How do you know which side to root for? How do you know two characters love each other or hate each other? You could try watching a film and then pausing and noting down what you notice. Is it the way their move, their mannerisms, how they talk, what they say, or something else? Are you directly told or is it all implied? How well do you feel that you know those characters, and how much do you care if they get what they want or not? With your own characters it can be harder to get to grips with such things because you're so close to them, so try to move back a bit and see them from a reader's point of view. You could write down what your character is like, sort of like a little character interview. Something I do, which is pretty nerdy, is pretend to be the character and think of how they view the world. Obviously I'm not saying you should go running about outside acting just like your character but it can be helpful to get inside their head and really examine what makes them tick.

Fly you fools!

Now, books don't have music to help boost the mood but that doesn't mean that it's still not important. A lot of writers like to listen to music as they write because it gets them into the right frame of mind. So when you're watching a film think about how the music in that scene helps. Does it make it more exciting, tense or romantic? Then next time your writing you could try listening to similar music to see if it helps you get into the right mood for the scene you're writing.

Films are not always 100% focused in on one character, they often go between different characters. But films will also use establishing shots to evoke mood as well as to give a clear picture of where a scene takes place. Although it can get a bit confusing to do all those things in a novel it is useful to keep them in mind. It can be a good idea to zoom out at times to allow a story to breathe. Whereas some times it's best to get right up close to the action for those fight scenes or romantic moments. Or you can try a mix of the two and see what happens. Close up shots to certain people or items are often used to imply that they are important in some way to the plot or simply to show a little realness. For example in Spirited Away one of my favourite moments in the entire film is when Sen/Chihiro taps her shoes as she puts them on. It just adds a little realistic touch and also shows a little of her personality in that one movement. Someone sat down and decided that tiny little movement was worth including in the film, and other people agreed with them too, why?


Films are usually quite pacey because of the short running time and because they need to keep the audience interested. Not all films are like this though and sometimes that's a good thing, but quite often it's not. So keep and eye out when watching films to see what moments you get really involved and what moments you disengage with the story, if you do, and think about why. A general rule of thumb is that anything that doesn't move the story forward or develop character should be cut. There are exceptions to every rule but it's usually a good idea to keep the fluffy writing to a minimum, as pretty as it might be, because people are busy and your story should always be moving forward towards it's goal. No one wants to be wandering about feeling like they're not going anywhere, it doesn't make for a very interesting reading. There's nothing wrong with taking a moment to let a story breathe, like I said above, because it's often in those moments that you can develop your character a little which is always a good thing. Just don't do it too often and bring the pace to a grinding halt.

Every story is different and will use these elements in different amounts, for example not every story is a mile-a-minute action-packed thrill ride but it still needs to have pace. So, next time you settle down to watch a film think about how the story is constructed, how that compares to your story and what you can take away from it. Like any story, someone has decided that this character is important and that this event has to happen and that they must say those words, for a reason. Just because it's not a book doesn't mean it can't still be helpful! 

Some of my favourite films are:
The Lord of the Rings
Ferries Beuller's Day Off
Alice In Wonderland (Disney)
The Cat Returns (Studio Ghibli)
Kiki's Delivery Service (Studio Ghibli)
Princess Mononoke (Studio Ghibli)
The Girls Who Leapt Through Time
The Last Unicorn

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