I’ve always loved movies. Growing up my world was largely shaped by movies, as from an early age going to the cinema was a way of life for me. The locations, characters, and events of all the movies I watched informed me about the world at large.
But while studying filmmaking in college and working on various projects, there was something else happening in the background that I didn’t really notice at the time. I was learning to write. That is to say, I was becoming consciously aware of writing as an external process to filmmaking, yet also interwoven.
The work I was doing on films was enhancing the thinking I had about writing. I was learning to write in new ways that were wholly surprising and inspiring to me.
The narrative, or as it’s often referred to in a film script, the hero’s journey (encompassing the personal story of the protagonist and their thoughts, feelings, motivations, and fears) was no longer hidden to me.
Perhaps subconsciously seeping into my mind, this hero’s journey along with the dialogue, the poetry in visuals (which began on paper), and the overall pacing and flow of the story, were all rising up and giving me new ambition to explore their worlds.
I was becoming acutely aware of how storytelling was being used in movies. This led me to the awkward, late-stage epiphany that no storyline just magically appears out of nowhere in a medium. Any idea must first be written.
In this post, I share with you some of my personal experiences in filmmaking and writing to offer you a different approach to writing, one that challenges you to open your mind to a more visual way of storytelling: by finding inspiration through movies.
Inspiration Comes in Many Forms
Growing up in the middle class Midwest of the 1980s, I was absorbed with the movies of the time, especially comedies, and especially John Hughes comedies. To name a few, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Christmas Vacation were my favorites.
The characters and settings in these movies reflected many of the people and places I knew. They made me realize that what I considered the mundanity of my boring life could potentially make for comic gold and, maybe, a little meaningful pathos as well.
I started to see the potential for crafting stories that came from personal experience. I didn’t need to go off searching for some grand, elaborate, swashbuckling spectacle (though there’s nothing wrong with that), but I could keep things closer to home where sometimes life is crazier than art, or at least funnier.
Suddenly, everyone around me became a possible character in a story. There was the elderly widow, whose grass I used to cut, who would occasionally fall asleep on her back porch holding a shotgun because squirrels would tear up her roses (yes, she intended to shoot the squirrels…with a shotgun).
There was a classmate of mine who used to run in a full sprint toward his garage, ultimately ramming his head into the garage door…for fun. And then there was “Mike Push-ups”. The guy who used to hang around the skating rink and do push-ups for money.
If you’re struggling to find a story to write, then look around you. There’s no such thing as interesting or uninteresting people, there’s just people, and they are all interesting in their own way. Slow down once in a while, take a breath, and observe your surroundings. There can be a heartbeat in the environment that envelops you. Find that pulse. The people I mentioned above were part of the heartbeat that existed around me.
Movie Dialogue without Visuals Can Be the Words That Impact Your Story
One of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue comes from the 1947 film noir, Out of the Past. After Jane Greer’s character Kathy says to Robert Mitchum’s character Jeff, “I don’t want to die,” Jeff responds, “Neither do I baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”
I love that line!
For me, that line says so much about Robert Mitchum’s character. For one, he’s smart and witty—always the cool customer—but he’s also accepted the reality of the situation—which isn’t good, and not one he’d thought he’d be in, but there he was. It also tells me that he’s going to see this thing through to the end. He’s not going to go down easily, and he’s going to make sure that every last one of them gets their rightful comeuppance.
His character, Jeff, was the perfect anti-hero and one brilliant line of dialogue provided the audience with a wealth of character knowledge.
When writing a story, which doesn’t have the added layer of visuals, it’s imperative that you use the character’s words to the greatest impact.
Writing can be an arduous task fraught with anxiety, frustration, and anger, but there are moments of breathtaking elation too. Moments like that happen after you’ve been sweating away and tearing up paper or pushing the delete button, and then, finally, you write something down and you know it’s good. You read it over and over to make sure, but that smile just stays on your face, because you know you’ve struck gold.
These moments could come from writing narration, or thoughts from a character. It doesn’t have to be lengthy either. It could even be one sentence, or just a word, if the context is right. Possibilities are limitless, but they are there and when you find them and grab hold of them, man it’s a thrill!
The Poetry in Visuals
I want you to pause for a moment and picture in your mind a futuristic-looking spacecraft. It’s orbiting earth, not far from the moon.
Now there’s another spacecraft, also moving in a languid drift, the enormous sphere of earth just below and a spinning wheel-shaped craft coming into view.
Inside one of the crafts, a writing pen floats weightless in zero gravity in much the same way as the spacecraft itself.
Each spacecraft drifts and floats in orbit above the earth as though it’s a relaxing summer afternoon.
There’s poetry in visuals, such as what Stanley Kubrick explored in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This poetry comprises the movement of people and objects within the frame, which become the words and the background becomes the context. To really observe how a wildflower blows in the wind or to watch a person’s eyes as they look at something that we know is gradually revealing itself to be life changing. Their facial expressions go through a range of emotions and this becomes the words of the visual story.
Many legendary filmmakers have understood this to great effect, like Werner Herzog with his glorious landscape shots in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mind-tripping El Topo, or Stan Brakhage’s trail blazingly beautiful and cosmic Dog Star Man.
