Friday, July 27, 2018

How to let Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep teach you about writing

Photo courtesy of Paramount
So I don't think I've mentioned this here before, but I also write movie reviews on a professional basis. Currently, my reviews are running with the Vail Daily, a newspaper in Colorado, and I'm a member of the Denver Film Critics Society (I was a member of the Utah Film Critics Association, but which group you join depends more on your outlet than where you live).

It's an amazingly good gig for a storyteller to have, because it becomes your literal job to sit there and dissect stories all day. Yes, the language is different for movies than it is for novels, and there are more people to blame when things go wrong -- in a movie, sometimes it's the director or the actors who are at fault rather than the writer. Movies will also try to distract you with explosions and CGI, which is generally much harder to do in text form. (Why yes, I did just recently review "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" for Vail. However did you guess?)

But stories, are at their heart, very much the same. And when you watch enough movies, studying them the same way a biologist studies their animal of choice, you learn all about the ways a story can move. You get a sense of the story's rhythms, the rise and fall of drama, joy and heartbreak. You learn to anticipate plot twists by recognizing the groundwork the writer lays into the script. You learn what it takes to make dialogue flow naturally on the human ear, and hear firsthand how jarring it can be when it doesn't.

Sometimes, that makes it harder for me to just watch movies. It's like someone who studies magic for a living watching a magician onstage. No matter how good they are at the trick, you can't help but know exactly how they did it.

(And when they can surprise you anyway, it's hard not to fall in love a little bit.)

More importantly, though, it makes me a better writer. Doctors study anatomy to know how things should work, and what should be done to fix them when they don't. Criticism requires an intense study in narrative anatomy, walking through the story firsthand to know what works and what doesn't.

It's a knowledge I carry over to every piece of fiction that I write.

For those who are interested, here are some of my recent reviews: