To Watch and Learn: What Movies and Television Can Teach Us about Writing

We all know by now that if you’re going to write books, you should be reading them as well, right? That there’s no better way to learn the craft than by analyzing the words of others? Good. Keep with that. Read every chance you get. But you know what else you should be doing? Watching television. Yes, that’s right. And movies too. Each one is an entire lesson in storytelling jam-packed in the space of a couple of hours.

Since I started writing, I can’t simply tune out while watching anything anymore. I have to analyze. One of the more severe cases of this affliction happened to me recently while watching “Willow.” I hadn’t seen it in at least ten years, maybe more, even though I’d loved it while growing up. I was happy to find that I still love it, but there was one thing that really bothered me this time. I mean really bothered me. It had never bugged me before, but that was back when I could sit and enjoy a movie without worrying about whether or not everything about it made sense.

Warning: If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t watched “Willow” yet, but would like to someday, stop right here. *puts on best pirate voice* Thar be spoilers ahead.

Everyone good to go? Okay.

So you know how Sorsha abruptly changes sides after the battle with the trolls at Tir Asleen? I mean, okay, I get how she’s supposed to have fallen in love with Madmartigan, but I didn’t find the build up to that to be very convincing. It just seems so sudden—one minute, she’s a strong supporter of her mother, Bavmorda, and extremely antagonistic toward Madmartigan (despite his love-spell influenced creepy poetry and attempt to force-kiss her in the tent . . . gee I wonder why that ddidn’twin her over right away. Oh wait, it kind of did. Thus you find me sitting here unconvinced). Then they fight trolls-turned dragons. Then BOOM! She’s in love with Madmartigan and on the side of the good guys, betraying Bavmorda to help them out.

This can’t be right, I thought, as I watched Sorsha switch sides at Tir Asleen. Something appears to be missing here. Well as it turns out, something was. After the movie was over, I checked out the bonus material on the DVD, specifically the deleted scenes with Ron Howard’s commentary. And guess what? There’s an entire side story about Sorsha’s father that was cut for the sake of length. Sorsha didn’t betray her mother because she fell in love with Madmartigan. She did it because she found out her mother had encapsulated her father in ice at—guess where? Tir Asleen. She sees him frozen there, and that is her motivation to take down Bavmorda.

Oftentimes while revising, we’ll find we need to cut material for the sake of word count (I actually usually need to add material because my drafts are short, but that’s a post for another day). The lesson I took away from watching “Willow” is that, while cutting scenes, make sure you aren’t weakening your plot or characters. Choose what you cut very carefully, and if it does take important information away, find a way to weave that back in more succinctly somewhere else. If I hadn’t watched the bonus material, I never would have known that was what had happened in this case. I wouldn’t have learned that, though revisions usually serve to strengthen a story, if you’re not careful, they can also make a strong plot weaker.

I’ve learned a lot about writing from several television shows as well. Want a good example of character development over a long story arc? Watch “Supernatural” and keep track of how each major event affects Sam and Dean over the long haul. The Winchester brothers of Season One are most certainly not the Winchester brothers of Season Ten. Want some great examples of witty, snappy dialogue? Watch pretty much anything from Joss Whedon. His dialogue bits are jaw-droppingly brilliant at times. I’m not exaggerating. My jaw has literally dropped. Want an example of I-did-not-see-that-coming plot twists and raising of stakes? “Doctor Who” can be pretty good at that.

My examples are all fantasy and sci-fi because that’s what I write and enjoy the most, but I challenge you now to look at your own favorite movies and shows, then figure out why they’re your favorites. Look at some of the ones you don’t care for as well and figure out why they aren’t working for you. Study facial expressions, demeanor, how shots are framed, how locations are used to enhance the atmosphere of a scene, how props and conversations are used to foreshadow future plot points. Watch bonus material and interviews with the writers and directors to discover why they chose to do things a certain way. Then take what you’ve learned and see how you can apply it to your own writing.

And the next time someone accuses you of being a couch potato as you press the “play next” button on Netflix for the umpteenth time, you can tell them that no, you’re actually working. Because you really are. Just . . . don’t forget to turn the television off once in a while and read some books as well. And, oh yeah, write.

When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband.
A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here

2 thoughts on “To Watch and Learn: What Movies and Television Can Teach Us about Writing

  1. I am in total agreement with your post! I had the good fortune to listen to Eric Stillwell talk about pitching and writing the episode “Yesterday's Enterprise” for Star Trek: The Next Generation. After learning how they broke down a script, designed it around commercial breaks (always leave 'em hanging so they come back after the adverts) and made sure it was tight and fit perfectly to their 44 minute run-time…fascinating insight.

    As for other stuff…I've always looked at stuff by Whedon and Aaron Sorkin for witty or snappy dialog. I love to see foreshadowing in movies and enjoy watching the extras or listening to commentary tracks to find out other little story telling stuff.

    Great post, Megan!


  2. In total agreement….I often wonder about the writers of Supernatural. I do not believe Dean would know who Del the Funky Homosapien is let alone some of the other pop culture references.

    This post also made me think of the series finale of Angel. Joss and his universe really understand archetypes and flipping those archetypes. In the finale, when a long term baddie is killed by a lesser character, this works because the audience sort has the same idea….a major baddie would be killed by a major charcter if not the title character. Yet, this is done over and over and it's the character's hubris of how his fate would be handed to him that creates the scenerio for this downfall. So even with great dialogue, Joss really understands the characters themselves.

    I have been a horror buff since a tender age. While the movie Scream exploited the rules of the genre, there is still something to be learned even from bad B movies. Most recently, Joss exploits archetypes again more blatantly in Cabin in the Woods. In an episode of The Librararians, a character bucks up some false courage with talking about what would happen in a real life scary movie and that Mr. Movie is wrong.

    Again, awesome points 😉


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