There’s poetry in visuals, and there’s visuals in writing. Meaning, when I write, I think of the story I’m writing as a film playing in my head. I think of where to place the camera, determining point of view (POV), what angle, and what else is in the shot: perhaps a painting on the wall in the background.
Whether that painting directly ties into the plot or not, it will tie into the character(s) and speak to their interests and how they decorate their surroundings. These and other flourishes add information about the character and depth to the story.
Thinking visually can be a great way to get whatever you’re writing in full gear, by giving a broader perspective of the whole story. Think of cutaways, side shots, lighting, mood for impact and inspiration. Make a mind movie and then write it down.
Storytelling Helps Us to Empathize
The legendary film critic Roger Ebert once said, “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”
When an alien whose head looks like a pair of safari binoculars attached to a neck that moves like a tripod crank elicits genuine empathy from the audience, that’s big stuff.
We’ve all been homesick at some time in our life, but it’s amazing to really make the audience feel that homesickness in a truly palpable way like in the movie E.T. That’s gifted storytelling.
One of the giants of cinema, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, made a film called Ikiru about a bureaucrat that’s dying from cancer. As a final act before dying, he decides he will fight through the senseless, bewildering bureaucracy to make sure that a children’s playground’s construction is completed.
After the playground has been built and just before the man dies, he visits it alone on a snowy night and sits on a swing as he sings to himself a song he loved from his childhood, knowing that his time on earth is almost over.
This scene is one of the most profoundly powerful and emotional scenes in all of cinema, written with exactness, care, patience, and, most importantly, love.
I become choked up just thinking about this moment in the film. It represents all the hard work and all the obstacles one faces in life and what it means to fight and overcome them, while still vulnerable to our fragile mortality.
The scene lovingly wraps its arms around the evocative nostalgia of youth, the fleeting provision of time, and the awesome soul-stirring power of doing something good for humankind. All while crisp, white snowflakes drift down from the sky, blanketing the earth and a single, solitary person sitting alone, representing all of us.
Creating empathy in the reader when writing is so important. Not only does it make for truly memorable stories that last long after you’ve finished them, it also underscores that empathy brings us all together. It’s universal. It shows all of us how alike we are and how, ultimately, we all strive for and care about and, contrastingly, worry about the same things. Great writing, like great movies, truly can be an empathy machine.
Structure: There’s a Word for It
“Eighty percent of a picture is writing, the other twenty percent is the execution, such as having the camera on the right spot and being able to afford to have good actors in all parts.”
– Billy Wilder
Movies may be a visual medium, but they wouldn’t exist—well, not in the way we know them—if they weren’t first written down on paper. Those written words need something to help hold them up, and that something is called structure.
One of the first films I ever made was an adaptation of the Shakespeare play Measure for Measure. I was excited not only to be directing a film, but I was additionally happy that I could focus on directing, without having to worry about writing, since it was based on a play—and a Shakespeare play, no less. Who would tinker with that?
Oh, but having that mindset cost me. Writing became a focal point of the entire project as the time and setting for the film were not congruent with Shakespeare’s. Certain parts of the play had to be excised to fit the filmed portions within a specific runtime, which meant also changing and adapting other parts left in so they still made sense. It was a mountainous task, but it taught me so much about the structure and nuances of a story.
Many of us have heard about the importance of reeling the audience in with a great beginning to a story, and going out with a bang (the explosive climactic ending). Also, making sure the middle of the story keeps the audience interested with plenty of character development and, if relevant to the type of story, plenty of plot twists and turns.
Structure in writing is a necessity. Think of it like a math problem: No one looks at an equation and then immediately jumps to the answer without going through the necessary process of figuring out that answer, ultimately coming to its conclusion one step at a time.
Creating structure isn’t glamorous. Structure works hard behind the scenes (pun intended), as it does a lot of heavy lifting underneath, providing a strong foundation upon which to paint your words.
Great movies have great structure, and so should great writing. Don’t skimp on the beginning, and whatever you do, don’t get lazy about the middle. And maybe one of the most important parts, don’t forget to bring everything together for your big (or not too big, but just right) finale.
Denouement (The Finale)
Award shows love to tell us about the magic of movies. And while that’s all good, these warm, fuzzy celluloid showcases do tend to push our thoughts down a path that leans heavily on the more cinematic-friendly endeavors of the industry such as special effects, cinematography, acting, directing, etc.
While it goes without saying that all of the components involved in filmmaking are absolutely crucial to the process, there’s one in my mind that stands above the rest. It’s the writing, Lebowski.
As the writer, you can use all of these other elements to help with your writing. Does your story take place in a snowy landscape? You can think of locations from a movie like Fargo. Are you working on a story that has sinister characters that lurk in the shadows? Maybe use the chiaroscuro cinematography from The Godfather for inspiration. If you’re trying to come up with a different way to deliver a monologue in your writing, then how about having a look at Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Movies can provide so much inspiration to the writer.
The cinema is a magical place for me. I love watching those images dance around on the screen. But it’s those images on the screen—which inspire the images in my head—that are ultimately transformed into words on the page. When I pick up my pen to write, the voice in my head says…
Quiet on the set!