My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Mailbox: The Value of TV/Movies/AV Media to a Writer

Can a writer improve by watching movies?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  And don't be afraid to throw your friends under the bus for the entertainment of...hundreds. 

Don asks:

I have a lot of friends who want to be writers but they don't read very much.  Maybe few sci-fi books from time to time and blogs or zines that do video game and movie reviews.  Mostly they watch TV and movies and talk about them all the time.  They seem to do pretty good analysis of character and narrative arc--kind of like I've seen you do here with Inception, but they keep telling me that it's not as important to read books if you learn to "read" movies and shows.  This goes against everything I understand about being a writer, but they are adamant.

You are one of the only blogger/writers I know who will answer questions, and you do reviews of movies and stuff, but also say that reading is important, so I figure you are going to have a fair answer to this question.  Am I right or are they?

My reply:  [I added the link to "Inception" in Don's question above.]

I'm assuming, Don, from the way that you asked your question, that you're planning to point your friends toward this in an attempt to win some sort of longstanding feud, so I'm going to save the abject mockery for another time lest your friends hunt me down. (Actually you also might not like my answer that much.)  But if it makes you feel better, there will be some juicy "neener neener" fodder at the end. Especially if your friends are hoping to be the next Suzanne Collins, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling.

First of all, let's make something mountain-lake, sparklingly crystal clear. I'm not here to tell anyone if they're a "real" writer or not. That's a question best left to....well mostly to people arrogant enough to judge and label others.

I'm not saying it should be left to them, but haters gonna hate, and some people seem to feel better about themselves if they spend a substantial portion of their time and energy deciding who is a writer and who isn't.  (I get an e-mail from one of them about once a month informing me that I am not a real writer.)

As far as I'm concerned, if you're earning your ER, you're a writer, and that goes for your friends too. An individual is themselves the only person truly equipped to make that judgement, so if your friends say they are writers, who am I to argue? Do something like ten gagillion people call themselves writers and barely write? Of course. Do they need to buy a dog and name it clue, so they can say they have one? Probably. However, I'll leave tracking them down and exposing their self-delusions to the Writer Police.

By the way, the Writer Police are total assholes, so never be one.

I also don't know what your friends want out of their writing.  Do they enjoy writing as a hobby?  Are their stories mostly for themselves and the joy of making it, or maybe their friends and family?  If so, they can probably get away with just watching TV and movies and enjoying the act of writing.  On the other hand, do they want to "make it" as a writer?  Does the rejection of their NaNoWriMo manuscript by both publishers and Hollywood cause them confusion and angst?  Do they want to be successful--even famous?  Bestsellers on the shelves?  Books that are made into movies?  Then they probably have to take their craft more seriously.

Also, if your friends are more into TV and movies, maybe they should think about TV and movies as an art medium instead of prose fiction--either screenwriting or directing or whatever they're interested in. (I know....it seems like this shouldn't be a thing, but you'd swear it was rocket science.) A lot of people who are really into movies and TV are actually a lot more interested in writing for movies and TV (go figure), and in that case, exposing themselves to the art form that they wish to create within is absolutely useful. I can't imagine being a good screenwriter without watching a zillion movies.

(Which should probably set off your analogous-o-meter, by the way.)

That said, your friends still probably ought to crack a book or two if they want to be good writers--even if they really would prefer to be screenwriting. The best movie and TV writers (Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Niel Gaiman, Stephen King, Simon Beaufoy, and Chuck Lorrie to name a few) are EXTRAORDINARILY well read. I know this without them saying so (except in the case of King and Gaiman) because of how they write. One of the reasons their writing is so engaging is because they can pull in so much great material, play with English, and bring in mythology, allusions, and story ideas from some of the greatest works of all time. So it won't hurt your friends to read even if they would rather be screenwriting. But is it also useful to watch a lot of good audio/visual media? Totes, yo.

