The Blog Swap is exactly what it sounds like: friends Brett Michael Orr and Rae Oestreich had the idea to guest-post on eachothers’ blogs, with an added twist. Each month they’ll write a guest post based on a topic the other has assigned to them - anything from writing advice, to book discussions, or even literary opinions.
There’s something incredibly engaging and addictive about the way film is used to tell a story.
I love movies, and I love watching primetime T.V. I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead, and any of ya’ll who watched Fringe during its epic five-season run is my official new best friend. Favorite movies? Easy: Independence Day, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Underworld and Resident Evil (okay, maybe only the first three) sagas will always have a special place in my heart.
Which is exactly why Brett asked me to talk about how studying film—specifically, movies and television—can inspire your writing. While written and visual medias are incredibly different, here’s the fun part: in some ways, they’re exactly the same in how they set up and structure a story’s most vital pieces, like plot and characters.
As usual: there’s always something new you can learn from unexpected places.
As you read this, keep in mind that movies and television shows follow rules the same way novels do: every genre has a different set of expectations, and therefore a different set of guidelines for how they structure their stories. Pay attention to the genre of the visual media you’re using, and how the concepts I talk about below might change from action, to romance, to thriller, etc.
Movies are a grand media for their ability to tell a rather large story in a short amount of time, which draws a parallel to the novel: we writers only have [x] words to tell a complete story. So what better thing to study from a movie than its pacing?
Yes, pacing. The dreaded thing. How do you start without taking too long and losing your audience’s interest, and without going so fast you just confuse the heck out of them? How soon should the inciting incident happen? How much of a character’s “normal” life should you introduce before you turn it upside down, and what’s the right amount of space to put between two plot points…and when should that dang climax come in? Enter the movie: in two hours, you get a complete visual story, and while the visual and written medias both follow different rules to storytelling, there’s still a few things you might pay attention to:
- How much time passes during the course of the movie?
- How are time lapses handled?
- How soon after the opening credits does the inciting incident occur?
- How does the time between events fluctuate the closer you get to the climax?
Here’s a wonderful exercise to really get the most out of a movie’s plot and pacing: make a list of every major event that happens in the movie; pay attention to when it happens and who’s involved, and how it triggers new plot points. Do these events have large ripples or small, and pay attention to how long it takes for those consequences to play out in the storyline. See? You’ve just plotted a movie.
In television shows, you can study two vital things for storytelling: extensive plotlines and subplots—including creating incredible hooks for beginning your story—and characters.
Note how the plotlines at the episode level correlate to the larger arcs at the season/series level. Ask questions, such as:
- What’s their relationship?
- Are their plotlines that are introduced and completely resolved by the end of the hour?
- Are there any that bleed across many episodes?
- How are these smaller plotlines initiated, and how are they resolved (and by whom)?
- How do these smaller arcs affect the characters, either within the episode alone or across multiple?
Take notes and make timelines/webs/charts/etc. to help you see the way the show as a whole balances small plots with big ones, and from there you can brainstorm how to translate it to the world of your novel; after all, you’ve got to balance plotlines big and small within the confines of your pages, as well.
Television shows also rely on their audience to keep tuning in; if their views drop, the show runs the risk of being canceled. This gives the writers of the shows a challenge that writers of novels can relate to: how to hook their audiences, and how to keep them interested.
Pilot episodes make or break a show, just like the first chapter of a novel can make or break a reader’s interest in a novel. If you watch the pilots of your favorite shows, here’s some things you can look out for:
- An engaging hook
- Introduction of the main cast
- Introduction of the overall story
- Introduction of the setting
I’m betting none of that looks unfamiliar. As writers, we have to establish the same things: chook, introduce the main character, introduce the overall story, and ground the reader in the setting/environment. Same goals, different media.
Finally, consider the characters. Characters have to be three-dimensional and completely dynamic, meaning they have to have a distinct personality and set of motivations, and their relationships with others are probably going to be fluid and a source of conflict. As their external pressures become recognized and evolve, they have to evolve with them: it’s how they adapt, and how their decisions affect others, that tend to be the source of tension and drama within the world of the show. Watch how characters act and react to the pressures around them, and compare/contrast them in the first episode to their alter-egos in a later one; note how they change, in both positive and negative ways, and try to track what events within the show sparked those changes.
Something else to remember when looking to alternate media for ideas on how to tell your story is the concept of the visual inspiration that a movie or television show can offer. A fun exercise is to pause on a particularly interesting frame, grab your writing instrument, and spend five minutes writing out a detailed description as if you were including it in your novel. It could help you not only picture your own world clearer, but figure out how to translate it to the page.
Now, if I haven’t already ruined the thought of watching your favorite television shows in peace, go pop that popcorn…and maybe grab a pad of paper to take notes for the next time you sit down to write.
What are your favorite non-bookish sources of inspiration? How do ya’ll typically use movies and television shows to kickstart some of your writings? Just for fun, tell me some of your favorite movies and/or television shows to watch before/while you write (or even your favorites in general!).
Thanks for having me again, Brett. I’ll see ya’ll next month!
Rae is an undergraduate at New Mexico State University studying Creative Writing and an editing intern at REUTS Publications. She’s addicted to writing YA sci-fi/thrillers at strange hours of the morning and drinking lots of coffee, and she can normally be found on her website or Twitter.