“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh

Watch Movies To Improve Your Writing

I think movies get a bad rap. I’m a little tired of hearing readers moan about how awful the movie adaptation was for so-and-so book.

I get it. Nothing’s as good as the book…but come on. Imagine having to cram a 700-page novel into a ninety-minute movie. Yowza!

Instead of whining about it, let’s talk about how movies can inspire you and improve your writing.

Stunning Visuals

I still struggle with description. Some days it feels like my vocabulary is limited to the words BIG and AWESOME. I mean, there are only so many ways you can describe a ray of sunshine, right?

The cool thing about movies is that a description is suddenly turned into an image. You get to see it. It jumps off the screen. It moves.

The next time you watch a movie, parcel out a particular scene. Watch it two or three times. Then grab your laptop and describe what you saw.

Whoever the director was might give you a new way to look at a desert canyon, a slathering zombie or a moonlit meadow.

Use it. Feel it. Describe it.

Real Dialogue

Some of you may be cringing, but give me a second. Would a line survive the first cut if it wasn’t at least remotely real in its delivery?

A lot writers struggle with dialogue. It used to be one of my biggest worries.

The best advice I ever got was to just imagine a real conversation. You know a great place to start? Movies.

Watch one. Listen to the flow of words. Digest the back and forth. Then write it.

Memorable

Just like writers, movie directors want to create a memorable experience.

Think about your favorite movies and the scene that has probably replayed over and over again in your head. The dialogue and visuals stick with you.

Why do you think there are whole websites dedicated to famous movies quotes?

That’s what you want your writing to be like. Snippets that readers can remember and take with them.

To give you some examples, here are a few of my favorites. I can see and hear what’s happening:

  • The opening scene from The Godfather when Amerigo Bonasera is talking to Don Corleone.
  • The break-through conversation between Robin Williams and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.
  • The “I am Spartacus” scene in Spartacus.
  • The scene in Notting Hill when Julia Roberts tells Hugh Grant that she loves him.
  • The wishing well scene in Goonies.

What’s your favorite movie scene?

PRACTICE

Your mission: for the next fifteen minutes describe your favorite scene from your favorite movie.

About Carlos Cooper

Carlos is author of the Corps Justice novels. Get the box set of Books 1-3 for FREE HERE.

  • Jack D. Welch

    I find audio books to be helpful. And I am guessing that listening to an Elmore Leonard novel might help with writing “real dialogue.”

    • I love audio books, especially if I’m doing mindless work with my hands.

    • Selina Wallis

      I drive a lot, and started listening to audio books for my kids, but now I love it, I’m such a quick skim reader, it slows me down, I get to savour the story

  • Joe Velikovsky

    Great article! Love it.

    But – hmm, my problem is – Stanley Kubrick is my fave filmmaker – and all his films, are: all my fave movies.

    ie – There’s not just one film – and, not just one scene; …it’s *all the scenes* …in *all his movies*. But – some scenes: (these are chosen at random as all scenes in his movies are genius)

    – The (blood-red) `hotel bathroom scene’ in The Shining (Jack = Grady… “You’ve ALWAYS, been, the caretaker…”)

    – The fight-scene in Barry Lyndon (best fight-scene in a movie, ever. And, Why? Cos the big ugly guy we all hate – never – lands – a – *single* – punch. Soooo satisfying!)

    – The battle scene, where the US troops storm Burpelson Air Force Base (shot just like a war doco, low angles, lotta shaky-cam, etc) – Dr Strangelove

    – The scene in the `pool room’ – where Sydney Pollack `lays it all bare’ for Tom Cruise (the plot, not his body) – in Eyes Wide Shut (check the dialog. Check Tom’s emotional range he goes through in that scene. A-MAZ-ing.)

    – The `Q&A scene’ with the troops in Full Metal Jacket (re: Lee Harvey Oswald, etc, “None of you dumbasses knows…”)

    – The `Quilty does voices’ scene, in Lolita… “Becos You Took Advantage – ”

    – The `polite chit-chat’ scene on the spaceport in `2001′, when the Russians want to know what’s going on up on the moon, and Heywood Floyd can’t legally reveal it. Banal conversation. Breaks all the rules of `economical dialog’. Includes all the banalities of a polite standard / (boring?) business-colleague conversation – But – still awesome and compelling cos of the subtext and the intrigue and the social tension.

