What Analysing Films Can Teach You About Writing Books

Studying films can teach you how to structure a narrative, how to create good characters, and how compelling plots work. Yes, you can do all of this while reading a novel, but a film is quicker to digest and reflect on.

Today, I thought I'd share some links to YouTube so you too can get an idea about what you can learn.

I'm also going to examine the famous (infamous?) Blake Snyder Beat Sheet outlined in his screenwriting book Save the Cat. I've mentioned this book before in my mini review on books about writing, but I want to pick apart the beat sheet a bit more because it can help you understand the structure of a three act story.

Lessons from the Screenplay

A new discovery for me is Lessons from the Screenplay. Michael's most recent video compares why The Force Awakens works better than Rogue One. And while I'm not a particular fan of either film, he make a really valid argument here. Plus his analysis of Rogue One's first act is so spot on I wanted to cheer. This video looks at an active protagonist (Rey) who makes things happen compared to an inactive or passive protagonist (Jyn) who has things happen to her, and why active protagonists are far more engaging. This is definitely something you can apply to your novel writing.

Folding Ideas

I linked to this channel before, but I wanted to bring it up again because I really like the way Dan Olson delves into films from an editing perspective, and his video on set up and pay off (using Suicide Squad as an example of how *not* to do it) is brilliant.


MovieBob, aside from reviewing films, looks at plots and comes up with really interesting alternative plots in his How To Fix... series. Could come in handy if you need to rethink a plot of your own...

Also, his analysis of The Matrix is fascinating.

Lindsay Ellis

Lindsay Ellis posts amazing videos analysing everything from Disney's Hercules to 9/11 in pop culture. She also has a great video breaking down the three act structure and why it works so well in films, although she points out that you probably shouldn't think in terms of acts when you're writing. I would agree with that, but there's no harm in examining why the three act structure can be a great place to start when you're first starting out writing a novel.

PS: her videos on Showgirls are amazing and a great pick-me-up after a bad week.

All that three act structure stuff brings me neatly to...

Save the Cat

Blake Snyder's beat sheet allows you to break a story down into key beats that, Snyder argues, must happen in order for an audience to be fully engaged in a film. I'm not going to post every point here because I don't want to get done for copyright infringements, so I'll summarise. The beat sheet allows you to break a story down so that certain things are in the story at very certain points. For example, within the first five minutes of a film someone has to state the main theme. I'd say the novel equivalent would be somewhere in the opening three chapters.

I decided to use the beat sheet on one of my favourite films of all time, The Craft. And I have to hand it to Mr Snyder because the film hits every beat. I chose this film because 1) I LOVE IT, 2) It's absolutely intended for a YA audience and 3) It predates Save the Cat so I wanted to see if it still fit the formula. And it did, aside from the fact that the midpoint doesn't happen in the literal middle of the film. It's about sixty percent of the way in.

I think it's safe to say that this film has special significance to me and my friends. Maybe because we were Catholic school misfits...

So then I used it against a book and while it doesn't hit all the same beats, it hit enough that I could see the book's underlying structure. Books also need structure. They can't just waffle on and on. It gets dull. You need to hit some highs and lows for your reader to feel like they're on a journey with your characters.

Sidenote: I reread The Shining which very clearly breaks itself up into five act structure. Film Crit Hulk breaks down the five act structure in this article. I may do a more specific post on 3 act and 5 act structure when I find the time. Books may fit the five act structure a little better than the three act structure, but I'd have to analyse a few more books...

So yes, even though films work very differently to books, I think studying films is a great way to quickly understand story or character elements that will apply to your own work.


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