movies teach writing

I’ve been thinking about Anna Staniszewski‘s post about learning writing tips from watching a (bad) romantic comedy. Noting how a movie is paced, how it reveals information can offer great writing insight. And watching a bad one can help, too. What could be more fun that to pull apart a bad movie? In doing so, you may expose some of your own pet peeves in storytelling.

Last week, I had the urge to watch cheesey horror films. We watched The Grudge, which I hate to bash because of my loyalty to Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy fame, but (no offense to Ms. Gellar) this movie did not work for me. Yes, it’s cheesey, what did I expect? But it did make me think about what helps build suspense in a scary story. (Warning: SPOILERS ahead!!)

1. Horror stories need to create rules, and follow them. What’s the specific danger facing your victims? As Tom said “What’s scarier than Nothing? Anything.” I’m sure there are examples to the contrary, but in this case he has a point – if we know the doom facing our characters, it can be much scarier. In the movie The Ring (another remake of a Japanese film, but this one I enjoyed) we know that the targeted characters will die suddenly, faces distorted in terror (though we don’t see how until the end of the film). In The Grudge they die when a weird curse/ghost creature makes a weird noise at them. Sometimes it looks like murder, others a suicide. It’s a bit vague.

2. What’s the result of the danger facing your characters? It should be consistent for all of the victims in question. In The Grudge, this was a gray area. After being attacked, one victim vanished. Another one walked around like a ghost. Others just appeared, well, dead.

3. If you’re going to include back story, include some surprises. We were told early on that the curse started because a man killed his family. Later we learned that…yes, indeed, that is what had happened. What’s the point of all that build up to show us what we’ve already been told?

4. If the hero escapes, show us why she escaped. Make it believable. Make it clever. If your character escapes from a burning building, hearing a detective say “We don’t know how she escaped” is not very satisfying.

In his book HOOKED, Les Edgerton suggests watching movies – especially the opening scenes – to see how the movie captures your attention (or fails to do so). What have you learned from movies, both good and bad?

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Published in: on November 2, 2010 at 5:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. I got roped into watching The Grudge a while back and it did creep me out because I’m a total wimp, but you’re right that the logic was very fuzzy throughout. The Ring was so simple and yet it had me hiding under the covers. I think with horror flicks, sometimes one strong, creepy idea is enough.


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