    – Paths of Glory: when the a-hole general does his rounds “Morning Soldier! Ready to kill more Germans-?!” (repeat several times)

    – the end scene of The Killing – when Stirling Hayden gives up “Ah, what’s the difference?”

    – A Clockwork Orange – when Alex finds out he’s been replaced by a lodger at home

    Anyway… those are just random scenes. Check out every scene in every Kubrick film, ever. Well, except for `Fear & Desire’ maybe, but everyone’s first feature film (usually) kind of sucks.

    Anyway – another film – Fight Club 1999 – check out every scene in that, too.

    eg: Say, the `teaching Raymond K Hessel to go and become a vet’ scene.

    Anyway, great post.

    Cheers

    JT

    http://storyality.wordpress.com/

  • A big HELL YEAH, to you Carlos. I’ve been having a Robin Williams’ movie marathon since his death. I’m loving them all, but Dead Poets’ Society is my favorite. In the final scene, when that first student defies the headmaster and stands on his desk in support of Williams, it still gives me chills.

    “Oh captain, my captain.”

    • I need to rewatch that movie.

    • EndlessExposition

      Just watched that movie for the first time the other night. It was absolutely fantastic! Another Williams favorite of mine is The Birdcage.

      • The Birdcage is HILARIOUS, but for whatever reason, I love Robin best in his more serious roles: Dead Poets Society, Goodwill Hunting, The Fisher King, etc.

    • Selina Wallis

      That’s one of my most important films, shaped my teen years

    • So many people have being touched by this movie, even my favorite professors in the University have follow his example.

      In other hand, the movie that inspires me by Robin Williams was “Good Morning, Vietnam”. I loved how his character found positive things in the middle of a cruel war to cheer up the troops.

      I even started a radio career thanks to his role, and never forgotten the real message: the right use of the media to bring justice for people.

      I loved the scene when they are stuck in the traffic behind a military truck and he cheers them up, talking to all of them… then they say good bye and his face is chaging from the happiness to cheer them up to the concerning about their destiny and how a lot of them would never go back from the war.

      Simply amazing.

    • I need to go back and watch that again. Powerful stuff.

      • Yes, and it’s even more POWERFUL in light of his tragic death. Certain lines from Williams have a haunting affect because of his suicide…

  • debra elramey

    My favorite movie scene: when Red is sitting out in that field reading the letter from his friend Andy, inviting him to come join him in the world of freedom and help him out in his new venture. And I love the ending lines as he’s riding the bus toward his dream: “I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

    • Ah, yes, The Shawshank Redemption. Such a great movie and book!

    • Selina Wallis

      Love that one, makes you glad to be alive

    • LOVE that movie.

  • It’s the first scene I thought of, my favorite from the LOTR trilogy:

    “Frodo held a knife to Sam’s throat with a growl.

    “It’s me,” said Sam, “It’s your Sam.” He paused. A tear rolled down Sam’s cheek. “Don’t you know your Sam?” His eyes begged Frodo to see.

    Frodo’s eyes widened. The madness from the ring passed. He saw his lifelong friend and threw the knife aside. His breath came shallow and fast and he backed away from his friend as if he, himself, were poison. “I can’t do this, Sam.” he said, leaning against the wall, his eyes hollow and his body heavy, as heavy as the ring he bore.

    Sam looked at him and stood up to stare at the fiery landscape. Gollum watched him from behind with cautious eyes. When he spoke, his voice wavered with sorrow. “I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we
    are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really
    mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you
    didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How
    could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?”

    Though he doesn’t know it, while he is speaking, Gandalf and Aragorn lead an attack in Helms Deep, beating back the Uruk-Hai, and allowing Rohirrim’s women and children to escape to the hills. Persuaded by Pippin and Merry, Treebeard and his Ents flood Isengard, drowing the Orcs, and defeating the Uruk-Hai. Saruman is left stranded in his Tower. Darkness has been dealt a severe blow.

    Sam continued to stare at the burning plains, allowing their fire to fuel a faith he hadn’t realized he possessed and knew they needed. He continued, “But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness
    must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine
    out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant
    something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think,
    Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots
    of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because
    they were holding on to something.