[I'll throw a disclaimer in here because it's such a common (and Hamlet-caliber tragic) trend within the writing community (I think I met eight or ten such folk in my CW program out of only about 50 or so): if your friends are trying to write fiction as an "inroad" to Hollywood because they think it's easier than breaking into show business, they may want to give themselves a wake up call....with a bat. A young, aspiring writer in Hollywood trying to peddle a script might be hopelessly cliche, but writing fiction when you'd rather be writing a screenplay is only marginally less cliche and also pretentious. The number writers famous enough to be involved in the process of turning a book into movie out of is tiny. The number of writers who get creative input in a movie of a book they sell is so small you wouldn't need to take off your socks to count them. Most writers are basically paid off to have a Coke and shut the fuck up while their story gets mangled. (Lawnmower Man, anyone?) Writers who get to write the screenplay generally already have screenwriting experience. Writers like William Goldman or Nora Ephron who do both fiction and screenwriting are quite exceptional, and usually very much want to be writing different kinds of writing. They don't do one kind of writing as a means to an end.

But, holy flaming Pope balls man, sometimes it's hard enough finding the motivation when you're doing exactly the kind of writing that you absolutely want to be doing. Slogging through the years of ignominy while doing something you don't really enjoy? Fuck that! And I don't mean some sweet John Denver, socially acceptable "lovemaking" either. I'm talking about pounding death metal....with a diamond bit chainsaw.  If your friends really want to be writing screenplays and making movies, they should follow their passions.
The internet is an exciting place for independent film efforts--maybe they could gather a following on Youtube and turn it into a career. That's what art is about. The only way to get through the unpaid, unappreciated hours of doing art and to do the parts that feel so much like work is to love the holy hell out of it. 

But trust your Uncle Chris when I tell you that breaking into Hollywood might be hard, but I PROMISE that it isn't any harder than being a successful fiction writer who doesn't actually like writing fiction.]

So can watching TV and movies help someone's writing improve?  It absolutely can.  

Oh yeah. I said it.

Especially quality TV or film that is watched with a discerning eye.  Or really bad TV or film (like Prometheus) that stands in sharp relief as a reminder of what not to do.  Plot.  Pacing.  Dramatic tension. Engaging dialogue. Character development. These are all vital elements of TV and film. (And frankly, most "high art" literature produced in MFA programs could seriously benefit from an injection exactly those things.) A writer can glean no end of good insight from TV and movies.

And the more they're paying attention and "reading" the media in question, the more they will get from it.

I know a lot of creative writing teachers. One thing that many of them have in common is that they have expressed surprise at is just how good young writers are at writing fiction with a background of primarily TV and movies. Right out the gate, they have many skills that the teacher would have thought would be lacking without an extensive background in reading.  Whether the writer is literally young or just trying their hand at creative writing for the first time, many come into these programs without having read a gagillion books. But they still write in a way that demonstrates they understand irony, subtext, pacing, and storytelling.


And this is a big but....

(By the way, Don, here is where you want to point your friends while you strut around the room or whatever.)

TV and movies won't be enough. They just won't. A writer simply has to read...a lot. It's the cost of doing business.

You know how I can tell when I've been watching too much TV and not reading enough? Other than the fact that my brain feels a little bit like it's been eating potato chips and ice cream for dinner? It's when I have an idea for a scene in my head, and I picture it cinematically. I know exactly how I want it to go and what I want everything to look like, but when I sit down to write it, the words feel clumsy and thick, like I'm trying to tie my shoes wearing mittens. Whenever I've been reading prolifically, the idea for scenes comes to me in words. I don't think of how something will look, I think of how I will describe it. I think of how I can phrase things and what concrete imagery and significant detail I will focus on.

A writer deals in language. A writer deals in words. A filmmaker has to create every exacting detail of a setting or a costume, but a writer will put his readers into a coma if they try to do that (as Anne Rice has demonstrated a number of times). A writer has to choose which details to reveal and which to let the reader fill in. This is true within description, clothing, physical features, setting and even action.  A filmmaker can set the tone with camera filters and a soundtrack. They can cut dramatically to another character or pan slowly across the room--each to different effect. Writers don't have these tools. Their tone has to come only from word choice. A writer doesn't have camera angles or special effects or actors who are themselves highly trained to show the required emotion. Everything comes from words.

