Orca Blog for July: Watching a Movie Like a Writer

Quote of the Week: Story is born in that place where the subjective and objective realms touch. – Robert McKee in Story

As much as I try to educate writers about writing through writing, I have to acknowledge that we live in a visual world. I found this painfully true in the last week when I had to replace a lawn sprinkler. The instructions for adjusting the direction and strength of the spray had zero words—just a pictograph of tools and controls and arrows—which I found so confusing that after ten minutes I was shouting, Just give me the words!

This seems to be how most people live now; they understand and think through image, not words or concepts. Even some writers understand writing better through images. And I believe most writers can benefit from the visual aspects of the storytelling craft.

Visual media has a power to make us better writers, because our brains interpret it in a different way from writing. (And keep in mind that a primary goal of writing is to create an image in the mind of a reader.) It’s more organic, and doesn’t rely on our ability to translate words into images. Words link to us through a system of logic (sometimes called language) that requires an exact understanding of the meaning of words and how they are used. The visual often has a direct link to the emotional state of the viewer. There’s no need to parse meaning to create images—that part is done for you, and allows for immediate identification with the characters in the story.

Writers need to know both ways of communicating. Which is why I believe writers should watch movies to become better writers—not watch them as fans, but as students and critics.

The first book about writing that I read was not really a book about writing. Instead it was a book about screenwriting: Story by Robert McKee. Both the book and the author are regarded among the best in teaching the craft of screenwriting. Not surprisingly, the techniques described in the book work just as well for writers of fiction.

McKee deals primarily with how a movie script can create images that engage the viewers’ emotions. It discusses the momentum of a story and character building, aspects of writing that serve both genre and literary writers. He describes, for example, how tension is created and maintained through a series of inciting incidents and turning points, and how that tension is heightened by creating gaps between the viewer’s (reader’s) expectation and the actual results of actions.

Learning these techniques, and reinforcing them while watching movies, can help a lot of writers break bad habits in their work. Notice for example, how a good movie soon presents a scene that contains some tension requiring a character choice (inciting incident). Take The Hunger Games for example (which of course was based on a book). It jumps right into the first inciting incident, when Katniss must choose whether to let her little sister be drafted into the combat (where she’ll surely die), or volunteer to take her place. It doesn’t start with a leisurely description of the dystopian world in which they live (as so much poor writing would). It allows the viewer to become part of that world by simply being in it.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a movie at home and I view a scene that works particularly well, I’ll stop and rewind a bit, to understand how the screenwriter and director set it up. Usually they’ve planted elements earlier in the plot that establish motivation or provide a critical clue to what comes later, even though those things aren’t apparent at first. Watch enough of them, and you’ll start to notice them when they first appear, especially in the bad movies. Then, like me, you can watch Hunger Games 3: The Mockingjay, and demand your money back when the evil new president stands directly behind and above the old president so when Katniss aims her bow to execute the old one, all she has to do is raise it a few degrees to kill the new one instead. (It would have been poetic justice if they’d had the screenwriter or director stand up there.)

Anyway, read Story. Watch movies. Don’t forget the red vines.

– JP