    Frodo looked at him with tired, empty eyes. Gollum seemed to hold his breath. “What are we holding onto, Sam?”

    “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said, his voice now firm, “and it’s worth fighting for.”

    • Great scene to remember, Dawn. I loved the message and this trilogy is a great balance between amazing scenarios and good dialogues. Thanks for sharing

    • Just watched that the other day with my kids. One of my favorites 🙂

  • EndlessExposition

    A few of my favorite movie scenes:
    -“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from the 2012 Les Miserables
    -also the barricade scenes from that movie
    -basically any scene from that movie
    -the opening number in Newsies
    -the fight between Dorian Gray and Mina Harker in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and also the battle in the library
    -the scene in The Hollow Crown’s Richard II where Richard surrenders to Bolingbroke
    -the slapstick sequence at the end of Home Alone
    -the train chase in Seven Percent Solution

  • Selina Wallis

    I woke up and the bed was empty, I could feel the chill from
    the fire escape door, propped open, so I threw a blanket round my shoulders and
    went up the metal stairs to the roof.

    I could see her skinny little shoulders, wrapped up in a
    blanket too, sitting on the floor with smoke from her cigarette drifting up from
    her lips to the street lamp lit sky.

    “What is it? Are you cryin’? What’d I do? Did I do
    somethin’?”

    She won’t look at me, but I sit down beside her

    “You didn’t do nothing”

    “What is it?”

    She turns to look at me, and then abruptly stands up

    “I have something I gotta tell you.”

    She starts to pace up and down and she looks so damn pretty

    “I didn’t just happen to be at that theater. I was paid to
    be there.”

    “You were paid to be there? Are you a theater checker? You
    get paid to check up…on the box office girls, make sure they’re not ripping
    the place off?”

    “I’m not a theater checker. I’m a call girl.”

  • You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

    I love the scene in the movie Jaws where Chief Brody finds himself on that tiny fishing vessel, shoveling chum into the ocean. As he turns toward his bucket, the shark appears at the side of the boat, its fantastic face almost close enough to touch. Then almost as quickly as it reveals itself, it is gone. In that solitary moment, everything is different.

    *******

    I should have seen it coming as soon as I laid eyes on that stupid orange. I hated this game. It was competitive and anxiety provoking like Musical Chairs, only much more physically intrusive. Gripping a piece of fruit with my neck and passing it successfully to another person was one of the most disgusting things I could imagine doing as part of a mortifying punishment, let alone a celebratory exercise. All that rubbing and nudging. And you had to get in real close. Too close, if you ask me.

    I was thirteen years old and a guest at Patricia LaBruzzo’s birthday party. What a coup to have been invited! Patty was cute, friendly and extremely popular. She had a Toni Tennille hairstyle and what seemed like unlimited access to Bonne Bell lip gloss. Hardly any of my intimate pals were there, but lots of girls I knew from school, as well as a handful of boys.

    I’d spent days deciding on my outfit. I chose a pink short-sleeve mock turtleneck sweater that my mom had bought me for Christmas, paired with a matching pink cardigan. I also wore black polyester slacks and patent leather loafers. If this had been an interview at the library, I’d probably have gotten the job.

    As a freshly minted teen, I was devoid of any significant identity. At my mother’s strong suggestion, I was dressed much like the women of her generation. Plus I was chubby, so I really did enjoy those stretchy pants. If Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore had a baby and fed her nothing but American cheese for a dozen years, that child would be me.

    Until the Pass The Orange fiasco, the party was actually quite reasonable. Cavernous bowls of Cheese Doodles and an ice cream cake from Carvel. Us girls danced together to Tavares, Elton John and the Bay City Rollers. But that ridiculous game blindsided me, and it got the group good and worked up too. I recall overwhelming self-consciousness. The next thing you know, we’re playing Spin the Bottle, and I’m smooching some guy with a moustache in a dark basement closet.

    The first boy I kissed was John Milanese, and the second, Nicholas Perugini. Ultimately, they meant nothing to me, and I’m pretty certain the feeling was mutual. Over the years, we haven’t kept in touch, and I don’t think that makes me a slut.

