Category Archives: What Can Writers Learn

What Can Writers Learn From The Movies?



I got quite the death stare from my old creative writing prof, a man equal parts coffee stains and Phil Spector hair, when I reported to him in a moment of undergrad indiscretion that the inspiration for my short stories came “from the movies.” Ten years later, the roles reversed. Imagine my fatherly pride when one of my freshman comp students told me he dreamed of being a writer! I asked about his favorite authors. “What, you mean, like, books?” he asked, visibly confused. “I don’t read books. I’m more a movies and Nintendo kind of guy.”


Looking from far and above, to echo Malinowski, from our high places of snobbery in erudite writerdom, it’s easy to dismiss such talk as an echo of the death rattle of literature (much exaggerated!). And, to be sure, if you want to be a writer you have to read. Yes, books. But cinema is an art form, after all, and just as anthropologist Ernest Becker argues in his 1962 book The Birth and Death of Meaning that no single academic discipline has a lock on the truth, so too is truth not the sole property of a single form of art. Becker describes a key assumption behind his project:

And if we want to understand very general attributes of what it means to be a human being, including the nature of soul, that we can’t do that from any one disciplinary perspective.

When approached as an intellectual exercise, I believe writers of fiction can study three aspects of film to improve their craft: (1) dialogue, (2) cinematography, and (3) emotional resonance (what I’ll call “general effect”).

The Advent of the Talkies

Let’s begin with the most obvious: dialogue. And I’ll start by trashing one of my favorite authors. I love Don DeLillo. He is one of the great living American novelists. But the dialogue in his stories is not always realistic. This is intentional. (“There are fifty-two ways to write dialogue that’s faithful to the way people speak,” he tells the Paris Review. “And then there are times when you’re not trying to be faithful.”) Here’s a taste, from his 2007 novel Falling Man:


That dialogue reminds me of an Elmore Leonard technique of omitting words (see tip #7 here). From later in the same scene:


You read enough of that and it starts to come out in your own writing. Two of my characters in Infinity Point have the following chapter-opening exchange:

“We’re close.”
“To what?”
“What do you mean to what? To it. The truth.”
“What, it’s a place? It’s something you can look at? The truth?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not really. What is your truth?”
“I couldn’t tell you. I can’t really say.”
“But the truth.”
“It’s an idea that can be distorted but not destroyed.”
“You’re sure of this.”
“It’s an idea bigger than us.”

(I couldn’t resist some slight editing.) That piqued the curiosity of my book club. “Huh,” one of the members said. “That doesn’t sound like how normal people talk.” Sorry, that’s just the Don DeLillo in me talking! But do we really want hyper-realism, all of the time? Better question: do we want it any of the time? Let’s see if we can better answer that question with the help of film. Exhibit A: an exchange from early in the noir film Double Indemnity (1944), in which femme fatale Phyllis, played by Barbara Stanwyck, first meets the co-conspirator with whom she will conspire to murder he husband. A romantic energy flourishes at first sight:

Is that how “normal people talk?” Not a chance! It’s pure style. The dialogue in that film (screenplay by Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler) is rapid-fire wit and moody noir by turns, helping maintain a spark between characters while developing a bleak undercurrent of doom. It is like a love affair at the end of the world. Contrast the stylistic approach with the following exchange from 12 Angry Men. Pay attention not only to what is being said but how each person is saying it:

So, what can we take away from that? It depends on what you’re going for. Studying screenplays is a better option for learning dialogue than eavesdropping at a coffee shop. “Life has no plots,” as Harmony Korine once put it. But ultimately you want to present the reader something with which they can relate. To that end, listen not only to what the characters say, but how they say it. Where are the pauses? What are they doing with their hands? All of this can be valuable to the writer.

The Canvas of the Imagination

In How to Grow a Novel, master editor Sol Stein speaks to the importance of visual details. He cites as an example the following snippet of Russel Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter, in which a bus driver makes her first stop of the morning at the top of a hill:

Down in the valley, you could see the house lights of Sam Dent coming on one by one, and along Routes 9 and 73 the headlights of a few cars flashed like fireflies as people headed to work.

I picture the image vividly. “An inexperienced writer,” Stein notes, “might say that down in the valley you could see the house lights of Sam Dent and the headlights of a few cars… But that wouldn’t be writerly.” Russian director Alexander Sokurov sees a deep affinity between the canvas of cinema and the more traditional canvas of a painting (sometimes to exhausting effect). Less obvious, I think, is the relation between that sort of visual canvas and prose writing. How does one learn to see those “writerly details” Stein describes? From studying the visual arts, of course! Take for example the following scene from Andrei Tarkovksy’s masterful Andrei Rublev (1966). I’d fast-forward to the 6:30 mark, unless you are in the mood for long-winded theological debate.

Every frame is packed with details. How might you describe in prose the children at 7:00 rolling down the hill? What do the dark splotches at 7:09 resemble? The films of Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos are far and away the best for this exercise. Here’s a supercut of striking visuals from The Weeping Meadow (2004):

Back during my first (ill-fated) foray into novel writing, I wanted a thrilling car chase sequence. Very difficult to write! I poked around Google in search of answers and chanced upon a friendly message-boarder who suggested queuing up a movie car chase, examining the cinematography, pausing every so often and trying to put into words what you just watched. The product of such efforts was admittedly terrible, but the idea stuck. Instead of trying to translate BADASS ACTION sequences from screen to page, I now seek out striking visual details that might help paint a more vivid image in a reader’s mind.

The Big Bang Symphony

Did I mention I once impulse-bought a novel based on nothing more than its fantastic title, The Big Bang Symphony? Well, I did, and it rewarded me with the core idea of my next novel. But that is what readers want – a big bang. Earlier in How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein writes that a reader of fiction is looking for “an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experiences in life.” He argues that the writer owes this to the reader out of simple courtesy. Think of a film that gave you that type of experience. For me, the first flick that comes to mind is Warwick Thornton’s criminally under-appreciated Samson and Delilah (2009), described as a “survival love story” set in an Australian Aboriginal community whose inhabitants lead, well, somewhat difficult lives.

Samson and Delilah is a brutally depressing film, unapologetic in its bleakness. It left me rattled for days. Most sad sappy melodramas are romanticized in a predictable “good cry” kind of way. Not so here. A crushing tale of despair, the film loses any hope of a happy ending from the opening frame. In What is Art, Leo Tolstoy famously opined that

Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications

Warwick Thornton took a feeling and transmitted it to me through the medium of film. The obvious question is, how does one do that? I don’t think there’s any practical advice anyone can give on this point other than “try.” Once, in a teenage moment of youthful indiscretion, I attempted to convey the feeling of a Bruce Springsteen song into a short story. You’ll laugh, but it helped me become a better writer. It was hard! I had to put a ton of thought into the translation of an emotion into worlds, doing so (hopefully) in a way that will communicate this emotion via ESP into the mind of a reader.



I’m hoping this becomes a regular series: “What Can Writers Learn From _______?” I will do diligent, cross-disciplinary research and plumb the depths of various arts and sciences for ideas writers can shoplift. These posts are long (I mean, I guess) and well-researched, and they take time to write. I’m trying to get into a regularly-scheduled habit of blogging this summer. Meanwhile I am also working on my next novel, which I’m hoping to get into presentable shape before the Writers Digest Conference in August. Those factors considered, expect regular updates.

One thing I’m really bad at is ending blog posts.