Film Study for Fiction Writers


At the Wordcrafters writers conference last weekend, bestselling author Kevin O’Brien mentioned Alfred Hitchcock as one of his major influences. This got me thinking about movies in general and their value as a tool in the fiction writing process. There is a long standing relationship between film and fiction, and all narrative forms have some similarities. For writers and story tellers, there are a number of things about movies that make them particularly useful and fun to study.

You can experience an entire film in about two hours, beginning to end. In four hours, you can watch it twice. No matter how fast a reader you are, you’ll be hard pressed to read novels that fast, which means you can digest a relatively large number of movies in a modest amount of time. You’ll recognize patterns faster, and this makes films ideal for studying narrative structures and techniques. Watching a ton of movies with a critical eye is a great education on beginnings, middles, and endings.

The medium of film creates a certain type of storytelling. Characterization is brought out through action and dialogue. Settings are revealed through carefully chosen pictures and details. The unfolding story is presented in a series of scenes, with each scene serving a purpose in the narrative. This is all great stuff to do in fiction, and understanding how film makers work can help you understand how to do it in your writing.

With dvd commentaries there is a wealth of first hand story telling experience to draw on. Writers talk about the evolution of various drafts. Cinematographers talk about lighting and camera angles. Artists talk about set and costume design. Directors talk about difficulties they encountered, their understanding of the story, and the pains and triumphs of editing. Watching a great film with good commentaries is like attending a fantastic lecture on the creative process.

Fiction writers should read a lot of fiction and read widely, inside and outside their genre. There’s no substitute for that, but there are things to be learned from every narrative form. Movies are an opportunity to study story telling in another medium. Without a doubt, many valuable insights can come from that slight change of perspective. And if you want to learn suspense … start with Hitchcock.

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