What Movies Teach You About Storytelling

movies teach you image

“Hulk”

I looked up from my computer and smiled as my little cousin replayed The Avengers for what must have been the third time that day.

When he came over a few days earlier, he caught me in the middle of the movie, curled up next to me, and didn’t take his eyes off the TV screen until The Avengers had defeated Ultron.

After the movie, he had a million questions about why the hulk was green, why the crystal was so special, what a God was (he’d been taught there was only one God, so Thor confused the hell out of him) etc. etc.

He had the curiosity of a seven-year-old because, well, he’s seven and he’d found something so rare nowadays, a story that captivated him.

If you’ve ever been around children for an extended period, you know they’re a pain when they’ve got nothing to do with their time.

They break shit, they climb on shit, and they can annoy the hell out of you.

If you can give them something to do that interests them, which absorbs their whole being, you can occupy them for hours on end.

Don’t believe me? Play a game and get a small child to watch, they’ll sit there quietly with you for hours until you get tired or the world ends.

I digress.

As my cousin watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron for the umpteenth time, the wheels in my head started turning, what exactly was it that held his attention so well?

Of course, there’s the million dollar cinematography, but that’s just a small piece of the puzzle. Underlying everything, there was a story that even a child could understand.

I’ve learned what movies teach you about storytelling and I’d like to share some of those insights.

We’re built to love stories

Loving stories is a part of who we are as a species.

Oral narration was the best way for us to keep our rich history alive without the aid of written language. Some of the earliest documented stories follow the exploits of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian King that didn’t know what defeat meant.

Movies tap into the power of storytelling by taking the oral tradition one step further and adding concrete visuals to it.

You can imagine what a superhero looks like when he’s described to you, but it’s something else entirely when he’s shown to you with all the bells and whistles included.

When you’re writing anything, remember that we’re built to love any and everything. If you’re writing for pleasure, pay, or business it’s all the same.

How to Develop characters

Over time, the importance of developing a character’s backstory in film seems to have been lost. Ghost Busters (1984) is a movie that lets you love or hate (whatever your preference) the characters before dropping them into the shit storm.

ghost busters image

The same is true of your writing, without giving your characters sufficient life before the epic journey they’ll turn out flat and uninspired.

The reasons for their actions will be lost on your readers and the transformation from reluctant protagonist to hero will seem contrived and uneventful.

Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to write a full-length novel before you can develop a character, even a  series of blog posts with a story can help you develop a character.

You character.

A good story has tension

Gravity is full of tension and suspense right from the beginning. You’re thrust into a world we have no real understanding of, but always hear about; space.

gravity image

How are the protagonist and her companion going to survive in the limitless confines of space? What is she going to do after losing the veteran astronaut that was keeping her alive was lost?

From the very beginning of the movie to the very end, there’s an underlying current of tension that keeps you poised on the edge of your seat because you want to know how she’s going to survive it all.  

Even Shutter Island delivers the goods when Leonardo Di Caprio plays the reluctant prisoner. It broke my heart when I realized he was a madman about to be lobotomized.

what movies teach you shutter island image

Tension is a key element in storytelling, without it, you have nothing and are nothing.

It’s what keeps us flipping the pages and rooting for the hero.

Tension is created by throwing obstacles at you hero and developing interesting ways for him to overcome them.

Tension in storytelling is what makes your characters human. If they have no obstacles to overcome then what exactly are you writing about?

It’s through these obstacles your character is forged into something new, something better than before, something worthy of a story.

Embrace the conflict obstacles bring to your narrative and allow your hero to fail, get up, and try again.

You give it away in small pieces

I recently stumbled across Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino and was floored by the way the plot was delivered. At one point, I didn’t know if Ruth (the one delivering the outlaw to justice) was paranoid or just smart.

The hateful eight

Over the course of the movie, the history of the characters was revealed, the plot thickened, and everyone died(I guess a spoiler alert would have been nice of me).

The point is, a good story allows you to get comfortable with what’s going on. It doesn’t overwhelm you at once with too much action, and it gives you a chance to breathe between scenes.

A good story holds your attention with small pieces of a much larger plot delivered at the right time in the right sequence.

Obstacles are overcome, characters are developed, and our love of the story deepens.

Learn the art of giving it away piece by piece in order to hold your audience captive.

Movies teach you that you’re only limited by your imagination

If you’ve ever watched a billion dollar blockbuster, then you know exactly what I mean when I say your stories are only limited by your imagination.

You can literally create any and everything you’ve ever imagined.

Movies teach us that storytelling has no limits but the ones you put on them.

Storytelling, at ita very heart, is an exercise in exploring your mind and using all of your experiences to create a world unique unto itself.

Use that world to deliver life lessons, impact our culture, and give the people reading a chance to escape the harsh realities of everyday life.

You hold the ultimate gift in your hands, the ability to write and inspire people with your words.

At the very least, you can distract them from the boredom of everyday life.

Let me know about any other lessons you’ve learned from watching movies in the comments and don’t forget to share.

11 comments

  • Very entertaining read.
    I enjoyed the H8tful 8 as well. 🙂
    The plot & character development was fantastic.

    Your post got me thinking, I really could use a little more creativity and “story” in my blog posts. Look out now.
    Thanks for posting.

    • I’m glad you felt that way.

      I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for storytelling that stems from the time my grandfather lived with us.

      I try and incorporate them into my writing as much as possible. Trust me, I’ll be on the lookout.

    • It’s much easier to unresdtand when you put it that way!

  • I Love it!! Movies can definitely help us understand the art of story telling. You gave Perfect examples of that here, I appreciate it!

    • I’m really excited you feel that way and can relate to the power of movies.

      Whenever you’re feeling lost, go ahead and watch a movie for inspiration, it works for me.

  • Interesting Posts on story telling from movies. Thanks for sharing

  • This is very interesting. Those are some really good movies too. Enjoyed this!

  • Love the article Daniel! The greatest lessons I’ve got from movies is that the reason we enjoy movies is because to a large degree (not fully though) they reflect what we experience in life…

    Challenges, struggles, victories, struggles, and then victories again.

    That’s the story line of a movie, and that’s the storyline of all our lives.

    Powerful stuff!

    • Hey Alex,

      Thanks and I believe you’re right. Stories, especially those in the movies that affect us the most are just reflections of what we experience in our lives.

      Given, the stories are blown out of proportion, they still deliver messages that we can relate to on a visceral level. That’s what our writing can and should be doing for the people who read it.

      Cheers.

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