Friday, July 6, 2012

Five Writing Lessons the Movies Taught Me

Recently, one of my favorite film podcasts, Filmspotting, did a list of the top 5 things they learned from the movies. I thought, what a great idea! There are some lessons from movies that have stuck with me for years. I suspect that when those lessons stick, it's because of good storytelling. The truth in the tale resonates for us and becomes a part of us.

As a writer, I suppose these lessons come from the themes of our stories. They're the deep things that believe and want to communicate. So, as you write your work, keep in mind: The better you express your story's themes, the more likely it is that the lessons will stick in the minds of your readers.

Here are my top 5 lessons that the movies have taught me:

Lesson One: Balance is a lesson for your whole life
The Karate Kid (original 1984 version)

Ah, Ralph Macchio as a stick-thin, annoying teen. Who doesn't love that? And Arnold (Pat Morita) from Happy Days dispensing advice. It's a match made in heaven.

Seriously. Even though the movie is a bit cheesy, Mr. Miyagi's lesson about balance has helped me maintain my balance and my boundaries for years. Socrates* would have said, "Everything in moderation," but he wasn't a movie star. Still, the concept is timeless. Balance helps us make sure our lives are in order, that we're not pursuing something to unhealthy excess or ignoring something that we need to do more often. It helps us manage our drinking and our diet.

It reminds us that we need to write sometimes, and we need to take a break sometimes. That it's good to market but not good to market to the point that you piss off your Twitter followers. That writing is important but some things are more important, like your health and your relationships. Balance is good advice.

Lesson Two: You can embrace the good and learn from your parents, and also let go of the bad stuff at the same time.
Star Wars

Hi, Dad!
As the granddaddy of all space operas, Star Wars brings up many things to talk about. But at its heart, it's a simple story about a teen who idealizes his long-lost father and wants to be exactly like him. Until he finds out that his father is the devil, and he wants to be nothing like him. Until he figures out that his dad is just a guy you know, with strengths and flaws. Luke learns to admire and adopt his father's good points (like his decision to develop his Jedi skills), while rejecting the things that made his father's life a mess (like listening to Palpatine, being ruled by anger and fear, and you know, killing people who tick him off).

Don't we all have to figure this out in order to truly grow up and be healthy? Our parents are just people. Messed up in their own unique ways, but adorable too. The key is to become your own person, not just an appendage of your family history.

Writers carry around their families in their heads, and of course, this ends up on the page. But if we can filter our personal experiences and make them balanced (hmm) and meaningful to readers beyond ourselves, we can put lesson two to work in our writing without driving readers off the deep end.

Lesson Three: No man is a failure who has friends. (Aka, you influence people and are loved more than you realize. You make a difference.)
It's a Wonderful Life

Some people hate this movie and have a problem with how it's written, but I think it's brilliant. George is a deeply flawed individual, full of contradictions. He sacrifices for his brother and father, but sometimes resents the price he has paid for those sacrifices. He hates Potter and yet is sometimes tempted by what the guy can offer him. He wants desperately to travel and yet he won't because if he goes, others will end up in trouble, which means he desperately doesn't get how to set boundaries.

And yet... When things go haywire, all those people whom George helped, probably thinking he'd get nothing in return, somehow show up to give him money. But it's not really the money that counts. It's the fact that he made enough of a difference that they showed up to support him when he was hurting. This is a movie largely about relationships that pay off when you'd think they wouldn't.

The lesson for writers is, we can make a difference with what we write, even if only one person reads it. Yeah, we all want to be on the New York Times Bestseller List. But if you're not... If you're just an average George toiling away and sacrificing, don't despair. There are people who you deeply matter to. And having those people in your life means you are not, nor ever will be a failure.

Lesson Four: Family matters, and being in a family is one of life's greatest treasures.
While You Were Sleeping

This is one of my favorite movies. I always enjoy Sandra Bullock and I think she and Bill Pullman are quite charming together. But what I really love about this movie is the family in it. I mean, the nuttiness. The circular conversations that happen at every dinner. The mom taking one for the time by saying "I'll do it" when they need to find out if Peter has one testicle. (Really, who else is going to do that but a mom? That's why they really deserve Mother's Day.)

At one point, Lucy talks about how much she has wanted to be part of a family. And she's right. Having a place within a stable, loving group that provides emotional support is essential to having a good life. Those little rhythms we get into with our families, as kooky as they can be, are also reassuring on a deep level, giving us the stability to do what we do best.

For writers, that's writing. Your family helps make your writing better because of what you learn about life through them. They also help you stay stable when things get wild and wooly. Make time for them every day and let them know how much they mean to you. (And use them as fodder for character development, as long as you change enough that you can avoid lawsuits.)

Lesson Five: Life is a matter of perspective, of how you view things.
The Blues Brothers

I confess, one of the funniest movie scenes of all time for me is in this movie. Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, as the two brothers, are trying to escape the police, so they drive into a mall. Literally. They drive their car down the corridors, past a variety of stores, forcing people to jump out of the way. It's totally crazy.

But what makes the scene funny is the brothers' response. They talk about the stores they see. Comment on the sales and the merchandise. It's like they are engaging in a totally normal activity, although of course, they aren't. But it's all in how they view it. They've decided to treat it all as normal, and so for them, it is. (No wonder they keep ending up in jail.)

What's the lesson for writers? Well, you can look at that stalled project as a casualty of deadly writer's block. OR you can see it as a sign that your muse is actively telling you to wake up because something in the story isn't working and needs to be fixed. You can define your success as selling a million books, OR as selling one book, OR as writing 1000 words a day. OR however else you want. Your writing career is a matter of how you see it, and no one can take that away from you. So, take charge of what you want to accomplish. And keep your outlook positive as much as you can. It helps.

Now you chime in! What lessons have you learned from the movies? If you want to relate them to writing, go for it. Or if you have writing lessons you've learned (even if they don't relate to the movies), you can share those too. I'd love to hear about it all.

*Due diligence: I don't really know if Socrates said this. The saying is attributed to several ancient Greeks, including Socrates and Aristotle. If he didn't originally say it, he probably would have talked about it as a well-known Greek philosophical thought.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

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