Sunday, April 10, 2016

What You Can Learn From Watching Movies

This is an article I wrote a while back - but Hellboy came on this weekend, so I dug it out to share.

I was watching a movie the other day – well, rewatching Hellboy, if you must know – and I realized something I’d noticed many times while sitting in a movie theater or in front of my television:  Movies can help you write a book.

How?  I guess I should explain.  I do a bit of screenwriting, too, so I can tell you, the structure of books and movies is very similar.  They each have a three-act format, and consist of plot points, a dark moment and a climax.  They don’t always have a denouement (kind of an epilogue or explanation of the ending), but a lot of them do.

At my writers meeting this morning, I was using the movie The Rock as an example.  When I watched this movie at the theater with my husband, we actually told each other “plot point,” “dark moment,” and such as the movie commenced, because it was an almost textbook format.  The movie was good and did well at the box office, so they must have done something right.

The movie begins with our main character, Stanley Goodspeed, at work and then home, where he and his fiancee discuss their relationship.  Stanley’s fiancee Carla tells him she’s pregnant.  And then the government comes to get him, to take him to San Francisco for a national emergency, leaving Carla at home.  Stanley tells her to come join him in San Francisco and they’ll be able to be together while they’re there, then he leaves.

Goodspeed’s life changes when he discovers Brigadier General Hummel has taken over the island of Alcatraz and is holding a tour group hostage, threatening to bombard San Francisco with chemical weapons if his demands are not met.  This emergency not only requires his expertise, it requires him to be a part of the team who will go in and try to stop Hummel (plot point).  And he’s going to need help.

Enter John Patrick Mason (a handsome Sean Connery), the only inmate to have ever escaped from the island, long held illegally by the FBI for stealing a microfilm of government secrets – like who really killed JFK.  He agrees to help, but uses the opportunity to escape his captors and Stanley (cause and effect).  Stanley tracks him down; Mason has gone to see his daughter, and Stanley sympathizes with him.   A bond is beginning to form between the two men (plot point).

They join an expert SEAL team to breach the island through the underground escape route Mason originally used to escape.  When the SEAL team is beginning to doubt Mason’s knowledge, he gets through a large, deadly fan because he has the cadence of its turns memorized by count.  Unfortunately, the SEAL team is killed (first dark moment), leaving the two men on their own.  Mason’s not sure he wants to continue, but Stanley’s moral character convinces him it’s the right thing to do and he reluctantly continues to help.  Stanley’s not convinced he can be an action hero and Mason knows the FBI lied about giving him his freedom, so they work at cross-purposes until they establish a base of trust (plot point).
In the meantime, Carla is on her way to San Francisco, which makes Stanley more worried for her and his baby’s safety.  The renegade Marines on the island with Hummel are trying to find him and Mason; they want to kill them and use a hostage to try to get them to show themselves (raising the stakes). 

Hopefully, you’ve begun to see the pattern in the movie.  I don’t want to ruin the end of it for you, but I can highly recommend it, if you want to watch it.  Books do the same thing.  They give you a protagonist (or two), make you care about them and the people and things they love, then add in a antagonist (or several) who want to keep the protagonist from succeeding at their goal.  You keep throwing obstacles in the protagonist’s way, make them seem almost insurmountable, and then help them overcome them.  Near the end, the dark moment is when the protagonist begins to doubt they can succeed.  Every book, every movie, every story needs a dark moment.  It makes a happy ending even more satisfying.

The most important thing to remember is your protagonist will overcome and save the day.  It’s essential to bring that closure to your reader or audience, or they may throw the book across the room or leave the movie in frustration.  It’s not to say your protagonist can’t have help, but they’ve always got to be THE ONE.  While Mason helps Stanley get to the end, Stanley is ultimately the one who saves the people on Alcatraz and the entire city of San Francisco, including his fiancĂ©e Carla.  It gives you a good feeling when he wins.

Watching movies can help a writer learn structure, plotting, character development and many of the other things needed to write a good story, so the next time you feel guilty sitting in front of a movie, remember, it’s research.  Just don’t forget, to write a novel, you have to actually write.

Get to that keyboard!!


  1. this is fascinating, to see it laid out that way, and it explains why so many books I read are so lusterless. No conflict, no real sense of energy or danger. as much as I dislike that sense of danger, real or imagined, I also understand that without it, I have experiended a book--or movie--that has just flatlined itself.
    Good post, and thank you.

  2. Thanks, mittens. I didn't really grasp it until I could sit in The Rock and point out each piece as it was supposed to be in exactly the right places. Now, I can't watch a movie any other way.