• Don’t Fear the Film: A Writing Exercise

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Strategies     Comments 3 comments

    By Nicole Fernandez

    Write a lot. Read more. It’s the default answer to the question of how might one write better. How can I enliven my characters? Read. How might I build up my settings? Read. How do I remain authentic in my dialogue? Read.

    As tired as I am of this response, I’m not going to argue it. I’m an advocate of the symbiosis between reading and writing; an absolutely inextricable and necessary relationship. But I would like to add a decent runner-up to the book, and that is film. The movie, the flick, the art of cinema.

    Film is often just as capable as literature in its ability to illuminate successful elements of storytelling. In my creative writing workshops at Emerson College we were given rudimentary writing exercises intended to further character development, build plot and generally enhance the elements of our writing. We also had required reading from short story anthologies that had an array of contemporary and classic authors. Then there were the films. Every now and then, the instructor brought in carefully measured film clips, each chosen with a specific intent. In one instance the class watched a scene from Closer. The heated argument between two characters proved to be a lesson in constructing excellent, authentic dialogue. The opening scene of Margot at the Wedding illuminated a dynamic interrelation between a mother and child on a train ride, which arguably sets the tone for the rest of the film.

    I have recently been released from the pond of my undergraduate studies. Now I am left to venture into the world of self-motivated writing, to set my own deadlines and to find a new writing community where I can share and workshop my stories. It’s hard, but I’m working to keep my foundations close to me.

    So if you’ve been staring at that blank document for too many hours, or days even, here’s an exercise I turn to when reading to better my writing suddenly becomes more discouraging than enlightening.

    Think of a movie clip you love. Find the clip. Watch the clip. Have a paper and pen ready and watch it again, taking note of the setting. What’s the season? The time of day? The place?

    Watch it again, and now concentrate on the details of the characters. Write down the dialogue. Take it all, word by word. You’re not publishing this anywhere, so we’re staying far from the line of plagiarism. You might try to collect all the details in bullet form first. Once you have all the ingredients of the scene, write it! Write it how you see it, how you feel it. You can choose what to include, what to add or leave out.

    I’ll even offer one of my recent exercises just to get the ball rolling. See if you can guess the movie:

    The bus barrels off down the street and disappears around the corner, leaving the lone woman on the sidewalk. She is only halfway home, only one bus down out of the three she takes to and from work each day. Her feet ache, even though the shoe saleswoman promised these white sneakers were of the orthopedic kind. She walks to the bus bench and settles beneath the patch of evening sunlight, a comfortable distance from the man that waits on the other side. It’s a late spring evening, the breeze still cool enough and the sun just warm enough so that everything feels even. The woman takes a magazine from her bag and flips it open to the middle. She’s already read this one for the past three days, but she keeps forgetting to pick up a new issue before beginning her commute.

    Beside her she hears the man adjust himself on the bench and fiddle with the top of a wide, white box on his lap.

    “Hello,” he says to her. There’s a heavy blanket of a Southern drawl over his words.

    You don’t need to be a cinema geek or a movie snob to try this out. I’ll admit my list of favorite chick-flicks runs longer than my list of quintessential, classic films. I would just like to suggest that you don’t fear the film. Plus, I think it’s safe to say that every movie was once just a screenplay, right? Just written words on a page. Now you can take some artistic license and write the scene yourself.

    Care to try this one for yourself? Leave your results below.


    Nicole Fernandez is a recent graduate of Emerson College. Mostly she writes fiction, but sometimes you can find her trying to make candles in her kitchen or nursing her neglected house plants. You can visit her blog here: http://lowonink.blogspot.com/.

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    Mark P

    That’s a great idea, Nicole. I think movies can be great teaching tools for improving dialogue. Something akin to writing out a scene and reading it aloud, but having someone else do it for you. I recently read reviews of a book in my TBR pile and it raved about the plot, the writing, the mood… but said the dialogue was no good and I know, for me, that could explode the whole reading experience.

    Good blog post, thanks.


    Justine Tal Goldberg

    It’s Forrest Gump! You made my day with this, Nicole.

    And you’ve got me thinking about stand-out scenes from movies that have taught me about writing. The one that comes most immediately to mind is the following scene from Mad Men. (Okay, not a movie, but still relevant.):


    This scene is so well-written, simple yet affecting, it made me want to scoop up a pen and start writing immediately.

    Nicole F.


    That’s fantastic! And bravo for guessing correctly!
    You are spot-on for bringing up Mad Men. What fantastic settings, dialogue and plot! Love that show.

    Thanks so much for your comment!

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