Watching movies should count as study time for writers. Along with reading novels, going to see plays and listening to radio drama. That is if you take the time to deconstruct your experience of them. And, good news, you don’t have to be a lit major or a dramaturg to gain insights.
All you need is to be questioning. You’ll need a notebook. And 15 reflective minutes.
I recently saw the movie Lion. It’s a movie about an adopted man’s search to find his birth mother in India. It’s not a movie I would’ve automatically lined up in public to see. Apart from the almost vaseline-smeared trailer, and the ominous whiff of Oprah book-club narrative, not to mention the appearance my least favourite famous actor in the entire world, Nicole Kidman, I am quite a lot closer to this story than I care to be. I have been down that adoption trail and I have watched others career down that trail as well, only to crash rather badly on the wayside. Adoption is a mighty hard road. And for those amongst us who have crashed and burned, it is a painful thing to sit through a film about it.
But some girlfriends wanted a sneaky midday movie jaunt on a Friday, on what people are nonchalantly referring to as ‘the Australia Day Long Weekend’ (note, Australia Day is only one day, but because it fell on a Thursday this year, many people took it as an alternative fact that Friday was also to be a holiday, thus granting themselves a four-day break. How uncompromisingly Aussie!)
Being girlfriends we took the chick flick option.
I was rather nicely surprised. I suspected much more froth and dribble, much more sentimentalising and aggrandising. I expected sympathetic Third World issues (which there was, but it was deftly done). I expected Aussie-bashing and wagging of fingers about Western values being a corrupting force, but there wasn’t (which struck me as odd, actually). It had a nice straight narrative, starting with a place of love, then disaster.
A poor Indian boy gets lost on an excursion with his beloved big brother. He accidently gets very, very lost when he subsequently falls asleep on a train that takes him into the heart of Calcutta, 1600km away from his home. Once there, he is at the mercy of an ever-greater list of terrors. He’s utterly bewildered, as vulnerable as a baby bird. At the age of about 8, he is adopted into a family in Australia, and it would seem that he is saved. But at the age of 20, his memory is triggered by seeing an Indian sweet being served at a party. He is overcome with the need to find his long lost family.
At this point, the movie had all the potential to head into a rage of emotional mush. But it didn’t. The script had great restraint in this regard. There was a sustained period of grief and struggle for the hero, a crisis that lasted for a little bit too long in the film, but I understand the writer’s need to point out just how hard it was for the hero to find out information about his life before getting lost. For once Nicole Kidman (as the adoptive mother) managed to act her way out of a wet paper bag, and deliver a subtle and tear-jerkingly real (yes, I am perhaps overidentifying) performance. The ending of the tale is overwhelmingly satisfying, but I won’t spill it.
I want to say that seeing any movie, reading any book, any tv show can be instructive for writers. Ask yourself some questions, make a little notebook specifically for this practice. Even if you never refer to this notebook for information afterwards, the very act of writing down your criticisms and thoughts about the experience is a worthwhile exercise in itself. Thinking about the craft of writing by writing things down, analysing the way others put together a story and measuring that against your own processes are all helpful strategies.
1 What was good about the script/the story?
Forget the acting, or cinematography or direction or the brilliant cover artwork or anything other than the actual writing. Think about the style. Or the pace. Or the characterisation. The conflict. The details. The metaphors. The plot developments. The climax. The ending. Even the worst stories have at least one redeeming feature. Spend a few minutes writing about what stood out, what really worked. Did you learn something new? What was unexpected or thrilling? Can you break that observation down a little further by articulating what technique was being used, or what aspect of the craft had been mastered?
2 Did it ever get a little boring?
You’ll know it automatically when a story gets boring. You can mark it in your mind as the moment you started to wriggle or check your watch, or the time you stopped listening and started wondering about what you were going to have for lunch. Our minds wander when the story loses pace or stops being surprising or literally loses the plot by not making sense. Can you pinpoint a moment when you stopped engaging with the story? Why do you think you lost interest or your thoughts wandered? 9 times out of 10 it will be a structural problem. Can you articulate what broke in the structure? If it wasn’t a structural issue, perhaps it was a character problem. See if you can nut out what went wrong and when.
3. Did the story make absolute sense?
Logic is more important than you think. You can have the most fantastic plots full of weird and wonderful characters in exotic and complex settings, and all that can be cool and thrilling. But if you (the audient) fails to interpret, believe and follow the inner logic of the characters and events, it all goes kaput. It means the writer missed some steps in the story-telling. If you find yourself asking why did the hero do that? or puzzling over how one event in the story fitted into the next, then you have observed a logic issue. If you frankly did not believe the hero’s journey for whatever reason, the script failed. If the story didn’t make sense, how would you have fixed it? Fill in the blanks, make alternative plotlines or extensions.
4 Write a paragraph describing the movie in order to recommend it or warn others not to see it.
Sum up your thoughts on all these things, giving your reasons for the thumbs up or thumbs down. I know, this sounds like a school report concept, but in this case, you don’t need to present it to your English teacher or anyone else. This is for your own personal instruction. Articulating the good and the bad helps you in turn to articulate it for your own work.