Write It Sideways

How TV And Movies Can Make You A Better Writer

Today’s post is written by Devlin Blake.

Books are better than TV and movies (henceforth referred to only as TV unless we are specifically talking about movies). The special effects are always perfect, the characters look exactly the way should, and there are no bad actors. Watching TV is a way to zone out and passively experience without commitment. Reading, in contrast, demands your full attention and is anything but passive.

Some writers even brag about how little TV they watch, as if TV kills creativity. And it might—if you watch too much of it and use it as an excuse to not finish your book. However, when used properly, TV (and movies) can actually improve your writing.

When seeing it is better than reading about it

Humans are visual creatures who respond best to seeing something as opposed to reading about it. So when we are painting our own word pictures, we don’t want to simply rephrase another author’s inspiration of something; we need to see it.

TV is great for this. Unlike writing, TV is a group effort. It has consultants, costume designers, prop designers, and even historians to help them make this show. This is an enormous help to writers, who might not even know where to start building a picture of their world.

No two people look at the picture and actually see the same picture.

Example: You and two friends are watching a docudrama about life in the Regency period. The heroine has just descended from her carriage in front of an estate house. What does each person notice?

Person 1 notices the sumptuous clothing, the fine lace, and ‘feel’ of the fabrics.

Person 2 notices the massive house in the background, surrounded by perfectly manicured grounds.

Person 3 notices the relationships between the people in these scenes; the way the carriage driver waits while the footman helps the lady out of the carriage, and the way he addresses her.

None of these details are wrong. They could all end up in your story, or just one or two might. However, when you’re reading another’s work instead of watching it on TV, it’s already been interpreted for you. Watching shows similar to the genre you want to write in gives you the ability to notice details for yourself and makes you a better writer. TV also exposes you to details that you might not even have thought about.

Watching TV also helps with fight scenes. Most of us have never been in a fight, and if you have, it probably wasn’t an entertaining, fun-to-watch fight with a variety of weapons. However, such fights are commonplace in TV/movie world. To make your own fights more realistic, all you have to do is watch a fight that makes sense in your story, and then describe it in words.

Learn from their formula

TV shows get a lot of flak about how formulaic they are, and with good reason. A show that is just a paint-by-numbers formula is boring. But that doesn’t mean every part of their formula is wrong.

The one thing TV/movies do very well is cliffhangers. A TV show has a cliffhanger before each commercial. Movies used to have them right before a reel change. Sometimes it involves action, but sometimes, it just a general feeling of unease. You’ll notice that no TV show goes to commercial with everything neatly wrapped up. If it did that, you wouldn’t stay tuned.

These equate to chapters in your books. Chapters need to end with a feeling of unease or suspense no matter what your genre. If you tie everything up happily before the end of the story, there’s no reason for a reader to keep reading. Even if you’re writing a short story without chapters, you need a few cliffhanger scenes it; otherwise, the reader get bored.

The secret of DVDs

I admit, I was a late adopter of DVD technology. For the longest time, I didn’t understand why they were supposed to be better than VCR tapes. But when I discovered this ‘secret’ about DVDs, that all changed.

Now, the secret is something called scene selection, which admittedly, isn’t much of a secret. But it can make you a better writer.

A movie has a certain number of scenes, and many incidents to fill those scenes. When a movie decides what goes in their scene section they are giving you their entire outline on a silver platter. Watching movies similar to the story you want to write helps you discover the rhythm to this genre. You can figure out the how long the introduction is, when to up the threat level and when to mislead people into believing that the hero has it all under control. Then you mix and match similar ideas from several movies until it feels right.

The example I’ve chosen is The 4th Floor, a psychological horror story about a woman being terrorized by her neighbor. Even if you don’t know the story, the following scenes give you an overview of what happens and when it happens.

Now, obviously, without seeing the movie, some of these scene titles don’t make much sense. But you’ll notice how each title tells you a little about what the scene is about. Making such descriptive titles for each scene in your story will help you determine what each scene is about.

Watching TV doesn’t have to be a detriment to your writing career. If you watch with purposeful intent and take notes for your future story, it can help make you the writer you’ve always dreamed of being.

Devlin Blake has published over two dozen books under a variety of names and genres. Today, Devlin focuses more on helping emerging authors start, finish and publish their stories, with a focus on craft and productivity. Check out Devlin’s website for Story Sparks, Frightening Facts and the craft of writing. (Warning, Devlin’s website is not for those easily disturbed.)