    I got home after the party, and Big Mare asked me how it went. I said it was fine. I’m sure there was a part of me that wanted to tell her more, but I knew better. If my mother had any idea what went down that afternoon, she’d have marched up to Buck Street and thrown a brick through Mrs. LaBruzzo’s living room window. I kept my mouth shut.

    That night, I waited until everyone was asleep. I snuck into the kitchen and made myself two baloney sandwiches. I wrapped them in paper towels and put one in each pocket of my robe. I palmed some cookies, too. I went up to my room and ate everything under the blankets. I brushed the crumbs onto the rug. I tucked my hands into my underwear and cried myself to sleep.

    My blog is here at: http://www.highwiregirl.blogspot.com.

  • Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

    Obi-wan reaches the vulcano. Anakin is still in the flying platform, he is looking at Kenobi with fully anger in his eyes.

    Obi-wan: Dropped, Anakin. I’m in higher ground. You won’t never make it. Don’t make me do it.

    Anakin jumps to him, Obi-wan does not hesitate and attack his former pupil with the light saber. Anakin cries out loud, Obi-wan left him without arms and legs.

    Obi-wan: You were the chosen one. You supposed to bring balance to the force. Not join them.

    Obi-wan is in tears. He left Anakin crying and screaming.

    Anakin: I hate you!

    Anakin is alone next to the lava river, soon the fire takes him and burn all his skin. He cannot do anything. Except scream…

    • Out of the ashes rises Darth Vadar! A tragic moment in moviedom. And a great share. 🙂

      • It is not like a classic moment in Star Wars, but actually a really powerful one, at least for me. If you think about Star Wars scenes, the first one is “Luke… I am your father” LoL! I’m gladd you like it

    • 709writer

      I will never forget Anakin’s last words, and the look on Obi-wan’s face after he said it.

  • Kitty

    One of my favorite movies is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent”.
    My favorite scene is the closing scene.
    Reporter “Huntley Haverstock” is standing in front of a microphone reading off one last report. He smiles fearlessly at his fiancé, sitting nearby, as the building shakes and shudders around them. The lights flicker and then go out, leaving them in darkness.
    As bombs blast and crash close by, he raises his voice for his beloved country to hear.
    Standing steadfast amidst the chaos and turmoil, he encourages the Homefront to keep their lights lit, protected. Urging America to wake up and end neutrality, become involved, because even as the lights are being extinguished in London, America is their last hope against complete darkness. “They are the only lights left on in the world!”
    It is inspiring to see someone pleading for help to the benefit of another, to bring to attention the pain and suffering of others, calling them to arms in an uplifting manner, such as that was in this movie. It was a toss up between the last scene and first scene (the dedication at the beginning.), but as you were talking description, I chose the last.
    I like your exercise using movies.
    When writer’s block is at it’s worst, I put away my writing materials and snuggle up with a cup of hot tea, a notebook and pen, (Something might come to me, as movies have great triggers! Like the scar above a villain’s eye suddenly becomes a scar across my villain’s hand.) and sit back and enjoy a good movie! As I also like to observe how the people watching the movie with me react, I generally invite someone to watch it with me. (Another way to trigger my creativity. “If they react that way to this scene, then how would they react to this happening instead?” and so on.)
    If the characters and plot don’t help, then the music or locations will!
    Before I know it, I am back on track and wondering how I ever got stuck!
    Thanks for the great post!

  • Another good thing about movies is that it brings great stories to the masses. I love when books are made into movies because it opens up so much exposure to an audience who might never pick up the book. It is a great way for me to encourage my son to read. After the book, I always take him to see the movie as his “reward.”

    • Jen

      What a great incentive! X

  • Kip Larcen

    How about two cinema moments when friendship trumps all else…the first one I’m thinking of is when Spock dies in Star Trek II. After giving his life to save the crew of the Enterprise, Spock’s last words are to Kirk, “I have been, and always shall be your friend.”
    The second scene is in Dumb and Dumber (that’s right); after Lloyd has just driven “half way across the country, in the wrong direction,” an angry Harry splits up with him by walking home. But soon Lloyd “totally redeems” himself by trading their truck for a mini bike, thus proving that one’s IQ is not as important as loyalty to friends.

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