I have a confession to make. I’m extremely lazy. I love sitting around and doing nothing. The call of the TV screen beckons me far more often than I want to admit. I know I should be writing, but that new show just started and nobody’s gonna watch it for me. Not to mention the bookshelves of DVDs and blu-rays that go to waste if I don’t pop them in and press play. Hours and hours and hours of movies and tv must be consumed.
And I’m not even sorry.
Yep, I’m lazy. But I work hard to earn that right. I’m a productivity machine. Not to brag, but put me up against the average 63% robot and I’ll run circles around them. And don’t even get me started on full-humans. I’m a prisoner to my own habits and schedule. Which is why I have to schedule my downtime as well.
It’s Not TV, It’s Research
So, yeah, my busy daily schedule includes TV time. You could almost say I took NBC’s slogan from the 80s, “Must See TV” and etched it into my life. But here’s the thing. All those hours I spend watching TV and movies, well, that’s work too. And I’m not just looking for a clever excuse when I call it “research.”
When people tell us that we should find a job we love, well, I’m not sure they had “watching TV” in mind. Of course, I don’t get paid to watch TV and movies, I probably need to get a career in Hollywood for that, but I’m convinced that watching TV and movies helps me become a better writer, and someday, I’ll get paid for that.
So I have another confession. I don’t enjoy reading as much as I enjoy watching movies. Very few books stick with me mentally the way a movie does. I guess I’m more of a visual learner. So, what I learn about writing comes less from reading great stories than from watching great movies.
And I’m (still) not even sorry.
Every Story Has Something to Teach Me
I consider movies the cliff-notes version of a book. Even a book that doesn’t exist. Movies have far fewer words in which to tell their story, yet, they still manage to captivate me. As a writer, I’m amazed at how movies work in plot, sub-plots, character development, and emotional arcs for multiple characters all in just a couple of hours. I think Avengers: Endgame was an amazing feat in storytelling capabilities. Over 50 characters and I never felt any one of them was underutilized.
This is how I want to learn how to write. I want to tell powerful stories in the shortest space possible. That doesn’t mean writing short stories, but that does mean writing stories with little fluff and a big punch.
So, yeah, I study movies. This goes hand-in-hand in how I developed my novel’s characters. But beyond the characters themselves, there are story aspects that I analyze to bolster up my own writing skills.
Lessons I Learned from Watching the (Big and Small) Screen
- How to explain away plot holes. I was watching The X-Files (for the zillionth time) and one episode had a huge plot hole. Mulder was working a case and was in a situation where he should have called for backup. Why didn’t he? All it took was one line to make it believable. “I called the office and no one picked up.” We never knew why no one picked up but we now had a plausible reason why Mulder had no backup. Plot hole filled with a single sentence.
- How character decisions move the plot forward. A pet peeve of mine is when characters make obviously stupid decisions. So many movies rely on this trope that they build in the stupid character for that very purpose. I remember seeing this in the recent Kong movie. One of the primary conflicts came from one character’s bad decision. Contrast that to Star Trek: Into Darkness. Here you have the opposite. Kirk makes rationally smart decisions that just turn out to have unforeseen disastrous consequences. Now that is good storytelling. Characters always make bad decisions and even obvious ones, but I never want to rely on that to keep the plot moving. I prefer the other way, where good decisions go bad.
- Don’t start mysteries you can’t solve. Two shows come to mind when thinking about this point. LOST and Battlestar Galactica. They both added layer and layer of mysteries within each season but ultimately were unable to bring many of them to a satisfying conclusion. They either chose to ignore them, change what they led us to believe about it, or gave a weak explanation and moved on. The lesson here is to plan out your mysteries. And start answering them long before your conclusion.
- Science and common sense can be violated within reason. And by within reason, I really mean is with reason. I’m a time travel nerd which means I’m also a time travel snob. I hate when movies or shows violate rules of how things should work. Take the show Timeless. It drove me nuts that two people could go back in time at two different times to try to alter the past. The moment the first person left for the past, the present would already be altered and they would be none-the-wiser about the original timeline. On the other hand Avengers: Endgame had a scene calling all the other time travel movies BS and proceeded to write their own nonsensical rules. While I don’t buy the rules they created, they did give us a reason to buy into it. That’s all it takes.
- Bad guys can be redeemed. I love a good redemption story. One of my favorites is Pitch Black. There is no doubt that Riddick is one bad mofo. The viewer has no doubt that Riddick would sacrifice anyone to save himself. That is until someone sacrifices themselves to save him. “Not for me!” is one of the most powerful move lines. It was that sacrifice that allowed Riddick to redeem himself and become the true hero of the movie.
Embrace Your Inner Lazy
These are just a few things that come to mind, but there are many more. When I’m in the midst of my “lazy-time”, I’m often hard at work studying character development, plot execution, emotional story arcs, and more.
As writers, we have to write. The stories won’t write themselves. But you also need to take a break. Watch a movie. Or two. Binge a TV show. And don’t feel bad about it. Study it.
I’ve learned more from watching movies than I have from reading novels. But this is also because I’m reading books on how to write novels and I can see this play out a lot faster on the screen than on the pages of a novel. And where I rarely read a novel more than once (I’m a slow reader), I will watch movies over and over and learn something new each time. With each viewing, I pick up on something new. And all of this works into my subconscious and makes its way onto my pages.
Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid get a little lazy. Embrace it. But while you’re at it, learn something new, and become a better writer.