The words are life.  The words must flow.

In case you didn't get that joke, here's a...clue.
So a writer that doesn't read....prolifically...simply does not have the exposure to language that they need to hone these elements. They have to have the vocabulary to choose the right word instead of the not-quite-right word. They have to see words and see them used together in context to have a sense of how they evoke images and emotions. They may be good at certain aspects of storytelling that A/V media uses, but their prose lacks the ability to put those elements into the heads of their readers. Their writing is banal, perfunctory. It covers ground, but in a lumbering, dry way. It's like reading the back of a shampoo bottle. As Stephen King says, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." Or as an old professor of mine puts it, "Saying that you write but don't read is a little like saying you only breath out." Which is much more poetic than what I say: "How in the name of Zeus's ANAL SPHINCTER can you possibly write well if you don't have a frame of reference for what that even means."

It's an absurd sort of pretentiousness that writers have something of a monopoly on. It is laughable to imagine a musician who doesn't like music, a painter who doesn't like to look at paintings, or an actor who doesn't like to watch others' performances. Yet for some reason would-be writers spring up like dandelions who don't really like reading. Why writers corner this market is beyond me (even the garage band that's "totally gonna make it" but only practices once a month still LISTENS to a lot of music), but non-reading writers are legion.

Now....I'm not saying this because I feel like I have some kind of authority. I don't. I have less authority than the guy who sweeps the floors at a fast food place. But I pay attention to those who do: successful, published, great, even famous writers. And believe me when I tell you that the successful writers across the ages haven't agreed on much of anything, save two things: you have to write a lot and you have to read a lot. These fuckers will argue about how much to write, when to write, what position to write, what makes good writing, dialogue attribution tags, the number of drafts, the temperature of the room, how often devil's triangle threesomes should be incorporated into the writing process, and the color of the goddamned sky, but they agree that you have to read a lot.

That should tell you something.

I should also add (and I'm not trying to disparage your friends, so I hope they don't fly into a murderous rage when you point out this article to them, grab pitchforks and torches, and march on Oakland)..... more to the point, I've never known a writer of even moderate success for whom reading was a chore. I've never known a writer who ducked reading or made excuses or talked about movies like they were an adequate substitute for reading. I've never known a writer (of any success, I should be clear) who didn't want to read.

It's really not something you should have to wag your finger and chide a writer about.  ("You should read more!") Most writers--most I can think of who ever published, and all who achieved any real success--simply love books.  LOVE THEM! They may watch a movie but they're also excited to get back to the book they started yesterday.  They love reading.  They love words.  They love language and the power it has to move and shape worlds.

They make excuses TO read, not excuses to avoid it.

So if your friends are actively trying to eschew reading, especially if they don't actually ever seem to get around to doing much writing, maybe they ought to think about how realistic that particular path is to them. I mean if they're just doing it for fun, then they're getting what they want out of it then that's fine--awesome even--but if they are imagining that they will be successful authors, they should probably either consider the wisdom of that particular path to fame and fortune, or face the fact that they need to read the ever loving shit out of everything they can get their hands on.


  1. This is one of my favorite posts of all time.

  2. About half the writers I know could stand to see this.

    1. Given my social circles are largely scifi geeks, it's probably 75+% for me.

  3. >>You know how I can tell when I've been watching too much TV and not reading enough? Other than the fact that my brain feels a little bit like it's been eating potato chips and ice cream for dinner? It's when I have an idea for a scene in my head, and I picture it cinematically. I know exactly how I want it to go and what I want everything to look like, but when I sit down to write it, the words feel clumsy and thick, like I'm trying to tie my shoes wearing mittens.<<

    Wow. Just wow. Totally nailed it. I’ve been struggling to get the words down, and it feels just like that. Then I realized that I’ve been spending a lot more time watching TV than reading the past few months. I already started fixing it (just discovered Janet Kagan), so I’ll be back at the keyboard in a bit.